If one could point to tradition as this year's Cherry Days Parade passes through town on its way to Town Park, one would point directly to the musical clowns of the Paonia Clown Band. The band has been a part of Cherry Days since the beginning and has marched in virtually every Cherry Days Parade.
"We use the term 'march' loosely," says Chris Johnson, who has been in more than 50 parades.
"None of us are clowns by trade or know how to put clown makeup on." But they love to clown around. And all of the members are capable musicians.
The Clown Band was formed the same time as Cherry Days, and for a number of years was sponsored by the Paonia Lions Club. Johnson's dad, Tolly Johnson, was among the founding members. So was George "Shorty" Hunteen, who ran Howard's Hardware at the current home of the Blue Sage Center for the Arts.
Johnson's uncle, Thorel Tollef "Skip" Johnson flew a B-24 with the Flying Tigers during World War II. Cherry Days began right after the war ended, and he supplied the parachute fabric from which their original clown costumes were sewn. The fabric was dyed yellow, and some polka-dotted fabric was added for color and flair.
In the 1950s and 1960s a group of ladies started making the costumes out of brightly-colored fabrics. Those are still worn to this day. This year Johnson will be wearing one of the newer suits, "And it's 30 years old, at least." A few of the original costumes have also managed to survive, and it's become tradition that one member wear an original costume in every parade.
"The Clown Band has never performed without at lease one Johnson in it," says Johnson, who represents the third generation of Johnsons to participate in the parade. He plays the trumpet and has missed just two parades since he marched in his first parade in 1965 at the age of 6. He has on occasion marched with the local Boy Scouts or played in the Delta County Honor Band.
This year, Chris Johnson and wife Kim, who is a musician but rarely marches in the parade, will have two sons and a son-in-law in the band. Their grandchildren will also soon be old enough to play an instrument and march with them.
At one time they marched in other parades around the county, said Johnson, but they haven't done that in a few years.
It's never dull, said Johnson, recalling when the band rode for a few years in the parade on a 1920s Model T truck now owned by Lee and Kathy Bradley at Black Bridge Winery. One year the truck broke down early along the parade route. Throughout the entire parade route the band would play a song, push the truck a few feet, and play another song. People thought that it was part of the act, said Johnson. They thought it was pretty funny, but the band wasn't too happy about it.
For some, seeing the band brings about a feeling of nostalgia, said Johnson. It's earned several ribbons over the years, and one year the members were parade grand marshals. But that's not what they're there for, says Johnson. They just want to entertain and to have fun.
Johnson estimates that about 100 individuals have marched in the band over the years. The Wade family, the Chinn family, the Tuin family, Fraziers, Reschkes, Sims and Geddes families have all played in the band at one time or another. One of the longest current members, John Blair has been a trombonist in the band for more than 30 years. They also have a handful of faithful members from other areas of the county.
Anyone is welcome to join. "It's very ragtag and informal. It's not elite at all," says Johnson. The only requirement is that members know how to play an instrument. It helps to have a costume, but if musicians don't have one, they'll try and come up with one.
The band meets around 8:30 or 9 a.m. the morning of the parade to dress and rehearse. It's the only rehearsal they hold, but then they only play two songs, "Trombone Toboggan," and, occasionally, "The Old Gray Mare."
They can always use more trumpets, said Johnson. "The more the better," because their sound carries and the other musicians don't have to play so loud.