It was a truly unforgettable day for Marshall University’s Marching Thunder as the band performed before an estimated 600,000 spectators in the London New Year’s Day Parade. The theme of the 2020 parade was “London Loves Life,” and it was broadcast globally and in the U.S. on many PBS stations.
The 103 band members were part of 10,000 performers in the parade that also included massive hot air balloons similar to those in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, many marching bands, all the Queen’s horses, 1,000 cheerleaders, numerous dancers and a multitude of colorful floats.
On New Year’s Day morning, the band was featured and played music on live TV on BBC News. The day was chilly as the parade started at noon near the Ritz Hotel and Picadilly. As the Marching Thunder name implies, the band marched for nearly three hours and 20 minutes in the center of London before reaching the finishing point at Westminster.
The parade route weaves past some of the city’s most iconic places, and the Marching Thunder played “Sons of Marshall,” “Don’t Stop Believing” and “A West Virginia Medley” as they marched past Post Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and Parliament Square and all the other popular sites along the parade route. They were joined by one of Marshall University’s most fun ambassadors, Marco the mascot, delighting children with his playful antics.
Five band members that previously performed locally in parades and high school halftime performances have come a long way, literally and figuratively, as Marshall is 3,902 miles and five time zones away from London. This was their Super Bowl and the Marching Thunder had the honor of leading the parade. Flag carriers Shelby Zerkle from Coal Grove, and Kenova’s Haley Harber and Taylor Perdue, were joined near the front of the band by drum major Bobby Ray from Wayne County, majorette captain David Markins from Ironton, with Ironton’s Marlee Kaiser a little farther back playing cymbals.
“I am so excited to be going to London,” Zerkle said prior to the performance. “It is going to be an amazing experience for this small town girl to perform abroad in London. We are all so excited to head across the pond to perform in the parade and sight-see.”
Zerkle honed her skills under the supervision of her father, Coal Grove band director Tom Zerkle.
“The enormity of it (parade) didn’t hit me until we turned the corner and I saw all those people. I almost cried. It was just something that took a moment for you to soak in,” Perdue said, adding, “I remember looking around me and being in the middle of Trafalgar Square with a view of Big Ben and thinking, ‘Who is so lucky that they get to do something like this?’”
Perdue, an alumnus of Spring Valley High School, said the parade was by far her favorite parade she’s ever taken part in.
“One of my favorite shows, ‘Dr. Who,’ is a British show,” Perdue said. Strangely, BBC America was showing a multiple-day marathon of “Dr. Who,” including during the hours of the parade.
The band took separate flights to London. The first group flew from Boston to London on the morning of Dec. 29. The other band members left Pittsburgh at 7 that night and had a direct flight to London. The band also enjoyed several days of sight-seeing and educational tours.
Harber had already traveled extensively in taking drum corps training in Montana, California, New York and Indiana, and she was joined by fellow Spring Valley alumnus Bobby May when the Marching Thunder performed in Rome in 2016.
“It was definitely the trip of a lifetime,” she said of the London trip. “Getting to see all these new places with my friends, and the parade was my favorite part. I went to the one in New Mexico, and last year in Florida, as well as this year in Florida,” recounting bowl parades, for bowl games the Thundering Herd played in, that she performed in. Harber talked about how fun it was for for her, Zerkle and Perdue, to mimic the cover photo of the Beatles “Abbey Road” album, as Marshall’s Fab 3 posed for a photo in front of Abbey Road Studios like the Fab 4 did.
May said, “We’re the only university band from the states here. As soon as we say we’re from West Virginia, they want to start singing ‘Country Roads.’”
Ironically, John Denver, who made the song a classic that continues to bring positive publicity to West Virginia, filmed “The John Denver Show” for the BBC in England in the 1970s.
“This guy immediately started singing ‘Country Roads,’” Markins said, referring to a visit to McDonald’s when a man learned they were from West Virginia.
“It was life-changing for sure,” Kaiser said. “It was incredible. If someone would have told me I was traveling to London a few years ago, I would not believe them.”
Kaiser wants to work in music education and, like Markins, is a former member of Ironton’s Million Dollar Marching Band. She said probably one of the coolest things she did was taking a boat ride on River Thames. Kaiser said she enjoyed the British double-deck buses, and said it was easier to use credit cards than to exchange currency. She did say she got some British currency for a souvenir.
Practicing was a challenge in London.
“We actually practiced in the street, and before the band even played their first note, we got the cops called on us,” Markins said. “The streets over there were very, very narrow. It didn’t affect us too bad.
“I mean, we did have to make adjustments, you know, as the street would get narrower, we would kind of get closer together and kind of spread back out,” Markins added of moving along the centuries-old streets. “My favorite part was just kind of when we had our free time, and we could go off on our own and just kind of explore the city.”
The Marching Thunder was invited in September 2018 to participate in the 2020 parade. After traveling to Marshall’s Henderson’s Center to deliver the invitation, Powell Johan, senior director of International Participation for the parade, said the invitation was due to “the prowess you showed in the sister event in Rome several years ago and by continuing accolades from USA based music educators and adjudicators.”
In 2016 after the Marching Thunder performed in Rome, Thunder members were courted to perform in the London Parade by one of that parade’s officials.
The cost of the trip was $3,500 per band member, with Marshall contributing $1,000. Some band members had fundraisers to help offset the other $2,500. One hundred nine people from Marshall, including band directors and other university staff, made the trip. The well-traveled group returned to Huntington on Jan. 5 and 6.