February 7, 2012

West Athens Fourth of July parade canceled

Play still a possibility

By Doug Harlow dharlow@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

WEST ATHENS -- After 40 years of zany parades, children's kazoo bands, hippie flowers and political satire on stage at the Valley Road gravel pit, the Fourth of July in West Athens this summer will be like any other day -- quiet.

click image to enlarge

NOT THIS YEAR: Christina Tirrell and Lucas Drinkwater are shown last July beside Tirrell’s vehicle, which she says was hit by a truck after the 2011 West Athens Fourth of July parade. Drinkwater said he was beaten and injured in a fight after the accident. This year's parade has been cancelled.

Staff file photo by David Leaming

Bloody fighting and widespread intoxication during last year's event, which drew a considerable police presence, has seen to that.

Zeke Russell, whose family owns the gravel pit where In Spite of Life Players have staged their annual plays, said the pit will be closed on the Fourth of July this year. He said the family worries about the liability of a return to 2011's event.

"The event means a lot to us. My dad founded it, and it was a real joy in his life," he said. "And it's been a real joy in mine."

The gravel pit was owned by Russell's father, Daniel, who died in 2003.

Tamar Etingen, one of the original parade participants and set designers, said the people who live along the parade route have spoken -- the parade is over.

"If we have respect for the residents of West Athens -- they have requested that we stop the parade -- then I think the parade needs to stop, at least temporarily," Etingen said. "As far as the play goes, the play could be anywhere. It could be anytime. It certainly isn't the political climate to give up political satire, and I think we need it more than ever."

Some participants, including Annie Stillwater Gray, treasurer for In Spite of Life Players, said they want the show to go on.

"Because the Fourth is on a Wednesday this year, we did discuss doing the play in the pit on the weekend before or the weekend after, just on a different day," Gray said. "That seemed to be OK with the residents on the road because there would be no parade. The parade is definitely gone.

"We are going to do a play somehow, someway, somewhere."

Some residents at public discussions about the events at the Athens Grange last year said residents can monitor the parade themselves. Others said the play could be moved to another location in Athens, East Madison or Starks and could be held on another date.

The parade was marred last year by fistfights, signs promoting public nudity, drug paraphernalia sales and loudly spinning and burning truck tires.

More than 50 residents of West Athens later petitioned selectmen, asking them to prevent the parade in 2012.

Etingen, an artist now living in Cambridge, Mass., said the reported use of the synthetic hallucinogenic drug known as "bath salts" during last summer's event changed the atmosphere from peace and fun to violence and aggression.

"The introduction of this new drug, which makes people quite psychopathic, has just amped it up to an unbearable level; and that's why we can't do it anymore. Until we address that problem, the parade is not going to be the only casualty," she said.

Mickey Courtemanche, a member of the Athens Budget Committee, said the town has accepted the fact that parade and play participants have cancelled the events or will move them elsewhere.

The Budget Committee held its annual meeting Friday to determine what will be on the warrant for the annual Town Meeting in March. Because of the petition presented to selectmen, the West Athens events could have appeared on the warrant either as a nonbinding question or in the form of a proposed mass gathering ordinance.

The parade and gravel pit presentation will not be on the Town Meeting agenda, Courtemanche said.

"They had spoken with (First Selectman) Bruce Clavette, and they weren't planning to do it this year," he said. "Bruce said he was going to give them a chance to handle it, and if it doesn't come out right, we can always call for an emergency town meeting. We'd rather give them the chance to handle it themselves; if they don't handle it, we will."

Doug Harlow -- 612-2367


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