Timestamping Michael Leone’s Rose Bowl Adventure

by Brandon LaChance

In 2020, Gardner-South Wilmington band director Michael Leone was chosen as one of 200 band directors by the Michael D. Sewell Memorial Foundation to take part in a float in the Rose Parade.

After Covid-19 hit, the 2021 parade was canceled. Leone wasn’t able to receive the full benefits of being one of the great band directors spread across the country.

This New Year’s weekend was a different story as Leone was able to play his trumpet down Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, Calif. to help honor music education and usher in the Rose Bowl Game between The Ohio State University and the University of Utah played on Jan. 1.

Leone said the number of band directors expanded to approximately 250 between the canceled 2021 Rose Parade and this year’s event. It didn’t matter the number of music experts, he was thrilled to be part of the extravaganza.

“I didn’t realize how distinguished everyone was until watching it later and they were going through all of the awards that people in the band had won,” said Leone, who has been the GSW band director for eight years. “I was like, ‘Holy cow. I got picked among these guys.’

“If you look in the program, we were listed as a float with the outwalkers. We were supposed to be walking behind the float as they were saluting all the band directors. Someone asked, ‘What instrument does everyone play?’ Then a note was sent out asking about instruments. I said I was a trumpet player. They sent, ‘We talked to the Rose Parade and we’re going to play.’ Then they formed us into a group.”

Leone was one of three band directors from Illinois and was in the company of musicians from all over the United States including Ohio, Alaska, Alaska, Maine, and an American who is currently teaching music in Germany.

Although the parade and the Rose Bowl, which is a College Football Playoff Semifinal, were on Saturday, Leone had quite the excursion from Wednesday to Sunday as he flew, he rode, he walked, he played, he cheered, he celebrated, he waited, he was honored, and he enjoyed.

Here is a timestamp (in Central Time Zone) of the GSW band director’s Rose Parade journey.

6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 29

“I arrived at LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) and by the time I got to my hotel, it was 4 p.m. on the west coast. I met up with all of the band directors and we played until 10 p.m.”

“It was absolutely insane. Obviously, I’m not a rock star, but it was the rock star experience. Even when we were at rehearsals, they were being filmed. It was raining on Wednesday when I got there. We rehearsed for about four hours inside. This was the first time we’d ever played together. They put us all in a big ballroom and we started rehearsing. That’s when I knew this was real.”

6 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 30

“We had a rehearsal and a performance at Band Fest, in which all the bands that are in the Rose Parade get an opportunity to perform beforehand. We practiced at Arcadia High School. We practiced how we were getting on the field, running through the song. We practiced indoor at the high school first and then we went outside. When we went outside, the stands were full of people that were there just to watch us rehearse.

“Everywhere we went it was police escort. All we were doing was practicing and rehearsing. We went to a different high school and they blocked off a road that was similar to the size of the Rose Parade. There was a turn the same as there is for one of the Rose Parade TV zones, we were practicing, and there were people just cheering us on. It was insane. I’d never seen so many people go just to watch you practice. It was unbelievable.”

Thursday Afternoon

“When we played at Band Fest, the stands were full of people watching us. They started listing off names and all of the awards and accomplishments of the band directors. They would say a different award and people would raise their hands.

“They asked, ‘How many people were Teachers of the Year in their state?’ People raised their hands. “Then they said, ‘We have eight semifinalists for a Grammy Award for Music Educator of the Year.’ I was one of them. I didn’t make the finals, but I was a semifinalist.

“After we did Band Fest, we got back on the bus and went to the Rose Bowl. They were showing us how we were going to get introduced during halftime of the game. When we got there it was raining, so they had a tarp on the field and we couldn’t get on the field. They said, ‘Hey listen, as soon as the buzzer blows you guys are going to come out of this tunnel. Get on the field as they’re setting up for the halftime show.’”

Last Event of the Day

“After a long day, Thursday night we also had a banquet and they started handing out awards. Through the Fogelberg Foundation (Dan Fogelberg, from Pekin), I got an award for being a leader of the band. I also got a baton with a red handle and a medallion for dedication to music education.”

6 a.m., Friday, Dec. 31

“We were rehearsing trying to get ready for the parade because we hadn’t done a whole lot of street marching. We were trying to figure out where we were positioned in the parade and how we were going to make it around the curve. There are 12 people across, so it wasn’t easy.

“Then we practiced how we were going to split during the parade because we were in front of the float, but when we got into the ABC TV zone, we opened up. We split the band literally in half as one half went to one side of the street and the other half went to the other side of the street. Then we practiced the float going through the middle. They had it down. They knew how fast the float could drive. They knew what part of the song all of this was happening. It was timed out perfectly.”

Float Fest

“We went to the float judging because we were part of the float. They put a video up of it. This was the first time that they had a band/float combination. We were dressed in our blazers, gray slacks, a tie, and all of these pins we put on our jackets. Our float won the Showmanship Award. If you watched the parade, it said Showmanship Award winner in front of our float.”

Celebrating the New Year

“By the time we got back to the hotel, it was late. Some of us went out. It was insane going out for the New Year in California. They had given us outfits essentially to wear every day. We were wearing red, quarter-zip pullovers with the insignia on them saying, ‘Saluting America’s Band Directors, Rose Bowl Parade.’ We had another patch on our jacket that read, ‘Band Participant.’

“Everyone was cheering you on and shaking your hand. It was a lot of fun, exhausting, but a lot of fun. We had to get up and be on the bus at 5:45 a.m. the next day, so we had to celebrate in moderation. We were all probably back in our rooms by 9 p.m.”

5:45 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 1

“I got up because we had to be loaded on the bus by 5:45 a.m. When I woke up, I had an email from Southwest Airlines saying my flight had been canceled. I didn’t have plans to stay another night and I couldn’t find another flight out on Saturday. There was a snowstorm in Illinois and it delayed air travel.

“I was on the bus to the Rose Parade with a police escort. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do and how I was going to get home while I was on the bus. I couldn’t do anything and had to wait until after the parade. I was thankfully able to stay in my room.

“Even though I was worried about my travel plans, it was fun being part of a police escort. There was a police car in front of us. There were cops on scooters on the side of us getting us around to make sure nothing held us up and we could get to where we needed to be.

“We were all staring out the windows, looking at all of the police officers and security that was surrounding us. I had never experienced this before.”

11 a.m., Saturday

“We were backstage. You know what’s coming up at that point. You can see all of the other bands and the floats were coming from a different direction. As we were working up to where it was time for us to come in, you can not imagine the bleachers – we’re talking 30 rows of bleachers just lining the parade.

“At one point we stopped and we were playing. On one side it was the University of Utah fans and on the other side was the Ohio State University fans. They were cheering back and forth as we were playing. There were cameras everywhere. They were over the top. They had them on either side of you. The crowd was just erupting. Sensory overload was a real thing. As you’re playing, although you realize how tired you are for how much you’ve been playing, you just find whatever you have left in the tank and give it everything you have.

“Then we went into the CBS’ TV zone. You go down a hill and there were cameras everywhere. There were just rows, rows, rows, and rows of bleachers. They brought the trumpet players together and told us to pace ourselves out and that we weren’t going to be able to play for 5 ½ miles. They told us to take a song off here or there.

“We went into Superman mode. I didn’t take any song off, nor did the other guys. We may have taken a little section off here or there because it was 60-degree weather and the sun was beating on us. We all took the mentality, there are people here who this is the first time they’ve been to this parade. We wanted to make sure it was a good experience. We didn’t want to take spots off and not give them the full experience that they deserve. This may be their one and only time being at the Rose Parade. We went superhuman mode, beast mode, and blew for almost six miles.

“That’s kind of playing almost non-stop with only about a minute between songs marching from Gardner to Dwight. It took us about an hour.

“When we were in the TV zone, I had my phone on me in my jacket pocket. I had it set to vibrate. All I kept feeling was the zzzz, zzzz, zzzz. The buzzing in my jacket was non-stop. In my mind, I was thinking, ‘I’m either on TV or they can see us.’ Everyone was texting me while I was in the parade.

“I was happy that I was able to participate and I am honored I was selected to be part of this and be amongst all of those distinguished band directors. You don’t realize that people out of your immediate area notice what you’re doing and they hear about you. There are probably very few people from Grundy County that have been involved in this.”

2 p.m., Saturday

“We took off our suit coats and ties and we went to the game. You had that sweat on you from the parade route. It was an unbelievable experience. You were just non-stop on the go. I didn’t care who won the game. I watch college football, but I’m a University of Illinois guy.

“We were sitting behind the Ohio State band. I was giving the I-L-L-I-N-I type thing to them. They were razzing me back. The game was awesome. It was a complete shootout. You don’t realize how big and fast those guys are until you really see them.”

Ohio State defeated Utah in the Rose Bowl, 48-45.

Halftime of the Game

“I was texting somebody before we were about to be introduced, ‘Hey I’m about to be on the field.’ They said, ‘Yeah, but it went to commercial.’ I responded, ‘Oh man.’ We walked out and there were 100,000 people in the stadium. They said, ‘This is a salute to American band directors.’ They went through all of the different awards that had been won by the people in the band. The crowd just went crazy.”

10 p.m., Saturday

An exhausted but excited Leone got back to the hotel to get ready for his flight home.

2:30 a.m., Sunday, Jan. 2

“I had an Uber set up to take me to the airport in the morning. Since the plane was leaving at 6 a.m. and the airport is probably an hour away, I decided to wake up at 2:30 a.m. to get ready before the Uber was going to arrive at 3 a.m. When I got out of the shower, I had another email stating my plane was canceled. I started laughing and just couldn’t believe it was canceled again.

“I was supposed to fly into St. Louis and then St. Louis to Chicago. I was scrambling trying to figure out what to do next.”

6 a.m., Sunday

“Southwest called me around 6 a.m. and said they had rescheduled me for an 8 a.m. flight. There was no way I was going to make it.”

The flight was then rescheduled, but there was another stop involved.

11 a.m., Sunday

“They changed it and I left at 11 a.m. I had to fly from Los Angeles to Dallas. Once I got to Dallas, I had to wait three hours before I could jump on another plane to fly from Dallas to Chicago. By the time I got to Chicago, it was 11 p.m.

“When I was on the plane, a woman who sat next to me asked me if I had switched my plane from one to the other. I hadn’t, so then I was on the plane trying to figure out if my luggage was switched to the other plane. It did, thankfully, but I was freaked out. The people at LAX put a transfer tag on my luggage so it was transferred.”

Midnight, Sunday

“By the time it was over, I had a 20-hour odyssey trying to get home. It was insane trying to get home. By the time I got home, I was exhausted. I went from L.A. to Dallas to Chicago. I was originally going L.A. to Chicago. It was canceled. Then it was L.A. to St. Louis to Chicago. It was canceled. Then L.A. to Dallas to Chicago.

“I kept posting my travels on Facebook. People kept telling me I was living on planes, trains, and automobiles. I definitely was.”

1:37 p.m., Monday, Jan. 3

“People are asking me how the whole trip was. It hasn’t hit me yet. I was here, there, and everywhere. I was moving. I was playing. I put on shows all over the place. When you’re in the midst of it, it’s hard for you to process it.

“It took me until today to process some of it. I looked at my jacket and thought, ‘I can’t believe what just happened.”

Brandon LaChance is a journalist with The Paper. Contact LaChance at (815) 876-7941, blachance20@gmail.com, or on Twitter @LaChanceWriter.