Everyone loves a parade. But Frank Buxton and John Ellis really love a parade — the Grand Old Fourth Parade on Bainbridge Island.
The two long-time islanders are well known as voices of the July 4th parade in downtown Winslow.
“I have no idea how or why I started doing this,” Buxton jokes. “I guess people think I’m funny.”
Ditto for Ellis, who this year will “perform” from the emcee’s booth downtown. As the two will tell you, there’s a hierarchy to the parade announcing profession.
“I started at the car wash,” said Buxton, referring to the announcer’s booth that is stationed at Mike’s Car Wash, near the beginning of the route. “After a few years, I got moved downtown.”
To which Ellis replied, “And I took your place at the car wash.”
The two can rattle off a list of folks from the island who have announced or emceed the parade, either at the car wash, downtown or the mid point in between at Winslow Green.
Buxton and Ellis have lived on Bainbridge Island since 1989 and 1990. Both have a background in acting, theater and improvisation, and in fact, they met sometime around 1994 through The Edge Improv on the island.
They are both still active in The Edge Improv at the Bainbridge Performing Arts Center which meets on the first Saturday of every month.
Neither of them are sure just how many years they’ve been emceeing the parade. But this year will be John’s first time to work the announcer’s booth downtown.
“I’ve always been at the car wash,” he said. “In fact, they call me ‘Mr. Car Wash.’”
As an emcee at the car wash announcer’s station, it’s important to “move the parade along,” said Buxton.
“You have to set the pace,” he said. “You gotta keep the parade going. If you get groups stacked up it really bogs things down.”
So, at times, they’ll call out to a group and tell them to hurry along.
“Invariably, there’ll be a group like the rope skippers who have a 10-minute routine, all the while everyone up the parade route is wondering what the hold up is.”
There’s no scripting a parade, the two will tell you.
“We ad-lib like crazy,” Ellis said. “You know we’re improv-ers. We react to whatever pops into our field of view. That’s what triggers what we say.”
The parade organizers do supply them with “the book,” a listing of participants in the order they march in the parade.
“It’s about the size of the Bible,” Ellis said. “I sit down the night before and study it and highlight what I think is most interesting about each entry in the parade.”
Something that Buxton tries to do is say out loud the name of every player on kids’ teams in the parade.
“The kids’ names are all in the book,” said Buxton. “With the Little Leaguers and the Boy Scouts, I try to say each one of their names just so they have that memory.”
In the past few years, they’ve tried to bring more humor back to the parade.
“Years ago, folks would form the ‘lawn mower precision marching corps’ and zig-zag the parade route,” said Ellis. “We wanted to bring back those kind of things.”
So, they created the Buxton-Ellis Humor Award and give $1,000 to the parade entry that they think is the most humorous.
“What ever makes us laugh,” said Buxton.
Last year the winning entry was the Blackbird Bakery pie which came in slices carried in wheelbarrows by employees who formed the pie at the end of the parade.
“Because they were a for-profit company, we gave the money to the nonprofit they picked,” he said. “Our goal is to give the money to charity.”
Buxton has had a notable career as an actor, television writer, author and television director. He hosted the ABC television documentary series “Discovery,” from 1962 to 1966. He also had a parallel career as a book binder which is where he met his wife, Cynthia Sears.
“She brought in a book for him to repair and took him home instead,” Ellis joked.
They have a daughter, Juliet LeDorze and two grandchildren who live on Bainbridge Island.
Ellis has had a long career in the shipping business. He owns Pacific Rim Shipbrokers and finds ships for those with cargo and cargo for those with ships. The company is one of the leading dry-cargo ocean freight specialty companies on the West Coast.
He also is a visual artist and opened an exhibit in June at Bainbridge Performing Arts Gallery titled, “Grey Matters.” The exhibit includes drawings, etchings and monotypes of elephants, and it benefits the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
He lives with his wife, Ann, and two children, Nobelle, 10 and Harrison, 12. His daughter from a previous marriage, Elizabeth, 25, also lives on the island.
The best part about the July 4th parade in downtown is that it still has the character of a small town parade, they said.
“We both grew up in small towns,” Buxton said. “We remember the parades of our younger days. And this one is like they were. It’s a community thing.”
Ellis agreed and said, “You get a great sense of community and you get to see just about everybody you know.”
They try hard to make their words a “middle-of-the-road” commentary. They never try to disparage anyone, mostly by keeping it fun and simple.
“Sometimes that get hard when there’s all those politicians walking in the parade,” said Buxton. “But I just say their names and then say ‘Good luck to you.’”
In reality, Buxton and Ellis say it’s the fastest hour and 10 minutes of their year.
“A lot of preparation and a lot of talking,” said Ellis.
“It’s exhilarating and exhausting,” said Buxton.
And when it’s all over, they sneak away to the back room of the shop of “an entrepreneur who will remain nameless” for a gin and tonic.
“He’s always got them waiting for us,” Ellis said. “A nice cold beverage.”