Here in the Vail Valley, people come from all corners of the USA to celebrate Independence Day in the Rocky Mountains.
Many, of course, are coming to see the fireworks explode overhead. But if those fireworks could talk, they might describe what’s happening below as an explosion in itself.
The Vail Valley basically explodes with people and activity and claims a distinction along the way as being home to the largest parade in the region and the largest fireworks display in the Colorado Rockies.
The Vail Valley’s Independence Day celebrations have evolved into a quintessential American experience that you have to take part in to truly understand.
Bright stars and fireworks
On Wednesday, July 3 Avon is the center of the action as the annual Independence Day celebration on Nottingham Lake is sure to be a blast once again, featuring Avon’s famous fireworks (the largest display in the Colorado Rockies), which attract families from all over the state. The fun starts at 5 p.m. with music, food and beer at Nottingham Park. Dirty Dozen Brass Band is the special musical guest, playing a free show with openers Whitewater Ramble. Starting around nightfall, 10,000 shells will explode in the sky above the valley and will be reflected off Nottingham Lake — a beautiful sight to behold.
The next day, on the Fourth, your options are numerous.
Minturn recognizes Independence Day on July 4 from 3 to 6 p.m. at Little Beach Park with a ceremonial singing of the national anthem, kids activities and music from Schwing Daddy.
At Beaver Creek, the fun begins at 11 a.m. with the Beano’s Cabin clambake. This year will be the 21st annual clambake, but if you’re expecting the same old party up there, you’ll be surprised. New for July 4 is the Stars, Stripes and Slides event, where inflatable slides will be set up along the mountainside accompanied by bouncy houses, kids fun zones and food booths. Academy of Country Music award winner Jack Ingram will play at 8 p.m., and the Williams Brothers will open up for him at 6 p.m. The fireworks are set for 9:30 p.m.
Downvalley in Eagle, cyclists are invited to decorate their bikes and take part in a Fourth of July bike parade — riding from Brush Creek Park to the Eagle Town Park starting at 8:15 a.m. There will be games, treats and prizes along the way, and then the Eagle fireworks are scheduled for 9:30 p.m. at the Eagle County Fairgrounds.
In Vail, the festivities start July 4 at 8 a.m. with the community pancake breakfast at the Vail Interfaith Chapel. Some of the best lacrosse in the nation will be available for spectators all day starting at 8:30 a.m. at Vail Mountain School, where the elite men’s and women’s brackets will be squaring off. Vail’s parade is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., and immediately following will be a performance from the Colorado National Guard’s Rock and Roll band at the Solaris stage.
“We wouldn’t want to miss this one, being the 50th,” said long-time local Gary Pesso, who has attended every Independence Day parade in Vail since ’84.
And you won’t want to miss Pesso, who’s gained national attention over the years with his parade routine.
Lawn chair legacy
Pesso is one of the only surviving members of the original Vail Precision Lawn Chair Demonstration Team, an act that by itself makes the trip to Vail’s America Days well worth it.
Pesso points to Bill Murray’s “Razzle Dazzle” rifle marching routine in the movie “Stripes” as an example of what to expect when watching the lawn chair team’s routine, only using folding lawn chairs instead of rifles.
“In the early days, we thought it would just be a fun thing to do, and over the years it’s gained some longevity,” Pesso said.
Since their first parade in Vail in ‘84, the lawn chair team has performed at two presidential inaugurations, along with a few NFL and NBA halftime shows. They’ve been flown first class to different areas of the country to do the routine at private parties and have been featured in national television spots for Miller Lite and Heath candy bars.
“After the first show in ’84, we got a phone call a week or two later with someone saying ‘Hey could you come over to our bar? We’ll give you a $100 beer tab if you come and do a show,’” Pesso recalls. “We were like ‘Wow! Hey, let’s go do it,’ and it really grew from there. Nobody foresaw or expected what would happen after that.”
Pesso says the price for a performance has increased “considerably” over the years.
“We sometimes demand a pretty hefty price for it,” he said. “It gets costly when you’re bringing 10 guys across the country to do it.”
So the opportunity to see the lawn chair team perform for free at the Vail Independence Day parade, their original venue, is tantamount to priceless.
“It was always my favorite routine, bar none,” said longtime local Chris Frame, who watched the parade every year between ’84 and ’03. “I’d go down to the village just to see them.”
While the routine will look especially polished and rehearsed, Pesso said it’s more informal than longtime watchers like Frame may have suspected.
“We’ve been doing the same routine for about 30 years now, so it doesn’t really require a lot of practice,” he said. “With our name, the Precision Lawn Chair Demonstration Team, people think we’re really professional, but our practice sessions are more about drinking beer and hanging out.”
Pesso says the group is still marching to the instruction of the late Blaine Downing, the group’s founder, who passed away in 1990.
“He was what we always called the comedic genius of the group. We were always kind of following his lead,” Pesso said.
In a 1985 article in the Denver Post, Downing was quoted saying the idea came to him in a dream.
“All of a sudden I just exploded awake. Lawn chairs, lawn chairs! I know it will work,” Downing was quoted saying. “I’d sleep with my lawn chair if I could, but my girlfriend won’t let me.”
Downing predicted at that time, accurately, that lawn chairs are not just a “fad.”
“They’re a way of life,” he said.
As the group advances in its years, original members like Pesso are looking to future generations to keep the way of life from becoming disappearing.
“My son Oliver is 16 now. He’s been performing with us since he was 2,” he said. “The younger kids has made it fun for us to stay involved.”
Oliver says being a part of the lawn chair team has been a labor of love.
“It’s so fun. I enjoy doing it because everybody likes watching us,” he said. “It makes me feel good when I’m up there performing. It’s a fun act.”
Oliver Pesso says along with some of his friends on the team, he’s hoping to keep the Vail tradition alive.
“I’m definitely thinking we’ll continue it as we get older and have a new generation of it all,” he said.