May 1957, the first 500 Parade marched, the day before the 1957 500 Mile Race. That is 60 years ago exactly! The idea of a city celebration of the race had been floating around since 1946, but in 1954 some city leaders and businessmen started serious planning to get the project off the ground. Indianapolis Mayor Alex Clark, Speedway Safety director Joe Quinn, Murat Shrine Potentate J. Worth Baker, and The Indianapolis Star promotions director Howard Wilcox got the event going as the signature event of a new “500 Festival”
The first parade had the Purdue Marching Band, the Culver Military Academy horse parade unit, various marching units from the Indianapolis Murat Shrine Temple, and most of the city’s high school marching bands. Twenty floats were entered from various city and state entities and actor Hugh O’Brien and actress Cyd Charisse were the stars’ riding in the convertibles. Over 150,000 people lined the streets to watch. The Murat Oriental Band was among the units marching, of which my father Robert Nicewanger was a member, so my dad marched in the first 500 Festival Parade.
The first 500 Festival Ball was held that evening at the Indiana Roof ballroom. Then called the Governor’s Ball, over 500 people attended. Tickets were $5 apiece. Attendees danced to the music of Woody Herman and His Thundering Herd.
In 1959, the 500 Festival Queen Pageant was established. The queen was selected from 33 “princesses” from around the state, most of them coming from the institutions of higher learning across the state. The first queen selected was Ann Lawrie James. Ann was an Indianapolis girl who was attending St. Vincent’s Nursing School at the time. As an added note, my cousin Sue Ann Nicewanger was a Festival princess in 1964. She later became a French teacher at Arlington High School, my alma mater. So as you can see, the Nicewangers were closely connected to the festival in the early years. Later, even my own daughter, Mary Beth was in the 1992 parade with “The Little Mermaid” float — she paraded with other Howe students wearing a white flowing dress with blue sash, portraying flowing water.
In 2017, the 500 Festival Parade ranks as one of the three top events in the United States, along with the Rose Bowl Parade, and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The Mini Marathon and all of the other events have grown from it. Remember the 500 Festival Golf Open Invitational from 1960 to 1968? So the Festival and its parade have become one of America’s top events, and it all started 60 years ago this week.
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