Palisadian Rich Wilken: July 4th’s Preeminent Volunteer

Rich Wilken has been a parade announcer at Swarthmore and Sunset for decades. His co-announcer in 2014 was Palisades resident and Palisades High School student Monica Gilsanz.

 

By LAUREL BUSBY

Rich Wilken, 73, was only a toddler when Pacific Palisades held its first parade in 1948.

He has faint memories of the next few parades, which he watched from the curb on Antioch Street.

“I remember the hoopla—people walking down the street and kids pulling their wagons,” said Wilken, who grew up nearby on Charm Acres. At that time, there were three other “big community celebrations in the Palisades: the opening day of Little League, Halloween with its bonfire and a greased pole with a $20 bill on top, and Fiesta Days. Those were fun, but the best day of the year was the Fourth of July.”

Over the years, the architect has rarely missed a Palisades parade, and for the town’s first year without one, he took a trip down memory lane to recall both personal and community highlights of Fourth of July.

Rich Wilken dressed for Fiesta Days in 1954

The event, which was started by American Legion Post 283, was designed to honor veterans and the military, but over the years it has increasingly become a celebration of the local community. Service organizations, businesses and one-day-only groups, such as Kids on Bikes and Patriotic Pups, enliven the parade along with military representatives, including a reviewing officer and military band.

Like most local youth, Wilken can recall marching in his first parade, which for him happened as a boy scout in a display called the flags of all nations.

“It was really colorful with the flags blowing in the wind,” Wilken remembered.

While that day was satisfying and memorable, it couldn’t compare to his parade experience as a 14-year-old. On that Fourth of July, he and fellow members of his Junior League baseball team had gathered along Via de la Paz to ride in a station wagon driven by their coach.

The team’s sponsor was Colvey’s (the menswear store that has since been replaced by Elyse Walker), and owner Ray Colvey dropped off the station wagon where the boys were waiting. Unfortunately, the team’s coach had yet to arrive, so Colvey handed the keys to Wilken.

The teen unlocked the vehicle and climbed in with the other boys, who were decked out in their baseball uniforms. They flipped on the radio to hang out while they waited for their coach. However, the parade has a strict order, and volunteers, unaware that the station wagon was packed with under-driving-age boys, soon began entreating them to move the vehicle forward to stay in a good position for the parade.

“I’m sitting in the driver’s seat, so I moved the car forward a few yards,” Wilken said. “We’re laughing a little bit and thinking that Coach will show up any minute. Next thing you know the volunteers are saying ‘Go, go,’ and we’re in the parade. Here I am, 14 years old and waving at my friends along the parade route. Luckily I didn’t kill anybody.”

His mother, Myrtle, happened to be a few cars back riding with the Soroptimists women’s club. She had no idea her son had decided to forego a driver’s license for his first drive through town.

Mrytle Wilken (back seat waving the flag) was unaware that her 14-year-old son was driving his teammates in the parade.

Although no other parade reached quite that high of illicit excitement for Wilken, the annual event has continued to be a joy for him. The parade has also continued to evolve. For example, after almost 20 years, the American Legion stepped aside from running the event in 1967, and the Palisades Americanism Parade Association (PAPA) took the helm.

Exotic animals became part of the event for a number of years, including an elephant, which was ridden by Mort’s Deli owner Mort Faberow. A camel also was brought in one year, and local realtor Bud Petrick, an avid volunteer with PAPA, stopped by to pet it.

“The next thing you know the camel was stomping on him,” Wilken said. Although the incident was alarming, “the handler got the camel away” and Petrick wasn’t seriously hurt.

Wilken’s own life evolved along with the parade. When he was a teen, his father, John, who ran a pastry shop on Swarthmore, passed away, and Wilken began earning money coloring and eventually designing surfboards for his own label, Wilken Surfboards, an endeavor which eventually led to his induction in the International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame. He also developed both artistic and architectural expertise by taking courses at Santa Monica College, while continuing to stay involved in the Palisades, where he and his wife Deann, an educator, settled in 1978.

The couple raised their children, Heather, now 42, and Matt, 39, here, and Wilken simultaneously stepped up his involvement with the parade. In about 1975, he joined the Optimist Club, which provided much of the parade volunteer manpower at the time, and fellow club member Petrick hired him to design varied club floats, such as a huge whale with the motto, “Have a Whale of a Good Time,” which was fashioned around Wilken’s old car from papier mâché.

In 1977, for the first Will Rogers 10K race, Wilken designed a huge tennis shoe titled “Whistle While You Run” to support the effort. Then, in 1982, Wilken began serving on the PAPA board while also taking charge of the evening’s fireworks.

He has been PAPA’s fireworks chairman ever since (winning Citizen of the Year honors for these efforts), and is a current vice president and past president of the organization. Every year for decades, he has emceed PAPA’s VIP luncheon at the Methodist Church before walking down to serve as a parade announcer in front of Starbucks.

Over the years, there have been a few hiccups in the event. For example, one year, the old fireworks company had a delay of almost 30 minutes before starting the show. Residents were not happy. Wilken tried to have some fun with the situation by playing CDs and doing the cancan with the sound guy, but a lady reprimanded him, saying she needed to get her children to bed. Wilken’s then-teenage son and his buddies, who were hanging out nearby, thought it would be funny to start the chant, “We want the fireworks! We want the fireworks.”

Finally, the fireworks began soaring into the sky, and everyone was happy, but even on normal nights, Wilken typically fields 30 or 40 texts or calls from friends if the fireworks run a few minutes late or have any issues mid-show.

Despite the occasional problems, he has always enjoyed leading this part of the community event. A favorite part of the day happens just before the fireworks begin when Wilken leads a salute to the veterans, firefighters, and first responders, who he asks to stand while the rest of the audience remains seated. “God Bless the U.S.A.” plays, and at a certain point in the song, the audience rises to hug and thank them.

Wilken notes that when he and his buddies were drafted during the Vietnam War, he couldn’t serve in the military because one of his legs was shorter than the other. However, many of his Palisades High School friends did serve, and he appreciates the chance to recognize such service.

“That’s my highlight, seeing those hugs and handshakes to the veterans and remembering two classmates who never came home,” Wilken said.

Rich Wilken designed the float, a shoe, for the winners of the Will Rogers 10K.

 

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3 Responses to Palisadian Rich Wilken: July 4th’s Preeminent Volunteer

  1. Ruth W. Mills says:

    Just wanted to mention that in the photo of Rich announcing at the parade, the young woman next to him is Monica Gilsanz, a Pali High alumna and a Palisades legend in her own right.

  2. kane phelps says:

    Yeah RB! Beautiful story, Sue, about our local treasure. Rich is also the only 2 time, with Arnie(a 2 timer?) president of the Optimists Club.

  3. Sue says:

    Ruth,

    Thanks so much for providing Monica’s name–Bill and I were racking our brains–it was on the tip of the tongue, but just didn’t come out. She is great!

    Sue

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