This blog was originally posted on the 57th Presidential Inauguration website by Tanya Somanader
Every four years, the inaugural parade makes its way through Washington, D.C. in celebration of the newly-elected president and vice president. While the performers and presidents change, there is one man who has been a staple of this signature event. Charlie Brotman, who turned 85 this month, will return to his post as the announcer for the inaugural parade—a position he’s held for over 50 years. Take a look at what Charlie has seen and learned over the years as the self-described “eyes and ears of the president” on Inauguration Day.
How long have you been the announcer for the inaugural parade?
Since 1949, so 63 years. The 57th Presidential Inauguration will be my 16th consecutive parade. I’ve served as the inaugural parade announcer for 11 different presidents. 11! I wonder if I’m the only guy in the world who can say that?
How did you get involved in this gig?
I’m a native D.C.-er. I graduated high school here in 1946 and returned after serving in the Navy for two years. About that time, I realized I wanted to be a sports announcer. I mean, who doesn’t want to be, right? So I started studying at the National Academy of Broadcasting. In 1949, President Truman was coming to town for his inauguration, but this time around was a little different. This would be the first time that the inaugural parade would be on television, and the White House recognized that they’d need announcers. So they rang up the National Academy of Broadcasting, and my teacher just offered me the job. I mean, I just thought it was homework.
After the academy, I started working as the announcer at Griffith Stadium for the Washington Senators—that’s what they called our baseball team back then. Anyway, one of my responsibilities was to welcome the president when he’d throw out the first pitch to open the season. And in 1956, that was President Eisenhower. I took him around and introduced him to the team, and apparently he remembered me. Because that November, when the season was over, the White House called and said, “The President has been looking for you. He’d like you to introduce him again.” Humbled, I said, “Well just tell me when and where.” The lady said, “January 20th, 1957.” Now I’ve lived here all my life, so I know what day that is. So I found myself announcing the inaugural parade once more.
Well, four years later, John F. Kennedy is coming in—the youngest elected president to hold the office. Imagine my surprise when the phone rang and I find the White House is on the other end. “We’re new to D.C. and the parades thing. We looked you up”—now remember, there were no computers. They found my name on an index card—“We looked you up and we’re wondering whether you could do the parade again … and actually, can you come tell the Presidential Inaugural Committee how the parades are supposed to work?”
Since then, every four years, I get a call from the Presidential Inaugural Committee.
All those parades—there must’ve been quite a few memorable moments. Is there one in particular that stands out in your mind?
You know, in 1985, it was freezing on Inauguration Day. And I mean freezing—30 degrees below, with wind chill and the whole shebang. So President Reagan’s Inaugural Committee wanted to cancel the parade. But the President told them that he didn’t want to take away one of the real fun moments of the day, he didn’t want to disappoint the kids. So around midnight the night before, I get a call from the Committee: “Don’t go to the White House, go to the Capitol Center Arena. We’re holding a mini-parade!” They ended up having five groups perform. I remember that because it’s the only parade that didn’t come down Pennsylvania Avenue.
What do you remember from President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009?
You know, after doing this for so long, you learn that each parade is really an extension of a president’s personality. For President Kennedy and President Reagan—I mean they were big celebrities. It was like Hollywood on the Potomac! But President Obama surprised me. He selected performers and groups that had never had such an opportunity before—like high school bands and colleges who have never been in parades, let alone the inaugural. He gave these kids a chance of a lifetime—a real opportunity that they’ll never forget. You know, you can just tell, he’s a guy who thinks with his heart.
How are you preparing for the second time around with President Obama?
Well, there’s not a ton of preparation you can do. Ad-libbing is necessary. But remember, as the announcer, you’re the eyes and the ears of the President. The Presidential Reviewing Stand is a lot lower to the ground than I am—I’m two stories high! So I can see blocks away. So when groups like the military bands are approaching, I can prep the President by announcing it a little early so he knows when to salute.
What’s your favorite part about your job?
My job isn’t just to inform, it’s to entertain. When the parade inevitably stops for a flat tire or what not, I invite the parade-goers to participate. It’s like I’ve invited them to my house and I want them to have the best time they’ve ever had. So I prepare little trivia questions to fill the space, like “In which hand does the Statue of Liberty hold the torch?” or “How many states begin with the letter M?” In the last three inaugurals, I got the fans to do the wave! I try to make it fun and memorable.
Do you think you’ll stick around for the inaugural parades to come?
I’m an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation—and this never gets old. I’m never one to say, “been there, done that.” Every time I address the public, it feels like the first time. I think I’ll continue to do this until I’m 120—then maybe I’ll retire.
Where will you be watching the 57th Presidential Inauguration? Comment below or send an email to [email protected].