Chuck Stinnett – Special to The Gleaner
When the inaugural W.C. Handy Blues & Barbecue Festival kicked off in June 1991, it introduced an event unlike anything ever seen in Henderson before: The Street Strut.
The Mardi Gras-inspired event invited folks to turn out on a Saturday morning and parade through downtown with heavily decorated parasols, masks, outlandish costumes and whatever else was in their arsenal, all while being serenaded by a Dixieland band.
Prizes were awarded in a variety of categories, and the most, well, astounding participant would be selected by a panel of judges as the Grande Ooh–Pee–Doo and be invited to return the following year as grand marshal.
Selected that first year was 65-year-old Henderson attorney Bill Branaman, who paraded with a gaudy parasol, feather boa and lady’s skirt, stockings and heels — such an unforgettable sight that he served as Grande Ooh–Pee–Doo for multiple years. The Handy Committee eventually honored him by naming the event the William Branaman Street Strut People’s Parade.
“The Street Strut is the dream of Handy Festival founder and visionary Marcia Eblen,” longtime Handy Committee member Leslie Newman said. “William Branaman and his wife, Marty, embraced Marcia’s dream from its genesis; they saw the event as a way to preserve W.C. Handy’s connection to Henderson and to perpetuate his legacy as an avenue to bring together our community through joy, music, dance and laughter.
“As did Mr. Handy, the Branamans had relocated to Henderson and made it their home,” she said. “Mr. Branaman’s advocacy in his professional life and his colorful self-expression as Grand Ooh-Pee-Doo broke barriers and opened doors to include all. Now, as then, Mr. Branaman’s beliefs and actions underlie the significance of the event.”
The Street Strut was originally a project of what is now the Downtown Henderson Partnership, which ran the event for many years.
The Handy Fest and the Street Strut were canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and DHP this year decided to instead organize a Street Strut 5K, a run/walk event on Wednesday, June 16.
2021 Handy Fest events:New 5K run/walk event coming to Handy week in Henderson
DHP is also helping organize Handy Lunch Breaks and Happy Hours June 14-17 in the run-up to the Handy Fest.
But devotees of the original Street Strut were determined that that show must go on, so it has new organizers and new energy in 2021.
Longtime Handy Committee volunteer Leslie Newman contacted her friend Jeanne Marie Gadient to help plot a new beginning.
“We said, ‘Let’s ask Jamie Liles, because she knows how to do things’” with her background in event management, marketing and promotions, Gadient said.
“We’re reinventing and reinvigorating it,” Liles said.
“It just needed a new eye,” her sister, Dr. Jennifer Liles, said.
Plenty of others are chipping in time, talents and treasures as well, Gadient included. She was moved to be involved not only because the William Branaman Street Strut is a Henderson tradition, but also because of her devotion to Branaman’s legacy and her lifelong close friendship with his youngest daughter, Barbara.
Indeed, Gadient credits him with instilling in her many of the values she holds dear. “Bill took us to the Peachtree Hotel in Atlanta in the ’60s when the NAACP was having its national convention there” and he went to attend it, she said. “He really taught me that we love everyone and we help the downtrodden … We need to celebrate each other.”