This year, the Lake Bluff Lawn Mower Precision Drill Team celebrates their 40th year as the most talked about feature of Lake Bluff's legendary parade.
Lawn mowers aren’t the only thing the Lake Bluff Lawn Mower Precision Drill Team has pushed for 40 parades; they also push the envelope with their sometimes-controversial themes ripped from the headlines every year as they try to one-up themselves. “If we don’t see at least one or two angry letters, we’re not doing our job,” says Christian Erzinger, the current point man for the Drill Team, who signs his Drill Team correspondence Head Idiot. “Last year [“All Men Are Pigs”], we didn’t get one complaint. The women loved it, we were making fun of men. We didn’t push hard enough.”
The idea is simple. A group of local guys dress up in crazy costumes, wave outlandish signs, and decorate their lawn mowers to poke fun at something of recent local or national significance, whether it’s politics, celebrities, or local scandals, no one is off limits. “We’re not making fun of anyone individually,” says Christian. “We’re equal opportunity offenders. We understand that it’s still a family event, but we like to push it.” Past themes have seen them dressed up as people like Paris Hilton, Michael Jackson, or Monica Lewinski. They’ve dressed in suits only to make a mad dash into a cardboard phone booth and emerge as Superman. They’ve dressed as sheiks during an oil crisis and as polygamists with many a pregnant bride in tow. The local themes always cause the most stir. A couple of years ago, they dressed in camouflage hunting gear, had their mowers made up like fryers, and paraded a live turkey in a cage through the streets, claiming they had captured the Lake Bluff Turkey that had staked his claim on the corner of 176 and Green Bay. In 1987, they all dressed as Mr. T and carried chain saws instead of lawn mowers to commemorate the backlash he received for cutting down trees on his Lake Forest property.
It all began as a nod to the Shriners, who ride their diminutive motor bikes and go-karts in parades across the country. In 1973, a group of Bluffians decided that the suburban male subculture deserved representation, donned Bermuda shorts, boots, and undershirts, and hit the parade route with their lawn mowers, some six packs, and cigars. They ran classic Shriner drills, such as the figure 8, the snake, and crossovers, while hamming it up for all their friends and neighbors. They were such a big hit they came back the next year with shorter shorts, midriff-baring dress shirts, and top hats. By the third year, they were in dresses holding signs for the equal rights amendment, and there was no going back.
Over the years, they’ve become the most anticipated slot in the parade lineup, with everyone either eager or nervous to see if this is the year they go too far. “We’ve heard there’s a betting pool down at the end of Prospect, with the pot going to whoever can guess what our theme will be,” says Bob O’Neill, the longest still-mowing member of the Drill Team, who joined in the third year.Bob’s whole family is actively dedicated to the team. His daughter, Dana, dressed up as Madonna the year the whole team acted as a bunch of feather boa-laden Dennis Rodmans. His wife, Brenda, is the Official Mower Historian and the keeper of the scrapbooks wth photos from every year and all of their newspaper clippings and correspondence. She also has “final sign approval” duties on the big day. Since all of the guys decorate their own mowers and make their own costumes and signs in private, Brenda goes through on the morning of the Fourth and pulls any signs that might be too offensive. “I’m sure some people would say I should pull more of them,” Brenda says. She was also one of the women who took over when the men decided they didn’t want to do it anymore. The team called it off in 1978, but their wives took up the mantle, marching with the theme “Mower Mates Are Great in ’78.” Bob and the boys haven’t missed a year since, he even lost a few clients when they disagreed with the Drill Team’s theme one year. When asked if it was worth it, he doesn’t even hesitate. “Yeah,” says Bob. “I really enjoy the sessions that lead up to the parade. I enjoy these witty, crazy guys. I’m going to mow until I physically can’t anymore. Even then, I’ll be at those meetings.”
As the first Lawn Mower Precision Drill Team in history, they originated an art form that’s been imitated in parades all over the country. The lore surrounding these pioneers can sometimes act as a smoke screen, making it difficult to separate the facts from the rumors. It’s been said that their precision is the result of year-round practice in secret on the grounds of the Great Lakes Naval Base. “Gotta stay sharp,” claims Christian. “This kind of precision doesn’t just happen.” It’s been said that people have struggled fruitlessly for years to gain access to this exclusive brotherhood. “We used to say, ‘Go down to Donelli’s Pub to get an application,’” he says. “There weren’t any, of course.” But the following things we’ve gleaned to be true: The Lake Bluff Lawn Mower Precision Drill Team has been written up in the Chicago papers many times. They also were featured prominently in The New York Times in 1980, the year they dressed as “Castro’s Castoffs,” with a big picture of member Pete Spoehr balancing a push mower on his chin. They were invited to perform on The Mike Douglas Show in 1982 and in the 2001 Orange Bowl Parade, both of which they turned down, reserving their talents exclusively for the attendees of the Lake Bluff parade. The first copycat team to spring up were the Toro, Toro, Toros out in California, who the Lake Bluff team immediately challenged to a “National Mow Off” on neutral territory in Topeka, Kansas, to which the California team has not yet had the courage to respond.
This year, regardless of whatever theme they end up with, they’re also inviting every mower who ever served on the Drill Team to come back and ride along with them in honor of 40 years of Drill Team shenanigans. Don’t miss seeing everyone who helped to start and foster the Lake Bluff Lawn Mower Precision Drill Team in this year’s Lake Bluff Fourth of July parade.
— Jake Jarvi