NORMAL — In the wake of Leah Marlene Day, including her parade and concert, the Town of Normal and McLean County Unit 5 took a breath Wednesday, still reveling in the whirlwind of welcoming the “American Idol” finalist home.
“We were all here for Leah Marlene, we were here for our community, and that was fantastic to see people respond appropriately,” said Beth Whisman, cultural arts director for the town.
Organizers from the town, the school district and the police department had a head start in planning for Marlene’s hometown visit because the show’s producers began reaching out after she secured a spot in the top-five contestants.
But the real plans weren’t set until the 45 hours between the end of Sunday’s show, when she was named a top-three finalist, and Tuesday evening, when uptown Normal was packed with people cheering on her parade and concert.
Watch now: Leah Marlene wows hometown crowd in Normal
“It definitely felt compressed,” said Adam Fox, civic arts manager for Normal. “Putting on events in uptown is something that we do. … It’s just normally we would be working on events a month, three months, six months, even a year out to try to make sure we can build and grow on ideas.”
“This was a chance for us to say, ‘Here’s what we’ve learned. Let’s go with what we know is going to work as quickly and directly as possible and put it all into play.’”
Town officials estimated every department had a hand on planning her hometown parade and concert that brought between 10,000 and 15,000 people out in support.
“The producers have said to us in a few different ways that Normal came out for Leah in a way that they haven’t seen communities support a contestant in a long time, that it was really pretty impressive the way that this community has been rallying throughout the whole process,” Fox said. “They knew this was going to be a big turnout, and then their faces when they actually saw, rounding the corner of the parade route, there was some genuine awe, like, ‘OK, you guys weren’t kidding around.’ It was pretty impressive.”
But Marlene also spent much of her day stopping by her former schools.
Dayna Brown, communications director for Unit 5, said volunteers, parents, teachers, staff and students were happy to help pull the day together, too.
“People were really excited to be a part of this, so getting volunteers was not an issue at all,” she said. “And it wasn’t just our schools that stepped up. Several local businesses did that.”
Yellow signs and T-shirts were produced in the same short turnaround time as the events, along with the posters, hats and decorations made by students who “basically painted the whole district yellow,” Brown said.
“All of the students at Normal West — some who knew Leah and some who didn’t — really went above and beyond to make the school look so amazing for the watch party on Sunday and for her hometown visit,” she said.
The entire community taking on a team mindset and keeping plans fluid helped the day go smoothly, Whisman said.
“Sometimes ‘American Idol’ didn’t know the answer or they don’t know our community, so really they kind of left it up to us,” she said, noting Marlene and the “Idol” producers selected uptown as the venue because of her history of performing at the circle. “For us to be able to rely on our team members emphatically was fantastic because it saved us time, it saved us resources.”
Steve Petrilli, chief of police for Normal, said his officers spent the day with Marlene making sure her safety was the No. 1 priority, as well as the safety and security of those who attended her events.
“You can lay out the best plans and very rarely do they ever actually pan out, so they’re always fluid, and you’ve got to be ready for contingencies, but yesterday went just about as well scripted as I think we could have possibly done,” he said. “So we were very happy with how the event was pulled off.”
Watch now: ‘Idol’ finalist Leah Marlene soaks in the love at her alma maters
Through mutual aid agreements, officers from the Bloomington Police Department and one officer from the Peoria Police Department worked with the Normal officers for the parade and concert.
The Peoria officer brought an explosive detection K9 police dog and did a sweep of the concert area after the stage and other external components were brought in and before the crowd was allowed in.
“It may seem like overkill, but in this day and age, anything and everything that we can do to ensure the security of our concertgoers or our community, we’re going to do those. That’s why those mutual aid agreements become so vitally important,” Petrilli said.
The McLean County Emergency Management Agency and Normal Fire Department also assisted.
Petrilli said the department was primarily able to use officers who were on-shift, but some were hired back to cover the later events, though he did not have an exact number Wednesday.
The town spent “less on this event than typical” because of the support from the community, said Normal Communication Director Cathy Oloffson. The community support included volunteers and even the use of a yellow convertible that Unit 5 administrators found for Marlene to ride in the parade.
This fiscal year, the town budgeted about $20,000 to market uptown as a destination for events and other attractions and experiences.
“While we don’t have an exact figure, we know we spent less to host the event than we had budgeted to market uptown Normal,” Oloffson said, noting “Idol” financed Marlene’s transportation and security team. “The return on that investment is priceless. The town of Normal could never buy the kind of awareness, exposure and coverage we received by showcasing our community and showing support and caring for not just Leah Marlene, but for all those who support her.”
Brown said it was exciting to see so many people supporting the Normal West alumna and cheering on all the students who took part in the parade.
“And now we just have to remind everyone to vote on Sunday,” Brown said.
Watch now: Relive the Leah Marlene concert in uptown Normal
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Watch now: Leah Marlene performs ‘Flowers’ live in uptown Normal
Contact Kelsey Watznauer at (309) 820-3254. Follow her on Twitter: @kwatznauer.