The Columbus Day Parade wouldn't be the same without the Aleppo Shriners Oriental Band marching in their flowing robes and pantaloons and trailed by brightly costumed clowns riding scooters, minimotorcycles, and golf carts.
Members of the Wilmington-based Shriners group have helped celebrate the holiday every year for at least a decade. But rising gasoline and diesel prices have made it a lot harder to keep on smiling through the pain at the pump. Chet Paris, chief of staff of the Aleppo Shriners, said it takes two tractor-trailers to haul the equipment to Boston, not to mention transportation for about 250 volunteers who play instruments in the several bands and clown around atop diesel- and gasoline-powered miniature vehicles.
With parade season just getting started, organizers, bands, and other groups that perform in the annual neighborhood rituals say they are getting squeezed as never before. With gas prices headed toward $3 a gallon and parade organizers already strapped for cash, the marching groups that travel from distant cities and out of state say they have no choice but to absorb much of the added cost.
''The communities are squeezed for money, so we have to strike a happy balance," said Paris, whose group also has been hit with about a 25 percent increase in charter bus prices.
About two years ago, bus prices started creeping up, Paris said in an interview last week. ''Then they started leaping up."
Peter LaFlamme -- executive director of the Spartan Drum and Bugle Corps, which will perform at the Dorchester Day Parade in June -- painted an even bleaker picture for the Nashua-based youth organization.
The corps, which was founded 51 years ago, has owned its own buses for decades in order to shuttle members to and from parades and marching competitions. It cobbles together an annual budget from parade and membership fees and added a charter-bus service in the late 1980s to defray rising costs, LaFlamme said.
With gas and diesel prices on the rise in the last few years, however, LaFlamme said the organization has been hit by a ''double whammy" as both operations have seen profit margins squeezed.
''By right, I should have gone up $500 per parade just to cover the fuel costs," he said.
''I just couldn't do it," LaFlamme said, because parade organizers couldn't pay and some even asked for price reductions.
''We are not making the money that we used to make going to a parade," he said. ''I don't see a happy ending to it. We're set for this year, but there are towns and cities that used to have parades and say they just can't afford the bands anymore."
Parade organizers said they are also feeling the indirect effects of the price hikes. ''It's not huge amounts of money, but they are trying to pass the costs on," said Ed Crowley, clerk of the Dorchester Day Parade. ''I've had big bands assess me with a $50 surcharge" for gas.
''As difficult as it is to raise money to put the parade on," Crowley said, ''we are sympathetic" to the bands' plights, especially since city parades have come to rely on bands located 50 miles away or farther. ''It was a whole different thing when the churches in Dorchester all had CYO bands."
In Charlestown and Roslindale, parade organizers said they also see costs rising due indirectly to fuel price increases.
In East Boston, where the Columbus Day Parade will be held Oct. 8, organizers got off to an early start in anticipation of rising costs, said William Chisholm, chief marshal. In the past, fund-raising started in June. This year, it will kick off with a dinner dance April 8.
''We are hoping to do something every month until the date of the parade," said Chisholm, who estimates that this year's parade will cost about 18 percent more than the last time it was held in East Boston two years ago. (The Columbus Day parade alternates from year to year between East Boston and the North End.)
The cost increase may be steeper by October, he said, because several groups are waiting to see how high gas prices go before finalizing their contracts. ''A lot of the musical groups won't give us prices until the fall. It's all based on gas prices."
Christine MacDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dinners help keep the parades afloat