a group of people standing in front of a large screen
Student filmmakers William Forster, Valeria Juarez and Monika Jaroszewicz are joined by videography teacher Ed Smith, band director Gary Hernandez and student sponsors Chris and Carla Sloan at the May 8 documentary screening. CONTRIBUTED

When the Key West High School marching band, the Marching Conchs, crossed the pond to play in London’s New Year’s Day parade, not all of the students packed instruments or sheet music.

Of the 107 or so students who made the trip, two — William Forster and Valeria Juarez — carried very different tools that would serve them well in London and then back in the States. The two are part of Ed Smith’s video production class at the high school and their London trip was paid for by part-time Key West resident Chris Sloan and his wife, Carla. 

Chris has had a very successful career in television production and owns a TV production company called 2C Media. The pair are avid supporters of Key West charities and the high school’s film and TV program.

Forster and Juarez were tasked with filming, editing and producing a documentary of the Marching Conchs’ trip abroad for the school’s Conch 5 Studios. And they delivered in spades, with editing help back home from fellow student Monika Jaroszewicz, who couldn’t make the trip due to a broken foot. 

The 44-minute film that resulted, “Key West Marching Conchs in London,” took first place in the Florida Scholastic Press Association’s Short Documentary competition for a 10-minute version of a longer production about the trip.

The film then made its local debut to live audiences on May 8 at Tropic Cinema, which hosted two screenings of the documentary.

The entire London trip became a community-wide effort to raise $400,000. Band students performed outside Fausto’s Food Palace for donations. They washed cars, held yard sales, solicited donations and scored big from local benefactors, one of which, Isla Bella Resorts in Marathon, donated $20,000 to put them over the edge of the goal.

On New Year’s Day 2024, the Marching Conchs marched along the 2-mile parade route playing the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and Blondie’s “One Way or Another.” 

Band members brought global recognition and reignited a fierce pride in the island city.

“We brought in an incredible amount of money through our generous, very generous community,” said 15-year band director Gary Hernandez. “We had many, many donors. Individual donors gave us $50, $100. The Florida Keys community really came together.

“It’s a massive deal to represent the southernmost city in the United States of America. Everybody knows Key West. Even though it’s such a small place, they all have some connection to it. They’ve seen it in the movies. And they know, of course, Jimmy Buffett. We have a lot of connections with the world.”

Trip expenses were about $3,600 per person for 76 band members and parent-chaperones, for a total of 107 people, who traveled 4,600 miles across the “pond” to London. The group got matching sweatshirts, winter gloves and hats — foreign attire in the Keys’ subtropical climate — airfare, overnight accommodations, meals and activities, and tickets to two theater shows, “Wicked” and “Hamilton,” wrote Laura Myers for NewmanPR, the Florida Keys’ public relations firm.

The band was invited by the U.K. parade’s organizers in early 2023 to join other U.S. and international groups to march through the London streets in the famed celebration, which typically draws about 800,000 spectators and a television audience of millions. 

“The London New Year’s parade is their version of the Thanksgiving Macy’s parade,” said band captain Eddie Strunk, a tuba player. 

The high school musicians also performed at the Grand Piazza in London’s Covent Garden, and discovered British history and culture through guided tours, group activities and theater productions.

For some students, the journey — a trip of a lifetime with memories never to be forgotten — marked their first time on an airplane or first journey outside the state, Myers wrote.

“I’ve never left Florida before, and it’s a scary thought to be so far away from what’s been my home for so long,” said trombone player Alex Gonzalez. “Being able to see a different place was very exciting.”

Hernandez’s goal is for the Key West High School’s Marching Conchs to participate in the London parade at least every four years, giving band students the unforgettable opportunity at least once during their high school years.

Band mom Jamie Strunk, who accompanied the Key West group and served as a fundraising organizer, summed up the experience for the young band members. “It was a life-changing experience,” she said.

Mandy Miles
Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.