Boasty Beanies, Sure, But Marshmallows?

Those who see the Rose Bowl Parade only on TV seem to miss the real tournament - a letter from Pasadena

'I'M here to find out what the world doesn't see when it watches the grandaddy of bowl parades on TV," I said to a man at the corner of St. John and Colorado here on New Year's eve morn. Twenty-four hours hence some billion plus viewers in 115 countries would be dutifully tuned to the undeniably splendorous, yet somehow - let's face it - generic Tournament of Roses Parade.

Slumbering spouses in kerchiefs and caps would be roused from their last holiday naps by celebrities-du-jour spreading on the superlatives like wallpaper paste: "Incredibly, Fred, the deep green eyes of this circus clown have been achieved with a masterful combination of lentil beans and crushed coriander.Amazing, Millie, and I understand his jaunty beanie boasts 30,000 marigolds flown in from East Timor this morning."

But what do these several dozen flower-covered billboards, rolling fantasies, and oompah bands say about America ... California ... Pasadena?

"Lighten up," said a man roping off a 10-by-20-foot area for buddies arriving from several states. He grabbed a handful of marshmallows from a brown grocery sack just as a man with a handlebar mustache gunned his motorcycle around the corner.

"This is what you don't see on TV," he said, winging the puffy white projectile squarely off the cheek of the hirsute cyclist.

And so it went for several blocks both up and down the parade route. Next to the chaise lounges, directors' chairs, and sleeping bags of pre-parade space reservists were ubiquitous stashes of the gelatinous munitions, up to six bags per capita. Forget the floats, they seemed to be saying, bring on the moving targets.

Kids lobbed them into the backs of passing convertibles. Teens whipped them through the spokes of passing two-wheelers. Oldsters pelted the windshields of passing Buicks and Toyotas, all with the knowing smile of an inside joke. Peltees became pelters, scooping the puffballs off the pavement in seemingly endless rounds of friendly exchange.

More than a few explained the exercise as a rite of communal solidarity going back before anyone remembers.

"Heck, the parade is anti-climactic after a night of this," said Eugene Rose, a man who has spent every New Year's Eve for the past 15 years camped out on Colorado Avenue, claiming his space for the next day's parade. Most spaces are taken 24 hours in advance. What better way to pass the time?

A noted sociologist once told me that the Rose Parade as a New Year's Day media event is the closest thing America has to a national campfire. Could these new revelations about marshmallow fixations be another piece of the same puzzle? Recently, rice and tortillas have worked their way into the traditional festivities, some told me, a nod to the increasing numbers of Asians and Hispanics in America's premier melting pot.

"Preparation is what the world doesn't see on TV," said Fred Lamarca, head of audio for NBC. "Three days, thousands of feet of cable, and prayers that it doesn't rain."

"Nervous exhaustion and mishap," explained Bry Kratz, a Tournament of Roses official. He explained how one float operator, late to the crucial judging festivities that can mean millions in advertising revenue, revved his creation to six times maximum speed (about 30 m.p.h.). Careening around curves and creating a bedlam of traffic through town, he sheared off the front bumper of a parked car.

Other answers came fast and furious. "You can't smell the roses on TV," said one. "You can't smell the horse leavings," said another. "This is America's event," said one lifelong resident. "What used to be the town's show is now the country's."

But nothing tops the main, inside story from here: Marshmallow wars. Tortilla wars. Rice wars. Amazing and incredible as it seems. Over to you, Millie.

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