Pasadena's 1890 tribute to its favorite flora has blossomed into a national ritual

'Tis the season to be jolly, and if for you that means trying to escape tomorrow's onslaught of parades and bowl games -- six at last count -- don't touch that dial! ``It's easy to be cynical about the conspicuous consumption, the pomp and pageantry -- the schmaltz, if you will,'' says Prof. Dennis Showalter, a military historian at Colorado College. ``Any culture that is going to hold itself together has to revel in some kind of self-affirming ritual that makes the greater population feel good about itself.''

Professor Showalter's studies of the origins and history of processionals and parades tell him it's important to consider the alternatives: from the French and German nationalistic parades of the 19th century to the Soviet Union's annual display of hardware in Red Square.

Bernard Mergen, professor of American civilization at George Washington University, says the national ritual of gathering around the tube Jan. 1 for parades and football is the closest thing to a national campfire.

Whatever the explanation, it sits plenty well with folks here in Pasadena, who put on a show every Jan. 1 that by sheer audience -- a million in person, 150 million via tube -- is the largest national ritual going.

Since the Pasadena Valley Hunt Club sponsored the first parade back in 1890 at the suggestion of a local zoologist -- to ``illustrate inspiration from the petals of thousands of roses in bloom while our former Eastern homes are buried in snow'' -- the Tournament of Roses has become perhaps the nation's largest yearly spectacle.

That means that the horse-drawn displays by garden clubs -- which during the Great Depression cost as little as $250 -- have long since given over to motor-driven floats up to 50 feet long and 60 feet high. They are built ingeniously over every manner of moving vehicle, from truck and motor scooter to unicycle.

Town guilds and firemen's cooperatives that once tied live flowers to carriages with string have given over to seven licensed float-building companies, which spend the entire year designing and building floats to suit the marketing strategies of such nonlocal concerns as Singapore Airlines, Puerto Rico, Calgary Canada, Honda, and Yoplait. (Says one local designer of 30 years, Don Davidson of the Design Collaborative: ``This has become an international event over which Pasadena has no control.'')

Witness this year's touted floral masterpieces: a six-story, a giant teddy bear that pops up through a monolithic birthday cake, a multipropellered flying machine piloted by a skeptical elephant, and three 20-foot-high ostriches taking an exercise class.

The floats assembled here at Rosemont Pavillion across from the Rose Bowl Stadium evoke the words of one local critic: ``For the irredeemably hardhearted, it is possible to dismiss the parade as middle-class American taste, sentimentality, and optimism pushed to extremes of gaudy display and needless cost. But as you are there and watching, the Rose Parade is so astonishingly good natured as to be beyond sour criticism.''

What is also astonishing is the list of attractions, including 22 bands, 230 equestrians, and 60 floats, costing an average of $75,000 and requiring an average of 100,000 flowers (all exposed portions must be covered in natural materials).

The floral materials used in building the floats are no longer generated locally, either. Until 10 years ago, most of the flowers on the floats were grown within a 60-mile radius. Now, ``chrysanthemums are pretty much the only local flower used,'' says Arthur Ito, president of Florists Transworld Delivery and a local florist for 50 years. ``The rest come from Holland, Hawaii, Central and South America, Italy, Israel, and South Africa.''

In fact, his observations point out what is probably the single biggest development in the Rose Parade over the past 10 years: the increased use of imported materials due to advances in other countries' marketing strategies, the availability of unique flowers, and the ability to preserve and transport them. (Constructed long in advance, the floats are decorated with flowers in the three to four days before the parade.) This year's parade will include such exotica as uva grass, Dutch tulips, African prot ea, and Hawaiian croton leaves.

The other biggest change, according to natives, is the still-growing amount of television coverage, the very development that has catapulted the Tournament of Roses from a once-parochial display of community enthusiasm to a national celebration. (The Rose Bowl football game, first held in 1902, is the ``granddaddy of bowl games'' predating its nearest imitators, the Cotton, Sugar, and Orange Bowls, by 33 years.)

No fewer than five networks (including NBC and CBS) will be covering the Tournament of Roses festivities live. Six more will run coverage after the fact.

Local newspaper columns look askance at the changes, money, prestige, and international focus that TV has brought. Lathrop Leishman, who has attended every Rose Bowl game but three, and nearly all the parades, agrees.

``I remember the days where we had just one Western Union man reporting the parade,'' says Mr. Leishman, who has served as grand marshal and president of the Tournament of Roses. His father was instrumental in building the Rose Bowl on its present site. ``And if you wanted to see the parade other than on the streets of Pasadena, you had to pay to see the movies with Movietone News. And that was all in black and white.''

This year, with the theme ``A Celebration of Laughter,'' (Grand Marshall is Erma Bombeck), Leishman has been frequently called upon to recount the many funny incidents that have occurred over the years. Suffice it to say that the most famous anecdote is still the mad dash of California's Roy Riegels for the opponent's goal post in the 1929 Rose Bowl. With a 0-0 score in the second quarter, a Georgia Tech fumble bounced into the arms of Riegels on the Tech 35-yard line. Running the entire length of the f ield, with his teammates' protestations drowned out by the roaring crowd, Riegels was finally tackled by a teammate on the Tech 1-yard line, too late to stop his notoriety as ``Wrong Way Riegels'' ever since.

After seeing seven decades' worth of bowl games and parades, Leishman is still the most vocal cheerleader, touting a basically conservative community, which he says has kept the festivities ``world class.''

He still remembers the time it rained (there have been only seven occasions) on a group of parade queens ``wearing flimsy garments'' until they looked like ``drowned puppies.'' The native churches and women's Christian Temperance Union caused a stir, charging organizers with ``parading undressed women down the streets of Pasadena.'' Ever since, every costume is screened by a panel of judges.

``In a very real sense,'' says Professor Showalter, ``these parades celebrate a lot of things Americans like to think about themselves -- that we are a cheerful country, one that likes to have a good time, celebrate its abundance. In that sense, trying to find deep, hidden meanings, or being critical of them because they don't have big serious underpinnings, misses the point. It's just a rolling together of cultural images which we still seem to think are positive and simply fun.''

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