A Look Behind the Rose Parade

It’s New Year’s Day. What are you doing? If you’re like millions of Americans, you are watching the Tournament of Roses Parade – either in person in Pasadena, or on TV. 2011 will mark the 122nd Annual event with floats, marching bands, and equestrian units parading down Colorado Boulevard

Members of Pasadena’s Valley Hunt Club first staged the parade in 1890. Many of the members of the Valley Hunt Club were former residents of the East and Midwest and they wished to showcase their new California homes’ mild weather. Flowers were blooming and orange trees were bearing fruit. The Hunt Club decided to have a parade to tell the world about their paradise. They organized horse-drawn carriages covered in flowers for the parade, followed by foot races, polo matches, and a game of tug-of-war on the town lot. The event drew a crowd of 2,000. Having seen the scores of flowers on display, club member, Professor Charles F. Holder decided to suggest the name “Tournament of Roses

Over the years marching bands and motorized floats were added, and such activities as ostrich races, bronco busting demonstrations, and a race between a camel and an elephant (the elephant won) were included. Soon reviewing stands were built along the parade route, and newspapers in the Eastern Seaboard cities started to cover the event

With up to one million people now viewing the parade in Pasadena and millions more watching on TV, the Tournament of Roses Parade has come a long way since the days of its inception. It now requires 80,000 hours of combined manpower each year and thousands of workers are needed to cover the floats during “Deco Week,” just one week before the parade. Today, float building is a multi-million dollar business, and construction begins just after the previous year’s parade is over

Covering the floats requires many workers. One of the workers from past parades, Shelley Blacksberg, who lived in the Pasadena area when she was a teenager, told me that this was a lot of work. “Part of the float I was working on one year was covered with poinsettia leaves and they don’t tolerate much handling” Shelley said. “The glue was messy, covering my hands and clothes and you really had to press and hold the flowers on so they stuck – especially the mums which are heavy flowers.” She went on to tell me that because the flowers would wilt, it has to be kept pretty cold in the warehouses where the floats are assembled. “We had to dress in layers, and they provided warm drinks for us on our breaks.” she said. Although Shelley thought the float building was a tremendous amount of work, she felt it was a great experience. “As you can see it has stuck with me all these years.” she said

Today, the stems of whole flowers are placed in a vile filled with half water and half club soda to keep them fresh longer, and the vile is then stuck into styrofoam that is attached to the chassis of the float, while seeds and other materials that will keep longer are still glued on. While attending the post-parade float viewing, I learned that many unique materials are used for the floats such as dried mangos, palm fiber, and black seaweed

Computerized animation has brought the floats into the 21st century. Recent floats have featured King Kong stomping through a floral jungle, a guitar-playing dinosaur, pigs dancing the hula and a 60-foot-tall talking robot, all controlled by computers. According to The Tournament of Roses website, the floats in the parade, staying true to its floral beginnings, are each decorated with more flowers than the average florist will use in five years. The one thing that has not changed, however, is the rule that all floats must be completely covered by something that grows

What becomes of all of those beautiful flowers once the float is dismantled? Different float builders do different things, but a lot of the floral arrangements are given to nursing homes in the Pasadena area, and one of the float builders that I talked to makes potpourri out of the flower petals

How does the float driver navigate down the street with all of those flowers covering the float? According to Anna Pierce, a Tournament of Roses Member who opened the door to show me where the driver sits on the Garden of Oz float, “The driver sits inside the float to steer it, but he is guided by another person who lays on his stomach in the front of the float and, by radio contact, tells the driver when to stop and go. There is also a painted pink line down the center of the street so that the driver can keep the float on course

The Tournament of Roses Parade wouldn’t be complete without a Queen and her Royal Court. Each year in September a selection process is held to determine which Pasadena area girls (ages 17-21) will have the honor of being crowned Queen of the Tournament or one of the six members of her Royal Court. Each year over 1,000 girls try out, but only one queen and six princesses are chosen. The winners ride on a float in the parade and carry out duties in promotion of the Rose Tournament. Their duties include attending over 100 events in the Pasadena area

What do you need to know if you want to go? The parade starts at 8:00 a.m. (PST) on January 1st (January 2nd when the first falls on a Sunday), it travels along a five-and-a-half-mile route starting at Ellis Street and Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena, and lasts about two and a half hours. 800,000 – 1,000,000 people are expected annually. Curbside viewing space along the parade route is on a first-come basis. The city of Pasadena allows people to reserve space along the route starting at noon the day before the parade, and overnight camping on the street is permitted

If camping out on the street the night before the parade and generally winging it on your own doesn’t appeal to you, many tours are available. The official Tournament of Roses Tour Package can be viewed online at www.tournamentofroses.com. The itinerary includes a welcome reception at your hotel, tour of float decorating sites, a gala New Year’s Eve celebration, grandstand seating at the Rose Parade, and the Rose Bowl game

Many other tour companies offer similar packages with area attractions such as the Getty Center, The Ronald Regan Presidential Library, a tour of Hollywood, and post-parade float viewing included. To find the right tour for you, “Google” Rose Parade Tours to view itineraries and costs

One last piece of information that will be helpful – while I packed an umbrella and windbreaker for my trip to the Rose Parade, you may not feel the need to do so as it has only rained on this parade once in the last 55 years.

By Dianne Swanson