Tournament of Roses Parade: 125th Anniversary

Americana, Featured Article, Festivals, Seasonal, Sports, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on December 29, 2013
A procession of floats and marching bands parade through Pasadena, California.

This year marks the 125th Tournament of Roses or Rose Parade, a festive and floral procession in Pasadena, California, that delights millions of spectators watching along the 5-mile parade route and on television.

A desire to promote the blooms and beauty of sunny Pasadena prompted the Valley Hunt Club to organize the first Rose Parade on New Year’s Day in 1890.

“If you jump back 125 years, the western part of the United States was still very new and fresh,” says William B. Flinn, 60, executive director of the Tournament of Roses. “People wondered what the new year was like on the West Coast and considered coming this way to get away from the snow-laden cities of the Northeast and Midwest.”

To create their first procession, members of the fox hunting and social club twined roses around the spokes of horse carriage wheels and through horses’ manes and tails. They adorned their bicycles with fresh flowers. Parade-goers also watched foot races, polo matches and a tug-of-war.

“They picked New Year’s Day because the first day is full of hopes and aspirations for what’s ahead,” Flinn says.

The Rose Parade proved so popular that the Tournament of Roses Association was founded in 1895 to manage the blossoming event, which today includes selection of the Rose Queen and Princesses, and a grand marshal. Vin Scully, the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, will lead the 2014 parade.

Early tournaments featured chariot races, ostrich races, and even a wacky race between an elephant and a camel, though the four-legged creatures were replaced by football quarterbacks and wide receivers when the Rose Bowl Game became a yearly tradition in 1916. Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena hosted its first Rose Bowl Game in 1923. 2014 marks the 100th Rose Bowl Game.

Works of wonder

Through the decades, the grand procession of flower-laden carriages has given way to elaborate motorized and animated floats, most built by professional float companies, such as Fiesta Parade Floats in Irwindale, California.

Company president Tim Estes, 58, has helped build nearly 700 parade floats for corporate clients. The challenge of turning a two-dimensional drawing into a “live television show,” as he describes it, thrills him.

One of the most unusual floats built in 2011 by Fiesta Parade Floats was created for Natural Balance Pet Food and featured surfing dogs. Whereas most Rose Parade floats are 55 feet long, the Surf’s Up! float, with its 6,600-gallon wave pool, measured 120 feet long and was engineered to maneuver around street corners.

Depending on a float’s complexity, employees work nine months or longer building the chassis, welding the steel framework, and covering it with wire mesh and polyurethane foam to create a smooth surface for floral decorations.

A day or two before the parade, volunteers pitch in, poking thousands of test tube-size water vials filled with flowers into the foam. Although most fresh flowers are imported, Marchis Central Farm in Pescadero, California, grows 30 acres of golden yellow, pink and orange strawflowers that adorn some of the floats.

“We’re 500 yards from the ocean and get a lot of fog in the morning, and then it burns off and we get a little breeze,” says company marketer Marcy Frazier, 71, about the excellent coastal growing conditions.

For Kelley Roberts, 44, holiday decorating begins in earnest the day after Christmas. That’s when he and hundreds of other volunteers in Downey, California, gather to glue the final touches on the city’s float for the Rose Parade in nearby Pasadena.

Since 1955, Downey has built a float for the grandest New Year’s Day celebration in America.

Only natural materials—fresh and dried flowers, bark, seeds, weeds and nuts—are used to decorate the elaborate floats, which this year depict the theme “Dreams Come True.”

For Downey’s 2014 Cinderella glass-slipper parade entry, float builders ground walnuts to create wood-like railings, crushed poppy seeds to color a water fountain, hung fresh orchids to resemble falling water, and fashioned dazzling scrollwork from 15,000 fresh pink, red and yellow roses.

Horses hooves and drumbeats

The ornate floats elicit “ahhs” from parade watchers, as do the equestrian units with riders and handsome horses decked in finery and flowers.

“We’ll flash and bling,” says Mychon Bowen, 45, founder of the Norco Cowgirls Rodeo Drill Team in Norco, California. For the upcoming parade, the cowgirls plan to adorn their hats and saddles with purple roses and pink orchids.

“It’s an extreme honor,” Bowen says. “The parade is first-class all the way.”

Each year, the parade features up to 20 marching bands, whose music sets toes tapping, and spectators clapping and singing.

“On Colorado Boulevard, it’s like a congregational accompaniment. They all know the words to ‘Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus’ and start singing,” says Kevin Larsson, 40, bandmaster of the Salvation Army Tournament of Roses Band, which has marched in every Rose Parade since 1920.

A dozen or more high school bands from across the nation and world are chosen for the honor each year. Selections are made two years in advance so members can raise money for the once-in-a-lifetime trip.

At Rosemount (Minnesota) High School, band directors made a surprise announcement during a band banquet in October 2012 that its 208 members were Pasadena-bound for the 2014 parade.

“The screams and the looks on their faces” was marvelous, says director Steve Olsen, 55, adding that the band will showcase Minnesota composers when it performs “Fantasia in G” by Timothy Mahr and “Chorale and Shaker Dance” by John Zdechlik.

Twice-weekly practices have the band in tiptop shape and members are thrilled for the chance to perform in Pasadena.

“We get recognition from other bands and people, and we’re the best band in Minnesota,” says Rosemount’s drum major Emily Brossart, 17. “But now we’re going to the Rose Parade and that’s a whole other world. Everyone will see us.”

The First Bowl Game

Football became part of the Tournament of Roses in 1902 when the first post-season collegiate game in the nation was played on New Year’s Day in Tournament Park in Pasadena. During that matchup, Michigan routed Stanford 49-0.