Grab a cup of cocoa, light the fire and settle in for some great TV viewing as the 123rd annual Rose Parade rumbles through the streets of Pasadena. As a proud resident of the City of Roses and a 20-year veteran of parade-going, I envy those of you who get to skip the early wake-up call for the 8 a.m. start, the traffic and the parking hassles to watch the parade on TV. But I want you to be well informed on that cozy couch of yours, so here’s my Insider’s Guide to Rose Parade Watching.
Never on Sunday You may be wondering why the Rose Parade is on January 2nd this year, instead of on New Year’s Day like its supposed to be! In 1893, the organizers made an agreement with local parishes not to hold the parade on Sunday, so as not to disturb worship services or the horses tied up in front of churches. The reverent gesture is said to be responsible for the lack of rainfall on the parade, with only ten wet parades in 122 years. In a more colorful version, Pasadenans say that the real agreement was brokered with the Man Upstairs: No parade on Sunday and no rain on the Rose Parade. Amen.
Volunteers in White Suits One of the most extraordinary facts about the Rose Parade is that the whole shebang is put on by a nonprofit volunteer organization called the Tournament of Roses. These community do-gooders handle everything from the monstrous task of parade logistics to choosing the bands to parking the cars to negotiating TV deals to serving hamburgers post-march, all for no pay, little glory and in white suits. The White Suiters, as the volunteers are known here, collectively put in 80,000 volunteer hours annually to put Pasadena on display to the world, giving up their holidays and a tiny bit of their dignity in those outfits. To be named president of the Tournament of Roses, volunteers have put in at least two decades of work.
Give it Up for the Bands The floats may get all the awards, but the marching bands keep the parade humming. Give a big cheer to those teenage Bandies, their moms and dads, and the many, many bake sales it took to get them all to Pasadena. They wear their school sweatshirts with pride around town, and they should. The selection process is challenging, but no amount of conditioning prepares them for the 4 a.m. lineup time, the surge of adrenaline when the parade begins, and the grueling 5.5–mile march, the longest parade route in the world. The TV cameras catch the bands at their brightest moment; Locals see the exhaustion on their faces and the blisters on their feet at the end of the road. (Honestly, couldn’t somebody make a supportive shoe for those poor Flag Girls?) March on, bands, march on.
All Hail the Rose Queen and Her Court By the time Queen Drew and her Princesses head down Colorado Boulevard to be seen by millions of viewers worldwide, they’ve been up since 3 a.m. getting groomed, dressed, and bedazzled for their big moment. But every member of the Royal Court starts the process in October as an ordinary high school girl with big dreams, not a pageant pro with big hair. To us locals, the girls on the court are somebody’s niece, so-and-so’s babysitter, or your hairdresser’s daughter. Their selection to this exclusive sorority is transcendent. Atop the Royal Court float, the young women look regal (and freezing!) in their gowns and tiaras. Their transformation from high school girl to royalty is complete. As one former Rose Queen told me of her experience, “Of course it changes you forever. How could it not?”
Celebrity Spotting This year’s Grand Marshal is war veteran and Dancing With the Stars winner J.R. Martinez. (Do you think officials told him not to wear sequins?) Sprinkled in among the flowers will be astronauts, surfing dogs,and an homage to Elizabeth Taylor. But the undertaking getting the biggest buzz around town this year is the float celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Girl Scouts, a first for this organization. Dozens of lucky local girls will be featured as riders and over 700 Girl Scout volunteers per day are on decorating duty in the final week. The effort on the part of the Girl Scouts has been massive, with support pouring in from all over the world. And, of course, the float features a big pot of Girl Scout cookies! (In a personal note, my friend Steve Mann is riding on the stagecoach float. Go, Steve.)
See the Parade in Person Civic pride requires me to invite you to Pasadena for the Rose Parade. For hearty souls, try camping out along the parade route for free seats and, in most years, a memorable New Year’s Eve. Imagine celebrating with thousands of strangers, sleeping on the sidewalk in 30-degree temperatures, and then waking up to front-row seats to the Rose Parade. Sound good? Then grab your blankets! Campers start lining the parade route at noon the day before, no early birds allowed. Leave your old couch, but bring all the folding chairs, sleeping bags, and propane you can carry. For the less adventurous, buy tickets in the stands close to the intersection of Colorado and Orange Grove, otherwise known as “TV Corner.” Watching the huge floats and block-long bands make that sharp turn in front of dozens of cameras is worth the $75 ticket price, especially if this is a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Pasadena resident Lian Dolan is the author of the best-selling novel Helen of Pasadena, essential reading for any fan of the Rose Parade.