The Tournament of Roses Parade draws a million live spectators, keeps locals busy year-round


December 29, 1991|By Suzanne Murphy

In a burst of youthful exuberance, several dozen members of the Los Angeles All-District Marching Band on sousaphones, trumpets and trombones launch into an upbeat medley of

syncopated tunes. Not far away, uniformed patrolmen keep an eye on the swarms of latecomers jockeying for seats in still shady grandstands and along the sidewalks, where early arrivals, camped out on divans and folding chairs and in sleeping bags, pass the time reading, snoozing or in conversation with their neighbors.

Well above the melee, a privileged few dangle out of windows or survey the scene discreetly from surrounding rooftops. Higher still, a dozen strategically placed television cameramen perched precariously on hydraulic booms, focus their lenses on the endless comings and goings of vendors and spectators, while hundreds of feet above them, two blimps hover like a pair of enormous silver footballs in the early morning light.

And so under sunny Southern California skies begins yet another lively edition of the midwinter extravaganza known as the Tournament of Roses Parade. Once it was merely a popular West Coast tradition, but today Americans from all parts of the country increasingly identify the festive explosion of color, music and pageantry of this flower-filled event with the arrival of New Year's Day and its promise of a fresh beginning.

Launched more than a century ago by members of Pasadena's exclusive Valley Hunt Club and patterned after a French flower festival, the Rose Parade has come a long way from its tentative beginnings in 1889 when a handful of horse-drawn carriages and wagons decorated with home-grown rose blossoms proudly paraded about town. More than 3,000 people showed up to watch that procession, and the spirited jousting tournaments and other competitive games that followed.

In sharp contrast, today's mega event, a full 12 months in the planning and preparation, boasts 60 professionally built, hydraulic-powered floats smothered in millions of blossoms, plus marching bands from across the United States, 275 high-stepping horses in full regalia and an estimated 1 million in-person spectators lining its 5 1/2 -mile parade route.

In addition, the elaborate 2 1/2 -hour production, first televised to local audiences in 1947, now reaches the screens of more than 150 million Americans nationwide. And with recent improvements in satellite communications, more than 350 million other viewers in 90 nations across the globe are also privy to the proceedings in live and delayed broadcasts, making the Rose Parade the world's most-watched procession.

Always looking for a way to top its previous offerings, the parade's planners came up with an especially ingenious touch to celebrate Pasadena's 100th annual Tournament of Roses in 1989.

Their presentation featured nothing less than a live, on-wheels wedding ceremony. The happy couple's global video audience ran second only to the one viewing Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer's nuptials.

Following a trend increasingly apparent over the last decade, many parade floats of today serve not merely as beautifully crafted flowering sculptures, but also as staging areas for elaborate stunts performed by daredevil men and women to the unabashed delight of onlookers.

In one recent entry, a brightly costumed stuntwoman dangled precariously from the mouth of a 67-foot-tall roller-skating giraffe made of orchids, marigolds, chrysanthemums and strawflowers. In another, eight hot-dog skiers turned in dazzling performances on a 105-foot creation, as they rocketed one by one from ramplike rooftops of roses, orchids and tulips.

Not surprisingly, behind the glamour and splash of the one-of-a-kind pageant lies the well-oiled machinery of Pasadena's pre-eminent civic organization, the powerful Tournament of Roses Association. Developed over generations by some of the city's most influential business and professional people, this 1,400-member group orchestrates nearly every aspect of the complex production and coordinates its 900-strong staff of volunteers.

Nearly three dozen tournament committees painstakingly oversee the endless series of logistical details, which year after year have ensured the smooth sailing of this mammoth undertaking, and regulation of everything from float dimensions and height of trees and power lines along the route to the placement of television cameras and the all-important selection of the Rose Queen and her Royal Court.

But for all the hoopla surrounding the pageant, it is still the cumbersome floats with their fabulous cargoes of fragrant blossoms that inevitably catch and hold the imagination of millions year after year. Each of the elaborate but ephemeral entries costs between $100,000 and $200,000 and is sponsored by large corporations, small cities and service groups. Following the planning stages, up to seven months of intensive labor are required to prepare for the brief appearance each float will enjoy in the international spotlight.

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