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The Rose Parade's Evolution Into A Cultural Event

The Tournament of Roses Parade is an annual tradition for Pasadena, Calif., and television viewers around the country. But it's more than a pretty spectacle of floats bedecked in blooms, says Los Angeles Times columnist and special correspondent for KPCC Patt Morrison. In her latest column, she writes, "its huge cultural shadow has been as much about what you didn't see on display as what you did."

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Right now in Pasadena, the floats in the annual Tournament of Roses Parade are the homestretch. The Rose Parade is a long-established national tradition, of course, watched every year by hundreds of thousands across the country. Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison covered the event many times and wrote today: Its huge cultural shadow has been as much about what you didn't see on display as what you did.

If you live in or around Pasadena and listen to KPCC, we want to hear from you. What does the Rose Parade mean to you? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Patt Morrison also a special correspondent for member station KPCC in that tournament's hometown, joins us now from her home in Los Angeles. Happy New Year.

PATT MORRISON, BYLINE: Happy New Year, Neal.

CONAN: And I understand, you could see the parade from your house?

MORRISON: I can't see the parade, but I can see the blimp. And, of course, we have snow-covered mountains and palm trees. It's a perfect California day.

CONAN: Well, let's dive a little bit into the history. Of course, we associate the parade with the football game. The parade considerably precedes the football game in history.

MORRISON: There were camel races before there was a football game, but there was a parade.

CONAN: And how did they get started?

MORRISON: It got started in 1890 because the city fathers in Pasadena wanted to show New York, the rest of the world insofar as it could then that this was a place where roses were still blooming in the middle of winter, to show off the beauties of Southern California.

CONAN: And it's a grand spectacle. Of course, I gather, it must have started out rather smaller.

MORRISON: It did, people in their carriages and little boys with their wagons all dolled up with flowers. But once they started televising in the 1950s, in particular, it became an international event. And the focus wasn't just on the escapism, on the family friendly theme, but who was in the parade and who wasn't.

CONAN: Well, it's interesting, you go back to 1950 and that, of course, was a year - well, 1952, year of political transition as Democrats finally were leaving the White House after a good long time.

MORRISON: This was before the election, January before the election of '52. And one of the floats showed the Republican donkey - or Republican elephant entering the White House and a Democratic donkey leaving it. So there'd been a lot of political themes. A lot of the grand marshals had been Republican politicians. California used to be a Republican state, but it has been traditional and conservative for many years.

CONAN: And in the - a reflection, too, of the nation's racial tensions in the '50s and '60s.

MORRISON: People were missing from this. You didn't see a lot of black faces. And the queen and her court, perhaps, the most visible part, the rose queen and her princesses. You saw no minority faces. And in the 1960s, the NAACP here was so put out about it, it threatened to field 10,000 protesters to the Rose Parade.

CONAN: There were also political actions on the other side. The NRA used to sponsor a float.

MORRISON: The NRA had floats in the parade during the 1960s, hard as it is to believe now. But it was a very different creature. I think it's finally found a kind of international floating, too, when we have Jane Goodall as the grand marshal today. Imagine a woman and a foreigner and a U.N. messenger of peace.

CONAN: Many of the other women who had been grand marshals in the past had been Shirley Temple.

MORRISON: Shirley Temple had three goes at it, both as a child and an adult. A few years, Sandra Day O'Connor was the grand marshal for the Rose Parade.

CONAN: Why can't we get John Wayne back?

(LAUGHTER)

MORRISON: John Wayne was a great favorite. But culturally, the parade tended again to the more traditional kind of lagging behind. When the world was listening to the Beatles, they had Lawrence Welk as the grand marshal.

CONAN: And so there has been a sense that the parade marched, what, 10 years behind the times.

MORRISON: Well, the Mark Twain joke about wanting to be in Cincinnati when the world ended because things happen there 10 years later. But Pasadena has come to terms with the idea that this isn't just Pasadena's parade. It's putting on California's face to the world, and that face really needs to resemble Southern California.

CONAN: And so in one way - you've covered this many times, the preparations, stitching together the roses for the floats, all of that. How has it changed?

MORRISON: It's changed because you have a sense in the leadership and in Pasadena itself that it cannot be a clique. It can't be, as one of the vice mayors of Pasadena said, a bunch of old white men. You need to integrate it. You need more women in the hierarchy in organizing the parade. And you need to see more minority faces in the parade, in the court, on some of the floats as we see today, as I'm watching it on television.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you who grew up or now live in, or around, Pasadena. What does the parade mean to you - 800-989-8255; email us: talk@npr.org. And we're going to get a call from - well, I guess this is northwest Pasadena; Mayville, Wisconsin. Ken is on the line.

(LAUGHTER)

MORRISON: Go Badgers.

KEN: How are you doing?

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

KEN: I grew up in Northridge. And it was always a tradition, you know, once we were, you know, in our young teens, we would actually go and work on the floats. And it was just amazing to see, you know, how all the petals and things were put on, and what different vegetation you were using for different effects. And you know, it's always been a tradition in our household to get up and watch the parade. And, you know, in California, in L.A., it was on 24/7. You know, KTLA used to show it the entire day. So if you didn't get up early enough, you could always watch it. Now that I'm out here in Wisconsin, I kind of feel left out. I miss out on the parade and, you know, it's hard to find the reruns on it. And it's just not the same, you know, when you're not watching it live or watching it, you know, that day.

CONAN: We should note - isn't Wisconsin in the big game today?

KEN: Yeah. I believe so. (LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Wisconsin against Stanford, I think, in the...

KEN: Yep.

CONAN: ...Rose Bowl there, in Pasadena. Well, thanks, Ken, very much.

KEN: Thank you.

CONAN: And how big a deal was this for the Los Angeles Times, Patt Morrison?

MORRISON: Oh, the Los Angeles Times used to publish special editions, page after page - and, of course, color when that was possible - of the floats. The winning floats, at one point there seemed to be more prizes for floats than there were floats. Everyone seemed to be a winner. But the L.A. Times was very much involved in the kind of boosterism that the Rose Parade was originally about. And Ken was right in his call. You can't consider yourself an Angelino until you've been out to the Rose Parade at least once.

CONAN: And there's, I guess, some 800,000 or so that come out to see it in person.

MORRISON: Even that was a matter of controversy. The parade used to claim a million people. It sounded so handy. Until someone at Caltech went out and did the math on the sidewalks and said, you can't sit a million people out here.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Of course it was Caltech who did it.

MORRISON: Of course it was Caltech.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Andrea. Andrea with us from Coventry, Connecticut. What's your connection to the Rose Parade?

ANDREA: Well, I'm standing here looking at my window at a foot of snow in eastern Connecticut. And roses sound really good right about now.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I guess that's the point.

ANDREA: But I was calling to see if - in deference to the political connections that you mentioned earlier about Republican elephants and Democratic donkeys, if there is a float with a fiscal cliff this year.

MORRISON: No, I think you might see that in the parody of the Rose Parade called the Doo Dah Parade...

ANDREA: Oh, OK.

MORRISON: ...which happens later in the year. But since those years of the '50s and '60s, they've tried to depoliticize the elements in the parade. So you'll see sort of wholesome family themes. You'll see amusement park themes. You'll see - of course we have a float from an animal rescue group and Jane Goodall herself is riding with the dogs.

ANDREA: Which I have to say heartens me greatly. The animal rescue float is very dear to my heart. I have three English setter crosses here who are all rescues, and that one caught my heart.

MORRISON: It's been very popular. And Uggie the dog is the star of that float.

ANDREA: Well, I have Daniel and Thomas and Jenny, so...

(LAUGHTER)

ANDREA: We don't have an Uggie.

CONAN: Thanks, Andrea.

ANDREA: Thank you.

CONAN: Just to note, whether you take this as political or not is, I guess, up to your point of view. The Defense Department, for the first time, put a float in the Tournament of Roses Parade, one of the most watched parades in the country, to commemorate veterans from a conflict that still casts a shadow over the world. A $247,000 flower-covered float is a replica of the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

MORRISON: Consistently, over the years, Neal, they've had military heroes, generals, Korean War veterans as grand marshals of the parade. And there's always been an effort to honor the military. And the Iraq veteran and the "Dancing with the Stars" star, I think his name was J.R. Martinez, was the grand marshal last year. And he was immensely popular and well received. But here again, a Latino grand marshal, which you wouldn't have seen 50 years ago.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to Marcello. Marcello with us from Salt Lake City.

MARCELLO: Hey. Hi. I actually live in Los Angeles. I'm driving back today, but I remember growing up, my dad and my mom were separated, but every year my dad would come and pick me up really early in the morning and we'd go to the parade route, and he'd actually bring a ladder so that I could go all the way to the top so I could see over everyone's head.

And it was great because, you know, there was a time when I didn't really like going to the parade, where I was just kind of over it, but I kind of seem to circle back around to it and be, like, really all about it because it's something that represents Pasadena and, like, the city of Los Angeles because everyone goes there. Everyone, you know, they're throwing silly string, they're doing this and that to the cars on the parade route. But for the most part, it's just like a great time had by all.

CONAN: How long did the parade seem to take as you were there as, what, an 8-year-old or 10-year-old boy?

MARCELLO: Honestly, it felt like six or seven hours, like - I remember this one time, I think Will Smith was on the parade route, and my dad gave me a camera. But I just remember seeing that float go by but it felt like it took like, like, you know, it took maybe about a minute to go by, but it felt so long because I was just like kind of excited and there was something like I've seen him on television before, and now I'm seeing him in real life. So it's something pretty exciting, and I think that's what made it feel like it took forever.

CONAN: Marcello, thanks very much. Drive carefully, please.

MARCELLO: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Happy New Year to you.

MORRISON: Marcello is right. People come by the morning before, the day before, to camp out along the parade route, and they make it a real event. So even before the parade starts, there's a party atmosphere in Pasadena.

CONAN: We're talking with Patt Morrison, the columnist to the Los Angeles Times, a special correspondent for member station KPCC in Pasadena, where of course the Tournament of Roses Parade is underway. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Nancy on the line. Nancy is on the line with us from Henderson in Nevada.

NANCY: Hi there.

CONAN: Hi.

NANCY: OK. So I grew up in Sierra Madre, which is north of Pasadena. And you know, being a rose princess is every girl's dream. And I was actually - I tried out for the Pasadena rose, you know, the court there, and that's very competitive and very difficult. But in my own home town of Sierra Madre, I got elected to be one of the rose princesses...

CONAN: Wow.

NANCY: ...and ride on a float.

CONAN: And ride on a float.

NANCY: Yeah.

CONAN: And is that great fun?

NANCY: Oh, my God. It's amazing. Well, first of all, the float from Sierra Madre is completely volunteers. So the whole feeling of the Rose Parade is, you know, it's home - it's all home done in Sierra Madre. So that the whole town gets involved with, you know, creating and flowering the float. So you feel like you're really part of, you know, the whole town when you're going down the boulevard. And it was very exciting, of course.

CONAN: Was your parade also on January 1?

NANCY: I think so. It was 1979.

CONAN: OK.

NANCY: I can't remember.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And what was the competition like if you wanted to be a rose princess for the Pasadena parade?

NANCY: Well, I tell you, it was kind of interesting. They wanted to know about your personality. They wanted to know the high school you went to, what sort of community activities did you, you know, involve yourself with. And they're like, OK, so, you know, who's the hero of yours, an American hero? I thought that was the most interesting question.

CONAN: Who did you say?

NANCY: I said Harriet Tubman.

(LAUGHTER)

MORRISON: Excellent.

NANCY: That's what I thought. So they picked me.

CONAN: Congratulations.

NANCY: Thank you. I love your show. It's been really fun to hear the stories.

CONAN: Oh, thanks very much, Nancy.

MORRISON: Neal, there was a time when every female student at Pasadena City College was required to show up for rose queen tryouts as part of their gym class.

CONAN: As part of the gym class?

MORRISON: Yes.

CONAN: You must have - I was just imagining the annual editorial meeting went about December 1 when you sat around and said, oh my God, what are we going to do this year?

MORRISON: What can be different this year? 1890 until now, so many Rose Parades to write about. But every year a different iteration. As you can hear from your listeners too, everybody brings a different perception to it and takes away something very special.

CONAN: And every year, of course, has a different theme. I think the theme this year is "Oh, the Places You'll Go," the old Dr. Seuss line.

MORRISON: And the themes are all very family friendly and children friendly particularly, because as you heard Marcello, your earlier caller, say, it seems when you're a little kid that these floats are even bigger than they actually are. The parade goes on forever. Everything is magnified. And so it's as much fun watching the people watching the parade as watching the parade itself.

CONAN: Let's go next to Carol. Carol is on the line with us from San Francisco.

CAROL: Hi. Yeah. When I was growing up down in L.A., I actually got to glue flowers onto the floats with my church, my - the church that my parents went to, and then with another church at one time. I was, I don't know, probably about 12, 11 or 12. It was a big deal. We'd go into this big, huge, you know, warehouse where all of these floats were and all the flowers. And, oh, the glue fumes. I don't know...

(LAUGHTER)

CAROL: I don't know what, you know, back in the early '70s, if they even thought about that. It was like - I probably lost some brain cells. But that was a really - gluing those flowers on the float, you know, having a little section of the float that you got to do, and then seeing it go down the street and seeing it on TV, that was the first time I ever really felt that I - something I could do could matter as a child.

CONAN: That's a great accomplishment, a feeling of accomplish. But I wonder, by the time you were done, was the overall aroma from the float glue or rose?

(LAUGHTER)

CAROL: I think, you know, it was kind of one of those things where you didn't smell it anymore like working in a candy store. You know, when you first walked in there, all you smelled was, you know, because it was a long process. I mean, it was - I don't remember how many days or weeks we worked on these floats. I think it was days. You know, when you first walked in there, all you smelled was the glue. But then the flowers kind of - you would smell the flowers. But by the end, honestly, I don't remember. I don't think I smelled anything anymore.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well, Carol, thanks very much for the call. I appreciate it.

CAROL: Thank you for taking my call. Bye.

CONAN: Patt Morrison, what happens to the flowers after the parade's over?

MORRISON: The floats go on display in a park in Pasadena. So for a couple of days, people can go look at them. And you can get as sense, when they're stationary, of the scale. And as Carol was saying, people glue individual seeds, sunflower seeds, any vegetation is fair game for these floats. All that has to be affixed to the float. And one of the barns she talks about, one of the warehouses is down the street from KPCC. So before the parade in the weeks before, you can see the floats doing little practice runs when they go up and down the street and to be able to say I'm sorry I'm late for work, I was blocked by a Rose Parade float.

CONAN: Catherine(ph) emailed: The parade means being a child in 1950, climbing up the wooden ladder my father loaded into the car high enough to see above the heads of the crowd, snorting horses, high school bands, and I think Roy Rogers - all great excitement. Only when I was 17 working as a temporary Christmas clerk at (unintelligible) along with one of the Rose Parade princess - Rose Parade princesses - did I realize how much artifice is required to hold up the community belief in pure fantasy.

(LAUGHTER)

MORRISON: Well put.

CONAN: Patt Morrison, thanks very much for your time today.

MORRISON: Always a pleasure, Neal. Happy New Year.

CONAN: Happy New Year to you. Patt Morrison, the columnist from Los Angeles Times and special correspondent for our member station in Pasadena, KPCC. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Tomorrow, it's the Political Junkie. Ken Rudin will be here. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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