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Is the Rose Parade red or blue? The eternal spinning of New Year's Day in Pasadena

I do love the Tournament of Roses parade, but not always for the same reasons other people do.

Anything that’s watched on television by tens of millions of people, and watched from Pasadena’s sidewalks by thousands more -- no , no, no,  it’s not a million people, that’s a self-perpetuating urban myth and civic propaganda that Caltech sachems have disproved over and over again.

Anyway, anything that enormous in its reach, that by its very TV wallop represents something bigger than Pasadena civic spirit, is going to attract a lot of people wanting to get to that huge audience, and I’m not speaking of spectators with their ‘Hi Mom’ signs. I mean the parade itself.

The parade seems like it’s always tried to steer clear of controversy, but that doesn’t mean it’s succeeded. In 1992, Native Americans objected to a descendant of Christopher Columbus being made grand marshal to mark the 500 years since Columbus’ landfall in the New World. What with the Columbian and post-Columbian depredations of Native Americans and all, they had a solid point, and the upshot was a compromise by the parade people, a grand marshal twofer: Columbus’ heir, and congressman Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Cheyenne.

But that was far from the first political dustup in the century-plus history of the little promotional parade that became the biggest deal on the Jan. 1 calendar -- Jan. 2 if the 1st happens to fall on a Sunday.

Anti-Vietnam War demonstrators turned up along the parade route during the 1970s, and the war’s critics weren’t happy with the choices of conservative figures like John Wayne, the Rev. Billy Graham, Sen. Everett Dirksen and Bob Hope as grand marshals.

More recently, AIDS activists attempted to block the route, and Code Pink and anti-George W. Bush demonstrators have also tried to make their point on camera and on the parade route.

Although parade officials say this New Year’s float marking President Reagan’s centennial is the first presidential-themed float, it is not the first parade entry with or about a president.

Republican former presidents have been welcomed as grand marshals -– Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford -– but so far, no Democrats, although each of those Republican presidents had California connections, Nixon having been born here, Hoover having attended Stanford and Eisenhower and Ford coming here for the golf.

The parade has favored as grand marshals military men and sports figures and heroes like astronauts and pilots. Two Supreme Court justices did the honors -– Earl Warren, who also waved down Colorado Boulevard as California’s governor, and the retired Sandra Day O’Connor. Republican-minded actors have also been tapped for the job, like Jimmy Stewart, Shirley Temple Black and Mary Pickford. There was some fuss in 1988 that Gregory Peck was too liberal to be grand marshal, and eventually, the grand marshals Hollywood supplied had virtually no political identity at all -– Carol Burnett, Cliff Robertson [I’m still puzzled by that one], Cloris Leachman, Bob Newhart, Angela Lansbury and William Shatner.

In 1953, the reigning rose queen presided as official hostess of the L.A. County Young Republicans’ dance -– something that would be vetoed today as too partisan.

In 1951, the year before the presidential elections, South Pasadena’s float was called "A Rosy Dream," and showed a Democratic donkey leaving the back door of the White  House as a Republican elephant breezed in the front. The next year, when Temple City proposed a floral float showing deep-freezes and mink coats -– a reference to a Truman administration scandal involving officials receiving those goodies in exchange for political favors -– the parade committee vetoed it as too political. (A few years later, Eisenhower’s White House chief of staff would resign in a scandal over his inappropriately accepting the gift of a vicuna coat -– is it really that cold in D.C.?)

South Pasadena tried to make nice in the 1953 parade with a flower-bedecked float of a bicycle built for two pedaled by the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, with the elephant in the front as an acknowledgement of the GOP’s taking the White House.

Perhaps the parade’s biggest source of friction was the relative absence of African Americans.

In the ninth Tournament of Roses parade, in 1898, The Times reported at length on all the parade displays and the public’s reaction, including the "hearty laugh at the log cabin of the High School Glee Club, with its darkies singing negro melodies and carving ‘dat watermillion’ …" Given the segregation of the time, the "darkies" may actually have been white students in some kind of blackface.

Decades later, in the civil rights year of 1963, parade officials announced what was reported as the first "Negro-sponsored float" for New Year’s Day 1964. The parade’s chairman said, "We’ve always had Negro participation. The majority of the bands have had Negroes in them. We’ve never had a policy on Negroes one way or another."

Still, in that same watershed year, the local NAACP decided to go ahead and picket the parade because there hadn’t been a single minority serving as queen or on the court in the history of the event. "We are not suggesting," said the local chapter president, Fletcher Smith, "that there should have been a Negro girl in at least one of the courts necessarily, but certainly one of Mexican, Japanese or Chinese descent. The minority races are a part of this community and the Rose Parade is meant to portray this city to the world. By omitting them from the royal court, the true image of Pasadena is not being shown."

Watch this spectator’s fabulous home movies of the 1965 parade...

...and you’ll see both a "Negro" float with its own beauty queens, as well as a float sponsored by the National Rifle Assn., which had parade floats for at least two years, although certainly not recently.

My money for this New Year’s grand marshal was on Betty White. But parade officials chose TV chef and restaurateur Paula Deen. She is not by any stretch the stuff of controversy, unless you can start an argument over Southern cooking. I can’t, but Deen and I did have a little do-si-do not long ago, on my KPCC radio program.

Because so many of her Southern dishes are meat-driven, I asked her, what recipes would you suggest for vegetarians?

Well, she mused, '"if you don't want to go with pork... '' -- I made it clear that indeed, vegetarians don't want to go with pork. She finally settled on, "You can certainly find smoked turkey wings from the grocery store."

Happy New Year, whatever you eat.

-- Patt Morrison

RELATED:

Rose Parade: A float that marks the gift of life

 

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Stephen Burleson

Stupid question.


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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.



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