‘Turning the corner’ with Tournament of Roses 2023 creates a new spark of enthusiasm

PASADENA — As a native Pasadenan, whose father and grandmother were also born here, a person can get a little … inured … to the whole Tournament of Roses thing.

Growing up near the Rose Parade route, on the edge of the Arroyo Seco just above the Rose Bowl, across the canyon from where I live now, the New Year’s Day festivities sometimes seemed designed merely to make it hard to cross Colorado Boulevard to get to a teenage party New Year’s Eve.

And it seemed so square. When my cousin Jeff rode the parade route in the open car with his parents and siblings when his dad was president, he had to wear a short-cut wig to cover up his appropriately long hair in 1974.

Then, I always had to get up too early the next day to save the pre-game picnic site on a grassy little knoll just off the 18th green at Brookside Golf Course just north of the stadium for my grandfather’s annual post-parade bash, known as Wilson Hill.

Though it was — is — on the order of three feet high, my adman uncle Ted Wilson designed and had made a rather hilarious lapel button for attendees to wear: “Wilson Hill. Why did I climb it? Because it was there.”

Grog, a weekslong-aged melange of bourbon and lemon juice and peel, was served by my grandmother Jyne, as were my mother’s famous deviled eggs.

Thinking back on that now, it wasn’t so bad, once I got there. Famous people were on display. Semi-famous. I was introduced to the minority leader of the United States Senate, Everett Dirksen, the year he was parade grand marshal. Though I was 13, I even semi-knew who he was, being an avid reader of the Pasadena Star-News every afternoon.

My 95-year-old dad is a White Suiter who retired from the Board of Directors of the Tournament after many years of volunteering. A creative type handy with an 8mm camera, I think what he liked best was creating the rather racy and comic movies shown every year at the TofR’s annual management retreat at a resort hotel.

Later in life, when I was editor of the Star-News for 12 years, I spent every New Year’s Day from parade kickoff at 8:01 a.m. until almost midnight overseeing coverage of the festivities and then creating a special section on the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl Game. It was always interesting, but it was exhausting, and it was work, not a holiday.

But you don’t miss your roses till the garden goes dry, and it’s only with the pandemic lockdown year of 2021 in mind – the game decamped to Texas, of all places – and even last year’s diminished festivities, as some viral variant or another kept me from wanting to be anywhere near the crowds, that I’m beginning to appreciate all things Tournament of Roses again.

I love the theme current White Suiter President Amy Wainscott chose for her parade: “Turning the Corner.” Yes, her poster for the big day shows the green street signs of Orange Grove and Colorado boulevards, where every float, marching band and horse has to negotiate the bend, against a backdrop of the magnificent San Gabriels, the mountains shown in the gorgeous Southern California morning winter light.

But clearly Wainscott means in a larger sense that we all are turning a corner at this time in our lives, away from the restrictions that have kept us apart for so long.

And I love the choice of her grand marshal, the valiant Gabby Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt when she was a congresswoman and has gone on to head an important gun-control group.

Really, how the Tournament is changing, with Wainscott the fourth woman president since Libby Evans Wright in 2005 broke the all-White male mold going back to 1890. In recent years, Rich Chinen has been the first Asian president, Gerald Freeny the first Black president, Laura Farber the first Latina president. Soon the White Suiters will even have a gay president.

I was so chuffed to get to know Louise Siskel, the 2019 Rose Queen who at first just seemed to be the first queen to be Jewish and to wear glasses – big, Clark Kent glasses – until she mentioned in these pages that she was another first: the first LGBTQ Rose Queen. Brilliant, too. I sat in on her Sequoyah High School class discussion of Plato’s cave, and took her to tea with Caltech scientists Alice Huang and Si Si Chen, and she was in her element.

This parade and game – a never-on-Sunday Monday Tournament of Roses – I still wasn’t quite feeling it. Then, I was glad to see that the Utah and Penn State football teams had returned to the Beef Bowl tradition at Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Beverly Hills after two years off. Bring on the gleaming silver serving carts, big linemen!

Then my checker Lupita at the Ralphs near Colorado and Orange Grove – I am the only one left in Pasadena who still calls it El Rancho, though it hasn’t been that in decades, just as I still call The Langham the Huntington Hotel – told me they stay open 24 hours on parade day: “The people out there camping – they need food, and they need money from our ATM!” The Tournament brings untold economic benefits around here.

And then, the other day, when I was in conversation for a Southern California News Group Zoom show with my Pasadena friend Bill Deverell, a USC history professor and the director of the Huntington/USC Center on California and the West, his affection for the Rose Parade was infectious.

He had grown up in chilly, wintry Colorado watching the sunshine, flowers and football game on TV. When he moved here, it was to a house blocks from the parade route, and for two decades he and his family have been walking up to take in the floral fun New Year’s Day.

Bill’s no boosterish pushover – the University of California Press says his book “Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past” tells how “a city that was once part part of Mexico itself came of age through appropriating – and even obliterating – the region’s connections to Mexican places and people.” But Bill spoke with glee of the diversity of the visitors who come every year to our city for an event that is in the end pure fun. And of how Pasadena has kept its festival going since 1890 when so many other Southern California traditions have fallen by the wayside.

Talking of “Turning the Corner,” my White Suiter cousin Pam will on Monday morning be standing at the boulevards’ intersection with a stopwatch in her hand – analog or digital, I’m not quite sure – making sure the ponies and tubas and giant float machines maintain what is known around here as Tournament Time. When I say the parade kicks off precisely at 8:01 a.m., I’m not kidding. You’ve never met a punctilious person until you’ve encountered a Parade Operations Committee member. In Pasadena at the new year, the flower-bedecked trains run very much on time.

The TofR has come a long way since our grandfather Elmer Wilson’s 1955 parade – theme, “Familiar Sayings in Flowers” – on which, by the way, it simply poured rain, for the first time ever. President Wilson and his grand marshal, Earl Warren, lost their security detail and went to Lewis Edwards’ house for a much-needed hot toddy, perhaps two, in between the parade and game.

Pam and I literally wouldn’t be here without the Tournament of Roses. Elmer hitchhiked across the country from East McKeesport, Pennsylvania, in 1917 to attend the game between the Oregon Webfoots and the Penn Quakers. He liked what he saw in Pasadena. Beats working in the steel mills. Rather than make the return trip East, he simply stayed, got a job, married a local girl – and never went back. Why would you?

Related links

Gabby Giffords is a grand marshal for the Rose Parade
Tradition and the Rose Bowl Game here in 2022
Pasadena City Hall courtyard salutes two civic lives, well-lived
Flying off the Angeles Crest with a satellite angel watching from above
Rose Bowl at 100: Building on its history, this ‘neighborhood stadium’ has many more stories to tell

Larry Wilson is on the Southern California News Group editorial board.

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