Eons ago, when I was a marching band nerd in high school, it was a thing that we did every year to schlep out to Pasadena during the week between Christmas and New Year in order to help decorate one of the many Rose Parade floats.
We were volunteers, of course, and since it was always basically one group per one float, I never really knew where the other groups came from, although I think it was a combination of local marching bands and various school, community, church, and charitable organizations.
We would get up and gather in the school parking lot at dawn, then carpool the 25 miles or so to one of the many float sheds where these monsters were being built.
One thing I can say is that the building sure smelled nice, because their ground floors would be full of buckets and buckets of fresh blooms that had come earlier that morning from the Flower District in Downtown L.A.
But we would arrive in this freezing warehouse every morning to be greeted by a fragrant onslaught from carnations, marigolds, gerberas, daisies, seagrass, tulips, chrysanthemums, and, of course, so many, many roses in so many colors.
We’re start out with some hot cocoas, and then break into teams as the float designers would tell us what needed to be stuck where, and with which kind of glue.
The type of glue was very important, and there were a lot of them. It all depended on what kind of area we were covering, whether we were sticking on whole blossoms, doing more delicate work with just leaves or petals, or sprinkling on seeds. Drying time also mattered. Did we need something that was pretty much insta-stick, or something more forgiving that would allow us to move things around?
Also — these floats tended do be huge. I only worked on them for two the two years I was in high school marching band, but both of ours were about three stories tall, which meant that to work on the upper parts required us to go up onto scaffolding.
Fortunately, I was young and stupid enough that I tended to volunteer myself to go up and work the heights. This level also happened to be flush with the walkway that visitors used to come through the building to watch the construction, and I liked the attention, so I was always willing to get chatty and explain what the float was about and what I was doing.
But, again, these warehouses were bone-ass cold but, obviously, we couldn’t wear any kind of gloves, nor keep our sleeves rolled down unless we were wearing a shirt we wanted to ruin — and so never mind any kind of jackets or hoodies or sweatshirts on the job, either.
See, the damn glue went everywhere, and for those of us with hairy forearms (like me), that never led to a pleasant aftermath. I think I actually wound up shaving my arms awkwardly in the aftermath one year, and then wearing long sleeves whenever possible for weeks after.
Fortunately, being in marching band meant no P.E. necessary, so I at least never had to reveal my arms in the locker room.
We worked long days from December 26th up until the 29th, because the 30th was the first of two judging days.
And yes, I had to look this up because I’d totally forgotten. I still find it mind-boggling that we managed to do it all in just three days, but watching the process of transformation was amazing. We would basically go from this welded steel, wood, and foam structure built on top of a car or truck and then disguise it with flowers, leaves, seeds, stalks, and so on.
On the 30th, the judges would come and see the float “at rest,” which means without any animation, effects, or riders/walk-alongs, although the designer was allowed to explain the concept. On the 31st, the judges would come to see the float as it would appear in the parade, with all animations, effects, and so on incorporated.
Each float each time would be examined for exactly five minutes by the judges. After judging, the floats would be rolled out and onto the parade route, parking in their assigned spot, frequently on a side street, ready to move out in proper order on parade day.
On the afternoon of the 31st, aka New Year’s Eve, we would meet to carpool to Pasadena one last time because having worked on the floats earned us the privilege to actually get to the staging areas to see them one last time before they went public.
And, exactly one year, this meant that I joined the overnight celebration and stayed to see the parade start.
I hung out with my marching band friends through the evening and into the New Year’s celebrations, and then we eventually all camped out together on the sidewalk — willingly, mind you — in the midst of the huge and constantly moving crowd that never really shut up.
The one thing that this night did was give me complete and total empathy for the homeless. There is nothing more uncomfortable than trying to sleep on a cold sidewalk with just a sleeping bag and maybe a pillow while people are stepping around you.
Note the word “trying.” I don’t think that I ever actually really went to sleep. I just remember waking up, realizing that it was after dawn, and feeling hungover as hell even though I hadn’t had a thing to drink.
I tried to watch the parade, but the whole thing quickly struck me as a completely ridiculous spectacle and a total waste of time and money. Every single float was sponsored by and meant to promote a major corporation on a program that was being televised live around the world, and which would be on repeat all day long, and like most parades, it was slow, it was dull, and what the home audiences miss are those moments when the whole thing stalls out because a float breaks down or they need to bring an ambulance to a viewer on the sidewalk or a horse suddenly gets skittish.
For the home audience, they get to see highlights from earlier or canned interviews with the float designers from the past week or celebrity interviews from the night before as endless filler. To the people watching in person, we get to watch (and listen to) the same damn float for fifteen minutes, or watch some poor marching band step in place to either their school’s cadence, a rim and tap marching rhythm used where the band has to be quiet, or, sometimes, one of the two songs they’re supposed to play during the parade.
So… really, a hot mess. I waited around until our float had gone by — mercifully early — checked with the two bandmates who’d ridden with me to see if they wanted to leave or if they had rides, then I booked it out of there.
I do mean booked. Since every cop in town was currently in Pasadena, I learned that it was quite possible to break 100 mph on the freeway.
Yeah, I was young and stupid.
The next year, I came down for New Year’s Eve as well, but had no plans of staying ‘til morning and, besides, it rained like crazy that night, and there was no way I was camping out, so an hour or two after midnight, I headed home. This time, I’d come alone because I expected that I’d be leaving alone, and I was right.
This experience taught me the danger of ever getting an inside view of anything. It will open your eyes and make you hate that thing, and that’s certainly true of the Rose Parade, which is one of the most over-hyped events on the annual calendar.
Reminder: It was basically started by rich white people in rich white Pasadena as a way to whore out… sorry… introduce their daughters as debutantes and hook them up with rich husbands. It was a bullshit fest on day one, and it still is now.
Okay, the official story is that it was started in 1890 by the Valley Hunt Club, which comprised mostly people from the Midwest and East Coast who wanted to rub California’s moderate climate in everyone else’s faces by basically bragging, “Look! It’s January 1st and we have fresh flowers, bitches!”
Still elitist as hell, and the Rose Court and Beauty Queens and all that took advantage of the popularity of the event to… see above. Besides, what, exactly were these douchebags hunting in the Valley, anyway?
If you want a parade in Pasadena done for the right reasons, then check out the annual DooDah Parade, which was created specifically to mock. No word yet on whether they’re holding the event in 2021. Last year’s was virtual. But they don’t feel the need to stick flowers on everything and then have their floats judged by elitist snots who couldn’t be arsed to take more than five minutes to look at the work created by unpaid volunteers over the course of three ten to twelve hour days.
Remember: You’re not exploiting a minor in high school or violating child labor laws if they do it willingly and you don’t pay them. Whee!