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Mighty, Like A Rose

July 2024
4min read

A National Institution That Began With Buggies and Buckboards

On New Year’s Day each year, millions of Americans crawl out of bed bleary-eyed, fix a late breakfast, then stumble into the living room, turn on the television set, and sit transfixed while various celebrities attempt to describe the obvious. It is a national ritual.

What they are watching is called the Pasadena Tournament of Roses, and the fact that it has indeed become a national ritual is one of the most remarkable triumphs of promotion since Madison Avenue discovered Mother’s Day.

Los Angeles, social historian Carey McWilliams once observed, was “conjured into existence.” Much the same could be said for most of Southern California, for the growth of the region was largely the result of advertising, little of which bore any resemblance to the logic that had settled and developed most of the urban areas of America. Southern California had few rivers worth mentioning, none of them navigable commercially; it had no port to speak of until well after the turn of the century; it had no major resources until its reserves of oil could be commercially exploited in the years just before World War I; it had no homegrown industry until the development of the movies in the teens and twenties; in short, there was little in the essentially rural Southern California of the latter half of the nineteenth century to suggest that it would become what it is today-the second-largest metropolitan region in the United States.

Except climate. That, and the energy and imagination of a handful of businessmen and speculators who were determined to make Southern California grow … and grow. And make it grow, they did, with every promotional gimmick then known to man. Between 1875 and 1900, the population of Los Angeles alone leaped from less than eleven thousand to more than a hundred thousand, a fact which inspired a surly remark from a suitably jealous San Francisco newspaper editor: “Our brethren of the city and would-be state of the Angels know how to advertise. The average Eastern mind conceives of California as a small tract of country situated in and about Los Angeles.... The result shows the pecuniary value of cheek.”


Be that as it may, it was out of this promotional seedbed that the Pasadena Tournament of Roses blossomed. One day in 1889, Dr. Charles Frederick Holder rose up before the membership of Pasadena’s prestigious Valley Hunt Club—composed mainly of transplanted Midwesterners who had invested wisely in orange groves, ostrich farms, and other such Southern California enterprises—and intoned: “Gentlemen, I came here from the East to this beautiful area for my health. I found it here. I also discovered happiness and beauty. In New York, people are buried in the snow. Here, our flowers are blooming and our oranges are about to bear. Let’s have a festival and tell the world about our paradise.”

Done and done. On the first of January, 1890, the Valley Hunt Club sponsored the first Tournament of Roses, which featured a parade of rose-bedizened carriages, buckboards, buggies, and tallyhos, as well as a community picnic and games—foot races, a tug of war, jousting, and even a minor scuffle among local football players. The city’s newspaper declared that it was “The greatest festival of similar nature ever held in the country.” Three thousand people attended.

By 1895, the festival had grown so large (even though the parade that year had to march through rain and mud for one of the few times in its history) that the Tournament of Roses Association was formed to take responsibility for it; by 1898 it was so large that it attracted reporters from across the country to document the blooming of roses in the middle of winter-surely a phenomenon calculated to boggle the “average Eastern mind.” In 1901, automobiles were first allowed to participate, though relegated to the rear of the parade so as not to frighten the horses. In 1902, the first intersectional college football game was staged in Tournament Park (University of Michigan, 49; Stanford University, zip), and in 1905 the first Rose Queen (Hallie Woods) was selected. In 1922, the Rose Bowl was constructed to house the annual game. In 1927, the first national radio coverage of the tournament began and in 1951 the first national television coverage.


Today, the parade is watched from curbside by nearly one and a half million people, thousands of whom spend the night on the sidewalk in order to get a good spot for the morning, and another 125 million all over the world watch via television. The Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association, financed by membership dues and a percentage of the net profit from the Rose Bowl Game, has grown to 1,400 members sitting on 29 committees planning the event months in advance. Twenty-two high school, college, and municipal bands, selected from 350 applicants by the Tournament Music Committee, march-step along with horns in full cry; the cost to their sponsors of transporting, feeding, and housing them runs anywhere from $50,000 to $80,000 each. Two hundred equestrians sit proudly aboard their splendid mounts; the cost to the riders, which not only includes food and such but also uniforms and hand-tooled silver and leather trappings, amounts to some $3,500,000.

And then there are the floats, those mobile confections depicting everything from the joys of motherhood to the growth of Altadena. Each year, there are approximately sixty of them, sponsored by cities, states, corporations, public and private organizations, and even countries. Although there are about forty applicants on the waiting list each year, the Association’s Float Entries Committee customarily reinvites those which have been in the parade in previous years. Early in the year, the president of the Association announces that year’s parade theme (in 1974, ’75, and ’76 it was America’s Bicentennial; in 1978 it will be “On the Road to Happiness"). Since almost all the floats are constructed by seven commercial contractors in and about Pasadena, their professional float designers then go to work on ideas. When these are approved by the association, the designers hit the chosen sponsors, displaying elaborate presentations while city councils and corporation boards gravely ponder their choices.


It is just as well that they ponder gravely; the cost of a single float can range from $30,000 to $50,000, and each year the aggregate cost of the floats, which use about twenty million commercially grown blossoms, among other things, amounts to some $1,500,000. In the case of communities, civic pride usually overcomes fiscal reluctance; in the case of commercial companies, the three minutes of air time each receives as its float coasts into camera range (the equivalent of about $100,000 in advertising costs) makes the investment a superior buy. For their own part, of course, many other companies spend months scrambling over one another for the privilege of buying air time for commercials (at just over $30,000 a minute).

The Pasadena Tournament of Roses, conceived as a little exercise in community pride, has been transformed into a major media “happening” of truly McLuhanesque dimensions, and the soft rustling one hears in the background of the annual television broadcast is not the sound of falling rose petals; it is the sound of money.


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