It’s Jan. 1, 2021, on Colorado Boulevard, and the ghosts of Rose Parades past are beckoning on a cold, crisp Friday morning.
Close your eyes. Listen close, and there’s the faint echo of Bob Eubanks and Stephanie Edwards talking it up. The thunder of the Los Angeles Unified School District All District School Honor Band. The clip-clop strut of the Budweiser Clydesdales on the cold Pasadena asphalt.
Eyes open. Reality: For the first time since World War II, there’s no Tournament of Roses Parade.
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No anticipation. No floats. No crowds filling miles of sidewalk. No grandstand smiles and wild applause. No patriotic flyovers. No millions tuning in to watch the annual, iconic, multi-colored spectacle.
Surreal but true, as the unyielding pandemic and public health “safer-at-home” orders meant to help contain it, darkened Pasadena’s giant celebration.
Traditionally packed with mammoth, petal-pasted floats, high-stepping brassy bands from all over the planet and a legion of shivering, coffee-sipping fans, at dawn it was quiet, save a few joggers and walkers.
Colorado Boulevard is uncharacteristically quiet on New Year’s morning, 2021. Photo: Ryan Carter, SCNG
“It’s insane. With all the build-up for it and everything … it’s sad…” said jogger Stan Moy. “It’s crazy,” said Bill Tully, donning his UCLA pullover.
Colorado Boulevard is nearly deserted on what would’ve been the 2021 #RoseParade in #Pasadena @PasStarNews @ladailynews pic.twitter.com/4kOfkSyQs2
— Trevor Stamp (@MorTrev) January 1, 2021
But as the sun rose, there was indeed life on and around the parade’s 5.5-mile route. And it came with hope that a pandemic that has claimed more than 10,000 lives in Los Angeles County alone will have been wiped away a year from now.
Some came out just to make sure that the roses didn’t go unremembered. Pasadena resident Dereck Andrade, poised in his folding chair, planted himself at the corner of Orange Grove and Colorado Boulevard — ordinarily, a fabulous vantage point for the spectacle.
# Pasadena resident Dereck Andrade sits at the corner of Orange Grove and Colorado Blvd on January 1st. #RoseParade #roseparadereimagined pic.twitter.com/UccWm28Pe2
— dean musgrove (@deanmusgrove) January 1, 2021
And there were, nonetheless, parades of sorts. Forming their own mini-march, representatives from float builders AES, Fiesta and Phoenix loaded wagons with flowers and strode down the parade route.
#RoseParade float builders AES, Fiesta and Phoenix didn’t let #covid stop it all. They wagoned in some roses to mark the moment at Orange and Colorado. #roseparadereimagined pic.twitter.com/XEc3Ek1vKr
— Ryan Carter (@ryinie) January 1, 2021
Also, early today, a group called the The People’s Rose Parade scheduled a caravan of decorated cars honoring COVID victims and urging broader access to health care. A pro-President Donald Trump caravan was planned for the afternoon.
Forming their own mini-march, representatives from float builders AES, Fiesta and Phoenix loaded wagons with flowers and strode down the Rose Parade route in Pasadena on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. Photo: Ryan Carter, SCNG
In front of the famed Tournament House, Donate Life — which created a float for the parade every year since 2003 — kept its tradition alive. Echoing its familiar float, the group displayed a 25-foot wide, 16-foot tall and 8-foot deep floral sculpture that included the traditional floragraphs featuring the faces of organ donors and healthcare professionals from across the nation.
The Tournament of Roses Association officially cancelled the parade in July. And the accompanying Rose Bowl Game was moved to Texas (for just this year).
In response, organizers pulled together an elaborate two-hour TV special for parade fans to wake up to.
While the 2021 cancellation had been known for months, it didn’t lessen the pang for it’s most ardent supporters.
Each year, for hundreds of parade ushers (“white-suiters”), float decorators, and die-hard parade watchers, it’s a pilgrimage like no other.
“If the rest of the year we could be as we are on Jan 1, greeting people you don’t even know… if you think about it, it’s probably the one day of the year when we know how to greet people — where everybody is in the same type of mood,” said Peggy O’Leary, who deems herself Rose Parade “royalty.”
She’s the “self-appointed queen of the Rose Parade Pooper Scoopers.”
“They are there to celebrate a new year,” she declared.
Each year, O’Leary and her team of a dozen Rose Parade volunteers — clad in white jumpsuits with flower-adorned brooms and shovels in hand — happily clean up what the horses and mules, or the occasional elephant or camel, leave behind on the route.
Peggy O’Leary, pictured here donning a yellow flower crown, with her team of Rose Parade pooper-scooper volunteers. (Courtesy, Tournament of Roses Association)
This would have been O’Leary’s 31st year on on the poop-scoop patrol. O’Leary has long since given up on trying to explain why she does the job, but she knows it takes an abiding appreciation for the energy of the parade itself, she said. It’s the hugs on New Year’s morning. And there’s the vibe of the crowd. There’s the catching up with friends on the morning of. It’s her annual homemade crown of flowers she wears each Jan. 1. It all keeps keeps her coming back.
“We always joke around, we can get more applause than the Rose Queen,” she said.
All that said, as the pandemic has only surged, claiming lives and shattering lives along with it, the cancellation was a necessity, she said.
“I was very relieved,” she said. “I was concerned about the spread of COVID.”
But even COVID-19 wasn’t going to stop Carla Hall, 72, of Norco, from keeping some form of tradition going.
She’s been coming to the parade every year for more than 60 years. The one she missed was in the late 1970s.
She grew up in Pasadena and the parade mesmerized her.
“It makes me happy,” she said.
On Thursday, she and son, Rick, came to her annual spot, just to soak it in, right there on a concrete island on Sierra Madre Boulevard, where the parade route nears its end.
Carla Hall and son Rick Hall on N. Sierra Madre Boulevard in Pasadena, Thursday, December 31, 2020. The mother and son have attended the Rose Parade for years and came to their spot so their streak would not end due to the cancelation of the parade because of the pandemic. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
It’s the area where she comes every year, spends the night and connects with friends and family.
“The parade can still be canceled, but I’m still going up to my spot,” she said, reminiscing on 2001, when her twin daughters rode on the Wrigley Spearmint float.
And that’s exactly what she did on Thursday, to keep the tradition alive, and to let the world know this parade may be down a year, but it’s not out.
“Everybody thinks I’m nuts,” she said. “But that’s OK. You’ve got to think positive. If you don’t think positive nobody around you is going to think positive. It’s just history. I’ve missed one since I was like 10 years old. I’m just trying to keep people positively motivated. There’s still good, even with all the crap that’s gone on this past year.”
Before she left for home Thursday, she wrote in chalk on the concrete island: “I was here: Un-Parade 2021.”
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And so, life went on — and it will go on for Ruth Martinez, among the 953 volunteers who annually don those trademark bright-white suits each year and usher guests and audiences and organize events with the game and parade. They are stalwart, smiling ambassadors for the parade and the city.
This year, no parade is just plain weird, she said, adding that usually at this time she’d have the last two weeks off, and she’s been preparing — like she did last year as she and fellow-volunteers escorted the Parade’s Royal Court. She planned an early rise.
“We’re all looking at each other’s Instagram and Facebook posts… and posting memories from last year and hoping for a happier and healthier 2021, so we can all get back to doing this thing we love. It’s a really odd feeling.”
She and her colleagues are already thinking about 2022.
So were all the die-hards.
So was O’Leary, the queen of the pooper-scoopers. They’ve got hope.
“I guarantee that horses, elephants and mules will be pooping for the parade in 2022,” she said.
She plans to be there — smiling, waving, shovel in hand — striding just behind.
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