Doo Dah to Throw 'Silver' Parade

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The Doo Dah Parade--that countercultural parody of its more august cousin, the Pasadena Rose Parade--is turning 25 on Sunday. Sort of.

As with almost everything Doo Dah, it depends upon your perspective.

Though it's been 23 years since the tradition started, 25 parades will have been held as of Sunday. We'll explain why later.

"It has become, in spite of itself, an institution," said Joe Messinger, regarded as the parade's unofficial historian. "But it definitely didn't start out like that. It started out with no rules, no marching order, nothing official about it. It was the first occasional parade. They never expected to have a second one."

The inaugural Doo Dah Parade was a Fellini-esque human carnival of sorts, with belly dancers, a violinist in a spider costume and a teenager playing Jimi Hendrix on an accordion. Floats were papier-mache, bands were out of tune and the horses were only about 2 feet tall. The Doo Dah sweepstakes award went to a water tank.

Who knew it would endure?

With groups like the BBQ and Hibachi Marching Grill Team (which cooks up hot dogs on the way down Colorado Boulevard), the Church of the Ornamental Lawn Decorations ("making the world safe for perky pleasant plastic pink flamingos") and the Lounge Lizards (who slink down the street in lizard costumes while singing torch songs), the parade has become an annual dose of comedic relief, a reminder in the holiday season not to take everything so seriously.

This year's parade continues that tradition with aptly named entries: the Portosan Urban Bobsledders, Didgeree Doo Dah King Kong and the Howlelujah Chorus (basset hounds in choir robes).

The event has become a kind of cultural magnet. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio appeared in the parade one year, as a member of a group called the L.A. Mudpeople. Jackson Browne, who featured members of Doo Dah's Synchronized Marching Briefcase Drill Team in the video of his song "Lawyers in Love," marched with the Drill Team in a strait-laced business suit, his hair slicked down and back.

Many of Doo Dah's non-famous participants have become semi-celebrities, garnering media attention and even the occasional acting gig.

The parade itself went Hollywood in the mid-1990s, when it was televised live--a period in the parade's history most current Doo Dah organizers agree was a disaster.

The TV station "got in the way of the parade," said Messinger. "Television wants to control things. But one of the ideas of the Doo Dah Parade is that there's very little control on the surface."

Perhaps most Doo-Dah-esque of all, the parade has spawned its own celebrity imitators, Doo Dah parades across the country, from Fawnskin, Calif., to Columbus, Ohio. In Kalamazoo, Mich., there's the Do-Dah Parade, which organizers bill as a parody of, well, a parade that started as a parody.

Pasadena's Doo Dah Parade was born Jan. 1, 1978. The Rose Parade that year, usually a New Year's Day tradition, was held Jan. 2 because the 1st fell on a Sunday. Doo Dah organizers decided to seize the opportunity to create a different sort of Pasadena parade.

Since then, Doo Dah parades have been held at least once a year on the streets of Pasadena, in a variety of incarnations and locations. If you count either the pub crawl--a parade that wasn't a parade, held on Jan. 1, 1989--or the 1993 parade, when spectators were charged an entry fee and marchers walked in a circle around Pasadena City Hall, it seems that Sunday's parade, indeed, will be Doo Dah's 25th.

"We were a little concerned that, because of Sept. 11, people wouldn't want to do the parade this year," said Thomas Coston, director of the Light Bringer Project, a nonprofit arts group that now runs the parade. "But we've seen a marked increase in new entries--new people doing new shtick this year. Some of it seems pretty funny."

Coston took over management of the parade from Peter Apanel, its founder and self-appointed Doo Dah czar, who, burned out after the disastrous 1993 parade, told Coston that the event was worth only $1. Coston bought it for $1.50.

Last year's parade, according to Coston, was one of Doo Dah's biggest.

"The audiences have come back in droves," he said. "We were actually over 50,000 last year, but we don't like to say that, because then the police charge us more. We had people hanging off rooftops and everything."

The Synchronized Marching Briefcase Drill Team, which had bowed out of the parade after 1992, when spectators spat upon and threw tortillas at the group, made a comeback last year to serve as grand marshals. But they won't be returning for the 25th parade.

"There's only so many things you can do with briefcases," said Jim Kemp, the team's director. "And we sort of got bored. I think people were a little more wacky in the '70s and '80s."

Still, Messinger gives Light Bringer credit for allowing Doo Dah to return to its pre-television roots.

"They have brought back the spontaneity and the joy of the parade without allowing it to get out of control," said Messinger. While the parade has gotten more family-friendly--"the kind of thing you can bring Grandma and the kids to," Messinger added--it has found its stride in a type of controlled chaos that Doo Dah fans seem to love.

Indeed, the key to keeping Doo Dah from starting to gray as it nears 30--and to keeping Doo Dah Doo Dah--is to allow the parade a life of its own.

"We don't try to control it too much," said Coston. "That would be like that other parade. We all need a rite of reversal, a day when everything is turned upside down and you are taken out of your box and learn not to take everything so personally."

He should know. That kid in the first parade, playing Hendrix on the accordion? That was Thomas Coston.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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