Its fabled bat-like profile materializing silently out of the western sky, a B-2 Stealth bomber swooped 800 feet over bedazzled parade onlookers along Colorado Boulevard before thundering off toward the horizon.
What a way to wake up a Rose Parade, if not a New Year's morning hangover. The fly-by was the U.S. Air Force salute to its 50th anniversary, and it was a showstopper, not to be equaled by any of the 56 floats that followed, not even by Arco's eerily lifelike, giant-size "Bride of Frankenstein" crooning "You Light Up My Life."
"I first looked up, and thought it was a kite of some kind," said Carl Johnson, 62, of Sun City, Ariz., an Air Force veteran and former flight crew trainer who had never seen the plane in flight before. "It was a beautiful sight."
"It was like a massive pterodactyl floating by. I've never seen anything like it before in my life," said Altadena resident Bob Bell.
A mile away from the parade route, pajama-clad children ran out on sidewalks to see the big black plane. Even the sun peeked out briefly for the $2-billion winged marvel of U.S. air superiority and military cost overruns.
It had started out grayer than usual on the morning that never rains. But any anxiousness about the weather evaporated with the cloud cover by the time the 108th Rose Parade was in full swing and the co-grand marshals, U.S. Olympic stars Carl Lewis and Shannon Miller, motored along the boulevard.
One police spokeswoman said this year's crowd was a bit lighter than years past and blamed it on the threat of rain. She estimated that "hundreds of thousands of people" lined the 5 1/2-mile route this year. Parade officials said they abandoned crowd counts after previous attendance figures were criticized as too high.
Many in the crowd were children who saw a procession of old friends--Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket, Morris the Cat, the Sandman and a mechanical menagerie of mermaids, dolphins, teddy bears, uniformed rabbits and love-struck, life-size giraffes, whose twining and untwining necks brought "oohs" and "aahs" from the crowd.
Interspersed with the floats were 23 marching bands and 30 teams of mounted riders.
The official theme of this year's parade--"Life's Shining Moments"--was reflected in a variety of floats. They included Edison International's tribute to Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb; the Union Labor Insurance Co.'s replica of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center's commemoration of Jackie Robinson's debut in the big leagues 50 years ago. The float depicted major league baseball's first black player sliding into home plate.
For many other, more whimsical parade entries, nostalgia or wishful thinking seemed to be the guiding spirit.
There was Florists' Transworld Deliveries' re-creation of a desert oasis complete with live belly dancers; Countrywide Home Loans' version of elephant-drawn circus wagons; the city of Torrance's larger than life mustachioed cowpoke taking a trail's end "Saturday Night Bath," and the city of Long Beach's graceful replica of an 1848 sailing ship.
Several foreign countries were represented. Thailand weighed in with a 110-foot-long, triple-hinged royal barge. Costa Rica paid homage to its rain forests with a float showing off exotic plants, birds and reptiles. Carnation petals, uva grass, roses, orchids, daisies and lilies bedecked a float celebrating the centennial anniversary of Philippine independence.
There were a few glitches along the way. Lady Frankenstein lost an arm. South Pasadena's beehive float broke down and required a tow.
Eight of the parade's 270 horses and donkeys had to be withdrawn after falling or becoming too spooked to go on.
Parade official Phil Angerhofer blamed the falls on slick road surfaces caused by a mixture of rainfall earlier in the week and engine oil. The horses were helped up by members of the Pasadena Humane Society. The crowd applauded as the animals were led into trailers and taken away.
About 12:30 p.m., drizzle began to fall. But, by then, the parade had run its course and the B-2 was well on its way back home to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.
Its dramatic appearance at the parade was a public relations coup for the California-made airplane that has been a political football for more than a decade.
Despite its firepower--it can carry 25,000 pounds of bombs and missiles--and its vaunted ability to elude enemy radar and defense systems, the B-2 fell out of favor in some congressional and military circles. After the collapse of the Soviet empire, critics argued that the B-2's extraordinary cost--about four times the initial $530-million estimate--was no longer justified.
But don't tell that to 5-year-old Camden Butler, who was sure of his career plans after his first glimpse of the mighty Stealth.
"I want to be a pilot when I grow up," said Camden, who is from Arkansas and was attending the parade with his family.
For many in the crowd, the parade's spectacular opening scene was a welcome relief from the rowdiness of the previous evening.
"It got kinda scary last night,' " said Tom Mishler, whose four sons witnessed revelers throwing beer cans and liquor bottles into the air at the stroke of midnight.
Mishler had camped out with his boys on the curb near Garfield Avenue since 9 the previous morning.
Other early curb squatters also spoke of being frightened by unruly youths who sprayed shaving cream and pelted cars driving along Colorado Boulevard. At least one car, a Mercedes Benz, had its windows smashed, according to witnesses.
Kelsey Bunker Borrego, who waited since 1 p.m. Tuesday to see her father on the Azusa float, got doused by water from cruising cars Tuesday night. "But I got them back with my water bottle," she said, laughing.
Tonie Diego, who was there with her daughter and grandchildren, recalled more peaceful pre-Rose Parade gatherings. "Now people are throwing marshmallows with rocks inside," she said. "Everyone we pass, they want to throw things at us. But it won't stop me from coming."
In all, 89 people were arrested near the route during the 12 hours preceding the parade--only a few more than last year, a Pasadena police spokeswoman said. The majority of the arrests were for minor offenses, mostly public drunkenness, police said.
However, Pasadena Police Cmdr. Mary Schander said, police arrested and charged a man with assault with a deadly weapon after he tried to hit his girlfriend with his car. A woman was arrested for throwing and hitting another woman with an oil can. Another man was arrested after he hit someone with a glass bottle.
A police officer fired his gun during a chase on foot early Wednesday along the crowded parade route, but no one was wounded, authorities said. The suspect, who police said had been involved in a fight and allegedly attempted to take an officer's gun, was apprehended in a vacant lot.
But for the parade's hard-core aficionados who come a day early to secure curbside vantage points, Wednesday's spectacle was well worth the discomfort.
San Diego resident Sherri Nolasco suffered through a rowdy and sleepless New Year's Eve on the curb. "I have a splitting headache and I've inhaled too many exhaust fumes," she said, nursing an extra large cup of cola at dawn.
But after seeing the floats, a groggy but smiling Nolasco decided it was all worth it. "I had only seen them on television before," she said. "Here, you can even smell them."
Not everyone suffered through a long night to get a choice seat.
Longtime Pasadena resident Ken Nero figured out a way to snag a choice seat without staying up all night. He and Dorothy Cooper arrived at sunrise clutching Thermos bottles, offering fresh coffee and hot chocolate to weary and cold sidewalk campers in exchange for some hard-won asphalt.
"We had to ask a few people," Nero said, explaining that some people just growled defiantly about staying up all night and refused to make a deal. The third try was a charm when Arizona State University students David Isaac and Teresa Bright willingly gave up part of their tarp and happily clutched steaming cups of coffee.
Times staff writers Jeff Leeds, Peter Noah, Solomon Moore and Angie Chuang contributed to this story.