Timing Is Right for a Precision Rose Parade

Times Staff Writers

To 350 million viewers on TV and several hundred thousand fans along the 5 1/2-mile route, the 114th Rose Parade looked Wednesday as it long has: an extravaganza of floats, big bands and exotic equestrian teams under sunny skies.

But those who manage the parade as it heads down Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard see it more like a military operation. Each New Year's, it is as if southwest Pasadena amasses its forces with the intention of advancing on the east side of the city, the parade's final destination.

Parade organizers sometimes speak of horses as a cavalry, carefully trained to speed up or slow down as needed. Bands are an instrument-toting infantry, more than 5,000 young people marching precisely at 2.5 miles per hour or 220 feet per minute. Floats become flower-bedecked tanks, always one step from breaking down. (The Red Cross even had 100 volunteers across the battlefield, tending to some of the 26 people who had to drop out.)

All told, some 8,000 people, from security to float drivers to volunteers on motorcycles, helped put on Wednesday's parade.

That is more troops than the U.S. used to drive the Taliban from Afghanistan.

"It is a little like moving an army," said Rick Jackson, chairman of the Tournament's operations committee, in an interview well before the parade. "You have a number of people, there are a whole bunch of moving parts, and you have to be precise in your timing."

For the third straight year, the Glendora-based sprinkler company, Rain Bird, won the top prize, the Sweepstakes trophy for most beautiful float. It featured waterfalls and wild animals on an African savanna. American Honda won the award for most spectacular float for an entry that showed a dreaming child's bed turned into a race car.

Parade and police officials said the crowds appeared slightly off from previous years. They cited security concerns, the weak economy and a lack of interest in this year's Rose Bowl game -- which had the smallest attendance in more than 50 years -- as explanations for any decline. There are no reliable attendance numbers.

In both timing and terminology, Wednesday's parade showed just how much is borrowed from the military.

Beginning Tuesday afternoon, floats were towed to the parade start from far-off barns in Duarte and Azusa along surface streets in Arcadia and San Marino in a "convoy." The Duarte convoy of 13 floats had to stop for a broken support wheel in the Korean immigration centennial float and several malfunctions on Subway Sandwiches' float, stretching the journey to more than seven hours.

Once the convoy reached Pasadena, formation followed. Floats must take their assigned place in the parade line by 3 a.m. One float, the 155-foot entry from South Pasadena, came an hour late, making it ineligible for prizes (and perhaps triggering a fine for tardiness).

The parade is scheduled to the second, beginning precisely at one minute and 30 seconds after 8 a.m. and requiring the last of 107 entries to cross the start line at 10:15 a.m. and 41 seconds. If the parade finishes too early, TV broadcasters will be left with empty air to fill. If it finishes too late, TV networks may cut away before the parade is over, embittering bands and floats' sponsors who weren't televised.

At 6 a.m., trumpets were played in front of Tournament headquarters and the American flag raised. Just east of the parade start, bands were unloaded out of buses -- each within seven minutes -- into a series of lines leading to the parade. Volunteer "mixers" merged bands and horses into the parade as floats moved forward.

As the bands lined up, Susan Obermeyer checked out her 65th instrument of the morning. The parade's official repair specialist, the 43-year-old mended saxophone reeds, piccolo pads and trumpet valves in minutes. "These kids have worked so hard and a little thing like that can spoil the whole effort," she said.

As in most modern battles, Wednesday's parade began with airplanes -- eight flyovers by antique planes, a stealth bomber and fighter jets. (Fog held up a few of the flyovers, including a replica of a flier designed by Orville and Wilbur Wright.) The Veterans of Foreign Wars sponsored the first float in history to shoot off fireworks. (Previous efforts had been nixed by Pasadena fire officials.) And the South Pasadena entry, a circus train, is believed to be the longest in Rose Parade history.

At the end of the route, parade participants arrived outside Pasadena High School in east Pasadena, where floats will remain on public display today.

Kristin Hammack, 14, arrived at parade's end aboard one of six vans, or People Movers, used by Jackson's committee to pick up parade dropouts. With 30 minutes left in the parade, Hammack, who had been marching on a leg she broke last summer, walked off the route and boarded People Mover #2.

"I tried to keep going," she said, "but I couldn't."

Thirty-four parade participants sought medical attention at the last of 12 Red Cross stations near the parade route. Fifteen people were evaluated and taken to local hospitals. Those who felt well were given a free lunch: one In-N-Out burger for high school band members, two for their college counterparts.

Back at the starting line, Jackson, 55, worked Wednesday as the parade's field general.

As chairman of the operations committee, Jackson oversees more than 100 volunteers. (The group's motto: "We Keep It Moving.") He is responsible for directing the procession, urging some units to speed up while holding others back. With a large TV audience, small mistakes can lead to disaster.

Like all Tournament members, he will be graded on his performance, which is the basis for any future promotions in the parade hierarchy.

Mike Matthiessen, who handles communications and credentialing for the parade and plays cards with Jackson, decorated his friend's car in toilet paper on New Year's Eve.

His message?

"Don't wipe out."

A certified public accountant, Jackson is well-suited to making calculations, but he got off to a slow start Wednesday. The laptop on which parade time was kept almost immediately crashed, forcing Justine Giles, the parade's timekeeper, to use paper and pen. (At 7 a.m., parade officials and TV broadcasters had synchronized their watches.)

By the time the South Dakota State band went by, the parade was a minute behind schedule. But the parade ultimately finished 53 seconds early, close enough to the exact timing to please broadcasters.

The parade had one unplanned entry. At 8:30 a.m., four people stepped in front of an Air Force band holding signs that read in part, "No War in Iraq." David Gardner, 25, of Grand Terrace, and 56-year-old Robert Dietrich, 68-year-old Catherine Morris and 48-year-old Martha Scarbrough, all of Los Angeles, were charged with obstruction of a peace officer and taken to the Pasadena jail, where they were held on $500 bond.

As for the floats, the Trader Joe's had trouble starting, and the Downey float lost three blades of a fan depicted on its entry, the third crashing down near the heads of event staff.

But there was no need for the Tournament's warning system of flags -- red for a float fire, green for a float leaking oil, red and yellow together for a float that loses its brakes.

Each float made it to the end of the parade without being towed -- only the second time in Tournament history that has happened.

His fellow volunteers gathered around Jackson to congratulate him afterward. "Rick!" yelled one. "A perfect parade!"


Times staff writers Denise Bonilla, Hanah Cho, Jia-Rui Chong, Akilah Johnson, Hilda Munoz, Kishan Putta and Joy Woodson contributed to this report.

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