After parade floats come moving vans

Times Staff Writer

New Year's Day, 1952. Pottsville, Pa.

The snow was waist-high. Inside their home, Betty and Russ Acker and their young children watched the Rose Parade floats glide down Colorado Boulevard. Even on a tiny black-and-white TV, the lushness of the flowers and the warmth of the day came across, radiating into the Acker home. As the parade was winding down, Betty Acker looked at her husband.

"That's it, we're moving," she announced.

A week later, Russ Acker was on a train to Pasadena. He found a Queen Anne house on Summit Avenue and a job as a bookkeeper. Months later, Betty Acker bundled up her three children, all under age 5, for their own cross-country train trek.

When she arrived at her new house, Betty Acker saw green lawns and a magnolia tree in full bloom and thought she had found paradise.

"Nine months later, I was born," said Terri Baker, the youngest daughter of the Ackers, who used to tell her this story each New Year's Day before they headed off to watch the parade in person. "I am a direct result of the tourism of the Tournament of Roses. And I am not unusual."

No one keeps statistics on how many Snow-Belt denizens have watched the Rose Parade or the Rose Bowl game and then bolted for the West Coast. But among Southern Californians, particularly among residents of the San Gabriel Valley, home of the parade and the world-famous stadium, there is a fondly held -- if fuzzily documented -- belief that every year, people in frigid climes sit in front of their television sets on New Year's Day and become transfixed.

They drink in the lushness of the parade and the sight of what appear to be deliriously happy people sitting in short-sleeved shirts, surrounded by velvety mountains and turquoise skies, as if the telecast were an ad for a resort -- alluring, beckoning, even taunting. And then they vow somehow, someday, to move to Southern California.

Najee Ali, executive director of Los Angeles-based Project Islamic Hope, recalled being a youngster on a chilly New Year's Day in Gary, Ind. "I just remember watching the game and seeing the people in shorts and tank tops, and then I looked out the window and saw the snow up to the door and I thought, 'I have to get out of here.' "

Those who move here after being dazzled by the New Year's Day festivities speak of the TV-watching experience in the same confounded, can't-believe-my-eyes way.

"It was a remarkable annual glimpse into a part of the world that you could hardly believe existed," said Michael Collins, executive vice president of L.A. Inc., the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Collins, 62, said it would be an exaggeration to suggest that the New Year's Day extravaganza pulled him from New York to Los Angeles -- in fact, he moved to Florida before California -- but the images did, nevertheless, work on his psyche.

He said he marveled at the sight of the Pasadena spectators, people "inadequately dressed" for most other parts of the country on New Year's Day, "people with no hats, no gloves, no mittens."

Harry Kerker, on the other hand, is one of the avowed "moths that got sucked into the light."

"It was absolutely miserable in upstate New York," said Kerker, 56, who now lives in La Canada Flintridge and owns an advertising agency in Montrose. "It's just such an oxymoron to look at this thing on TV and see all these people watching this parade with flowers on the floats."

Young Harry's conversion began in Colonie, N.Y., north of Albany, as he sat in front of the TV with his three brothers.

"I was probably 10 or 8," Kerker recalled. "We'd sit in front of a black-and-white TV and watch the Rose Parade with my mom. We were always mesmerized by it back East. Jan. 1, the weather really starts to get bad. The cold goes right through you."

For Kerker, there was no one epiphanic moment, just a growing lust for California. "Somewhere ingrained in my memory was the thought, 'Gee, someday, I want to live there.' "

In his teen years, there were other things about the day's events to fascinate. "I got interested in the rose queens."

Mostly, though, Kerker's fascination was with the perfection of the Southern California day, as reflected in the parade and the panoramic shots of the San Gabriel Mountains. "I really remember Keith Jackson at the beginning of every Rose Bowl game would say something to the effect of, 'Look at that view of the San Gabriel Mountains behind the Rose Bowl. That will bring 50,000 new people to California every year.' "

Not exactly, said Jackson, the ABC college football broadcaster who was a Rose Bowl game announcer until he retired this spring.

"I usually phrased it like" -- Jackson slips into his stentorian broadcaster voice -- " 'Those are the broad shoulders of the San Gabriels protecting the world's greatest sports arena.' "

"My reaction was not to praise the setting too much, not to encourage moving," Jackson said with a chuckle.

But over the years, people have confessed to him that the televised vista inspired them to immigrate. Press Jackson to plumb his memory of games and TV shots of the mountains, and he succumbs to the possibility that he might have declared that panorama responsible for people flocking here.

"Oh, I probably have, but I don't recall specifically," said Jackson, who lives in Sherman Oaks.

'Brilliant marketing'

The Tournament of Roses parade started in 1890 and was first telecast in 1947 on W6XYZ, "an experimental TV station at the time that became KTLA," said Caryn Eaves, director of public relations for the Tournament of Roses. The game has been televised since 1948. In 1962, the Rose Bowl match-up was the first college football game broadcast in color, she said.

For roughly half a century, the televised images, intended or not, have been working their magic slowly and consistently, creating and sustaining an image of Southern California as a winter idyll.

"It's regular exposure that happens every single year and with reliability, with certain conspicuous exceptions like when it rains," Collins said.

"It was a brilliant marketing campaign," Kerker said.

After college in Boston, Kerker went into the advertising business there. He moved his wife and children to Los Angeles in 1984 for a job, turning down a more lucrative offer in Chicago.

"It wasn't just the Rose Parade," Kerker said. "The parade lit the fuse. It was Hollywood, then it was advertising."

It took a while to settle in and shake off his guilt about moving his family from a 15-acre spread in picturesque Sherborn, Mass., to a gritty Los Angeles neighborhood. Eventually, the Kerkers settled in La Canada Flintridge.

Over the last two decades, Kerker estimated, he's been to the Rose Parade -- about a dozen times. He has (unsuccessfully) submitted designs for parade floats and his daughters, now in their 20s, tried out for rose queen.

When his daughter Schuyler was a high school senior, her best friend, Sophia Bush (later a star in the TV series "One Tree Hill"), was rose queen. And as Kerker drove them to school one morning, he remembered admiring the crowned princesses of Pasadena on a TV screen. Now one was sitting in his car.

"I kept thinking, 'I'm car-pooling the rose queen.' "

People who were inspired by the parade to move to Southern California go at least once -- to the parade or the game.

The Ackers, now deceased, went to the parade most every year, and now their grown children go.

Baker, the office manager of the Pasadena Convention and Visitors Bureau ("There's really no other place I could work"), and her husband generally end up at the intersection of Sierra Madre and East Orange Grove boulevards -- the end of the route -- to watch the parade.

Some who migrate have a little adjusting to do.

After a childhood in Louisville, Ky., nurtured by TV images of a balmy New Year's Day in Pasadena, Maggie Levy moved in 1972 as a UCLA law student -- and stayed -- but didn't go to her first parade until after law school. She set out before sunrise to grab a good viewing spot.

Levy, a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, discovered it wasn't quite as advertised on TV.

"I couldn't believe how cold it was!" Levy said, laughing.

carla.hall@latimes.com

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