In the northern reaches of South Pasadena, only blocks away from a city well known for its world famous New Year’s Day parade and football game, sits the War Memorial Building – a cultural heritage landmark that has long respected the life and sacrifices of veterans who fought for the freedoms appreciated by so many.
Throughout the day and night, motorists by the thousands zip along Fair Oaks Avenue past the old structure, headed either to or from Pasadena, recognized for its much anticipated annual Rose Parade and Rose Bowl Game, not realizing the site honoring veterans of the armed forces has become a hidden gem for other uses over the years.
Designed by famed architect Norman Foote, the War Memorial Building first opened its doors in the early 1920s following the conclusion of WWI. Like all City of South Pasadena structures, it has remained dormant for much of the past year due to the pandemic.
There are signs the property is slowly coming back to life with news that the Tournament of Roses Parade plans to make a return in 2022 following a one-year hiatus due to COVID-19 concerns.
Not only is the site at 435 Fair Oaks Avenue a place to meet for South Pasadena American Legion Post 140, a series of yearly events, including, weddings, receptions, and holiday luncheons for the town’s senior center, it’s also home – many calling it a second home – for a group of float builders.
On the backside in the parking area of the War Memorial Building sits a 35-foot chassis or the underbelly of the city’s float, void of flowers and decorations, receiving little attention close to a year and a half since it traveled down Colorado Boulevard in January 1, 2020, the last time the Rose Parade was held.
Coming out of its long hibernation is the South Pasadena Tournament of Roses Committee, awakened by an announcement the parade down famed Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena is back on the books. The seasoned team responsible for putting the city entry at the start of the parade each year has scheduled a pair of Zoom meetings in April and May, gathering for the first time since March 2020 when the virus force a U.S. lockdown, eventually ending all hope of the usual spectacle happening last January.
Now as life begins to return to some kind of normalcy with a wave of vaccinations easing anxiety for millions, those who once made the South Pasadena float site a regular destination this time of year for a weekend work days, are now back, not only tinkering to make sure the engine is sound and welding metal into place, but simply enjoying the friendship and camaraderie of those around them. For some, the absence of a social outlet was immense, and the fellowship today couldn’t be stronger.
South Pasadena Tournament of Roses (SPTOR) President Brant Dunlap says, “It’s surreal to see work crews at the float site again. We have been hoping and waiting very patiently for 15 months. It’s great to be asked if we are having a parade this year. It’s even better when we say ‘yes.’”
With activity now returning around the float, he likes the idea that the community will hopefully get back together and embrace the city’s longstanding tradition. “Having no parade in 2021was at first devastating, but putting it in perspective the right call was made,” explained Dunlap. “It allowed us time to think outside the box. With two major fundraisers cancelled in 2020 we held an extremely successful 4-day auction in lieu of our traditional Crunch Time Party at the War Memorial building.”
Now he can’t wait to put South Pasadena’s float entry on display for its 5 ½-mile journey down the parade route on January 1, saying: “It may not be what we are used too with all the spectators and huge crowds along the streets but however it ends up we welcome it.”
Janet Benjamin, the float’s decoration chair, says it’s “an exciting time for the community,” now that work is underway on the town’s next Rose Parade entry. “We are seeing that things are getting back to normal – with a few modifications. It has been such an emotional and stressful time for so many, I am hoping that getting back to float building with give the community something good to participate in and to look forward to.”
For Benjamin the float provides South Pasadena a way to come together and create something bringing immense pride. “It was very disappointing to stop such a long-standing tradition but understandable,” Benjamin continued. “The health and safety of everyone is the most important thing. I am so glad to see that the parade will be back in 2022. It will be great to see and work with my float family again and to welcome all the volunteers back to the site.”
A construction crew has begun work on the city’s float – “Sky’s the Limit” – that it had planned to put in this year’s parade. It incorporates a touch of South Pasadena’s early history when the Cawston Ostrich Farm was a premier tourist attraction in town after it opened in 1886. In close proximity to Pasadena and Los Angeles, many discovered the factory, which featured ostrich drawn carriage rides as its main attraction. A popular store at the site sold ostrich feathered hats, fans, capes, boas and more. In addition, the feather products were shipped and sold worldwide before the farm closed its doors in 1935.
The city’s newest float carries a collection of ostriches, including one wearing a leather helmet, goggles and scarf blasting off from a snow-covered mountain top, joined by another with its head in the sand, a third snapping photos and fourth holding an encouraging sign reading, “You Can Do It!” A pair of raccoons and a rabbit are helping guide the structure down the parade route.
James Jontz, the float’s design chair, noted: “Our town was basically founded by an ostrich farm and so a lot of what we do is ostrich related when it comes to things around town. So, we thought this would be a cool entry.”
Pulled out of archives, James explained that the float’s concept was first submitted about six years by Brian Ewing, later modified by the late Paul Abbey, a dedicated SPTOR volunteer for many years, to make it easier to build before falling into the hands of resident artist Richard Carlow, who put the finishing touches on the rendering to perfect the color scheme.
“We are just now gearing back up,” said Jontz. “Our city pretty much shut down up until just a few months ago on account of COVID. We’ve only had two committee meetings. Until only recently we’ve been doing a little bits and pieces here and there on the float, and so we’re really behind the eight ball.”
While weekends are currently put to good use by those beginning to work on the float, it won’t be long before weekdays also come into play in anticipation to August 1 when a giant circus tent is erected behind the War Memorial Building, signaling that the countdown is really on to finish the float by the January 1 deadline. Down the stretch, construction workers team with decorators, both groups supported by hundreds of community members and those with bucket list desires to complete the daunting task. In the final days leading up to the parade it’s call “crunch time” for good reason.
Coinciding with building the float are a series of fundraisers to help pay for off its $80,000 to $100,000 price tag, mostly for price of steel and flowers. A golf tournament, classic car show, a raffle for Rose Parade and Rose Bowl Game, and a year-end dinner/auction at the War Memorial Building are among the events held each year by local float builders to cut costs.
South Pasadena has one of six entries in the parade constructed entirely by volunteers, joining Cal Poly universities, along with the cities of Burbank, Downey, La Canada and Sierra Madre featured in the New Year’s Day spectacle.
Organizers hope the float falls in line with a pattern of awards garnered from the Pasadena Tournament of Roses. Prior to the pandemic, South Pasadena had received the prestigious Mayor Award in back to back years for its “Three Little Birds” float in 2019 and “Victory at Last” in 2020.
Chris Metcalf, a longtime SPTOR committee member who handles social media for the organization and works with Benjamin in picking out all the products that cover the float, noted with all that occurred over the past year in South Pasadena city government – from budget concerns, to the exit of a city manager, council member, police chief, along with the impact the coronavirus made on the local economy – “It’s nice to see some positive news” with the announcement the Rose Parade is back on schedule.
Many agree it was a disappointment following the cancellation of the 2021 parade, but Metcalf liked the idea that the committee could take a year’s break and, as he calls it, a “reset,” adding: “We as a organization really needed this – a chance to step back and take a breathe. The past couple of years have taken a toll on me and many other members. For me, I was completely burned out.”
With this year’s entry, “there is a renewed feeling,” continued Metcalf, explaining that it’s an official tribute to Abby, who many in the community will long remember. “He pushed so hard for many years to build this entry. When we heard the new parade theme “Dream. Believe. Achieve.” – it seemed to be a great fit. Paul was so excited when we put it out there. Little did we know, it would become a tribute to his years of service in our community.”
Metcalf, keenly involved in the float’s final look, says the mixture of flowers brings a lot of opportunities for another potential award winner. “I have a renewed sense of purpose in the floral choices,” he said. “We are so excited! We are going to have a huge diverse collection of flowers this year – new colors, new varieties of flowers we have never used before. We have also partnered with a new grower in San Diego that will help supply the extremely unusual flowers we have planned.”
For Bill Cullinane, another longstanding committee member, seeing volunteers working on the float again “really conveys the sense of optimism and hope for the future. The process of building a float each year has become part of the fabric of our city while supplying a certain sense of rhythm and continuity to our community life. The cancellation of the 2021 parade was beyond disappointing but the silver lining was a renewal of dedication to building a float and being part of a great event on January 1st.”
One of the newest members of the committee is Wende Lee, the direct marketing chair and a proud South Pasadenan who feels “optimistic and giddy!” to be apart of it. “I’m excited to experience the process” of watching the float go from a concept on paper to a full-fledged creation over the span of a year.
Lee had mixed emotions when she heard this year’s event was called off. “It would have been my first year being a team member,” she said. “I was apprehensive but would have still moved forward. During COVID, though, I’ve learned that listening to people, sincerely caring about people, and helping our community and the areas surrounding our community are a priority for me now. I’m looking forward to this year’s process from start to finish and meeting new people along the way!”
Those wanting to be a part of the South Pasadena Tournament of Roses Committee are encouraged to visit the organization’s website at SPTOR.org or contact President Brant Dunlap at email@example.com.