Oh, the memories.
It started 38 years ago by a small group of residents, among them Ted and Joan Shaw, Bob and Claudia Fosselman, Joe and Lydia Banales, Mark and Rosemary Whitney, Gail and Bob Fabbro, Michael Sandford, and David Margrave, who came up had an idea to celebrate the nation’s birth with “a little parade.”
Working around the clock in just over a month’s time, the spirited bunch pulled it off as South Pasadena’s first Independence Day event was born, the “Fourth of July Extravaganza” taking place over a few blocks down Mission Street.
Over time, Bob Fosselman believed the parade needed a defining characteristic. With a New Year’s parade to the north recognized by its abundance of roses, he challenged committee members to come up with a symbol for South Pasadena’s downhome summer event, just a couple of years old. Balloons would add a festive air to the celebration, they thought, and since it was the Fourth of July, the obvious choice of colors would be red, white and blue.
And with it, came a name change from the “Fourth of July Extravaganza” to “the Festival of Balloons.”
With additional support of local community groups, the city, and the community at large, the event grew into a full day of activities for all ages, drawing thousands near and far.
It became simply a day of fun in town, starting with the Kiwanis pancake breakfast at the South Pasadena Fire Department and ending with a spectacular fireworks show inside the local high school stadium. In between there was a parade that increased in attendance as the years went on, followed by games and activities in Garfield Park. Afternoon picnics, some filling city streets, were held as the day was filled in nothing but fun and laughter, seemingly bringing everyone together, politics aside, for at least for the moment.
That small band of residents who launched it way back when grew into a much larger city committee, which called on community organizations, city staff, police and fire department officials, public works employees, and the local school district to make it happen year after year.
That is until this year, when it was called off as a result of the coronavirus, a disease silently killing thousands around the world, the number of confirmed cases reaching into the millions. The United States is nearing the 800,000 mark in confirmed cases, with more than 42,000 deaths reported. That’s a large portion of the 2.5 million infections and of the more than 170,000 who have lost their life on account of COVID-19 around the globe.
Reaching the decision to cancel this year’s Festival of Balloon were Joe Payne, the event chair, and Sheila Pautsch, South Pasadena’s community services director, who was working closely with the organizing committee, which holds monthly planning meetings at City Hall.
Disappointed, Payne, who along with his wife Joan, has been one of the longtime organizers, announced last Saturday that the Fourth of July event would go on hiatus for a year.
“Since the notice recently went out of the cancellation of the Festival of Balloons parade and fireworks show, I have received dozens of phone calls and emails from saddened but equally understanding community members expressing sorrow over the temporary loss of our traditional Independence Day celebration,” said Payne, who was among those energized by an influx of resident who attended the last organization meeting looking to jumpstart an event that was limping along with an aging volunteer base. “At our last meeting in March, we had 20 plus community members attending for the first time asking how they could help the committee plan and organize future events. It was heartwarming to see the enthusiasm. Likewise, many of the calls and emails expressed their hope for a bigger and better return in 2021. We owe it to South Pasadena to do just that!”
Growing up with the Festival of Balloons “was amazing,” said Janet Benjamin, the daughter of Ted and Joan Shaw, recalling the formative years of the parade and everything around it. She recently experienced the town remembering all the good her father did during his celebration of life at Holy Family Church, one of which was his vision for a day capturing the essence of the Fourth of July. “It is the type of event that makes South Pasadena the wonderful city it is. I remember working with dad and mom when it first started, being a committee member for many years, watching my kids help decorate the parade route and then be in the parade with different organizations over the years. We would then go to the high school for the activities and fireworks show. Sharing a meal with family and friends. I can’t help but smile and be proud to be part of this community. It will be sad that we will not be able to come together this year as a community to celebrate but I believe that we have to do what is best for everyone – staying safe and healthy. I know that when this is all over, we will come together next 4th of July to celebrate our community and our country in a big way.”
It marks the first time in Paul Riddle’s 28 years with the South Pasadena Fire Department that Fourth of July won’t be held “does bring out some emotions,” said the current SPFD chief. “Obviously, it is with very good reason that we are cancelling but it still a very difficult decision. For me, I am choosing to reflect on all of the previous celebrations and how this community has always come together. I will also focus on the good times to come when we as a community transition out of this crisis and begin to gather again for future celebrations.”
Michael Cacciotti, who has served on the City Council since 2001 and is a three-time mayor, feels the disappointment for many reasons. “First, I am concerned about the various community groups such as our scouting programs and community groups who rely on this event as part of their fundraising activities,” he said. “I feel bad for the young children who will miss their 4th of July parade, the pancake breakfast, balloons, floats, fun at the park, games, food – what’s a 4th of July without a hot dog, root beer float – patriotic music, fireworks and fun. I am also grateful to the Committee led by Joe Payne and about a dozen other dedicated volunteers who always sacrifice untold hours to make the date a huge success. This year’s sacrifice will hopefully inspire more volunteers to join the committee to make the 2021 Festival of Balloons that much more meaningful and memorable.”
With major construction of the athletic facilities at South Pasadena High, fellow Councilmember Diana Mahmud wasn’t convinced proceeding with the fireworks was appropriate this year, “which would have complicated access to the field [where it takes place],” she said. “And, assuming that social distancing was still in effect, I think it would be impossible to observe that requirement on the football field. So, cancellation of the fireworks was not a surprise.”
Mahmud has been a regular attendee at Festival of Balloons committee meetings, serving as the liaison to the City Council. She too expressed her disappointment Fourth of July won’t be the same this year. “While I was hoping the parade might continue, I was reluctantly persuaded that it was best to cancel it for the following reasons,” she added. “If social distancing is still in effect, and we presently have no reason to believe it won’t be, maintaining and enforcing that requirement would have been difficult. Many of our Festival of Balloons committee volunteers are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, and we didn’t know if they would feel comfortable preparing for the parade. Also, I understand many if not most local governments anticipate cancelling their Independence Day activities. Finally, the city will save thousands of dollars with the cancellation of 4th of July activities – and such a savings is especially welcome at this challenging time. I know our community treasures our parade, and I hate to disappoint our residents. Unfortunately this is an extraordinary year in many respects, and cancellation of the Festival of Balloons will be one more manifestation.”
Lin Vlacich, among the city’s to realtors, for many years sat alongside Ted Shaw announcing the parade as entries passed by in front of South Pasadena City Hall. “My first thought is that I am sad for our community as it has always built such friendships and camaraderie among all volunteers and those that appreciated the celebration,” she said. “But truthfully this is just a blip on the screen of life, we will come back strong next year. Maybe we could find a way to do a virtual celebration.”
Her husband, Alan, wearing that familiar large hat shading his face, can be found at the start of every Fourth of July busy waving all the entries off Diamond Avenue onto Mission Street for the start of the parade. Although he’s not surprised by the cancellation of this year’s Festival of Balloons, “I’m disappointed,” he said. “It is always such a great event for the whole city young and old, starting with the Kiwanis Pancake Breakfast, our major fundraiser for the year, and ending with a great fireworks show.”
Vlacich’s day starts early as he is one of many flippin’ pancakes with other Kiwanis members at the local firehouse.
For 20 years, Alan Ehrlich, a member of the city’s Public Safety Commission, has been watching or walking in the parade with his children, participated in three-legged races or water balloon tosses in Garfield Park and watched the fireworks with friends at Garfield Park. “As disruptive as coronavirus has been, its hard to imagine celebrating July 4th without July 4th celebrations like the Festival of Balloons,” he said. “I’ll miss all the classic cars, Minute Band, Blues Brother Review, and Stratford Wives.”
Like many, South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce President Laurie Wheeler says the Festival of Balloons “is one of those South Pasadena traditions that makes this town so special. I remember when my now 23-year-old twins were about 3, we walked with some dear friends from their home to the parade route on Mission Street. They, too, had a 3-year old who is ‘family’ to us to this day. The photo of the three of them, walking hand-in-hand, all wearing little sun hats is one of my favorites. The three of them spent the entire day playing, and fell asleep watching the fireworks show. To me, that’s South Pasadena and the 4th of July. If we have to skip one year, to protect all of us, so be it. But, COVID-19, you will not stop the South Pasadena community from all its celebrations and joy.”
South Pasadena City Councilmember Dr. Marina Khubesrian added that the July 4th day of festivities and parade “is a tradition emblematic of our town. We all really look forward to the delicious Kiwanis pancake breakfast, the opening ceremonies, the schoolchildren’s artwork lining Mission Street, the parade, and then the fireworks show. This year we know that safety and health take precedence over tradition. We will miss the July 4th tradition this year and will appreciate it that much more next year.”
Edward Donnelly is the co-founder of the D.U.D.E.S. – an acronym for Dads Uniting Dads in Education and Service – is an organization in town comprised of, well, some good-natured dudes willing and able to support a number of events and activities in the community. “The 4th of July is always my favorite day of the year here in South Pas,” he said. “Pancakes for breakfast at the fire station, marching with the D.U.D.E.S. and all of our kids in the parade and then enjoying what is always a perfect summer evening at the High School fireworks show, it just doesn’t get any better. I’m already looking forward to continuing this great tradition on July 4th 2021.”
Taking the cautious approach is South Pasadena Police Chief Joe Ortiz, noting it’s a good idea to take a year off when there are so many unknowns about the virus. “In the midst of mitigating and containment on the spread of COVID-19 within the U.S., the potential risks to public health far outweigh the benefits of this popular event,” said Ortiz. “Until we know more about how to contain and eradicate this pandemic outbreak, it is in the best interest to all parties involved to cancel this event.”
Although there’s still time to build a float, it hasn’t escaped South Pasadena Tournament of Roses President Brant Dunlap that the coronavirus might impact the Rose Parade next New Year’s Day. He’s keeping his fingers crossed while experiencing the woes of another monumental cancellation. “Personally I feel as though every time we look forward to something it’s either postponed, cancelled or potentially not going to happen,” said Dunlap. “All of this for the best reasons – our health. But it’s still disappointing. As children we can’t wait for the 4th. As adults we can’t wait for the 4th and as elders we can’t wait for the 4th. Well, I and everyone else will have to wait and find a different way to celebrate this years 4th. It won’t be the same but neither was Easter and we all seemed to have made it work. This years 4th will be different for sure but it will be the Fourth-of-July we will never forget. Be Well!”
South Pasadena’s Laura Farber knows all about parades, serving as president of perhaps, the world’s grandest – the 2020 Tournament of Roses Parade with the theme “Power of Hope.” Like Lin Vlacich, she’d liked to see the Festival of Balloons go virtual.
“I am saddened to hear that the South Pasadena 4th of July Parade is cancelled, but understand the reasons for doing so,” said Farber. “The Power of Hope is continuing to fuel our optimism about the future during these challenging times. I would love to see a virtual parade or some “best of” approach (with prior photos of entries, etc.) so that we can celebrate virtually with our South Pasadena community! We should also consider how we can honor our medical workers, first responders, grocery workers and essential services providers in that virtual parade. Let’s remember and appreciate time with our family and the sacrifices others are making to provide us with safety and continued health. Every cloud has a silver lining. Looking forward to celebrating July 4, 2020 with these thoughts in mind, so that we can have a safe, wonderful and healthy July 4, 2021.”
Alberto O. Ocon, president of South Pasadena Little League, is also among those mourning the cancelation of what he calls a “great community” event, noting the Festival of Balloons brings the community and, from his vantage point, all over the world. “We have had visitors from Australia, Germany, Nicaragua, Ecuador and numerous others from out of state,” he said. “We would head over for the pancake breakfast, parade, Garfield Park and end the evening with a spectacular fireworks show at the high school. The event provided our local kids opportunity to share their accolades in sports, academics and volunteer clubs walking with their organizations waving and handing out candy down the parade route. I know the Festival of Balloons was in need of more volunteers to help continue the annual event. The silver lining of this tragic cancellation would be to use the time to recruit new volunteers to make sure the 2021 Festival of Balloons is the best ever.”
Longtime South Pasadena small business owner John Vandercook, the owner of Reimagine Your Home on Mission Street, said he is disappointed “that our long standing South Pasadena July 4th. Festival of Balloons celebration will be cancelled this year. Never would I have thought that our life and community events would be on hold due to a worldwide pandemic. These are frightening times for so many. I will certainly look forward to celebrating July 4, 2021, with great joy and fun.”
South Pasadena Mayor Bob Joe fully understands why the big event to put it on hold one year. “It is very hard to plan this event without knowing if the county COVID-19 would be lifted or modified,” he said. “This was a difficult decision knowing that it bring together the entire South Pasadena community. A very heart warming thank you to the chair, Joe Payne and the Fourth of July Festival of Balloons Committee for their on going volunteer work each year.”
When it comes to health and safety, Stacey Petersen, the executive director of the South Pasadena Educational Foundation, agrees with the cancelation of the Festival of Balloons. “I am glad the city and the committee are more concerned with the health of everyone in the city,” she said. “I grew up participating in and watching the parade, visiting with friends and neighbors while waving to people we knew that were walking. Girl Scouts, AYSO, and Cub Scouts were the groups we usually walked with. Fast forward to present day and it has been fun watching the SPEF board, past and present, get together to show their SPEF/community pride as they stroll down Mission Street. Traditions continue and the parade will too with this being a time when we tell our grandkids, ‘We remember the year the parade didn’t happen. Let me tell you about it.’”
Often traditions are the fabric that hold a community together, explained Steve Inzunza, the co-owner, along with his wife Jamie, of Mamma’s Brick Oven Pizza & Pasta on Fair Oaks Avenue, noting, “This one goes back almost 40 years. If it happens to rain that day it will feel like tears from Ted Shaw and Dave Margrave, the civic leaders who spearheaded the events. Currently, we are challenged. However, America has always thrived on adversity. The baton has been passed from prior generations and I think this year’s theme reflects a great spirit – “Volunteers – Better Together.” There is nothing we cannot do if we work together. South Pas Strong.”