“Above the Babel of Voices”: Photos from the Tournament of Roses Parade, Pasadena, 1909, 1915, 1920, 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we transition from a 2020 that was both a year to remember and to forget to a 2021 that we have to believe must be better, one of the most prominent New Year’s Day traditions in greater Los Angeles will be absent for only the fourth time in its history as the 2021 Tournament of Roses parade, which was to be the 132nd edition, was cancelled in the summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has reached records for cases and deaths amid this troubling winter.

Notably, even the 1919 parade, which occurred even as the so-called “Spanish Flu” pandemic surged during the fall and into that winter and followed by less than two months the end of the First World War, was held and 100,000 persons lines Pasadena streets to see the floats, cheer thouands of military personnel who marched, and otherwise express their joy about the new year and the onset of peace. There had been aggressive quarantine measures enacted just prior to the parade and these efforts kept the death rate in the Los Angeles area lower than in San Francisco.

Los Angeles Express, 1 January 1909.

The previous three full cancellations of the parade, however, all came during the Second World War, as the 1942, 1943 and 1945 editions were scratched as the United States went all-out to conserve precious resources amid a massive and unprecedented mobilization with an enormous two-front conflict to fight, though there was a very small version in 1944 with just a few floats. So, it is truly remarkable to see this year’s cancellation in that historic context.

This post features a quartet of photographs of scenes from the Tournament of Roses parades over a two decade period from 1909 to 1929, as the event continued to grow in scope and public interest. Floats grew correspondingly in size, complexity, and motive power, while the Rose Bowl football game also became a very important feature in the festivities by the 1920s with a tryout in 1902 giving way to chariot races and other events (more suited to the word “tournament”) until the game was reintroduced in 1916.

A real photo postcard of a Pasadena bankers’ float near the Hotel Green, 1 January 1909.

The 1909 view shows a horse-drawn float sponsored by Pasadena banks as it passed by the Hotel Green, which has become one of the iconic structures in the Crown City. The Los Angeles Express, which was always quite expressive in its coverage of the Tournament of Roses event, began its coverage with the cry of “Here They Come!” reporting “the exclamation was taken up by 100,000 persons who waited from one to three hours this morning for the flower parade that opened Pasadena’s twentieth Tournament of Roses.”

The paper continued “a mile down a broad street, crowned by a gently rising slope, there was a flash of bright sun on gleaming metal, then a warm splash of color in the distance. At the same moment, above the babel of voices and the restless stirring of the sea of humanity, from a far distance was heard the faint echo of music. Then it was persons leaning forward in an unbroken line, gazing with craned necks toward the head of Colorado street, knew that the tournament was on.” The parade began much later before the days of televised coverage, starting at eleven, and the Express, saying it was hard to gauge the size of the crowd as compared to former years when this was done “with presumed accuracy,” ventured to guess that there were about 125,000 persons in attendance.

Los Angeles Express, 1 January 1915.

It was also noted that there had, in the two decades to date, only three that were “marred by rain and only one of these really was spoiled, but that the weather “held good this year, and that was all anyone cared about.” The parade was also deemed to be “longer and more elaborate this year than ever. With the route beginning on Colorado near to the Arroyo Seco and then heading east to Fair Oaks and then south to Central Park and crossing over to Raymond Avenue “passing the Green hotel” where the photo shown here was taken, the parade then resumed its course on Colorado to points east and its conclusion at Tournament Park south of Throop Polytechnic University, soon renamed the California Institute of Technology, where judging of the floats was held.

In 1915, just months after Europe was engulfed in the horrors of the First World War, the Express headline read “Pasadena Revels in Miles of Roses” and its report started with “Southern California’s jewels, glorious girlhood and wonderful flowers, paraded through Pasadena today to make the Tournament of Roses of 1915 the greatest fete of its kind in the history of the Pacific coast.” The four-mile route, it was stated, “was paved with the reflected gold from a perfect winter sun, beaming from unclouded sky of deepest blue.”

Another RPPC, this time of a float at the1 January 1915 parade.

The parade passed through streets decorated “with greenery and curiously worked streamers and medallions of red and white, the tournament colors” and “it was hemmed in by sheer banks of humanity as though it lay through a succession of canyons of eager, expectant, joy-reflecting faces.” It was estimated that there were about 100,000 spectactors thronging the route by 10:30, a half-hour before the parade’s start, impatient to see the start of the procession of some 200 floats.

Many of these were still led by horses and many of the award classes were denoted by the number of animals used to pull the vehicles, while others were for civic and commercial entries or “historical or representative characters” and some were for horse riders. With floats comprised of autos, there were separate classes for gasoline and electric powered “horseless carriages.” Notably, there were, in those days, trophies and cash awards, with the latter dispensed with later.

Express, 1 January 1920.

While the float in the 1915 view is hard to determine as to the sponsor because the banner is in bright sun, while much of the vehicle, which looks to be powered by an automobile, is in dark shade, it does look to be much larger and more elaborate than the one from the photo from six years before. There are several young women in pure white dress in the float, while gents wearing winged costumes carry floral ropes attached to the vehicle.

The 1920 photograph is taken from a vantage point several persons deep on the sidewalk on what may well be Colorado Boulevard, with ornate lamp posts bearing pairs of American flgs and flags and pennants having from wires crossing the thoroughfare. The float nearest the photographer is similar to the one from a half-decade before in that young men are holding floral ropes attached to the float and a bevy of maidens, again in white, are inside the vehicle, but whether there was any connection between the two is not known. The float behind it has “Junior Class 1921” which, at least, indicates a high school or college.

A view from the crowd during the 1920 parade.

Exuberant as ever, the Express expostulated that “Pasadena wrote an epic of the Southland’s floral glory today—wrote it on rose leaves and spread them out for all the world to see . . . under the sovereign magic of the beauty and he perfume of myriad blooms, January was transformed into May, and, spread in prodigal profusion, the fairest blossoms of the spring shone by the thousands in all parts of the Crown City.” The paper reported that long lines of cars headed in from other locales, that many slept in their autos overnight, and that the city’s hotels were full, so that “all roads may lead to Rome, but all the macadamized boulevards led to Pasadena today” as did the Pacific Electric’s streetcars.

With respect to the parade, the Express observed “it drew great throngs to the streets over which it passed and jammed them from curbs to building in an almost solid mass, while other thousands looked on from windows, fire escapes, roofs and cornices.” The paper said that the estimated crowd size was 200,000 along the route from South Orange Grove Avenue, known as “Millionaire’s Row,” to Tournament Park and it was noted that the floats were more elaborate than in the past. With the reestablishment of the football game a few years before, the 1920 contest, played at Tournament Park, the venue until the Rose Bowl opened just before the 1923 game, was between Oregon and Harvard, with the Ivy League university (where Thomas W. Temple II attended law school at the end of the decade) besting the Ducks 7-6.

Express, 1 January 1929.

What a difference nearly a decade made when it came to the incredible growth in the popularity of the Tournament, as in 1929, the Express reported “Pasadena awoke under smiling skies today to inhale the concentrated perfume of a million roses—and to greet 750,000 festive visitors, clamoring for admission at her flower decked gates.” This number represented an astronomical increase and the paper added “for months past Pasadena has designed and built and labored to give Southern California a one-day spectacle unrivaled the world over.” The Crown City, it continued, “bloomed like a single rose—with a million separate blooms forming its petals, exhaling their heady perfrume, smiling at the record-breaking crowds and the cloudless skies.”

With the theme of “Poems in Flowers,” float entries numbered about 300 for the parade, which began an hour earlier than in past years and judging was also accomplished before the event began. so that “as the moving tons of blossoms wended their way down the scented, decorated streets, the spectators were able to pick out the entries which had been awarded the prizes.” This year, decorations on the route were in the colors of the competing football teams for the Rose Bowl game, crimson for Georgia Tech and blue and gold for the University of California. In addition to the large number of floats, there were nearly two dozen marching bands, including the only all-girl high school band in California, hailing from the Central Valley oil town of Taft.

The prize-winning entry by the City of Long beach at the 1929 parade.

It was added that this fortieth edition of the parade was one in which “for the first time . . . the pageant takes on the nature of an all-Southern California affair, with Marco H. Hellman of Los Angeles as grand marshal. A scion of the prominent Jewish family of bankers and business figures, Hellman was president of Merchants National Bank of Los Angeles and was an officer or director of over twenty banks and companies, but he was also a passionate and well-known equestrian and he selected sixty others to assist him as grand marshal, giving a regional cast to what was largely a localized honor. The photo is a noce close-up of the prize-winning entry, labeled “My Garden,” by the City of Long Beach and featuring a woman and a group of young girls on the lushly appointed float.

As for that football game, it had a freak play that has lived on in Rose Bowl and general football lore. The game was in the second quarter and the teams were scoreless when a Georgia Tech player fumbled and the ball was scooped up by Roy Riegels of Cal who took a step toward the Yellowjackets end zone and, inexplicably, turned around and raced toward his team’s goal. The teammate who poked the ball loose sped behind him and yelled for him to turn around, but Riegels plowed on thinking it was an opponent’s ploy until he was turned around at the one-yard line and tackled. Cal was forced to punt from its end zone after getting nowhere on four downs, but it was blocked for a safety and those two points gave Georgia Tech its margin of victory, 8-7. Despite earning All-American honors the next season, Riegels was saddled with the nickname of “Wrong-Way,” though in 1991 the 83-year old was enshrined in the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.

Pasadena Post, 1 January 1929.

So, while tomorrow will seem surreal for those who devotedly have attended or watched the famous Tournament of Roses parade, there is still a great deal of history to check out, including on the official Tournament website and we can expect that it will return in all of its “floral glory” next year. Meanwhile, the Rose Bowl football game tomorrow, one of semifinal games for the national championship, should be a hard-fought one as top-seeded Alabama, sporting an 11-0 record, takes on the fourth seed, Notre Dame.

Leave a Reply