Disney Rose Parade Memories

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

At this time of the year, one of the things I always looked forward to as a kid was the Pasadena Tournament of Roses parade. Since I lived in Glendale, and Pasadena was only about a 15-minute drive away, I sometimes did the foolish thing that young people do: Camp out overnight on Colorado Boulevard in the California cold to sit on the curb and see the floats glide along that colored line down the center of the street early on New Year’s Day.

As I got older and wiser, I realized it was much more fun to be in my warm little living room sipping hot cocoa and munching on gooey cinnamon rolls as I switched through multiple channels broadcasting the parade.

For the 1985 parade, I went one step further. The City of Glendale decided to make a valiant effort to win one of the countless awards by designing a float that saluted Donald Duck’s 50th birthday. To make it even more special, Glendale resident Clarence Nash, the longtime voice of Donald, was scheduled to ride on the float.

Unfortunately, Nash became ill and was unable to ride in the parade as planned as he was taken to St. Joseph Medical Center on New Year’s Eve. Tony Anselmo, the current voice of Donald, had gone to the parade specifically to see Nash on the float and was disappointed. The beloved Nash sadly passed away the following February.

I was one of the many sets of volunteer hands that decorated the Glendale Donald Duck float with flowers. For my unpaid efforts, I got a special commemorative limited edition official Disney pin given to those connected with the float. It has a huge smiling face of Donald Duck outlined in gold with the inscription “City of Glendale” on a red banner at the top and “96th Tournament of Roses” in gold lettering on the lower-right light-blue background. On the bottom left side is a small red rose also outlined in gold. The pin is 1 inch by 1 inch and has been carefully preserved for decades with a handful of my other special treasures.

The following year, Lawry’s licensed Mickey and Minnie for their float and produced a pin, but, because they had mistakenly not gotten permission for any merchandising, only 14 pins of Mickey and Minnie waving from the back of the float were produced and given to the Lawry’s board of directors. The official Tournament of Roses pin guide for that year lists the pin as “not available.”

The first Tournament of Roses was staged in 1890 by members of Pasadena's Valley Hunt Club, former residents of the East and Midwest eager to showcase their new home's mild winter weather.

"In New York, people are buried in snow," announced professor Charles F. Holder at a club meeting. "Here our flowers are blooming and our oranges are about to bear. Let's hold a festival to tell the world about our paradise."

More than 2,000 people turned out on New Year's Day to watch a parade of flower-covered carriages, followed by foot races, polo matches and tugs-of-war on the town lot. The abundance of flowers prompted Holder to suggest "Tournament of Roses" as a suitable name for the festival. During the next few years, the festival expanded to include marching bands and motorized floats and today it is a New Year's Day tradition that is broadcast around the world.

Disney’s first appearance in the parade was 1938 to celebrate (and publicize) the release of the animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Marge Belcher, who had done live-action reference modeling for the part of Snow White, was dressed as Snow White and accompanied by performers costumed as the Seven Dwarfs on a special floral float.

Performers in dwarf masks sat and stood next to oversized mushrooms at the front of the float, while sweet Snow White, shaded underneath by a monstrous mushroom like an umbrella, sat at the back of the float, smiled, and waved to the crowds. It was one of 60 floats in the parade that year portraying the theme “Playland Fantasies.”

The British Pathe newsreel of the time stated that “most entrancing of all: a floral preview of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They frolic into the hearts of the crowd right out of a motion picture fairyland.” You can see a short film clip (link). (And yes, explore around the site and you’ll find a clip of Mickey being prepared for a 1934 Macy’s Parade [link] and the 1935 parade [link] or Walt and Lillian looking for leprechauns in the U.K. at this [link] and here [link].)

Roy E. Disney claimed that one of his most vivid childhood memories was watching that 1938 parade.

"I watched the whole parade standing on the hood of an old Buick in a used car lot on Colorado Boulevard that belonged to one of my dad's best friends," he said. "I couldn't have been more excited that day, especially when the Snow White float went by.”

In 1955, the Helms Bakery float in the Rose Parade won the Judge’s Special Award for its portrayal of the forthcoming Disneyland. The float had a proud Mickey Mouse at the front and a rose pink Sleeping Beauty Castle at the back circle. In the middle circle were flying pink Dumbos. (There were more than 7,000 pink roses on the float.) There was a long curved pole with a silver balloon ball that has red lettering proclaiming: DISNEYLAND. Helms Bakery was a very popular Southern California bakery that at one time even had bakery trucks that went through neighborhoods like an ice cream truck. The Firehouse Five Plus Two performed in the parade, as well.

However, when most of us think of Disney and the Rose Parade, it is the 1966 parade when Walt himself was the grand marshal.

J. Randolph Richards was the president of the 77th Annual Tournament of Roses and he reviewed more than 7,000 suggestions for a theme from the cards and letters that came in from near and far. During his previous 21 years of service he was a member of 29 committees and chairman of 14 of them. Realizing that the wonders of the present era of 1965-jet plane travel, communications satellites and orbiting space vehicles-"have seemingly reduced the size of the globe," Richards settled on the theme "It's A Small World."

On March 14, 1965, Richards made the announcement of the theme, as well as his choice for grand marshal, Walt Disney. It was stated that it was very appropriate to so honor Walt because of "the universal acceptance of the Disney creations. He has penetrated barriers and boundaries, lessening the distance between the continents. This master showman has brought joy and laughter to millions in every part of the world. Many of the countries have paid tribute to his genius by singling him out for high honors."

If I were more cynical, I might point out that even though Disney's "it's a small world" had premiered at the 1964 New York's World Fair, the plans had been announced to transplant the attraction to Disneyland with a planned opening of May 28, 1966, a few short months after the parade, so this theme selection was wonderful publicity for the soon-to-be-open new attraction, as well as a deserved honor for Walt.

Richards really worked hard to make the local Pasadena parade more global in nature to fit the theme and he traveled extensively, getting commitments from 21 foreign countries to participate.

The official press announcement declared: "Mickey Mouse [costumed performer Paul Castle] will ride in the Grand Marshal's automobile (a white Chrysler Imperial) along the side of Walt Disney, whose agile pen created the lovable animated character many years ago. The rest of the Disney characters will be close by. A total of 27 of the widely known cartoon creations will be taking part in the New Year's Day Festivities by walking along behind the automobile of the famed showman or riding on the entry of the city of Burbank, a design of Disney Studios in that community.

“It was Walt Disney's choice that if there was to be an entry revolving around his life and his creations that the Burbank float should be the one to carry out the motif. The Walt Disney Studios in that city is closely tied in with the story of this man and his creations. Therefore, in all probability such a choice was a sentimental one, reflecting his esteem for the San Fernando Valley municipality."

The Burbank float with design help from Imagineer and animator Bill Justice was titled "Our Small World of Make Believe." The official description submitted to the Tournament of Roses was "the setting is an open book, a musical clef and an artist's palette, representing the three important elements of Disney legend: the story, the music and the creative art work."

The other floats weren't themed to Disney characters. In fact the float from the See's Candy shop was "The World of Red Skelton" with floral recreations of some of his characters like Sheriff Dead Eye and the Mean Widdle Kid. On the street curb that cool New Year’s morning was a very young John Lasseter with his parents.

It is surprising to me that more photos of Walt and the Burbank float have not appeared in print or for sale since the official 1966 program for the 77th Annual Rose Parade featured advertisements from a half-dozen photo companies offering "gorgeous slides, as well as 8mm and 16 mm color movie film.” Each company offered free bonuses from a 33 1/3 LP record with narrative and background music of the parade, to another that offered a full script, to another that had "six all new Disneyland slides." Unfortunately, the same short familiar clip of Walt in a convertible with Mickey and waving to the crowd is the only one that seems to pop up in compilation clips from the Disney Company.

In a ceremony held Tuesday, November 16, 2004, at noon at Tournament House (the beautiful Wrigley Mansion in Pasadena), Mickey Mouse was revealed as the Grand Marshal for the 2005 Tournament of Roses that had the theme "Celebrate Family." Tournament of Roses President Dave Davis was joined on stage by Disney Legend Julie Andrews to announce Mickey Mouse would lead the family-themed New Year's Day celebration in Pasadena. As grand marshal, Mickey Mouse would represent the Tournament of Roses theme to a worldwide television audience in the 116th Rose Parade, and as he tosses the coin before the 91st Rose Bowl Game on Jan. 1, 2005.

"Mickey Mouse has brought entertainment, joy and laughter to families around the world for 75 years, and we couldn't think of a more ideal grand marshal to help us 'Celebrate Family' in 2005," Davis said. "Mickey Mouse became a part of the Tournament of Roses family when he accompanied Walt Disney on his grand marshal ride in the 1966 Rose Parade, and we are delighted to welcome him back once again to help us spread New Year's cheer on January 1, 2005."

"Gosh, it sure is swell be named the Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade and I can't wait to see everybody on January 1 in Pasadena," said Grand Marshal Mickey Mouse when accepting his role as the 2005 Tournament of Roses ambassador. "It's a big year for me with big doings for Disneyland's 50th and all, but being in the Rose Parade is a great way to start the New Year!"

"We have been good friends for many years and I congratulate Mickey on being named Grand Marshal of the 2005 Rose Parade," said Andrews, honorary ambassador of Disneyland's 50th anniversary celebration. "Mickey has touched the hearts of families everywhere, and I look forward to watching him on January 1 and to joining him next May as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Disneyland."

And how many have forgotten that Roy E. Disney was the Rose Parade Grand Marshall years earlier for "Celebration 2000: Visions of the Future" which tied into the release of "Fantasia: 2000" that was set to debut January 1 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium? By the way, that gives Walt and Roy the singular honor of being the only grand marshals from the same family to have been in the Rose Parade.

So this New Year’s Day, as you sit snugly in your little living rooms watching the floral parade, remember that it has a decades-long connection to Disney history.

May this coming year be filled with lots of love and laughter for us all and the hope that the coming decade will bring good things that have been in short supply these last few years.