The inexact science of choosing a Rose Parade grand marshal

Rose Parade Jane Goodall

Nick Ut/AP

Chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall holds a football after being named as the grand marshal of Pasadena's 2013 Rose Parade. Celebrity - and the interest of the annual event's president - are the common link between the primate scientist and a long line of predecessors (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

The grand marshal for Tuesday's Rose Parade is chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall.

Past marshals have included former child star-turned-diplomat Shirley Temple Black – three times! – Miracle on the Hudson airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger and, 10 years ago, a trio of family-friendly media figures: Art Linkletter, Bill Cosby and Fred (Mister) Rogers.

The selection process is highly subjective – and that’s one reason for an unusual mix of grand marshals over the years.

RELATED: Rose Parade 2013 guide: Everything you need to know to enjoy it

Here’s how it works. Each year, a different person becomes president of the Tournament of Roses parade. That's who gets to choose the grand marshal.

This year’s president is Sally Bixby. She thought Jane Goodall’s work with chimps in Africa fit nicely with the theme of the 2013 parade: “Oh, the places you’ll go!”

Plus, Bixby had a connection.

“A neighbor of ours happened to know her personally and so she called her assistant and that kind of opened the door and... she said yes,” Bixby recalled.

Goodall visited Pasadena in April to accept the grand marshal honor.  She couldn’t pass up the opportunity to turn that occasion into a teaching moment; during the news conference she mimicked the greeting the chimps would chant for visitors to her base at Gombe National Park in Tanzania.

Because each year’s parade president gets to pick the grand marshal, the choices have been all over the map.

In 2005, it wasn't a primate expert, it was a mouse – the fictional one on which Walt Disney built his entertainment empire. Sally Bixby recalled that the following year, the choice couldn’t have been more different.

 “Sandra Day O’Connor was a fantastic grand marshal I thought in 2006,” Bixby said.  

That’s just the way it is with the Rose Parade. One year you get Mickey Mouse; the next, a Supreme Court justice.

In 1996, it was Kermit the Frog. The bright green Muppet was the first non-human named grand marshal. Kids loved it, but some grownups thought it was a bit odd not to have a real person. 

More serious protests broke out in 1992, when the tournament chose a descendant of Christopher Columbus as its grand marshal. Longtime parade volunteer Laura Monteros remembers how Native Americans denounced the selection as a celebration of genocide.

“Poor folks down at the tournament did not even realize the outcry that that would cause," Monteros said. "I think that was a wake-up moment – that they had kind of disconnected from the community.”

The tournament sought to make amends by adding a second grand marshal: Native American Congressman Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Some Indians and Latinos still protested during that year’s parade.

With Jane Goodall perched in the grand marshal’s car Tuesday, organizers expect the 2013 version of the Rose Parade to go off without a hitch.

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