The Pasadena Rose Parade has a rule: never on a Sunday. Back in 1893, organizers worried that horses tethered outside all the local churches would freak out and wreak havoc. But in 1978 - when January 1st fell on a Sunday – some misfits at a Pasadena bar looked around and realized that there weren't any more horses, and they didn't want to let the day go to waste.
According to legend, a group of guys at a now defunct bar called Chromos were standing around jokingly lamenting that there was no Rose Parade that day. Meanwhile, they looked to the street and saw all the fans getting ready to camp out for the following day, and they decided they should have their own parade. And that was the beginning of Doo Dah.
"That Sunday there were about 125 people on the street," says Tom Coston, one of the few original Doo Dah parade marchers. "We were in front of a bunch of out-of-towners who thought, 'What in the hell is this? This isn't the Rose Parade. We came for this?' And if you had to describe it in today's terms, it was kind of a Dada event -as much as a Doo Dah event - so a guy like me decides it's really funny to walk down the street playing Jimi Hendrix on an accordion wearing a cowboy hat. It made perfect sense to me back then."
After almost 35 years, the Doo Dah parade continues to make a lot of sense in the Pasadena community. That's why Coston, who's actually been organizing the event for the last 18 years, has put together a new exhibit chronicling the parade's history. It's mostly a bunch of silliness - crazy costumes and funny routines - but Coston says the parade gives people a venue for personal expression that's often missing in their lives.
"There was actually a cultural anthropologist who wrote a paper about the Doo Dah parade, and she said everybody has their right of reversal. Everybody has one day to escape all the trappings of their day-to-day regiment and let their alter-egos rule for that day. I think that's what Doo Dah is there for."
Among the parade's classic entries are the BBQ and Hibachi Grill Team, and the Lounge Lizards, who are reptiles clad in evening wear who roll a piano down the street and sing Frank Sinatra. Even Off-Ramp once ventured into the fray with the The Ineffable Off-Ramp Mysterions, which featured John Rabe pulling a float with a little girl having a tea party on it, and writer and artist Mimi Pond dressed as a giant radio tower.
One of Coston's all time favorites is the Synchronized Marching Briefcase Drill Team.
"They were investment bankers, literally, who went to the John Bolt pub about a week before the event. They went in with their 3 piece, pinstripe suits and the guy who owned the bar asked if they were going to be in the parade. And they said, ‘Why don't we be in the parade?’ And they had these funny, marching-in-straight-line routines, and they were making fun of their day-to-day starchy button down jobs, and it was kind of genius, the whole thing. If you think about the right of reversal concept, that's exactly what they were doing."
Coston's non-profit organization, The Light Bringer Project, bought the parade for a nominal two-dollar fee in 1994 when its organizers were struggling with the bigger and increasingly unruly crowds. Coston wanted to return the parade to its homespun, wacky roots, so he added a Queen competition. It was an instant hit, according to reporter Michelle Mills, who for many years danced with swords and sang opera before the short, zaftig Star-News reporter was finally anointed Doo Dah Queen in 2007.
"That other parade (the Rose parade), I'll admit I am a fan," says Mills. "I love to watch it, and I'd give anything to be a part of it. But very few get that opportunity. It's very selective. Look at the Queen audition - all the queens have to be young and from certain schools in a certain area. With Doo Dah most of us are mature women that have had some life and have life experience to share."
In 2009, Coston began worrying that the parade was again becoming a big entertainment vehicle instead of a loose, participatory event. So he moved it away from Old Town to a part of East Pasadena that reminded him of Old Town circa 1978. He hoped it would give a whole new generation of Doo Dahs a voice.
The new exhibit is up at the Pasadena Museum of History through January.