Tom Coston and Paddy Hurley have made it their mission to help bring art to the local masses through the Light Bringer Project by producing such popular events as the sometimes spectacular Pasadena Chalk Festival, and co-sponsoring other arts happenings, like LitFest and ArtNight.
But in no other artistic event that’s produced by Coston and Hurley does art come to more outrageous and often hilarious life than at the Doo Dah Parade, which this year is set for Sunday in East Pasadena.
Now in its 42nd “occasional” running, this once unique counterculture “happening,” conceived by disaffected young men in a pre-redevelopment Old Pasadena dive bar that’s now long gone, has itself changed since 1978. For one thing, it has switched locations, trading in its onetime hippy-meets-outlaw biker vibe in efforts to make its inherent wackiness more accessible to more community entries, and to a more closely packed, more diverse, and occasionally politically inclined audience.
In 2010, the parade moved out of once comfortably gritty but now somewhat elitist environs of Old Pasadena to its present location, along Colorado Boulevard, between Altadena Drive and San Gabriel Boulevard, an eastside residential neighborhood more akin to the way Old Pas used to look and feel prior to its corporate makeover beginning in the late 1980s and continuing through the ’90s.
But aside from that, and a few other changes, like toning down sexually explicit, violent and profane entries, and allowing neighborhood groups to participate, things haven’t really changed all that much. In fact, in many respects the parade has remained pretty much what it was when it started out: a funny, entertaining and irreverent spoof on the prim and proper never-on-Sunday Rose Parade, with people from around the country modeling their own wacky community parades after Pasadena’s, and thousands still traveling to the Crown City to join in the Doo Dah’s managed madness.
It just never gets old, “because it’s new each year” quipped Hurley, Light Bringer’s managing director. “Sometimes people are amused, but sometimes people are confused by the Doo Dah Parade.”
Part of that confusion stems from the parade’s “occasional” status, which grew out of Doo Dah being held twice in 1978, first on Jan. 1 (a Sunday, absent the Rose Parade) and again on Dec. 30 (a Saturday). Plus, said Hurley, the 13th year was really more of a pub crawl, but still counts as a parade.
For Coston, another question has also been answered: “Is it normal people trying to be weird, or is it weird people trying to be normal? It’s both, and they all get along. It’s a funny deal, man.”
Doo Dah Lore
As lore, semi-official accounts appearing in local news outlets (including this one), and Light Bringer Project’s own material have it, the parade started out as a rebuke of the Rose Parade and all that it represented — the very epitome of establishment artistic expression; an image-driven, nationally televised event chock full of celebrities, tradition, pageantry and flowers, as well as strict schedules and rules of inclusion, exclusion and behavior not to be breached.
The fact that the Rose Parade was never held on Sunday seemed to especially infuriate Doo Dah founder Peter Apanel and his friends, among them now-deceased Scott Finnell, lead singer with Snotty Scotty and the Hankies. The group of friends was said to be drinking beer at a popular dive called Chromos in Old Town when they came up with the idea for an alternative parade, one without any hard and fast rules or conditions.
The event became wildly popular through the 1980s, and continues to grow each year, said Hurley. But back then it was Apanel who bore all the costs and responsibilities for putting on the show. By 1991, Apanel had secured TV coverage of the parade. But in 1993, unable to make ends meet on what he was charging for entry fees, and without TV or corporate backing, he had a fence installed around City Hall. He then had parade participants come inside chain link enclosure and walk around the structure, each person paying $7 in advance, $10 at the gate.
“It was just the saddest scenario I had ever seen.” said former city Public Information Officer Ann Erdman, who served as grand marshal of the parade in 2012. “You could smell death … the death of Doo Dah.”
“In a way,” said Hurley, “Peter had to do that because he just couldn’t afford it, based on entry fees,” Hurley said. Unfortunately, much the same situation still exists; it cost money to put on a parade.
“Definitely next year we are going to be doing some crowd source funding, because the event just keeps growing and costing,” Hurley said. “It’s a labor of love, but one that people don’t appreciate what kind of cost it is, you know, with police, and security, and the city. Every department in the city needs a permit for something. It’s a lot of stuff, a lot of paperwork.”
In 1994 Apanel joined forces with Coston and Hurley, who back then both rented office space in the YWCA building near City Hall. They co-produced the parade that year, with the event finally ending up in the hands of Light Bringer in 1995, Hurley said.
What’s Not to Love?
As parades go, the Doo Dah created a league of its own by inspiring people in other cities around the country to host their own absurdist, art-driven community events.
In Ohio, the Columbus Doo Dah Parade, inspired by the Pasadena parade, started in 1983 with such characters as the Emperor of the Short North, the King and the Queen of Doo Dah. That parade is celebrating 36 years this year.
In Michigan, the Kalamazoo Doo Dah Parade first stepped off in 1984. The idea, a direct spinoff of the Pasadena parade, was to satisfy a need at the time for more fun, innovative and silly family programming. Kalamazoo is marking its 35th parade this year.
In New Jersey, there’s the Ocean City Doo Dah Parade, which features actors portraying such past film stars as Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Abbott & Costello. Much like the Rose Parade, they also have a celebrity serve as grand marshal. Ocean City’s Doo Dah turned 34 this year.
The Pasadena Doo Dah has a group of grand marshals this year, leading with Seismo Sue, aka Susan Hough, seismologist at the US Geological Survey (USGS) in Pasadena, and earthquake response coordinator with the office on the Caltech campus. She will be joined by the Seismologist Sisters — Elizabeth Cochran (USGS seismologist), Christine Goulet (USC, engineering seismologist), Voon Hui Lai (Caltech graduate student), Caleste Labedz (Caltech graduate student), Susan Owen (JPL, geophysicist), and Kate Scharer (USGS geologist) Caleste Labedz (Caltech graduate student), Susan Owen (JPL, geophysicist), and Kate Scharer (USGS geologist).
This year’s queen is Jesselynn Desmond, who was chosen at the annual Queen coronation ceremony party last month hosted by Light Bringer at the American Legion post on North Vinedo Avenue, up the block from where the parade steps off on Colorado Boulevard, between San Gabriel Boulevard and Altadena Drive, at 11 a.m. Sunday.
Clayton Louckes, the unofficial Mayor of Old Pasadena, will serve as king of this year’s parade.
The after party for the parade, just like the party for the Queen, will be held at the local American Legion. Another “Sooper Dooper” unofficial Doo Dah after party will be held at the Old Towne Pub, the parade’s former launch pad and landing spot when it was still in Old Town. The bar, formerly known as the Loch Ness Monster, today sits behind the Container Store at the corner of North Fair Oaks Avenue and Union Street.
Another thing that makes Doo Dah parades here and elsewhere special is the names chosen by some of the acts, with Pasadena setting the standard for that as well.
Who could forget the Frida Kahlo Sisters of Perpetual Misery, each with their own uni-brows, and Macho Dog, a man in a giant dog costume whose red “lipstick” grew at the slightest sexual provocation, and the Bastard Sons of Lee Marvin, and the Synchronized Briefcase Drill Team, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the BBQ & Hibachi Marching Grill Team?
So what is at the core of what appears to be a universal need of humans to act out, to participate in such a rite of reversal, to mock other establishment traditions belonging to the mainstream and status quo?
As Denise Lawrence, a visual anthropologist at USC, once explained in an analytical paper on the parade, the results of doing this kind of thing give participants an opportunity to engage in what Lawrence described as “licentious behavior,” acting in ways that went beyond their normal identities.
A second effect was “to intentionally invert the purpose of the Rose Parade and all the tradition-filled trappings,” Lawrence wrote.
Today, the parade is not so much a counter reflection of the Rose Parade but its ”twisted sister,” as it’s been called — the child in the family liable to make or have something happen that will tick off mom and dad, or make parents worry.
“There is a place in the Doo Dah Parade for every irreverent oddball on the planet,” said Erdman. “They always fit right in with this nontraditional hoopla that turns the tables on the very definition of a parade.”
‘They Keep Coming’
“We don’t regret we moved. We thought it was a really good thing to do,” Hurley said of the parade’s move to East Pasadena in 2010. “The parade was aging up, getting older, and we were finding that some of the people who were in the first one were banning their children from seeing it. So we had to do a lot of convincing of people that we were going to try to accommodate everybody’s tastes and also not be in a sort of harassing tone with any entries.
“We told the Texas Chainsaw Massacre guy to lay down his arms, and he did. And Macho Dog was another one. We had a funeral for his appendage. But that was about it. Those were the only ones. But we ended up attracting more crazy stuff, and then we’d have to tell them, ‘Oh, we’re not sure if it’s OK to hang yourself in the parade.’ But that’s about it.”
Coston marvels at the passage of time involved with his own connection to the parade, which dates back to when he was in the very first Doo Dah in 1978. He also has no regrets, either about Light Bringer taking control in 1995 or moving to East Pas.
“Isn’t that crazy? That’s really wild — 24 years,” Coston said of the time since taking over for Apanel.
Although there has been turnover in the entries, with some of the older acts no longer taking part in the madness, “There are all sorts of new people coming in, and I love to see that, and it continues to happen. It sure is a Pasadena tradition. But it feels sort of weird being the 42nd.”
In the first parade, Coston, then 20 or 21, was dressed in a suit, wearing a cowboy hat and playing Jimi Hendrix tunes on an accordion. He remembers turning the corner on Fair Oaks Avenue and Colorado Boulevard and someone shouting from the crowd, “Jimi Hendrix: Right On,”
“And I said, ‘Great, I did my job,” he recalled with a laugh. “I just thought it was such fun, I couldn’t believe it.”
As for the move to East Pasadena,” I feel good about it being in East Pasadena. I think it has new energy in it,” he said. “I feel like people have taken hold of it again and we don’t have to go out there and force the parade at all. As long as people want to do it, we’ll create the platform for it. As long as they keep coming … and they keep coming … it’s a cool thing.”
According to Erdman, “Tom and Paddy really brought Doo Dah back to being a major event. It has improved a lot over the years.”
And, she said, it did so while retaining its basic nature: “There are no rules, or regulations or policies. Of course, you have to follow the law, but it’s Doo Dah, for crying out loud.”
The Doo Dah Parade steps off at 11 a.m. from 2627 E. Colorado Blvd., between San Gabriel Boulevard and Altadena Drive. The official after party immediately afterward is at the American Legion, Post 280, 179 N. Vinedo Ave., Pasadena, featuring live bands, dancing, food and drinks. There is a $3 cover. Call (626) 792-9938 for more information. Of course, The Colorado bar, along the parade route at 2640 E. Colorado Blvd., will be open throughout and well after the festivities. And an unofficial after party featuring live bands is from 2 to 9 p.m. at the Old Towne Pub, 66 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Old Pasadena. Call (626) 577-6581 for more information.