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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | Ventura County Life

Grill Team Carries Coals to Pasadena

November 25, 1998|STEVE CHAWKINS | Times staff writer

It was in AD 258 that a Roman priest named Lorenzo became a martyr, and, eventually, the patron saint of humor. Roasted to death over a slow fire, he is said to have uttered last words worthy of any Catskills comic. "It's well-done on one side," moaned the man now known as St. Lawrence. "Turn it over and eat it."

Seventeen centuries later, the men of the Ventura-based Barbecue and Hibachi Marching Grill Team bring to mind the trials of poor Lawrence. They are not saints but they bravely risk humiliation and savagely flung foodstuffs merely by strolling down the street. That they wear loud Hawaiian shirts, portable barbecues bedecked with tinsel and rubber chickens, and hats fashioned out of 10-pound Kingsford charcoal bags should not invite ridicule. They are merely different, these coarse grillmen, but in their own way, they too are well-done.

For 12 years, they have marched in Pasadena's Doo Dah Parade, the famed alternative to the treacly-sweet Rose Parade. This year I strode down Colorado Boulevard with them, a raw recruit among well-seasoned veterans.

By the end, I was parched. I was hobbling from a tightly cinched strap that helped balance a set of three mini-barbecues around my waist. I was hoarse from yelling out bawdy grillmen's cadences. But I had learned how to keep pace with my fellows, and twirl a spatula, and blow kisses to the crowd. I was one of the few, one of the against-all-odds proud.

The grillmen are a tough bunch, verging on middle age or well over the line. They are raunchy and they are tasteless. They are beer-swilling, cigar-smoking, barbecue-fork-brandishing guys who can spot a vegetarian at 50 paces. But beyond that, they are men with better things to do who once a year shove them aside for the sake of an uncertain posterity.

"I guess we have a dream," said Scott Coady, the Ventura management consultant who co-founded the venerable unit. "We want to become part of Americana. We'll know it's happened when we've been on Leno or Letterman."

Like all great dreams, this one had humble roots.

In 1985, Coady and his longtime pal, a stockbroker named Eric Walls, came to Pasadena just to watch.

"On the spot, we thought of the barbecue concept," Coady said. "We said to each other we'll be in the parade next year and we'll dominate it." Their debut involved five men and a butcher-paper banner.

But the effort escalated. The team soon added a rolling, live barbecue long enough to roast a wild boar. It received hot-dog donations from the great meat companies. Dozens of men marched and each year brought in fresh recruits. Lovely and talented women volunteered to join the Condiment Girls.

A few years ago, the grillmen invented the "brat-zooka," tubular weapons that loft wrapped, freshly grilled wieners into the crowd. Now they have a fancy loudspeaker system and a pickup truck loaded with team paraphernalia. They are even applying to trademark their name and image; dangerously similar groups have popped up in San Francisco and even appeared in a Target commercial, Coady said.

But legal wrangling was not the order of the day Sunday.

About 30 of us converged in a staging area, convoying from Ventura County and all over Southern California. Ricardo Soria, a liquor dealer from Santa Ana, arrived in his customary white limo. San Francisco research scientist Ian Harding, an old buddy of Coady's from their days at Newbury Park High School, adjusted the 3-foot hot dog hat he had meticulously crafted from foam.

"Special Ed" Stanley donned his elaborate outfit--a charred, tattered T-shirt and a plastic arm bone draped with cooked flank steak. "I can't believe it," he said. "I was up all night sewing meat. I felt like Jeffrey Dahmer."

We stood around the parking lot. Beers were cracked and a little tequila flowed. There was some grumbling about the rumored return after five years of the media-hogging boys in black suits--the Synchronized Briefcase Drill Team.

(As it turned out, the rumor was false. A Doo Dah spokeswoman said the briefcase team has resisted the annual enticements of parade organizers, apparently preferring paid engagements.) We smeared our faces with crushed briquettes, adjusted our hats and tightened our barbecues. Jason Larsen made sure his tiki torches were firmly affixed and his hula skirt was high. Just before we moved out, Coady coached us on what we were to tell reporters.

"They'll accost you out there," he warned. "What you say is: 'Our mission is to expose people's backyard desires.' "

Over seven-tenths of a mile, our public awaited, 40,000 strong. Shouting into a microphone, Coady led us through cadences like:

"We're barbecue men, that's guaranteed . . .

Coals and fluid is all we need . . ."

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