Picking a queen for Pasadena's wacky Doo Dah Parade is like a cross between the Miss America pageant and "The Gong Show."
This year's hopefuls included a Britney Spears impersonator in drag, an inflatable doll, a 62-year-old woman using an oxygen tank and a dachshund whose hind legs had been replaced by a two-wheeled cart.
Some of the spectators were also off-kilter. A man dressed as Uncle Fester on "The Addams Family" strutted around with glowing lightbulbs sprouting from his mouth and a mechanical hand flopping on top of his head.
The event unfolded Tuesday night at the Zorthian ranch in Altadena, a 45-acre hilltop property littered with eccentric sculptures, rusting jalopies and the occasional rubber chicken. Ranch owner Jirayr Zorthian, an elfish 91-year-old, served as one of the pageant judges. Joining him on the panel were radio host Dr. Demento, a.k.a. Barret Hansen, and two dozen former Doo Dah Parade queens and grand marshals.
Seated behind a roaring bonfire, the judges hurled barbed questions -- and sometimes marshmallows -- at each of the 21 queen contestants.
"Do you know what an LAPD chokehold is and can you apply it to yourself?" they asked a drag-queen cop after hearing his rendition of "Wild Thing."
"Don't you think you've milked that costume long enough and it's time to come as someone else?" they said to a Charlie Chaplin impersonator who had auditioned for queen several years running.
The first contestant of the evening was Mutiny Spears, a drag queen version of Britney, decked out in a blue wig and twinkling electric body lights. Next up was the oxygen tank lady, who announced she was awaiting a lung transplant and was "dying to be queen."
Other entrants included a belly dancer, a Cruella De Vil drag queen, a blues singer, a Carmen Miranda clone and Count Smokula, whose main talent, aside from playing the accordion, was mugging for the TV cameras. He had plenty of company. When a Channel 9 camerawoman flipped on her lights, contestants fluttered around it like moths to a flame.
But the pageant's camp factor quickly wore thin as the judges talked over each other and asked increasingly tasteless questions; and some of the contestants were so busy trying to whoop up media attention they drowned out the rest of the event. One judge finally warned them to knock it off or risk being disqualified.
"Too many people trying too hard to be funny," muttered one attendee.
Nevertheless, a Doo Dah queen was found amid the din. Molly McIntosh, a willowy 21-year-old in a long white jacket, impressed the judges with her bloodline. "I think I should be queen because my mom and dad were the first king and queen of the Doo Dah Parade" 26 years ago, she said. "That makes me Doo Dah royalty."
To bolster her claim to the throne, McIntosh produced a rusty saw and played it with a violin bow. After her coronation, McIntosh expressed surprise that her talent helped her chances: "Everyone here can play the saw if they want. I've only been playing a month."
The latest incarnation of the Doo Dah Parade, which began in the late 1970s as a spoof of the Rose Parade, will snake down Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard on Nov. 24. Although the parade has been around for years, public tryouts for queen began relatively recently, in 1996. Contestants have included animals dressed as people, people dressed as animals, rejected Rose Queen contenders and even a photocopy of a candidate.
One of the most unusual entrants was Lily Hobge. Or rather, her cremated ashes. In 1997, her widowed husband, Claude, told judges, "I'm here on the part of my beautiful wife, Lily. We always enjoyed the Doo Dah Parade and one of her last wishes was to be queen. And she is in this box."
The judges created a special title that year, "Queen of the Hereafter."