ABOARD THE 'RHAPSODY IN BLUE' -- Lean bars: check. Seat belts: check. Sound system: check.
Tuba: Where's the tuba?
"We need the tuba!" shouted orchestra conductor Sue Kesinger. She had a Rose Parade float to load up with 30 band members. "Tuba? Yeah, that would be you. Get up here." He scrambled into place.
In moments, the city of Cerritos' float would approach the glow of television spotlights. At the top of Colorado and Orange Grove boulevards in Pasadena, it would begin its two-hour, 5 1/2-mile glide in front of a virtually endless crowd of cheering, waving, chip-munching, horn-blowing people who would come alive as the floral monstrosity -- among the parade's longest entries at 75 feet -- drifted past.
As the float's 41 riders found their places and the float's 500-cubic-inch engine hummed, driver Wes Hupp gave the final but most important instructions.
"I'm going to try and make it all smooth, but there may be a little of this...." He dramatically jerked his body forward. "So put your straps on tight. Remember to help each other down in case we have to evacuate. And otherwise, have a great ride."
No detail was too small, no instructions too insignificant. Everyone and everything, down to the uncrushed iris carpet and two gently swaying orchid chandeliers, was perfectly in place when the float made the biggest right turn of Niccole Simons' life.
"Oh, my God, I'm ready to start crying," the 18-year-old said as they turned onto Colorado Boulevard to see packed bleachers that reached high like human skyscrapers.
And as if on cue, the float riders were overcome by the urge to wave. Elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist is the parade mantra.
The huge float commanded attention. The crowd cheered, snapped pictures and shouted superlatives. The Gershwin classic "Rhapsody in Blue" blasted from the amplifiers as the student orchestra, made up of the top musicians in the ABC Unified School District, pretended to play along. They had recorded the piece earlier.
The "Rhapsody," designed by float artist Raul Rodriguez and winner of the Craftsman Trophy, was a replica of Cerritos' Center for the Performing Arts lobby. Pretending to be at a concert, the men were in tuxedos and the women in designer dresses. Mayor Gloria A. Kappe, 65, was resplendent in her two diamond rings and a blue St. John Knits formal. Lisa Yi, 17, California Junior Miss and a Cerritos student, wore a slinky blue silk gown with a plunging back neckline.
"You're beautiful, BEAUTIFUL," shouted one camera-clicking woman. It was unclear if she was commenting on Yi, Kappe or the "Rhapsody."
"It's magnificent -- look at those hydrangeas," said one woman, an obvious "Rhapsody" reference.
The parade's route was odiferous, but not with the scent of roses. Instead, whiffs of popcorn, churros, carne asada and horse manure filled the air. The crowd ate countless bags of potato chips and Doritos. Children screamed for riders to throw them a floral memento. None did. It's against the rules.
Despite the noise, smells and music, many spectators slept through the parade, snuggled in curbside sleeping bags.
Some shouted hearty "Happy New Year's," trying to engage any float rider they could in a one-on-one moment amid the moving masses of floral wonders.
Kappe aggressively took the challenge, making eye contact and waving with gusto. Simons appeared awestruck, giving generic off-in-space waves and making little eye contact. Then, just as the riders achieved a rhythm of waving, just when the crowd seemed at its peak of excitement, the music went out. The amplifier had overheated. Silence.
Instantly, the crowd turned.
"Where's the music?" yelled some.
"Play something! Play something!" a man shouted.
A woman in the bleachers stood up with a grimace, waving her arms as if she were a conductor. "Do something," she howled.
The problem was, not all orchestra members had memorized the music.
"Keep waving, keep smiling," Kesinger ordered.
It was cold. With temperatures in the mid-40s, the chill enveloped the "Rhapsody." Riders shivered, blowing into their hands. And now the crowd was frosty too.
"I thought they were going to start throwing things at us," saxophonist Patrick Dela Torre said. "I didn't think people would actually start booing at us."
After about two miles, music again flowed from the cooled-down amp. The crowd was pleased again and resumed its chorus of "Happy New Year!"
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Rose Parade trophy winners
Sweepstakes Trophy: FTD's "Love Songs," for outstanding floral presentation and design.
Leishman Trophy: Long Beach's "Underwater Melody," for most beautiful noncommercial float.
Grand Marshal's Trophy: Rain Bird Corp.'s "Springtime Symphony," for excellence in creative concept and design.
President's Trophy: Longaberger Co.'s "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," for most effective floral use and presentation.
Director's Trophy: City of Alhambra's "The Banana Boat Song," for outstanding artistic merit in design and floral presentation.