The Downey Rose Float Assn. chose an under-the-sea theme for its Rose Parade… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)
The 121st Rose Parade offered up a message befitting the bright, sunny skies as it celebrated heroes of all kinds, from the steely nerved pilot who guided a US Airways plane to a safe landing in the Hudson River to a troop of soulful-eyed pack mules that helped train U.S. Marines to survive in the mountains of Afghanistan.
After a tough year that left many wishing for uplifting news and more champions, spectators along the Pasadena parade route said they appreciated the presence Friday of so many role models -- some in the flesh and some made of poppy seeds.
"How wonderful to have someone as grand marshal who saved lives," said Margo Bishop of San Clemente about the choice of Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger to lead the 41 floats, 22 marching bands and 23 equestrian units in the parade.
Other spectators found inspiration in a band from a village in the highlands of Guatemala that made it to the parade after a massive fundraising effort by members of Los Angeles' Guatemalan community.
"In November, we almost canceled the hotel because we didn't have the money," said Karla Alonzo, a Toluca Lake resident who was born in Guatemala City and helped raise funds. "There were some sleepless nights, but now we are saying, 'Guatemala, sí se puede -- we did it!' "
As the band approached, its leaders decked out in white suits with red embroidery representing the country's indigenous roots, a group of Guatemalan immigrants at Lake Avenue and Colorado Boulevard leaped to their feet, furiously waving their nation's flag.
"Guatemala! Guatemala!" they chanted, as well as "Dance! Dance!"
Band members, meanwhile, predicted that the day would be among their most memorable.
"This took a lot of work and it takes a lot of our time, but thanks to God we were able to do it and we are here," said Eden Garzona, 19, standing in formation with a trombone resting at his side. "This is for sure going to be one of the best memories of my life."
All along the route, the crowd was in an appreciative mood: Even the pooper-scoopers cleaning up droppings from parade horses got adoring shout-outs.
Other crowd favorites were the Natural Balance Pet Foods float, which featured bulldogs on snowboards that whooshed down a 16-foot-high ski run and then rode a tram back to the top, as well as movie star and martial artist Jackie Chan, whose presence on the Shanghai World Expo float sent the crowd into fits. The parade was broadcast live in China.
"This is so exciting," said Laura Jennings, 44, of West Virginia. "I came with my mother; it was her 'once in a lifetime' dream." Jennings said the morning got off to a chilly start, but then corrected herself -- it was not that chilly.
"I'm from Pittsburgh originally, so I'm thinking, 'This is pretty nice,' " she said with a laugh as she held onto her coffee cup.
Fans from rainy places, here to support the University of Oregon and Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, gaped in appreciation at the spectacle originally started in the late 1800s as an advertisement for the Southern California lifestyle.
"The beauty and the smells, the people. It's the stuff you don't get on TV," said Matt Leib, 24, an Ohio State alum who lives in Philadelphia. He added that he was particularly taken aback by the number of people who camped out overnight.
From Oregon, meanwhile, sisters Marissa and Mackenzie Neitling came south with a plan to pay homage to Pasadena by dressing as "Little Old Ladies" in the style of the Jan and Dean hit.
But despite their gray wigs, ratty dresses and huge sign explaining who they were, the locals did not seem to appreciate their get-up, they said, noting that when they wore the outfit in Oregon it went over better.
"The people in Pasadena don't get it! Maybe the older crowd does," Marissa said.
For Southern California residents, of course, the parade is a hallowed family tradition.
Chancela Al-Mansour, 39, of Eagle Rock brought her two daughters, as she does every year. She said she was particularly excited about seeing the Tuskegee Airmen; 15 members of the black World War II servicemen's unit rode on West Covina's float.
"I wanted to come to honor them. . . . There are so few of them left," she said, adding that it was a way to teach her daughters about history.
This year's parade, whose theme was "A Cut Above the Rest," boasted so many heroes that some didn't know where to turn in their admiration.
Astronaut Leland D. Melvin, who rode on the Ronald McDonald House float along with several children who have survived cancer, said he was particularly moved by one child who had suffered multiple bouts in high spirits and now wants to be a doctor.
As for being an astronaut, Melvin said as his float rolled by, "It's not just being on the pointy end of a rocket. All of us have to make some change and do everything we can to inspire the next generation of explorers."