Award-winning float builder Phoenix Decorating Company will produce The Huntington’s float in the 2020 Rose Parade®. The floral entry is part of the institution’s yearlong Centennial Celebration (September 2019–September 2020) and is funded by individual donations.
When New Year's Day dawns on Jan. 1, 2020, tens of thousands of spectators will line Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, bundled up against the morning chill to be part of a 131-year-old tradition: the annual floral extravaganza known as Rose Parade®. Millions more will watch the parade on television or stream it live online. Marching bands will stir the spirit, equestrian teams in full regalia will add pageantry and grace, and dozens of whimsical, fantastical, and breathtaking floats will glide down the 5.5-mile route, delighting viewers young and old.
This year, for the first time in half a century, The Huntington will join the historic procession, highlighting its Centennial Celebration with a flower-decked entry of its own. Designed by award-winning float builder Phoenix Decorating Company (and funded entirely by individual donations), the float will include a number of familiar features, from Mary Cassatt’s beloved Impressionist painting Breakfast in Bed to the Pavilion of the Three Friends in the Chinese Garden. (And watch out for three infamous little stinkers hitching a ride on the back!)
This is not the first time, however, that The Huntington and its collections have inspired a float in the Rose Parade. As we look forward to 2020, here is a look back at three memorable parades from the past.
In 1928, real estate developer J. B. Ransom Corp. entered a commercial float in the parade to advertise its new residential subdivision in San Marino, which had been given the picturesque moniker “Gainsborough Heath”—a nod to the British art collection residing nearby at The Huntington. The float was the brainchild of promoter James Tillworth (J. T.) Edwards. “He was primarily a cartographer,” said his granddaughter, Cynthia Castain, “but he also did a lot of promotional work for new subdivision developments, for the Union Pacific Railroad, the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. His children were often used in his promotions.”
For the Gainsborough Heath entry, it was only natural that Edwards would borrow a few artful elements from The Huntington, including Thomas Gainsborough’s most famous portrait, The Blue Boy. The artist himself could be seen on the float, standing at an easel with paintbrush and palette, while a rosy-cheeked youth dressed in a familiar blue silk suit posed with hand on hip. “My Aunt Honey was the model,” said Castain, “and my grandfather was Gainsborough!” Several additional costumed riders portrayed other portrait sitters. Behind them stood a quaint little house—a home buyer’s dream of half-timbered Olde English charm—overlooking a cottage garden brimming with roses.
In 1928, a commercial float designed by J. T. Edwards advertised the new “Gainsborough Heath” residential subdivision in San Marino. The float, and the subdivision, were inspired by The Huntington’s British art collections. Edwards rode the float dressed as Thomas Gainsborough, and his daughter Honey portrayed The Blue Boy. J. T. Edwards Photograph Collection. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
J. T. Edwards kept photograph albums to document his Gainsborough Heath float and other professional projects. Castain generously donated the albums to The Huntington in 2015.
In 1940, the City of San Marino entered its own float in the Rose Parade®. The design drew inspiration from two local landmarks: Lacy Park, with its beloved rose garden and vine-covered pergola, and The Huntington. The San Marino Tribune, in a retrospective story that ran nearly three decades later, in 1968, described the floral elements of the float, among them “a pergola of white mums, covered with roses and wisteria clusters and lavender sweet peas. On either side of the pergola were beds of snapdragons, delphiniums, larkspur, candy tuft, and chrysanthemums. At the back of the float were four cypress trees and seven rose bushes, while the aprons of the float were decorated with Scotch heather furnished by the botanical gardens at the Huntington Library.”
And, of course, the float included two well-known figures straight out of the Huntington Art Gallery.
Thirteen-year-old Marillyn McCormick (now Vanderhoof) was an eighth-grader at San Marino’s Huntington School when she was selected to represent Pinkie on the city’s float in the 1940 parade. Wearing a white muslin dress and a bonnet with streaming pink ribbons, she was the youthful embodiment of Sir Thomas Lawrence’s famous portrait from 1794. Vanderhoof is now 93 years old, but her experience as a parade participant is still quite vivid in her mind. “It was fun and memorable,” she told her daughter, Karen Ward, who shared her mother’s recollections for this story. “It was one of my most favorite memories of my life.” Vanderhoof still remembers the name of her classmate Greg Peters, who rode with her on the float dressed as The Blue Boy. She recalls having to wait a long time for the parade to start, and of wearing long underwear beneath her dress to stay warm (as many float riders do today). Another indelible memory: holding up her arm, mimicking Pinkie’s pose, as the float made its slow progress down Colorado Boulevard.
Marillyn McCormick Vanderhoof, who portrayed Pinkie on the City of San Marino’s float in the 1940 parade, remembers holding up her arm to mimic the portrait’s pose. Accompanying her on the float and representing The Blue Boy was Greg Peters, her eighth-grade classmate. (This photograph appeared in a retrospective story that was published in the San Marino Tribune on July 8, 1968.) The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
For The Huntington’s 50th anniversary in 1969, the City of San Marino sponsored a float that organizers promised would be “one of the most outstanding in the parade,” designed by legendary float builder Isabella Coleman. (It was one of Coleman’s last commissions; she retired in 1969.) A committee was formed to select a theme, and they wanted something with international relevance. Marillyn McCormick Vanderhoof—a parade veteran by then, thanks to her 1940 role as Pinkie—headed the committee. The theme “A Day at The Huntington Library” was ultimately chosen, reflecting the institution’s growing reputation as a cultural destination.
The 55-foot-long entry was equal in size to the largest commercial floats in the parade and included a replica of the Library’s neoclassical entrance, floral depictions of Pinkie and The Blue Boy, and an exquisitely detailed rendering of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that was worthy of a medieval scribe. The San Marino Tribune reported that a group of 12 high school students worked for four days gluing seeds to the pages by hand. Riding on the float were Miss San Marino, Chris Huston, and local fifth-graders Alicen Armstrong, Mimi Blakeslee, and Myles Kelley. The float was funded by contributions from civic groups, service clubs, and local residents, including $1,500 for orchids and red roses that would give it, in the words of float committee chairman (and chief fundraiser) Frank Dessel, “the grace and beauty for which Coleman floats had been noted throughout the years.” The community’s support was well rewarded: The float won the Grand Marshal’s trophy for exceptional merit in a noncommercial entry.
Author Rick Hamlin, who wrote the parade organization’s centennial history, Tournament of Roses: A 100-Year Celebration (McGraw-Hill, 1988), was a 14-year-old San Marino middle-schooler the year of the 1969 parade. “I remember it well. Pinkie and Blue Boy in petals.” His father, Thornton Hamlin Jr., was involved with the volunteer leadership of the Tournament of Roses Association. (The elder Hamlin would eventually preside over the 1983 parade.) “As a committee member of the T. of R., Dad had to go around to the float building places to check on how they were doing, making sure things were safe, and I remember tagging along,” recalled Hamlin. “One of the things I remember doing with him was sitting where the float driver sits and seeing how tricky it was to navigate, peeking out through a flower-encrusted ‘windshield.’”
Legendary float builder Isabella Coleman designed the 1969 float that marked The Huntington’s 50th anniversary. The 55-foot-long float won the Grand Marshal’s trophy for exceptional merit in a noncommercial entry. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
Hamlin noted that the Tournament of Roses has always sought to balance parade participation between deep-pocket corporate sponsors and nearby cities and institutions, like San Marino and The Huntington, that have long been part of the fabric of the community. “It’s interesting to consider how ‘unknown’ The Huntington was back then, 50 years ago. A best-kept secret,” he said. Exposure on national television—broadcast in living color, no less—helped raise the institution’s profile.
Today, as The Huntington begins its second century, reaching out to new audiences is as important as ever. The 2020 Rose Parade® will be an incredible highlight of the Centennial Celebration year and an opportunity to share the institution’s treasures with viewers around the world. The collections have touched the lives of generations of visitors, and we hope they will inspire new visitors, and old friends, in fresh and exciting ways for the next 100 years.
Want to help decorate The Huntington’s float in the 2020 Rose Parade®? Information about volunteering can be found on The Huntington’s website.
Lisa Blackburn is senior editor and special projects manager in the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Huntington.