WHEN I WAS A KID growing up in Calumet City, Illinois, the big event was the Memorial Day Parade. An hour before noon on the last Monday of May, I’d walk to the corner with my brother and mother and father and neighbors, and we’d set up nylon lawn chairs on the grass median along Wentworth Avenue, Cal City’s main drag. There we’d share root beer and conversation as we waited for the six-block-long parade, which featured appearances by the high school marching band and Mayor Bob, who waved like a jowly JFK from the back of a convertible Cadillac festooned with paper carnations. My brother and I always walked away sated, our pockets bulging with mini Tootsie Rolls and cellophane-wrapped butterscotch and peppermints. It was a tradition—a yearly reminder to us kids that summer was imminent and a confirmation to our parents that all was well with our city.
Now that I have two grade-schoolers of my own, you’d think I’d be the first person out at the curb to see the KeyBank Grand Floral Parade, the Portland Rose Festival’s main event. Attracting a crowd of 400,000, it’s the second-largest floral parade in the country (behind Pasadena, California’s Rose Parade). But in the 10 years since my wife and I arrived from New York City, the closest we’ve ever come to watching the parade is a passing glimpse of the marching bands queuing on N Interstate Avenue near our home.
Why, when our family has embraced so much else about this city, have we shrugged our shoulders at what is supposed to be Portland’s signature event? Because the Grand Floral Parade is not my parade. Nor is it really Portland’s anymore. In the 100 years since it was conceived of as a community-built procession showcasing the bounty of the city’s gardens, it’s devolved into a spectacle that, sadly, has lost its identity. Today the parade, and the festival that revolves around it, are in desperate need of an overhaul.
The kind of grassroots effort that spawned the first Grand Floral Parade is precisely what’s missing from today’s Rose Festival.
The Rose Festival got its start as a grassroots civic celebration, staged by Portlanders and for Portlanders in homage to our signature flower. At least that’s the message that resonates in From One Rose, a retrospective documentary that the Rose Festival Association commissioned to commemorate its centennial last year. The 90-minute documentary (showing at the Hollywood Theatre June 7) tells the story of the Rose Festival’s birth in 1907, when John Carroll, who relocated from Denver to publish the Portland Evening Telegram, dared the city to stage a “rose carnival and fiesta” that would cement Portland’s newly adopted nickname. The highlight would be a “Parade of the Roses” resplendent with locally harvested blooms. The day before the main event, the Evening Telegram and other newspapers published frantic appeals, urging the community to donate as many flowers as it could spare. Across the city, people cut thousands of roses and other blooms from their gardens and handed them off to trolley conductors, who delivered the donations to the Armory downtown, overwhelming a squad of 125 volunteer float builders.
The June 21, 1907, evening edition of the Oregon Journal newspaper splashed a triumphant recap of the parade across its front page: “Miles of rose-wreathed cars and cabs crawling at procession pace through the streets lined with thousands of rose-bedecked celebrators,” it read. “The whole city, spurred on by the notable success of yesterday, has lent its aid in making complete in every detail the unprecedented display of floral beauty.”
The kind of grassroots effort—in which the citizenry unites to create a singular spectacle—that spawned the first Grand Floral Parade is precisely what’s missing from today’s Rose Festival. Over the decades, festival organizers embellished, and eventually smothered, the main event with ever more elaborate pageantry and programming: an air show in 1933, a kids’ parade in 1936, the Waterfront Park carnival in 1972, the Starlight Parade in 1976, Indy races in 1984. By 1989, the Rose Festival, which had begun as a weekend celebration centered on a parade, stretched on for weeks, and, with affiliated events, well into the summer, until it seemed that the festival had ballooned into a never-ending party—but nobody seemed to recall what the party was for. It’s as though the parade has become an afterthought.