Grand Marshals On Parade: How A Practical Job Became An Honor

Published: Tuesday, May 17, 2016 - 4:46pm
Updated: Tuesday, May 17, 2016 - 8:22pm

(Photo courtesy of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses)
Arnold Palmer was grand marshal of the 1965 Rose Parade.

Here’s an interesting help wanted ad: the Phoenix Veterans Day Parade is seeking seven grand marshals. As the saying goes, everybody loves a parade, perhaps none more than the person who is honored with the title grand marshal. But what does the title mean? What are they marshaling, and what’s so grand about it? 

Let’s start with one of the longest running parades in the country — the Rose Parade.

“Well, the concept of a grand marshal in a parade was actually, from every historical fact we can find, born in Pasadena, California,” said Bill Flinn, executive director of the Tournament of Roses, which puts on the parade.

And he said their first grand marshal dates back to their first parade. The year was 1890, and parades were much more about horses than about floats plastered with paper mache. Flinn said it was common for the equestrian units to have marshals.

“And instead of having all of these different marshals, the Tournament of Roses organizers decided we need a grand marshal to kind of marshal them all,” Flinn said.

It was a very functional post. The first grand marshal filled the position for seven different Rose Parades, riding up and down, keeping every man and horse in line. Then the roaring '20s hit.

“The Tournament of Roses turned this into more of an honorary position,” Flinn said.

No horseback experience necessary.

“These were usually individuals who were significant in their particular world, including U.S. presidents, astronauts, veterans, sports figures, and movie figures," he said.

Shirley Temple was grand marshal of the Rose Parade three times, joining the likes of Richard Nixon, Arnold Palmer and Kermit the Frog. A grand marshal became someone who the audience could look up to, both literally and figuratively.

“Well I think one of the things about parades is they can serve so many different purposes,” said Orin Starn, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University. 

“So you can use them to celebrate a victory in war, or you can use them to celebrate a saint’s day. You can use them for political purposes — the March on Washington, a gay rights march,” Starn said. 

Starn said parades are huge communal celebrations where people gather to celebrate one identity. And that experience is what still pulls the audience in year after year.  

And to them, the grand marshal may be just one small part of a bigger, louder, more colorful picture. Sometimes the position of Grand Marshal is most important to the person holding the title.

“My story starts in 1951,” said veteran Pete Haas.

Long before Haas was a grand marshal in the Phoenix Veterans Day Parade, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.

“We were shipped directly to Korea,” Haas said. 

Haas came home wounded and unwelcome after an unpopular war. 

“When we came back, people turned their back to us," he said.

In 2008, Haas was in the Veterans Day Parade for the first time. 

“As soon as the parade left the staging area, somebody yelled ‘Thank you for your service.’ It was the first time in over 50 years that I heard that,” Haas said.

Haas became a parade grand marshal in 2012. He calls it the greatest honor of his life. 

“And my PTSD and the nightmares that I lived with for so many years went away,” Haas said.

Once a thankless job to organize men on horseback, the title of grand marshal today is one that’s all about thanks. Thank you for your service, contributions, legacy left behind. Take it from this former Rose Parade grand marshal, Mr. Rogers: “Thank you. Two of the best words we can ever learn."

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