The strangest pageant of all
Ann Erdman named grand marshal; Doo Dah Queen tryouts set for Sunday
By Carl Kozlowski 03/29/2012
While millions of people start each year off by watching the Rose Parade roll through the streets of Pasadena, for a hardy band of several thousand eccentrics and their friends, the greatest parade of the year is an entirely different event: the Doo Dah Parade. And this Sunday brings the Crown City tryouts for this year’s Doo Dah Queen, who will preside over the 35th Occasional edition of the oddball festivities April 28 in East Pasadena.
Although the event has had its regular and recurring characters over the years, in modern times there has been not only a traditional queen, but also a grand marshal. This year that honor goes to retiring Pasadena Public Information Officer Ann Erdman, it was announced Monday.
“If there’s anyone who walks to the beat of her own drum and appreciates a good laugh, it’s Ann,” said Tom Coston, head of the Light Bringer Project, producers of the parade. After coming to Pasadena more than 20 years ago from Palm Springs, where she served as PIO, Erdman became involved with the irreverent event soon after Light Bringer took charge in 1996. Since then, Erdman, who is retiring this week, has led marchers in the parade dressed as a flower child, a motorcycle mama, a baby in a giant high chair, Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz, a captain of industry and Elvis.
“This is a wonderful way to celebrate as I wind down my career,” Erdman said in a prepared statement. “Our city considers itself artistically rich, and Doo Dah proves that the arts don’t have to be stuffy to matter.”
People of all genders, shapes and sizes are invited to try out for the honor of being Doo Dah Queen, and as a result the tryouts are among the most unique competitions on the planet.
According to parade spokeswoman Patricia Hurley, the tryouts are a combination of “a beauty pageant and ‘The Gong Show,’” and since the whole point is to maintain a freewheeling vibe, she and fellow judges simply wait “to see what will show up.”
“Last year we had a big group of men and women in twirling hoop skirts, and it was pretty crazy to look at,” says Hurley, who tends to laugh uncontrollably while discussing anything involving the parade. “Then we had a lady who normally is Marilyn Monroe, who’s become Sarah Palin, then last year she was an Overeaters Anonymous woman trying to cram in as many cupcakes in her mouth as possible in three minutes’ time, and it was disgusting.”
Hurley notes that there are always contestants who use elements of “Star Wars” and superheroes in their costume themes, as well as plenty who use canine compatriots to accessorize their entry. And as with any great American event, from the Olympics to the Academy Awards, even the Doo Dah Parade tryouts have moments of genuine human emotion and elements of surprise.
“Last year there happened to be a girl who cooked in the American Legion kitchen and had watched for years from afar, wanting to try out longingly, and last year she was the Angel Weenie Slinger of Post 280,” laughs Hurley, in reference to the American Legion post, where the tryouts are improbably held. “I thought she was a comedian, because she was really hilarious, but she was just a last-minute entry. Some people plan their costumes from Halloween on.”
As an unofficial historian of the loosely-run parade, Hurley offers a broad history of how the tryouts began. As one might expect, it’s a tale rife with drunkenness and other behavior best left largely forgotten.
“The tryouts started in 1997, and before that the Doo Dah founder Peter Apanel always picked the queens,” recalls Hurley. “Some of the parades didn’t even have queens, but we wanted to formalize that aspect of it at least and said we’d have one from then on. Since we were the counter-programming response to the Tournament of Roses Parade, we knew that we needed to have our own version of their Wrigley Mansion headquarters.”
Indeed, the search began high and low for a house that could provide a ridiculous alternative to the TofR’s stately offices, and eventually the answer fell right into their laps. It was an almost-Zen moment, a perfect (well, for them, at least) spot donated by “this guy named Jimmy Morris” who offered to let them use his property in Northwest Pasadena as often as often as needed.
In keeping with the ramshackle luck and tone of the Doo Dah, however, the building/space offered by Morris, a local developer, had one big problem.
“We found out the house was on stilts, not firmly planted in the ground like we thought and expected,” says Hurley. “So we couldn’t hang out in the house, but could hang plenty around its outside. It was like our anti-Tournament House.”
But even eccentrics with a sense of humor like Hurley have basic needs, and after a few annual tryout sessions amid miserably cold weather, they gave up on the Morris house and moved onto a property that had long been a local legend: the Zorthian Ranch in Altadena, where a fire pit kept everyone warm throughout each year’s tryouts.
Eventually the group moved to its current home, the American Legion outpost in East Pasadena, where there’s plenty of space for the house bands each year — Snotty Scotty and the Hankies and Horses on Astroturf — to perform, as well as a full cash bar, fun food like burgers and pool tables to play on. The hall’s location also fits the parade better, since it moved from Old Pasadena to East Pasadena in 2009.
“It’s always inside here, so we can hold the tryouts no matter what,” says Hurley. “And the nicest part is we raise money for the American Legion with the cover charges, and they pass it on to their favorite charity, which is awesome.”
The Doo Dah Queen Tryouts, with performances by bands Snotty Scotty and the Hankies and Horses on Astroturf, start at 2 p.m. Sunday, with audition signups at 3 p.m., the actual competition at 4:30 p.m. and crowning at 7:30 p.m., all at the American Legion, 179 N. Vinedo St., Pasadena. Admission is $5, although the first 20 competitors to enter are admitted for free. Call (626) 590-1134 or visit pasadenadoodahparade.info.