To those who trekked West in the 1870s and ’80s, Pasadena was a veritable paradise, part of a sun-drenched valley shadowed by a beautiful mountain range that birthed a sparkling stream which nourished expansive citrus groves.

Plus, the clean and fragrant air here never really got all that cold, in razor-sharp contrast to the harsh winters and sickening industrial pollution overtaking rapidly urbanizing eastern cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and New York, from which these settlers came. 

But just as this was no ordinary place, these were anything but average people. These folks didn’t suffer the perils of long, uncomfortable journeys by covered wagon, as so many others had. They rode in the lap of luxury, whether by train or by coach. These were the captains of major American industries — the Busches (beer), the Wrigleys (chewing gum) and the Gambles (soap), among many others. Some of the richest families in America lived here not long after Pasadena incorporated as a city in 1886. 

These idle rich and others of equal or greater prominence embodied a carefree and adventurous spirit, one that was born in part of the comfort wealth brings and has made Pasadena famous. For them, life really was at times quite literally a carnival — often featuring live horses, birds and even bears as entertainment. And, being rich, they expected their anxiety-neutralizing fun to be presented in big, spectacular ways.

On Sunday, the Pasadena Museum of History will be celebrating Pasadena’s 130th anniversary as a city with “Happy Birthday Pasadena: Marvelous 130!” featuring an afternoon of circus aerial dance performances by Orange County Aerial Arts, with music by Southern California Band Organs and Pasadena Scottish Pipes & Drums. There will also be hands-on crafts for kids and adults to enjoy, and a cake-cutting ceremony marking the event.

This year’s theme is “Flying Horses & Mythical Beasts: The Magical World of Carousel Animals,” meant to incorporate the “carefree spirit” of the museum’s summer exhibition of handcrafted, ornately painted carousel ponies from years gone by. Curated by local conservator and collector Lourinda Bray, the exhibition features material from the renowned Bray Collection, spanning the history of carousels, from the mid-19th century to modern day, according to the museum’s website. Many examples are from the Golden Age of Carousels, 1861-1920. Brilliantly painted and gilded horses, lions, elephants, giraffes and sea serpents will be shown, including the work of contemporary master carvers from the San Gabriel Valley. 

These relics come from an era that saw much of that carefree spirit expressed in such public events as the first Rose Parade, as well as in chariot races that were once held in Tournament Park near Caltech, two years after the Rose Bowl was first played there in 1902. 

It was this same spirit that lived on in the operators of an ostrich farm in South Pasadena, where the giant flightless birds were used in races at the turn of the last century, and members of the Busch family, creators of the once magnificent Busch Gardens, which now are nothing more than ruins.

Today, the spirit that created these once-renowned gardens lives on in other, more modern but now institutionalized events that have come to define the community’s rather open attitude toward organized mirth and merriment.

Incredibly, we still have the Rose Parade, now in its 128th year, but today there are also events that literally scream “carefree,” as well as a few other adjectives — independent, edgy and artistic come to mind — when describing the community’s overall “spirit.”

Among the newcomers is the weird and wacky, absurd and asinine, drunk and disorderly, but always in good fun Doo Dah Parade, this year set for Nov. 22. It’s hard to believe, but the Rose Parade alternative, which moved from Old Pasadena to East Pasadena some years back, is now in its 39th “occasional” year.

Then there’s the Pasadena Chalk Festival, marking (no pun intended) its 24th year on June 18 and 19, attracting artists from around the world who etch, scratch and smooth out veritable masterworks into city sidewalks.

And there’s Make Music Pasadena. Now in its ninth year, Make Music Pasadena, set for Saturday, is a French idea adopted here in which musicians literally take over the city, with six main stages and 30 smaller ones set up throughout Old Pasadena and other parts of town for a carefree day full of great music everywhere one turns.

If people in the crowded audiences of these events — and those of the past — are not carefree, it’s difficult to imagine what would be required to relieve their stress.

Whatever we may call them, these fun-filled modern-day happenings that are now enmeshed with the city’s identity are indicative of a carefree creative charge that seems to have coursed through Pasadena’s spirit since its very beginning. n


“Happy Birthday Pasadena: Marvelous 130!” is from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Pasadena Museum of History, 470 W. Walnut St., Pasadena. City officials are expected to attend. A cake-cutting ceremony will be held at 2: 30 p.m. Admission and parking are free. Admission to the exhibition galleries is $7 per person; Museum members and children under 12 are free. Parking is free in the museum lot and on Walnut Street. Exhibition galleries are open from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. For more information, call (626) 577-1660 or visit