There are few things that embody the creative spirit of Pasadena better than the Doo Dah Parade, which has been bringing some of the city’s most colorful characters together nearly every year since 1978. 


Packed with dozens of utterly ridiculous floats featuring colorfully named groups including the BBQ & Hibachi Marching Grill Team, the Shopping Cart Drill Team, the Bastard Sons of Lee Marvin, Claude Rains & the 20-Man Memorial Invisible Man Marching Drill Team, as well as the popular local band Snotty Scotty and the Hankies, the Doo Dah serves as an alternative to the staid traditionalism of the Rose Parade each year. 


In fact, in stark contrast to that vaunted parade’s status as the kickoff to each year due to its being held on Jan. 1 or 2, the Doo Dah is held on unpredictably differing dates. As he heads the preparations for this year’s bacchanalian festivities on Nov. 20, the parade’s lead organizer — Tom Coston of the Light Bringer Project arts collective — reflected on what makes it all so special. 


“We think there are a few things that go into making the Doo Dah Parade uniquely creative,” explains Coston. “First of all, it’s genuinely a people-powered event, meaning each year’s parade is driven by our participants’ own devices and imaginations. We have no themes, nor do we place any controls on its content.


“We see it as a staging ground for whatever creative urges people feel inclined to share with the public,” continues Coston. “In this way, it’s really a kind of annual temperature gauge for what people find interesting, funny or even socially relevant.”


Another key element of the Doo Dah’s success is the fact that Coston and his team, co-led by Paddy Hurley, strive to eliminate any division between the parade’s audience and its entrants. As the parade travels in an odd circular pattern across several blocks of East Pasadena, attendees are able to cheer the floats on from just feet away and with little or none of the massive security operation that goes into ensuring the Rose Parade comes off without a hitch before its massive worldwide audience. 


“Many of our entries began as viewers and said, ‘We can do that!’” explains Coston. “We want it to be as democratic as possible and also encourage viewers to dress up, leave their stress at home and make the Doo Dah experience into their own rite of reversal.” 


Coston believes that Pasadena lends itself to being the perfect host city for the Doo Dah because of its unique history in the arts, as a primary location for the American plein-air painters and the Arroyo Arts and Crafts movement of the early part of the 20th century. He also cites its geography, climate and “and the feeling here in the early days of envisioning a different lifestyle.” 


In addition, he believes Pasadena has been distinguished by its legacy of volunteerism, especially from the city’s women, whom he cites as having long been the key forces behind bringing the city’s art institutions into existence.


“Now we boast as many standout, nationally recognized cultural and educational institutions than most world-class cities,” says Coston. “It’s no surprise to us that this is the place a Pasadena Doo Dah Parade would spontaneously emerge, along with all the incredible arts nonprofits and cultural events that distinguish us as a center of the arts and science.”


Having spawned similar Doo Dah Parades in cities as far-flung as Ocean City, New Jersey, Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Columbus, Ohio, Coston can only look back and laugh while marveling at how such an absurd idea drew such a devoted following. In the end, he can only speak for his own creative spark, knowing that it has inspired countless others through the Doo Dah and the Light Bringer Project’s other works including the Pasadena Chalk Festival. 


“When I was very young I used to love imagining myself in different creative settings mounting adventurous projects, which is really funny because I think it was a precursor to the work I’ve been doing,” Coston concludes. “People really spark my interest — people and big ideas. And I was also a young, aspiring accordionist, so that leads you off the beaten path no matter what.” n