It’s not always easy to picture Pasadena’s lush, green Arroyo Seco as little more than a rocky canyon filled with dirt and debris. But it’s an apt description for the area as it was in the late 1800s to the early 1900s, as transplants from the East Coast and Midwest journeyed here.
Within a few decades, that rocky canyon in the northwest, at the base of the San Gabriels, would become the home of the Rose Bowl stadium — a stunning, city-owned jewel of an arena that has stood though the region’s population explosion, through 17 presidential administrations, multiple wars, the Great Depression and Recession, disco, myriuad models of cars and the traffic they comprise and a changing Southern California.
And now — even amid the tumult of a troubled world a pandemic and deepening political divides — the stadium is turning 100 this year.
Tonight, on the field, a lavish sold-out bash — complete with celebrities and well-known sports figures — will celebrate the centennial, and raise funds for a campaign to preserve and enhance the stadium in an era when it finds itself struggling for relevance in the shadow of such high-tech new competitors as Inglewood’s So-Fi Stadium.
Having served as the venue for such world-class events as the Olympic Games, World Cup soccer, the Super Bowl and concerts featuring best-selling artists, the Rose Bowl stadium holds a pivotal place in history, according to historians, politicians and community members.
Though battling debt woes and posh new competitors, the Rose Bowl is still one of the world’s defining sports and entertainment venues.
It has drawn tens of millions from all over the world in those 100 years, who would watch in awe as Jackie Robinson gained early glory on the gridiron; who would watch Cal center Roy Riegels — nicknamed “Wrong Way” ever since — pick up a Georgia Tech fumble, but run the wrong way and score a safety; who watched on that sweltering July day in 1999, as U.S. soccer legend Brandi Chastain tore off her jersey, looked to the sky and thrust her clenched fists skyward to celebrate her World Cup-snaring goal.
And it draws six-figure throngs each year to the “The Granddaddy of Them All,” its titular New Years Day college football spectacle. This year’s game was no exception, with Utah and Ohio State providing an unpredictable instant classic, watched by 16.6 million viewers, the second-ranked rating among games during the 2021-22 college football bowl season.
The list of moments goes on and on, from Rose Bowl Games to Super Bowls to Olympic events.
And what about the music that has echoed through her? U2, Beyonce, The Rolling Stones… And the local events — graduations of local schools, Fourth of July fireworks. Smiles. Bonds formed. Memories embedded. History.
All those eyes — and ears — focused on Pasadena.
A century ago, however, the area was a very different place.
When chariots raced in Pasadena
Flashback to the early 20th century.
Little did they know it then, but officials from those days were about to make perhaps the most savvy marketing decision of the era. And like so much in the area, it came down to showing off the roses.
“The Rose Bowl was really the first commercial for the Southern Californian lifestyle. They wanted to show their friends all over the country — mostly in the Midwest — that on January 1 their roses were blooming. So much so that they could put them on parade floats and march them down Colorado Boulevard,” recently named CEO of the Rose Bowl Jens Weiden said in an interview, retelling the story of the stadium’s origin some 32 years before its construction, when members of Pasadena’s Valley Hunt Club believed the group “should share their paradise with the world by engineering a festival.”
“It was like a chamber of commerce, because you forget that now California is a state where it’s so desired to be here it’s hard to find a place if you want to come,” Weiden said. “But at the time in the 1920s – as you see in the photos – there wasn’t much here. So to me, to understand the origins of why the game was started by the Valley Hunt Club then Tournament of Roses and why the stadium was built: it really is a commercial for California.”
The stadium came decades after the initial parade, which was a very different affair back then.
About 2,000 people turned out to enjoy the midwinter festival featuring flower-adorned carriages, foot-races, polo matches and tug-of-war matches on the town lot.
Members of Pasadena’s Valley Hunt Club first staged the parade in 1890. The myriad sprays of flowers and tournament games led to the recommendation that the festival be named “The Tournament of Roses,” according to historians.
As the celebration grew, however, participants began incorporating posy-packed floats and strutting marching bands. They’d become the traditions that still roll down Colorado Boulevard annually on New Year’s Day.
What, no football games? Not yet. The post-parade competitions included bronco-busting, ostrich riding and and a race between an elephant a camel (the elephant won, by the way). But the main attraction in Tournament Park – the name for the area before it was known as the Rose Bowl — from 1904 to 1915 was chariot racing.
But the first kickoff was on the distant horizon.
Corraling the crowds
Football had caught the nation’s attention at the turn of the century, but pretty much been put on hold during World War I.
With peace in place, the sport galloped back into action.
In 1920, crowds attending games in Pasadena had become so large and ungainly that city officials declared the football facilities at Tournament Park unsafe. The Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association was tasked with building a permanent stadium.
Famed architect Myron Hunt, who had a hand in crafting many of Pasadena’s iconic structures, including the Huntington Library in 1920, designed the Rose Bowl with the intent to shape it as a horseshoe, similar to the Yale Bowl built a few years prior in 1914.
The Arroyo Seco’s dry riverbed was selected as the location. Soon, horse-drawn wagons were heading to the hills to remove rocks and dirt.
Officials proudly say to this day the stadium was built by mules and men.
Weiden, himself, is impressed with the fact that it was built and paid for by the community, which sold 10-year, $100 box seats to raise funds for construction of the new facility.
“It was the equivalent of passing a hat,” Weiden said. “The cost was less than $300,000 — but at the time that’s a massive amount of money. And yet everybody came together to make a dream happen.”
Across Los Angeles County, another new ballyard was rising. But Pasadena’s aprk wrapped up work on Oct. 8 1922, just ahead of the nearby Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in May 1923.
The first game at the newly built Rose Bowl was a regular season contest on Oct. 28, 1922 featuring a 12-0 Cal victory over USC. (Don’t worry, the Trojans end up winning a few games on this field later on.)
The name of the stadium at the time was “Tournament of Roses Stadium” or “Tournament of Roses Bowl.”
It was later changed to the “Rose Bowl” before Jan. 1, 1923, which was the first time that the Rose Bowl Game was held at the actual Rose Bowl Stadium, according to the archives.
Fans got a taste of the tradition that would follow. And a taste of another L.A.-area tradition. The start of play was delayed more than an hour when Penn’s team was stuck in traffic.
Growing along with the audience
To accommodate the growing crowds, the stadium would be expanded several times over the years, becoming a complete bowl in 1926 when the southern stands were added.
“At a point you would think that a stadium that’s 200 years old would have things measured wrong or done incorrectly,” Weiden said, speaking to the precise measurements that allow the stadium to stand tall today. “But you can take a laser across that stadium, and it will be accurate centimeter by centimeter, symmetrical and sound, and, really, it’s a work of art. It’s like they say nowadays: built by hand back when we knew how to build things right.”
The stadium laid the foundation for Pasadena’s future, according to Sue Mossman, executive director of the Pasadena Heritage Society.
In 1901, almost two decades prior to the Rose Bowl’s construction, Pasadena had just become a charter city with an elected mayor.
Its population stood at an estimated 10,000 residents, according to the city’s website. But it soon exploded when Chinese and Mexican immigrants were brought in to work on the railroads. Black residents also began to settle in town, starting small businesses or working in the big houses and hotels.
Growing to a population of more than 30,000 by 1910, the city’s footprint increased through annexations to the north and east before San Rafael Heights and Linda Vista were added in 1914.
Both areas had been physically linked to the city by the Colorado Street Bridge in 1913, Mossman said, so it was easy to find a home in a neighboring suburb and traverse to the economic hub of Colorado Boulevard.
Today, Colorado Boulevard remains a lifeline to Pasadena such retailers as King Taco and Apple, but in its early years Old Pasadena was the “downtown,” Mossman said, describing the Victorian mansions that helped attract some of renowned architects and wealthy families to Orange Grove Boulevard.
There was no Pasadena freeway yet, either, according to Mossman. Instead, Pacific Electric cars, horse-drawn carriages and motorized vehicles purchased from Pasadena Automobile Stables – with no tops or sides and only one padded bench – bustled throughout the town’s early version of the Boulevard.
The vampire thriller “Nosferatu” hit theaters around the time of the stadium’s construction in 1922.
But what’s truly scary — well, surprising, anyway, according to Mossman — is the drastic change in landscape brought on by the one-of-a-kind bowl.
Pasadena continued to enjoy a reputation as a tourist center and winter resort for the wealthy through the end of the 1920’s, according to Mossman. “That was really important to the success of the parade and game going into the future because Pasadena was already considered a resort town before the Rose Bowl was built. But after, the area really started to boom.”
A bond issued in 1923 financed the construction of the city’s Civic Center, “which had only been talked about to that point,” according to Mossman. The Central Library opened four years later in 1927 followed by City Hall the same year.
An 100-inch telescope was installed atop Mount Wilson under the direction of Dr. George Ellery Hale in 1917 was another popular attraction to tourist and even Albert Einstein.
But the Rose Bowl has always stood out the most.
Millions of memories
“I don’t know how to best describe it,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said when the game was moved to Texas last year. “As a fifth-generation Californian, I feel like, you know, there was a Gold Rush and then there was a Rose Bowl. And so it’s been a big part of our lives — the Rose Bowl Parade, the game itself.”
Pasadena resident Donald E. Leis, who’s attended 74 Rose Bowls in his 90 years of life, echoed the belief in an interview, acknowledging he couldn’t imagine Pasadena without the stadium and “granddaddy of ’em all.”
Leis used to head to Brookside Park as a teenager “to sleep all night prior and then run to the gate in the morning where they sold a few tickets to get in to the game,” he said. “There was always fighting about who got in line first,” but in 1946 Leis and his friends decided to dig a tunnel under a fence so they could sneak in to see Alabama’s jump-passing halfback Harry Gilmer.
“The security guy grabbed us by the collar and said you guys are out of here. But I asked: Sir, could you just wait one minute so I can see Alabama great Harry Gilmer,” Leis recalled. “He told me to step to the end of the tunnel where I wasn’t blocking the view of anybody sitting in the seats, and I saw Harry Gilmer pass for a touchdown the next play.”
Leis joked the only person who’s taken more steps in the Rose Bowl than him is retired CEO Darryl Dunn.
And since the stadium still hosts commencement ceremonies and serves as home of the annual homecoming Turkey Tussle between Pasadena High School and John Muir High School, many in the community possess their own fond memories of a time in the Rose Bowl.
“Everybody has a story,” said Weiden, which is a testament to the strength and prestige of the arena and why stadium stewards are working to ensure the stadium lasts another 100 years.
“I don’t know if they had visions that this would be one of the marquee stadium concert sites in the world venue that hosted the Olympics and the World Cup. I don’t know if they had that vision, or if they just said we’re gonna build something that’s really cool. And we’re gonna make it a meeting grounds for people of Pasadena and LA,” Weiden said. “But I do know that our team now looking at the next 100 years which is really our our driver is looking at how we can respect our history and make sure that this place stays this beautiful, iconic, picturesque setting. But how does it evolve and stay relevant for another 100 years.”
City leaders hope recently approved soccer matches, concerts and other entertainment events boost the chances of the dream becoming a reality.
Weiden also hopes UCLA’s and USC’s recent departure to the Big Ten will help since so many alums of Big Ten schools reside in Southern California, a phenomenon many attribute to the annual matchup between Pac-12 and Big Ten schools in the Rose Bowl.
“Fast forwarding 100 years later from when it was built, you’ll have schools like Michigan, Ohio State and Minnesota still excited to come to the stadium for not just the Rose Bowl game but regular season matchups,” Weiden said, echoing Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren’s media day press conference.
“The Rose Bowl is part of the fabric of college football and hopefully it lasts another 100 years,” Weiden added, comparing the stadium to the Coliseum – not the one across the way in Exposition Park but the one in Rome.
“Where when you come and get a tour, they tell you they used to do events there,” Weiden said. “The Rose Bowl is cool because when you come and see it and we say this is the home of UCLA football, and the flea market, and concerts and so much else. And it’s 100 years old.”
“Our goal is to keep it that way,” Weiden added, “and make sure that when you get a tour of the Rose Bowl 100 years from now they don’t say we used to do events.”
He added: “They say this is still one of the coolest places on earth.”
Source: Orange County Register