It was May of 1982 and, just two months out from the nation’s birthday, the City of South Pasadena had nothing planned for the Fourth of July. No pancake breakfast, parade, or afternoon activities in Garfield Park. Not even a fireworks show.
Since its founding in 1888, the city had been unable to establish a lasting Independence Day tradition and, without the group of dedicated volunteers that formed for that seminal 1982 July 4 Extravaganza, led by then-mayor Ted Shaw and his wife Joan, it might have remained that way to this day.
The couple, who sat down for an interview earlier this week to reflect on the tradition that has become a point of pride for South Pasadena, remember the first July 4 celebration as a whirlwind of last-minute efforts to bring the city out in force.
“We didn’t have a lot of time,” Ted said, grinning. “And, from the very beginning, we were fighting people saying, ‘This is never going to work. Everybody is gone for the Fourth of July. Nobody’ll show.’”
Those doubts never bothered Ted and Joan, or any of the other dozen or so volunteers who dedicated themselves to mobilizing the community for the event.
“Our first objective was to kick off the day with something grand,” Ted said, “and that was breakfast.”
While a number of organizations declined the invitation to sponsor a pancake breakfast, the Kiwanis Club of South Pasadena accepted without hesitation.
“You couldn’t write enough about Kiwanis,” Ted said. “They took the breakfast on that first year not knowing if one person would come or a thousand, and they had to buy accordingly. They never questioned anything, they just said, ‘we’ll make this work.’ When you’re crawling, and somebody does that, it picks you up big time, and I’m forever in their thanks.”
Next, the celebration needed music. The high school marching band seemed the perfect option, only, there was one problem: school was out by July 4. Thus formed one of the Festival of Balloons’ oldest participants, the suitably named Minutemen Band. Assembled at the last minute, the initial group was a hodgepodge of South Pas High graduates who had returned to South Pas for the summer.
“There were maybe 25 people in the band that first year,” Joan said. “They hadn’t practiced much together, but it was their spirit that carried them.”
Today, led by Band Director Howard Crawford, the Minutemen Band is a blend of current and returning Tiger Marching Band members.
To market the event to the community, the Shaws knew they had to involve the city’s kids. They travelled to the three South Pasadena Unified elementary schools to introduce what would come to be known as the Festival of Balloons Poster Contest. Four winners were chosen to ride in the parade, and the remaining contestants had their posters hung along the parade route on Mission Street.
“Now we had advertising,” Ted explained. “You couldn’t walk or ride down Mission Street without getting slapped by one of the posters. And every kid got their day with their parents to take them out to the tree where their poster was and enjoy some glamour.”
The fireworks show was taken on by the late City Councilman Dave Margrave, whose enthusiasm for the Independence Day celebration was infectious.
Today, the Shaws are full of memories of the Fourth in South Pasadena. They remember Margrave somehow managing every year to start a water fight during the parade, despite everybody’s best efforts to stop him. They remember legendary USC Trojan running back Marcus Allen serving as grand marshal for one of the early parades, and spending hours afterward graciously signing autographs in Garfield Park. And they’ll always remember the mini elephant and the ostriches that marched that hallowed route down Mission Street.
“The truth is, the Festival of Balloons is one of the things we’re proudest of,” Ted said, “and none of it, I mean none of it, could have been done without the volunteers that make this city so great. And not just them, the city’s public services. Our fire department, our police. Our school district, for letting us use the high school field. It’s just a whole city effort and something to be so proud of.”