I love dogs. I love all creatures in fact. Even the cockroaches and the bird-eating spiders. I’m mad for each and every one! I was once the human of a ferret or three, back when they were extremely uncommon (in Australia). And it was as the human of a few, much-loved, much-spoiled ferrets that I got a peek into an underground world of total, animal-obsessed eccentrics.
These ferret people were different people to the, “Best in Show” types. These people were the underground members of a movement, designed to positively spin the much maligned, negative reputation of the quite-affectionate-in-fact, ferret. Random cars would pull up at the crosswalk while a human would excitedly wave a confused and unsuspecting ferret at me through a windscreen. Nodding and smiling knowingly at me, they would acknowledge me as a (unwitting) member of the ferret fraternity. By walking my ferret on a lead down the street it appears, I was pledging my solidarity.
But nothing could have prepared me for the world that my husband and I entered this New Year’s Eve. This was the world of snowboarding, English Bulldogs and their owners. As delightful as it was bizarre, I was the perfect candidate to escort my friends, Lyle (the skateboarding, snowboarding, soccer-playing Bulldog) and his Mum, Lexi Beermann for Lyle’s first, professional, snowboarding appointment.
You may have heard of a little thing called, “The Rose Bowl Game” and its accompanying parade, the “Pasadena Tournament of Roses”. A New Year’s Day tradition for over a century, the Californian parade attracts some one million people. The game of collegiate, American football is viewed live by attendees of the 93,000-capacity, Rose Bowl Stadium. This year, Ohio State would play Oregon in the Bowl. Both parade and game are televised live nationally on New Year’s Day, watched by millions and this year by billions - being telecast for the first time also in China.
So the Rose Bowl Parade is a big deal. This then is why when Cousin Lyle (as our baby puppy Banjo calls him) was recruited by pet food corporation, Natural Balance to appear on their Rose Bowl Parade float (the Guinness Book of Record’s largest float in the world - at 114 feet), and invited us along to support him, we were there with bells on.
This enormous float - a recreation of an Austrian alps ski-scene - was replete with snow covered mountain (the snow fashioned out of coconut shavings), mechanical trams that acted as ski-lifts to take the Bulldogs back up the mountain to perform yet another snowboard run, a soundtrack of irritating but popular Baha Men track, “Who Let the Dog’s Out” (remixed to include some yodeling) and a giant English Bulldog mascot that tilted its head and grooved from side to side.
It was an incredible sight to behold, designed by famed, eccentric, very “La Cage aux Folles” float designer Raul Rodriguez (who rarely appears in public without his dancing parrot, Sebastian). While it did not win any official awards (how could it with conservative, serious, Pasadena judges) there was absolutely no question which float won “best loved”.
Maybe you’ve had the opportunity to escort celebrity-folk some place or are in fact one yourself, so could have expected the tumult and the benefits that come with a life of stardom. But our little pup Banjo could not have and I must say he was kind of impressed. Being one of his famous Cousin Lyle’s entourage, he experienced a glimpse of the good life.
For starters, Banjo and his parents (us) were given an all-expenses-paid, 3 day holiday at the Sheraton in Pasadena, VIP seating for the parade and cushy rides to and from the parade and post parade. Upon arrival, Banjo found a fluffy, big puppy bed, a gift basket filled with treats of lamb, turkey, chicken, biscuits, rolls and sausages, his very own “toiletries” kit and a free-run of the hotel. Let it be known that the Sheraton Pasadena is in general a dog hotel.
Arriving at the hotel on New Year’s Eve afternoon, we discovered the foyer alive and bustling with football fans, parade goers, parade staff/ volunteers and float riders. I don’t know who was left running Ohio for the sea of red across the city of Pasadena. Their football team it appears has extremely devoted fans. We met some good, good people at this hotel. And some cute, cute dogs.
New Year’s Eve we would be part of the Natural Balance/ Sheraton dinner. Commencing at 6pm it was a soiree that would wrap early as the Natural Balance puppies, their owners, the float riders, employees, invitees and volunteers, would have five and six am wake up calls ahead of them on New Year’s Day. The buffet was good, the wine was fair, the Bulldogs came (guests of honor of course) and a DJ duo danced with kids and grandparents on the dance floor. There was a magician - from the Magic Castle no less; somewhere I’ve always wanted to go since living in LA.
The magician could have been cheesy, but he wasn’t. He was straight up outstanding. Howard Jay (that was his name) was also in possession of some sharp and smart wit. None of any of this was cheesy in fact. And it wasn’t, because it was honest. It was sweet and it was inclusive. By the time Joey Herrick, President and owner of the very obviously “family” styled company, Natural Balance had finished his year-end-thank-you-very-much speech; I was all warm inside, wishing that I could go work in marketing or something for these people.
An affable and unassuming fellow, Joey had wandered up to me earlier, realizing that he did not know me (which I can only assume means he knows the face of every vendor and supplier and employee and their aunts and uncles and kids etc) to introduce himself and ask if I was having fun. And it wasn’t, “Hi, I’m Joey Herrick, owner of Natural Balance.” I knew who he was anyway but it was classy of him not to say. And for God sakes, these people love animals! What more could I want?! And they love animals! What more could I want?!
We met many charming characters throughout the course of this experience but one of the most memorable was Dr. Marty, the Vet. Slight in frame but strong in character, this chain-smoking, soft-hearted, interesting fellow, a qualified vet we learned, was Natural Balance’s official liaison for all the zoos.
Perhaps our biggest bonding moment was when my husband discovered he had a kangaroo named Ruby. Ruby had been born on a kangaroo farm in Colorado (yes, American Kangaroos - can you believe it?) where she had fallen out of her Mother’s pouch. Marti was appointed to care for her. So attached he’s become he said, he is going to find it impossible to give her back. In spite of the fact that she literally needs to be by his side every waking moment, and that he has removed all toilet paper (which she finds terribly fun to play with and tasty to eat) from his bathrooms, rushing around to put them back when guests come over, he doesn’t want to let her go. She sleeps in her own King bed in the spare bedroom.
Throughout the course of our stay we learned what apartment-living with Banjo would be like, having to make many toilet trips to the strip of grass out front of the hotel. It was also the perfect opportunity for a cigarette. Others thought so too and it was in fact this way that we met some lovely people from all over the country, there to either volunteer, work or experience the parade.
It was on one such trip we met an elderly couple who lived in Lafayette, Louisiana in a home they’d had for many, many years. Their neighborhood they said, was not a nice one. But it had a porch and a spot to grow veggies and flowerbeds out back. A lot of their friends had moved out of the area over the years, but he said, “I am a Vietnam Vet. I am trained in combat. And damn it!” he said, stamping his foot and whistling lowly, “I am Cajun! We don’t back down! I’m not moving out for criminals.”
The wife was wearing a badge with a photograph of a young man. She said they were here for the first time, volunteering on the, “Donate Life” float and the young man on the badge was her nephew, who would be riding the float, holding a framed portrait of the person who donated the organ that saved his life. The Donate Life float, commemorating donors of everything from organs to tissue to blood, was also designed to encourage and promote the importance of donation. It was also the float that moved me to tears so early that new year’s day.
Having put myself to bed at 11:30pm the night before, it appears that the wisdom that supposedly comes with age was in tact and my early night paid off when the alarm sounded at 5am on new year’s day, and I was able to actually rise without too unreasonable a temperament. Early rises do not suit me anyway and being in a limousine before sunrise, on my way to see Bulldogs snowboard down a fake mountain on wheels, was more than surreal.
The lobby was already a hive of activity, familiar faces from the previous evening’s Natural Balance dinner milling about. Outside, large coaches were filling up with parade-goers. All the Natural Balance float riders, Cousin Lyle and the other Bulldogs had already been chauffeured to the parade an hour earlier. Their entourage (us et al) were due to leave soon, being picked up by our limousine driver services.
I was excited. To me, this Pasadena parade felt like it would be a very all-American experience, one that I should really have. An experience that I, as a resident of Venice Beach, a person who usually likes to stay up late enough to share a kiss with her husband at the stroke of midnight, who likely would be nursing some degree of a hangover on new year’s day (and thus, would not be willing or able to tackle the traffic or crowds - many of whom camp out over night for best position) would probably never have. I couldn’t have imagined that, thanks to the friendship of one lovely lady and her adorable Bulldog, I would in fact have one of the most unique experiences of the Rose Parade ever.
When we alighted our limousines at the parade route, the sky had just started seeing its first hues of light. The air was fresh, the sky crisp, clear and the most delicious shade of pink. We meandered close up to the extraordinary, stationary floats, their riders busy fussing with costumes and finishing touches. All the floats are floral, made of millions and millions of flowers and the like and it seemed so fitting to wander through these flower fields on wheels in the first morning light. Some parade-goers in pajama pants and beanies were just rising from their roadside sleeping bags. Some were already busy attending to breakfast sausages on the grills of their make-shift kitchens.
Natural Balance had a couple of RVs stationed near the beginning of the parade route that would act as the green rooms or VIP tents. We got to duck in to one and kiss Cousin Lyle and wish all of the five Bulldogs, Tillman (the famous “face of”), Rose (the only girl), Lyle, Tank & Neko, “Good luck!” I also got to squeeze the darling little baby - a new addition to the family of Bulldog athletes, Sully who was simply roly-poly heaven, unaware of the magnitude of the big day ahead for her brothers and sister.
The parade was phenomenal. America really has a corner on the marching band market. There are so many of them and they’re just all so God damn good! I remember in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics in the Summer of 2000, it was announced that we would be importing marching bands from the USA for the opening parade. Locals were up in arms, persistent that we had all the talent we needed right there at home.
I recall watching Australia’s version of “Good Morning America” while getting ready for work one day. There was an half asleep, ill-uniformed Aussie marching band, shuffling awkwardly behind the anchor woman, trying to wriggle on tilting hats, who had been brought down I suppose to show us all what Australia’s got. I don’t know where they found this marching band. I think we might have only five of them in the country. But let’s just say… we really needed the Americans!
Despite the incredible caliber of all these different, American marching bands however, the Pedro Molina Guatemalan Marching Band were my favorite. They got people out of their seats and they were fun.
Eventually, along came the Natural Balance float and it really was something spectacular to see. The Bulldogs were performing on target, riding down the mountain smoothly and being transported back up in their little trams, in a continuous cycle as the parade made its way through the streets, little puffs of smoke emanating from the fake chimney of the mountain-top cabin.
After the parade was the “Post Parade” which would be held each day for the following two days. At the Post Parade, a handful of the best floats would be parked where they would be able to be viewed at close range in a mini, fair-like environment. It was here that the Natural Balance float really shone.
With the float and the Tillman tour bus parked on the lot (wrapped in an image of Tillman skateboarding), crowd control barricades and a VIP tent, Natural Balance had really set up their home base. Hundreds of people gathered to watch the demos of the dogs snowboarding which would commence on the hour every hour, throughout the day and would last for 15 minutes .
At the end of each set, the Bulldogs would wander freely around the interior perimeter of the barricades and lap up the love being offered by friendly hands shoved through the bars. Children would squeal to take photos with the dogs and media swarmed. Lyle loved it. All of it.
I don’t know why it is that Bulldogs are naturally inclined to skating, but they are. No joke. This breed of dog, low to the ground, not made for a hell of a lot of walking, seems to naturally and instantly identify, when he sees a skate deck, that this thing will be able to get his heavy frame around more easily than his own little legs. Lyle, a typically quiet, lumbering Bulldog becomes as animated as any Labrador with a Frisbee whenever he sees or hears a skateboard.
Lyle’s evolution to a snowboard was a piece of cake - especially with the patient guidance of his lovely trainer and Dad of Tillman, Rose & Sully, Ron Davis. He really is quite exceptional at it. And he did not mind showing himself off to adoring fans after each demo.
The cheering was like sunshine on Lyle's back and, chin held high in the air, he’d work the barricades for the accolades. He just knew. He’s born to it. In LA it seems, anyone can make it. Even a punk rock dog from Dogtown who repeats deeply in his little heart of hearts, “Skate or die. Skate or die, man.”