Behind The Scenes At The Tournament Of Roses Parade: Photographing The Twenty Mule Team


There are two schools of thought on watching the Tournament of Roses Parade when you are a person who lives in the greater Los Angeles area:  Either you physically go to the parade and it’s freezing cold (according to a Southern Californian) where you’re among one million other people, or you do the smart thing and stay home, watching it from your warm house with a cup of coffee.  I have done the latter for thirty five years.


When I was very small I would go to the Rose Parade with my father and he would set up ladders in such a way that you could sit on them out on Sierra Madre Boulevard and watch the floats.  We would get there very early in the morning to stake out a place and wait for the parade to come by.


It was cold, so very, very, cold for a little kid being out on the parade route.  My feet would be so frozen that they felt like they were going to snap in half.  When the floats eventually came by  you could smell the fragrance of the flowers and I liked that.  I thought it would be neat to be the Rose Queen.


When I was around 6 or 7 I realized that my mother had a good idea.  She always stayed home and watched the parade on television where it was warm and you had a front row seat with the television.


There’s something missing, though, when you stay home and watch the parade on tv.  You miss out on the smell of the flowers on the floats, the bands walking by, the horses and all of the excitement of being in the moment at one of the world’s largest parades.


The last time I actually attended the Rose Parade I think I was 19 and I went with friends.  It was pretty overwhelming then, but that was way back in 1982.  It’s even bigger now.  The Rose Parade is a giant spectacle that requires significant logistical figuring on the part of the city of Pasadena.


In my 20’s I lived at the end of the parade route, where they park the floats after the parade is finished.  I would shop before New Year’s Eve for at least three or four day’s worth of staples because there was no way I was going to leave my property.  Pasadena in total is packed during New Year’s and when you live at the end of the Rose Parade route, you can’t get in or out easily for two days after the parade.  People want to see the floats and it’s simply nuts.


I have been perfectly content for years watching the Rose Parade from the warm comfort of my kitchen while frying applewood smoked bacon and drinking French Roast.  I had no intention of actually physically attending the Rose Parade ever again.  I don’t like crowds.


One day in November, however, I received an email.  “We are looking for photos… ”


That email ended up snowballing into something that significantly altered my holidays, and it also shifted my life in some pretty monumental ways.  I volunteered to photographically document the Twenty Mule Team in the 2017 Tournament of Roses Parade.


Brand new reproduction Borax wagons had been built for the Death Valley Conservancy and the Twenty Mule Team by Dave Engel of Joliet, Montana.  Right before Christmas I drove to the Owens Valley to greet the new wagons as they arrived from Montana and photograph them for the Death Valley Conservancy.  It was an historic event and you can read about it here.


After Christmas the new wagons were brought to Pasadena and placed in a huge decorating tent at the Rose Bowl to have flowers put on them for the parade, along with all of the other, fancy vehicles that would head down Colorado Boulevard on January 2, 2017.


Always, though, in the back of my mind (or actually, right in the very front, where it was keeping me up at night) was the constant, nagging uncertainty of what I would find on the day of the parade.  Where would I park?  This was a huge issue.  How far would I have to walk?  I have a bad back and I would need to carry lots of stuff. Could I follow the Twenty Mule Team down Colorado Boulevard?  What were the boundaries, restrictions, what would I need to do to not be arrested? (Yes, you will be arrested if you go beyond the “point of no return”.)


How would I get from the beginning on Orange Grove Boulevard to where the Twenty Mule Team turned the corner onto Colorado Boulevard, and then be able to photograph them in the parade itself at Press Stand Two, then magically transport myself to the end of the route five and a half miles away to capture the team as they came up the grade at the finish line?  It looked like a logistical nightmare. What I had envisioned I might not be able to accomplish.


As a photographer your responsibility is to capture the best moments during an event.  For me, however, it becomes more than that.  I like to either shoot quickly when I see something, or I spend an extraordinary amount of time quietly observing a person, place or thing before I photograph it.  I want to shoot those things that are missed or are not readily seen.  Those are the things that really tell a visual story and what I love to capture.  But the Rose Parade is a whole different situation, one where you have little control over what is going to happen and you have to be flexible.


When I picked up my Photo Pass from the Tournament House, I asked the media staff where exactly Press Stand Two was located and how would I be positioned to photograph the team.  Press Stand Two is down Colorado Boulevard, it’s small and I was warned it would be packed with other photographers.


“Do you think they will let me be in front to get shots of the Twenty Mule Team?  I’m very short.”


The media woman smiled at me and said, “Good luck with that.”  This did not help my anxiety about January 2 and how I was going to do what I really wanted.

Bobby and Bo Tanner

Bobby and Bo Tanner

On New Year’s Day I ate dinner early, cleaned my lenses and packed my gear in a backpack and rolling case, set my alarm for 12:30 am and went to bed.  I did not sleep well.  When 12:30 came I got ready, packed the car and headed to Pasadena, arriving at 2:30 am.  I parked in my friend’s garage and then he and his son escorted me to where the new Borax wagons were sitting out on Orange Grove Boulevard.


The floats for the parade were all lined up on the street, lit up by huge flood lights that made them look eerie and surreal.  You can walk right up to them at 3:30 in the morning.  Some have people sleeping on them in sleeping bags or chairs.   The floats are all dressed up and waiting for their moment to shine in the parade.  They smell good with thousands upon thousands of flowers packed all over them.


Dave Engel

The Borax wagons were pulled to a place on the side of the road where the floats would drift by silently on the way to being “bunched” or held in the parade lineup.  The mules were brought out and hitched up to the wagons and then came the long wait for the parade to begin.  Tournament of Roses staff zoomed around on white scooters, keeping everyone in line, informed and under control.


People started arriving to see the floats and the wagons with all of the mules hitched to them as the sun slowly lit up the sky. The team was again moved forward to the corner of Orange Grove and Lockehaven where they would wait until it was their time to head out into the parade.


I discussed logistics with the crew and it was decided that I would not go to Press Stand Two.  If I were to do that, I would be stuck in that area for hours.  The team and crew would be long gone and I would not be able to move my car.


When the time came for the Twenty Mule Team to head out into the parade, I got into a big, red truck with Claudia Tanner and her little boy, Bo.  We managed to navigate our way through Pasadena to the end of the parade route, where the equestrian entries dismount, unhitch, stow their wagons inside big trucks and the horses and mules are put in trailers and taken away.


We then waited for the Twenty Mule Team to come up the road where I hoped to get at least one, great capture of the team in the Rose Parade.


I always have lofty visions of what I want to do, how I want something to be shot.  It doesn’t always turn out that way, though.  Most of the time I simply allow situations to be whatever they are and drop all expectations, like when photographing Bodie State Park.  There are always tourists there.  You cannot get around tourists, so simply allow them to be in the picture, as part of the visual storyline.


With this event, however, I wanted to be able to hand the Death Valley Conservancy amazing images of the Twenty Mule Team in all their glory in the Rose Parade.  It’s an historic event, it’s a big deal, and I wanted that to show in the images I created.  In the end, though, the reality of what the Rose Parade is took over and what I came home with is the charming back story of the parade and its quirkiness, happy moments and – the people.  I have Budweiser Clydesdales and men on white scooters photo bombing numerous images.  You know what?  That’s okay.  They are part of the story.  Let them be there.


After fourteen-plus hours at the parade I went home and downloaded all of my images and after looking through them all I came across one.  It’s a picture of Bo, son of Claudia and Bobby Tanner, the muleskinner.  He had fallen asleep in the back of the big, red truck and had flowers from the Borax wagons piled on top of his legs.

Bo Tanner

To me, that is the storytelling image of the of the Twenty Mule Team at the Tournament of Roses Parade.  It needs no words.  I actually did accomplish what I set out to do.

Twenty Mule Team the-crew-2-copyright-merilee-mitchell-2017-property-of-the-death-valley-conservancy-do-not-copy

I would like to acknowledge the Death Valley Conservancy, Preston Chiaro and Henry Golas, Bobby and Claudia Tanner, Dave and Diane Engel of , Ted Faye of, all of the people who generously donated funds to build the new reproduction Borax wagons and fund the Twenty Mule Team, as well as the crew who keep the team running and able to participate in events like the Tournament of Roses Parade.

The Twenty Mule Team exists because of generous donations.  Contributions to keep Death Valley history alive and preserved can be made to the Death Valley Conservancy at and

4 thoughts

  1. I went to Pasadena and viewed the Rose Bowl floats after the parade last week. Your pictures really capture a side I didn’t get to see: the animals and their caretakers. Your action and clear shots are great!

  2. Hi there,
    Merilee, your photographs are just beautiful, impressive and with a special sensitivity.
    Teresa, from Spain.

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