11 Things You Didn’t Know About Pasadena, California
1. There’s more to our “greatest show on Earth” than you realize.
What was a sun-drenched haven for wealthy Midwesterners fleeing freezing winters in the 1870s is today the host of America’s #1 New Year’s celebration: the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl Game, the “granddaddy” of all post-season bowls and the most-attended college football game since 1945. The entire week celebrates the new year with flowers, music, sports, epic tailgating parties, and one of the biggest parades the country has ever seen.
That much you probably know. Here are a couple facts you probably don’t: You can tour the floats before and after the parade. And when you’re up close and personal with them, you’ll see that what can come off as wasteful extravagance on TV is surprisingly not — the floats are made out of organic materials like, flowers, bark, seeds, and leaves.
Another thing many people don’t know is that neither the parade nor the game are ever held on Sunday, due to a long-standing tradition of not wanting to frighten horses hitched outside churches. Yep, this annual celebration goes way, way back.
2. Research goes down in Pasadena that 99.9% of us will never understand.
LA’s first suburb can also be considered the center of the scientific universe. It’s home to the California Institute of Technology, Caltech, which is justified in bragging about its 33 alumni and faculty members who have won 34 Nobel Prizes. Caltech is also unusual in the respect that its campus appears to be just another part of Pasadena, belying its prestige and ability to churn out world-changers. To get on campus, head for the corner of Wilson Avenue and California Boulevard, park, and feel free to walk around. Some say you’ll become smarter just by breathing the air on this side of town.
The NASA-owned Jet Propulsion Laboratory, managed by Caltech, is also here. JPL scientists created the Voyager I and Voyager II deep space probes, along with the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, among many other achievements. Tours of JPL are available and are held at specific times, generally on Mondays and Wednesdays — call in advance to make an appointment. The lab is at 4800 Oak Grove Drive.
3. You can call us “Restaurant City.”
It doesn’t seem possible considering the city’s population of 140,000, but with 550 eateries in Pasadena (according to the Los Angeles Times), this gives us more restaurants per capita than New York City.
There are three popular shopping and dining districts — Old Pasadena, South Lake Avenue, and the Playhouse District — with menus ranging from Indian cuisine and high-end Italian to Middle Eastern, Thai, South American, and Himalayan cuisine. So we have the depth as well as the breadth, satisfying pretty much every cultural culinary desire. It’s difficult to go wrong with places like ‘Lette Macarons, Sushi Roku, a|k|a Bistro, Mi Piace, and Sorriso — most within easy walking distance of one another to boot.
4. We’ve got a hard rock legacy.
The Van Halen brothers, Eddie and Alex, started their musical careers in Pasadena. They played at high school dances and the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and rehearsed for tours at the Raymond Theatre, formerly known as Perkins Palace. Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth also spent his formative teenage years in the Pasadena area, where his dad, Nathan, was a prominent ophthalmologist. The Raymond’s long been converted into apartments, but if you’re interested in visiting the modest home where the brothers were raised, it’s at 1881 Las Lunas St.
5. Our celebrities are of a different kind.
LA may hold the celebrity crown, but Pasadena puts up a strange fight all its own. Among the list of our residents claiming fame is Upton Sinclair, the socialist and journalist muckraker who ran for California governor in 1934; evil genius Jack Parsons, inventor of the rocket-fuel booster perchlorate, who kept company with such characters as occultist Aleister Crowley and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard; and retired judge Lance Ito, who presided over the O.J. Simpson trial.
6. If you like cheeseburgers, thank Pasadena.
Yep, the first cheeseburger was created here in 1926. Sixteen-year-old Lionel Sternberger invented this modern mainstay of the American menu when he was working as a fry cook at his father’s restaurant, The Rite Spot, at the corner of Fair Oaks Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, in what’s now known as Old Pasadena.
The city honors this legacy, and honors it well. Cheeseburger Week takes place every year in January, where 40 of the best local burgers sign up to be part of the city’s “cheeseburger crawl” and “cheeseburger challenge.” Thank you, Lionel Sternberger. Thank you.
7. Our playhouse breeds success.
It’s at the Pasadena Playhouse where many a TV and movie star plied their trades onstage, among them George “Superman” Reeves, Raymond “Perry Mason” Burr, Nick Nolte, Sally Struthers, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, and Angela Bassett. If you go, be sure to watch the stage and the audience — the most recent spotting in the crowd being Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein.
8. Julia Child lived here — and so did her other identity.
Chef and author Julia Child, a native of Pasadena, is credited with introducing Americans to French cuisine. Though most people know her as a quirky older lady with a penchant for cream, before that she was a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, during World War II. While on your celebrity tour, check out Child’s first of many homes at 625 Magnolia Avenue in Pasadena (just don’t bother the current occupants).
9. Our families are dynasties.
Sports legend Jackie Robinson, the man who broke Major League Baseball’s color line, grew up in Pasadena. Jackie’s older brother, Mack, was an Olympic sprinter, coming in second only to Jesse Owens in the 1936 Games in Berlin. Neither Jackie nor Mack would serve as a Rose Parade grand marshal while they lived (though both would get giant sculptures in their likenesses on Garfield Ave), but Jackie did become the first posthumous grand marshal in 1999.
In addition to the Robinsons, we’ve got the Pattons — Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., who was also an Olympic athlete in the 1912 Games in Sweden. His father was the Pasadena City Attorney, and his grandfather was land baron Benjamin Wilson, the first mayor of Los Angeles.
10. Jokes don’t get any older than right here.
The Ice House Comedy Club stage has hosted such showbiz greats as George Carlin, Robin Williams, Bill Maher, Paul Rodriguez, Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Arsenio Hall, Roseanne Barr, and a cavalcade of other stars on its way to becoming the oldest continuously running comedy club in the world. While the comedians change nightly, some things will likely always be the same — namely the two-drink minimum. Visit the Ice House seven nights a week at 24 N. Mentor Avenue. Ask for the owner, Bob Fisher. He’ll be happy to see you.
11. We don’t need to go to Hollywood — it comes to us.
The Big Bang Theory is set and sometimes shot here, but the city has served as the backdrop for hundreds of other famous and not-so-famous film, TV, and commercial productions, among them Gone With the Wind, Father of the Bride, Batman (the TV version), and Parks and Recreation, to name but a few. There are dozens more, and lists are publicly available for anyone looking to take a leisurely day trip down surprisingly recognizable lanes.