The Laguna Beach Patriot’s Day Parade is a long-standing tradition that honors the people, places and organizations that make up the town we love.
By Ashley Ryan
Laguna Beach, nestled in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Orange County, is full of small-town charm. You’ll see it in the abundance of artists that fill nearby studios and galleries, on restaurant patios where chefs and owners greet patrons and even on the beaches, where locals spend time swimming, snorkeling, paddleboarding and more. But the times it’s clearest are during big events, where everyone comes together to celebrate the things that make Laguna unique.
One such event is the Laguna Beach Patriot’s Day Parade, which has been gracing downtown streets since February 1967. Dreamt up by Emily Ross, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, in an effort to promote the joy and importance of freedom and patriotism, the parade has only seen four cancellations—1985, 2014 and 2019, after nights of torrential rain, and 2021, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the Patriot’s Day celebration makes its return this year, held on the first Saturday in March. “This year, of course, with COVID, we don’t have as many entries right now,” says Sandra Werthe, entry chairwoman, program chairwoman and treasurer of the event. “… One thing we might have a problem with is our bands, because a lot of the bands come from the LA-area schools and they have a lot of restrictions that Orange County doesn’t have right now. But I’m hoping we’ll get more entries.”
Despite challenges, the show must go on and leaders are happy to be back to work, organizing this beloved, long-standing parade. The event welcomes a number of marching bands from Orange County, Los Angeles and beyond, as well as police officers, firefighters, veterans, members of the City Council, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, local Realtors and more.
But the fun doesn’t end there. A number of prominent organizations, ranging from Pageant of the Masters to the Laguna Beach Community Clinic, Anneliese Schools, the local library, historical society, cat rescue and garden club, all get involved on parade day. And organizers have long celebrated residents of Laguna, who serve as honorees in categories such as Honored Patriot, Artist of the Year and Athlete of the Year. Classic cars maneuver their way down the route as well, which begins near Laguna Beach High School and makes its way over to City Hall.
For Werthe, every parade brings much of the same: a whole lot of stress, until it is “down the road and everything has gone OK.” But you’ll likely find Werthe at her usual spot toward the end of the event. “I try to sit in the reviewing stand at City Hall with the honorees and watch as it goes by,” she says, “and it’s just nice to see people happy and waving flags.”
Something about this year’s Patriot’s Day Parade seems even more special, allowing members of the community to finally come together once again after the devastation that has taken place during the coronavirus pandemic—not just here, but around the world. It’s the perfect time to honor our country and our town, reveling in the fact that we’re here, and we’re free.
From honored citizens to parade themes and volunteers, there is plenty that goes on behind the scenes to ensure the parade goes off without a hitch.
A number of locals are honored during the Laguna Beach Patriot’s Day Parade, with the grand marshal, citizen, artist and athlete of the year all nominated by either members of the public or the parade committee itself. A vote is then taken during a committee meeting to select the honorees. The honored patriot is chosen by the local chapter of either the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars, while the junior citizens are selected by Laguna Beach High School staff. Honorees for 2022 include Andrew Barnicle, former artistic director of Laguna Playhouse, as grand marshal; Marine veteran Bill Sandlin as honored patriot; Cindy Prewitt, co-founder of Laguna Beach Live, as citizen of the year; Laguna Playhouse itself as artists of the year; Laguna Beach High School tennis coach Rick Conkey as athlete of the year; and Morgan Zevnik and William Coffey as junior citizens of the year.
While many of those who participate in the parade do so year after year, the event is ever-changing and evolving to ensure that guests have something new and exciting to experience each March. One way that parade organizers switch things up is by introducing a new theme every year. This can impact what types of music the marching bands play, the signs groups carry or the way their cars or outfits are decorated. The parade’s first theme, in 1967, was America Is. Since then, others have ranged from The Stars and Stripes and Heritage of America to Visions for Laguna and Home of the Free Because of the Brave. This year, for 2022, attendees will enjoy Toward Community and Unity, the perfect theme for the first pandemic-era event.
Although there are some hired hands at the parade—such as the lighting and audio team, the marching band judges and the Police Explorers that assist with traffic control—most of the roles are handled by volunteers. In fact, the Laguna Beach Patriot’s Day Parade Association is entirely volunteer based itself, with the committee working up to six months ahead of time to prepare for the one-day event. Aside from the association, volunteers are needed on parade day to aid with everything going on around the high school, where the route starts. “We have one young gal who’s graduating from Laguna Beach High this year, but she’s been a volunteer—her and her mother—for a few years, and she gets school credit for doing that,” says Sandra Werthe, entry chairwoman of the Patriot’s Day Parade. Former association president Michael Lyons is now in charge of the volunteer program, for which locals can sign up by visiting volunteermatch.org/search/opp762586.jsp.