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Santa Rosa's annual Luther Burbank Rose Parade drew thousands of people Saturday, lining an eight-block stretch of the downtown in a tradition stretching back 120 years.

School marching bands, prancing horses, sequined rodeo queens, clowns, ghouls and cartwheeling gymnasts were part of the enduring spectacle that dates back to 1894.

This year's parade theme, "Heroes and Helpers" — to honor people who have helped make a difference in the community — translated to many of the participants donning capes, superhero masks and costumes.

A passing band was as likely to play "Batman," or "Hogan's Heroes" as it was to strike up "Stars and Stripes Forever."

"It's fantastic. A fun way for kids to feel part of town and part of the parade," said Justin Salinger, a member of the Franklin Park Co-op Preschool contingent who was marching down E Street, with his daughter Kennedy, 3?.

"She's having a great time," he said of his princess-garbed daughter, who was absorbed in waving to the crowd.

"She thinks she's the center of the world right now," he said.

Also feeling appreciated was one of the grand marshals, Paul Hoffman, an injured Iraq War veteran and former U.S. Marine staff sergeant who served in the Army National Guard, too.

"I'm honored to be asked," he said as he rode in a Humvee dressed in his Army uniform. "I'm letting people know the Guard is out there serving."

Hoffman said the support he felt Saturday was overwhelming: "It's nice to see everyone saying 'thank you' to all of the military and former military members."

Others expressed gratitude that the parade has survived after almost being canceled four years ago because of a funding shortfall.

"We try to come every year," said Dustin Simpson of Santa Rosa, who was enjoying the show with his wife, Natascha, and their two children, Noah, 3 and Katja, 7.

"It was sad a couple of years ago when it almost didn't happen," he said.

<a href="http://srweb.sar.dc.publicus.com/assets/pdf/SR26595517.PDF">(See the 2014 Rose Parade list of winning entries)</a>

On Saturday, the festivities continued all day at Juilliard Park with live music, food booths and children's activities, from face painting to a petting zoo.

Crowd estimates for the parade are an educated guess. Some said it appeared attendance was down from recent years. While spectators were two and three deep on some corners, there were open spots among the crowd along Fourth Street.

"Even if the crowds were slightly light, there were new people," said parade manager Judy Groverman Walker.

She said there are 4,000 people in the two-hour parade, spread out among the 170 official entrants. Figuring that parents, siblings and others come to view those in the parade, she estimated at least 15,000 people on hand to watch and participate Saturday.

"That's a fair estimate," said Santa Rosa Police Lt. Ray Navarro, who said everything ran smoothly.

Since the Rose Parade's inception, only the 1906 earthquake and two World Wars have suspended it. But funding shortfalls have also threatened it.

Donations from philanthropist Henry Trione and North Bay Corp. owner James Ratto helped rescue the 2010 event, which is now reported to be on more secure financial footing.

Both were present Saturday, Trione, 93, watching from the judge's stand and Ratto riding in the parade in one of his company's vehicles.

The parade is one of the largest, if not the oldest, north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Walker said.

It was named after Luther Burbank in 1950,

24 years after his death, to honor the horticulturist and agriculture pioneer who lived in Santa Rosa.

Over the past 60 years, some of the notable grand marshals have included Gov. Pat Brown, Timmy and Lassie, Sen. Barry Goldwater and "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles Schulz.

Of course, it wouldn't be a parade without elected officials, and there were plenty on hand Saturday.

"It's a wonderful parade. We don't do enough parades," said U.S. Congressman Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who was riding in the back of a convertible.

Outgoing State Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, noted a voice from the crowd greeted her with "Good job!"

"It's fun to hear from people," she said. "It's nice to get that feedback."

Sonoma County 4th District Supervisor Mike McGuire, who is running for Evans' seat, strode and jogged the parade route, shaking hands and handing out candy.

"This is one of the best parades in Northern California," he said. "We'll hand out 50 pounds of candy. I always love it. It's such a great tradition."

Sebastopol Mayor Robert Jacob was making his first foray into the Santa Rosa parade, promoting his Peace in Medicine medical marijuana cooperatives.

"We get lots of cheers and screams," he said of the crowd reaction. "More and more, people feel cannabis is a safe discussion," he said.

Despite continuing challenges to meet escalating expenses, parade manager Walker said, "Financially, we're holding our own."

About 70 percent of the approximate $100,000 budget is raised through sponsorship contributions, with other income coming from entrants fees.

Already, she said, plans are being made for the 2015 parade and festival. "We know it will happen next year," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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