SAN JOSE -- There were floats, bands, vintage cars, fire trucks and even an Elvis impersonator. Some of the loudest cheers on this gorgeous Fourth of July were for Polina Edmunds, the local Olympic figure skating standout.
But the star attraction at the Rose, White & Blue Parade was Joe Bell.
A 95-year-old World War II veteran who became a viral sensation earlier this year, Bell sat in the side car of a motorcycle driven by his son, Matt. And he was the only person to receive standing ovations as the parade meandered next to the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden. Many applauding spectators got out of their chairs and off street curbs as Bell rode past.
"Thank you," he mouthed to the crowd, over and over, in a scene that captured the true essence of America's birthday.
Bell gained international fame back in March when he stood in front of his Rose Garden neighborhood home in an old uniform, cheering on participants in the 408k Race to the Row event. Mercury News reporter Julia Prodis Sulek captured on video the priceless sight of runners diverting off the course to shake his hand -- and it quickly became the hottest item on the Internet.
Friday was another chance to thank Bell for his service as he was honored as grand marshal.
"I usually just watch parades," said Bell, wearing his now-famous uniform. "But this is a real American way to celebrate, with a parade. It's one of the good things we do on the Fourth of July. We remember."
Across the South Bay, residents reveled in the nation's birthday in all the usual ways with picnics and festivals. Many people, of course, never left their backyards, enjoying frosty beverages and barbecues.
In Los Gatos, the town celebrated at Oak Meadow Park with food, music, games and face-painting for the kids.
"We're going for the family-friendly atmosphere," said Shelayne Hammack, the event coordinator. "We're probably a much different event than other cities because we don't have a parade. We're trying to capture the small-town, hometown flavor."
But it was a perfect day for a parade.
Don't just take our word for it. Listen to Uncle Sam.
"It's our birthday, and it's just a great way to celebrate our freedom and independence," said Uncle Sam, dressed in his traditional red, white and blue garb.
OK, when he's not role-playing, Uncle Sam goes by Michael G. Barnaba, 60, a local Realtor and board member of the Alameda Business Association, which sponsored the parade. Barnaba said he believes most people are a little more optimistic on this Fourth of July than in recent years.
"The economy is better and people feel like celebrating," he said. " Even the fireworks are back."
Ah, yes, the other signature event of Independence Day. San Jose's popular downtown fireworks extravaganza marked its return Friday. The event was canceled in 2009 -- an especially symbolic casualty of the recession when financially strapped City Hall even looked skyward to cut costs.
But the Rotary Club of San Jose led the effort to resurrect the aptly named Rotary Centennial Celebration Fireworks. With the club serving as the catalyst, it joined with the city, Santa Clara County and local companies to raise more than $140,000 for the show.
"We live in such a great city with wonderful diversity," said Marianne Salas, the event coordinator and wife of outgoing Rotary president Carl Salas. "We should be able to celebrate what we all have in common -- living in this country."
Residents also did that earlier in the day at the Rose, White & Blue Parade.
On Dana Avenue, across the street from the Rose Garden, Manuelita Casillas-Abud was watching in front of her home with four generations of family members. Her 93-year-old mother watched from the porch while a 6-year-old granddaughter danced around her legs.
"We made a big breakfast before this," said Casillas-Abud, 56. "Then the parade comes to us. So tell me, how much better can it get?"
Edmunds, 16, the figure skater who seemingly skyrocketed out of nowhere earlier this year to finish ninth at the Sochi Olympics, was feeling the same way as she sat on a float.
"It's definitely really cool," said Edmunds, who will be a junior at Archbishop Mitty in the fall. "I'm really happy to be here."
Also in the parade were NHL mascot S.J. Sharkie, a woman dressed as Betsy Ross and ... Santa? Yup. He was aboard the Christmas in the Park float.
"We've got all the elves busy up at the North Pole, so I'm traveling to celebrate the independence days of countries -- preferably in places with the best barbecue," Santa said in a rare interview. "You just can't get good pulled pork at the North Pole."
But even Santa took a back seat to Bell on this day.
"I've never done this before," he said. "It will be something to remember."
And not just for him.
Follow Mark Emmons at Twitter.com/markedwinemmons.