Originally printed in The Quarterly magazine, Winter 2013
As numb fingers and eyes droop in weariness, a lively spirit keep volunteers going through the night and into the following year… year after year as another self-built float for the Rose Parade receives its finishing touches. The volunteers are the key ingredient in the self-built floats.
“Exhausted and exhilarated, it’s [a] sweet taste of accomplishment and pride,” says Greg Lehr, Director of the Rose Float Program at Cal Poly and involved with float building since 1988. Civic-minded helpers work year-round with members of the same community, all for one special day: January 1.
Since the inception of The Pasadena Tournament of Roses and their first parade in 1890, local flora have adorned floats, carriages, vehicles, animals and people going down Colorado Boulevard. At the heart was a desire to showcase Southern California’s idyllic Mediterranean climate; and through tireless community members, the world continues to get a taste.
This small-town tradition continues in the 6 self-built floats: Burbank, Cal Poly Universities, Downey, La Cañada Flintridge, Sierra Madre and South Pasadena.
Among the roughly 45 floats in each of the recent parades, the “self-builts” are dubbed as such because the entire project is driven by volunteers and donations. The price tag of a professionally-built float could be roughly $300,000 on up, but most of the self-builts stay in the $50,000-$100,000 price range.
No one is paid to come up with the concept of the float. Usually there is a contest to pick the winning design. A handful of energetic volunteers fundraise all year long to cover the cost of materials. Community members donate their skills to help shape and weld the pencil steel that creates the skeleton. And hundreds of decorators for each float, mostly from “deco week” (the day after Christmas until the morning of Jan. 1) labor free of charge at all hours.
The know-how to create a traveling and animated work of floral art is passed down from one committed volunteer to the next, through trial and error and the sharing of knowledge.
“Even though we compete against each other, it’s a friendly competition between the self-builts. We all help each other. If someone is ahead of schedule and [we’re] behind, they’ll help [by sending over volunteers]… Even if you run out of flowers, other self-builts are willing to share [their extras,]” says Bonnie Colcher, a volunteer for 11 years and Volunteer Coordinator of the Sierra Madre Rose Float Association.
The self-builts compete with the professionals for all the awards, but one recognition is especially for them, the ‘Founder’s Trophy’ for most beautiful entry built and decorated by volunteers from the sponsoring community or organization. And though the parade is not simply about getting awards, it’s certainly nice to be recognized for the particularly huge task for the self-builts.
“We’re all in this to make a better parade for everybody, professionals included.” Paul Abbey, volunteer since 1999 and President/Chairman of the South Pasadena Tournament of Roses comments about a time their float was damaged in a fire and a professional float builder, Fiesta Floats, helped by providing a facility and additional people who could get the job done.
The people who stay involved with float projects have a special camaraderie. Says Gary DeRemer, volunteer for 21 years and President of the Downey Rose Float Association, “All the people who build and decorate are family to me. We don’t always get along, but we all work as a team and love each other.”
And like quirky families, floats can also be temperamental in varying temperatures and situations; not everything comes up roses. There are certainly challenges with each goliath float-creating task. There are bound to be issues: from major glitches (like when La Cañada built an 18-foot wide float that had to go through a 16-foot wide gate) to full-blown panic-stricken re-dos and overnighters (like “the great coconut fiasco” when the glue didn’t work after a cold spell and nearly all the coconut shavings fell off at 2 AM, an hour before Sierra Madre’s float was to make its way to the judges.)
But in the end, to see what was so meticulously cared for over a year, traveling the 5 1/2-mile route on New Year’s Day, makes all the hardships worth it!
As Downey’s float makes its way to Pasadena, “Our city cheers us on. The people on the streets clap for us; and you feel so proud to be a part of something great,” says DeRemer.
Some Unique Aspects of Each Self-Built Float
The Burbank Tournament of Roses Association is celebrating 100 years since their first float entry in 1914. Their 82nd float entry this New Year’s will be “Lights… Camera… Action!” (In earlier years an entry was sometimes a marching band or no entry at all.)
Robert Hutt, volunteer for 12 years, currently in charge of Public Relations and past President of the Burbank Tournament of Roses Association, comments on what drew him in. “At first, I wanted to learn how to weld. [But it] took about 5 years before I got into the construction part.” Often, volunteers must learn about nuances of float building before wielding heavy tools.
Recent awards include: Fantasy Trophy (2013) and Mayor’s Trophy for most outstanding city (2012).
For more information, visit www.burbankrosefloat.com
Cal Poly Universities (Pomona and San Luis Obispo) have entered a float since 1949, celebrating 66 years with their 2014 entry “Bedtime Buccaneers.”
Cal Poly’s float is unique even among the self-builts as the only one that’s not a city and is student-centered. The students “have the ingenuity that paves the way…We were the first to have animation (moving parts) and fiber optics… These students love it. They live it. If you cut their veins, it would leak hydraulic fluid. I’m very proud of them,” comments Lehr.
The float is also built on two campuses and brought together in late October. Pomona is in charge of the animation while San Luis Obispo takes care of the float propulsion or drive system.
Recent awards include: Bob Hope Humor Trophy (2013) and Fantasy Trophy (2011).
For more information, visit www.rosefloat.org
The Downey Rose Float Association first entered the parade in 1913. This year, their entry is titled “The Glass Slipper,” which is more elegant than animated.
“We are teaching people how to weld, order flowers and pick [appropriate ones]. Some of our people become florists…” says DeRemer.
And to raise funds for their float, they sell tacos and have concerts in the park, sponsor casino nights, and put on car washes.
Recent awards include: Founders Trophy (2012) and Lathrop K. Leishman Award for most beautiful entry from a non-commercial sponsor (2011).
For more information, visit www.downeyrose.org
La Canada Flintridge Tournament of Roses Association (LCFTRA) had it’s first entry in 1979 and it’s 36th consecutive entry for 2014 is “Dog Gone.”
According to Bill Pounders, volunteer for more than 20 years, on the board of LCFTRA, the learning never stops. With their 1992 float ‘Sherlock Hounds’ “we learned that there is no banner for cuteness.” (A banner proceeds an awarded float down the parade route.)
As for participation, people from all over the foothills join-in. “Local high school students enjoy their winter vacation days doing something different and find float decorating a fun community-service activity,” says Pounders.
Recent awards include: Animation Trophy (2013) and Bob Hope Humor Award (2012).
For more information, visit www.lcftra.org
The Sierra Madre Rose Float Association’s first entry was in 1917. This New Year’s will be their 82nd entry, “Catching the Big One.”
Colcher says it gets more and more challenging every year for their “smallest” of the self-builts, given a city population of around 11,000. “We’re like the little engine that could.” Their budget is the smallest at about $50,000, but “There’s a lot of pride in it, so we get it done.”
Recent awards include: Governor’s Trophy for the best depiction of life in California (2011 and 2010).
For more information, visit www.smrosefloat.org
The South Pasadena Tournament of Roses first entered a float in 1910, making it the oldest self-built float in the parade. This New Year’s they will present “Intergalactic Vacation.”
When explaining how a design is chosen, Abbey said “It’s got to have that ‘ah ha’ factor and wow people… It has to resonate with the audience.” But in the end he doesn’t help build floats “for awards, but I build them to make people happy… it warms my heart to see people enjoy what they’re seeing. It’s the whole reason I do this!”
Recent awards include: Founders’ Trophy (2013) and Fantasy Trophy (2012).
For more information, visit www.sptor.com