Thursday, December 31, 2009

Mickie lends a hand to the Rose Parade

Here's the full story of my adventure Tuesday, helping decorate a float for the Rose Parade. Enjoy! ~M

Flower girl in training

Walking into the Fiesta Parade Floats building in Irwindale is entering into a world of choreographed chaos. People are scurrying back and forth toting flowers, photographers and journalists are milling about seeking stories and bulldogs are scampering outside for a break from training. But somehow everything seems to get done.

I wandered past a grouping of oversized produce and a table full of playfully posed monkeys to find Sue Sundberg, the float supervisor for Rainbird and my instructor for the morning.
"Do you mind getting dirty?" Sundberg said.

I had dressed in my grubbies, so I was prepared for anything and followed her to the front of the Rainbird float. Four large exotic birds were perched for primping and partly coated with various plant materials. Along the way, Sundberg had picked up a box filled with dried red pepper flakes (the kind you sprinkle on pizza for some spice) and a small plastic bowl holding white glue and a paintbrush. One quick example and I was ready to touch up the bare spots on a bird's beak and feet.

I dipped the brush in the glue and carefully worked it along the edge of the bird's beak. I took a handful of flakes and patted them over the glue, holding the box underneath where I was working to catch anything that didn't stick. Waste is kept to a minimum here.

I continued my task - look, paint, pat, repeat - until none of the beak's paint showed through. As I focused on my work, all the noise and chaos faded away, it was just me and my box of flakes, but the second I stopped, the buzz of busy float building was back. My treat for finishing was a tour of the building.

I watched the bulldogs practicing their snowboard runs on the Natural Balance Pet Food float, marveled at the intricate details on the temple on China's float and was truly awed by the amount of flowers being prepared for placement in the back of the building. The range of hues and types of blooms was so stunning that I could have spent the day there and still have not seen them all... but I had a bird waiting for me.

Back with my pepper flake box, I worked on finishing up the bird's feet. This was a bigger challenge than the beak, as I had to kneel on the floor to reach the underneath of the toes. At times, I had to lean over in an awkward position to decorate just the right spot.

One of the women working on the bird's back feathers told me not to worry about my hair. I could get any glue out of it with peanut butter and it would make my hair extra soft as well.

Luckily, after a little more than an hour, I managed to only come away with slightly sticky fingers and a renewed respect for the many people who volunteer their time to make the Rose Parade one of the most beautiful events in America.


The business side of the stem

Sue Sundberg, float supervisor for Rainbird, got her start when she brought her daughter's Girl Scout troupe to Fiesta Parade Floats in Irwindale to work. Sundberg and her daughter, Misty Juarez, enjoyed it so much that they kept returning. Sundberg, a Temple City resident and Licensed Vocational Nurse has now been working on floats for 23 years.

"In this parade the most popular flowers are the roses. I think red is the most popular color, but there are so many different colors now that it's hard to tell any more," Sundberg said.

Among the rarest plants you will see on the floats is wigglewood from China. It looks like a long stick with curvy wood rather than straight. Plants are also specially grown just for the parade, such as black roses. All of the materials must be organic and in their natural color.

Texture is also a consideration in plant selection, such as for birds' feather and gorillas' fur.
"The hardest part is making sure you have the materials that you need and if you don't, you have to be creative," Sundberg said.

For example, two birds on the Rainbird float were supposed to be coated with cobra leaves, but when the leaves arrived they were too big. Cobra leaves cannot be cut because they tend to break and tear, so smaller, feathery skeleton leaves were substituted.

Fiesta Parade Floats in Irwindale produces 12-14 floats annually for the Rose Parade. It also creates floats for other parades throughout the year.

Float planning for the Rose Parade begins at the end of January when the theme is announced. Designer Raul Rodriguez comes up with the intial ideas, which go from his creative mind to completion by parade day. Rainbird was one of the first floats started for the parade this year. Work began in summer and will continue through to judging.

The floats can't go whizzing down the freeway from Irwindale to Pasadena, instead a caravan begins in Azusa at another float building site at 4 p.m. on Dec. 31st. Using side streets and picking up other floats along the way, the procession arrives at the staging site between 10 p.m. and midnight.

"The drivers that they have are so good that it's amazing how they do it. I've watched them do a 110-foot float in three parts parking that other people can't even do with their car," Sundberg said.

Workers, like Sundberg, and volunteers remain on hand for last-minute fixes until their float is judged.

"I always like to watch the parade in person and then I go home and sleep. I start my regular job on Monday," Sundberg said.

Volunteers are not needed at this time, but you can apply to work on a float next year by visiting Fiesta Parade Floats' Web site at before September.


Preparing floats for the Rose Parade takes an entire year, here's the steps:

- End of January the parade theme is announced, designing begins.

- Floats are planned out on paper, there are usually several different renderings from which the float owner may select the final creation.

- 3-D models of floats are made.

- Metal frames are fabricated for the floats and their items.

- Chickenwire is glued over the frames and molded to create the shapes of animals, produce and other items.

- The floats' floral designers select the materials for decoration.

- The floats are painted to indicate where the different colors of plants should be placed, similar to paint-by-number.

- Weekends in November, volunteers begin preparing materials needed for the floats, such as cutting dried strawflowers and filling vials with water for fresh flowers.

- Dec. 30 the floral designers start creating arrangements and fresh flowers are beginning to be placed on the floats.

- Dec. 31 the float caravan makes its way to the staging site and last-minute work continues as needed through the night.

- Jan. 1 judging is done and the floats make their way down Colorado Boulevard.

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