Less than 24 hours before his costume designs were to be seen by thousands, Randall Tucker and a handful of friends were busily at work in his Simi Valley home, putting on the finishing touches.
Loud calypso music played on the stereo while Tucker went from room to room, watching as sequins and long strands of tinsel were applied to elaborate headpieces and bundles of bright fabric scattered over couches and chairs.
"We've been working like this for over a month--on the total project for four months--and tonight we probably won't go to sleep at all," Tucker said.
"Tomorrow, we'll have about 45 minutes out there, and then it will all be over."
"Out there" was Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles, where thousands of people came to see colorfully costumed dancers and steel drum bands take part in the fourth annual "Caribbean Heat" parade last Sunday.
But to Tucker, a native of Trinidad who manages the graphic arts department at California State University, Northridge, "Caribbean Heat" was just another term for carnival.
Last year, Tucker's costumes for the Los Angeles parade won top honors. Last Sunday, the Simi Valley artist repeated that feat, winning top awards for his 90 costumes based on a harlequin scene.
Begun in 1984 by Brockman Productions, a nonprofit arts organization in Los Angeles, "Caribbean Heat" was designed to tap into Los Angeles' growing Caribbean community and "keep the carnival spirit alive in young people who have never been to the islands," said Dale Davis, co-founder of the event.
"Carnival includes so many different art forms--the music, the dancing, the costumes," said Davis, an art teacher at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles. "Since Los Angeles' Caribbean population is so large, we knew that, if we put it all together here, there would be a response."
Although no exact figures were available, Davis said Los Angeles' Caribbean community is estimated to comprise about 200,000 people. Last year, more than 15,000 people took part in the parade, he said.
At Tucker's home, Betty and Greg Hayes were making last-minute adjustments to their costumes, excitedly trying on the two-foot headpieces with fluorescent tendrils shooting skyward that were designed and handmade by Tucker.
"This is the first time either of us has jumped up," Betty Hayes said, using the Trinidadian term for free-form dancing. "I'm from Hawaii, and maybe the carnival bug got me because I'm from an island, too."
Hayes' husband, Greg, shook his head. "I don't know why I'm doing this, then," he said. "I work in construction, and I'm from Camarillo."
Tucker smiled at his friends. "The spirit of carnival," he said seriously, "has fibers that wrap us all."
An integral part of Caribbean culture, carnival was introduced by the French colonists in the late 1700s. After the emancipation of Trinidad's slaves in 1834, the costumes and dancing became a satire by slaves of their former masters. Nearly 100 years passed before carnival evolved into what now is a national festival, traditionally taking place on the Monday and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday.
"Since Ash Wednesday of the Christian calendar signifies the beginning of the 40 days of Lent, the idea was basically, 'If I have to go on a diet tomorrow for over a month, let me eat all that I can today,' " Tucker explained of the dancing, drinking and indulgence associated with carnival.
For Tucker, who moved with his family to Los Angeles at age 14, reconnecting with the 150-year-old island tradition put him back in touch with a part of himself he said was buried for 26 years.
After he earned a bachelor of arts degree CSUN, Tucker began an individually designed master's degree program in theater arts and graphic design in 1984.
Tucker first tried his hand at costume design during the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. His award-winning costumes that year resembled butterflies, bugs, humming birds and human flies spattered with color. Through the artistic process, Tucker said, he also stumbled on his roots.
"I realized then that my heart was in Los Angeles, but my soul was in Trinidad," he said. "And now, I feel passionate about sharing with the international community of Los Angeles what is important to us as a group of people."
Since 1984, Tucker has regularly traveled back and forth between Trinidad and Los Angeles, designing costumes for his native country's fiercely competitive carnival and winning top honors there two years in a row. Each costume troupe--called a "band"--has its individual theme, he said, and has as many as 3,000 participants.
Tucker's Los Angeles band this year had 90 participants, many of them his friends. For $100, which Tucker said covers the cost of materials, each person purchased a costume based on this year's harlequin theme. Each costume, he said, took at least a day to complete.
Although no costume was alike, Tucker said there was a unifying idea to this year's presentation.
"Basically I don't like to do anything that people will just sit back and say, 'Oh, what pretty costumes.' What I've done this year is try to make a social comment on the multiracial and multicultural aspect of Caribbean society," he said.
As the sounds of steel drums began playing in the distance Sunday, Tucker's band began prancing and dancing to cheering crowds. After less than an hour, his costumed friends had made their way past the judges' stand.
Tucker's designs won first place.
But something else that happened on Crenshaw Boulevard that day had a far deeper imprint on the artist, he said, than the gleaming trophy.
"A fellow who had watched us came up to me afterward and took my hand and said to me, 'Watching this makes me so proud to be a Trinidadian living in Los Angeles,' " Tucker said. "Just hearing that made all those months of work worth it."