Thirty-three years ago, Carlota (Lotsie) Busch Giersch watched Pasadena's Rose Parade for the first time and saw the Budweiser Clydesdale horses pull a float depicting a castle.
Disturbed by the implausibility of horses moving a castle, she appealed for a chance to do better.
"I went in and asked for the job and told them if I don't win awards, fire me," said Giersch, a daughter of August Busch, former president of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, which co-sponsored the float with the city of St. Louis.
She thought that the famed Clydesdales should be used to pull only the kinds of things that a horse might naturally pull, and for the next 32 years, she produced floats in keeping with that idea--including a Cinderella carriage, fire engine, covered wagon, coronation coach and sled.
The floats she has put together for Anheuser-Busch and St. Louis have won 31 awards, including the highest honor, the Sweepstakes Award, in 1974. Last year, her float won the Queen's Award, for the best use of roses.
After that, she decided to step down and pass the job on to her two daughters, Karen Reynolds and Kathleen O'Kane.
"It's their turn," she said, adding that she plans to continue working with them.
"She's still teaching us a lot," Reynolds acknowledged.
Before she handed over control, Giersch spent long hours counseling her daughters on how to assemble a winning float.
"This . . . is not a float; it is a living thing," she said of this year's project, which depicts a Dickens-era village, set during a Christmas holiday.
In keeping with her plausibility rule, the Clydesdales pull a Victorian mail coach in front of the village, making the "Spirit of St. Louis" entry the only non-motorized float in the parade this year, Giersch said.
Her daughters have been at her side through most of the years she has worked on the floats.
"Years ago, we knew at some point Mom would retire and hand it over to us," said O'Kane, 30, who lives in Pasadena.
In the past, the project had an air of fantasy for them, especially when as young children they rode on the floats.
At 9, Reynolds recalled, she portrayed Cinderella with her pumpkin after the stroke of midnight.
"As long as I can remember, my New Year's was always surrounded by the float and the festivity," said Reynolds, 36, who lives in La Canada Flintridge.
Fantasy quickly became reality last January, when the sisters took a more active role.
"It is a chance to be a part of something real special," O'Kane said. "People love it when our Clydesdales march down the street. It is still a thrill."
Among the details the sisters are overseeing is the application of more than 100,000 Brazil nuts, which are being used to cover the path that goes through the village. (Parade rules require that all visible surfaces be covered with living materials.)
The job also involves selection of more than 150 varieties of fresh and dry floral materials.
For example, O'Kane said, the "concrete" blocks in the village's buildings are made by gluing a mixture of sweet rice, onion and poppy seed onto Styrofoam.
"What it entails is a whole lot of detail to look authentic," Reynolds said.
The sisters have also had to approve the costumes of all those who will ride on the float, and deal with any unexpected problems.
Although they began planning the project a year ago, things did not begin to heat up until September, when construction began.
Both spent hours on the telephone, coordinating schedules and checking to make sure that things were progressing smoothly.
If all goes well, the float will be ready by this afternoon, in time for the judging this evening.
At dawn on New Year's Day, the family will be with the float and the eight horses, checking details and performing last minute touch-ups.
By New Year's Day, Giersch said, "the float is perfect," the Clydesdales are perfect."