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La Canada's Loyal Float-Makers Intend to Reign in Rose Parade

December 20, 1990|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Industry is banned in the upscale residential community of La Canada Flintridge. Yet a "cottage industry" with hundreds of workers thrives year-round.

The workers are all volunteers. In fact, most pay for the privilege of participating. And they produce but a single product each year: a comical float with moving figures that on New Year's Day travels the 5.5-mile route of Pasadena's Tournament of Roses Parade, telecast to millions of viewers around the world.

More than 1,000 volunteers contribute 50,000 hours of work and up to $60,000 in cash to produce a flower-laden contraption that whirs, hums and changes form. Usually, their work receives only seconds of exposure on television.

But the annual ritual of designing, engineering, building and decorating a parade float has become a tradition in La Canada Flintridge, where volunteers are feverishly working on their 13th entry.

"We have a common goal," said Sharlyn French, president of the La Canada Flintridge Tournament of Roses Assn. "That is to get this sucker built, down the parade route and bring home a trophy."

French said the task takes "13 months a year." The contest for the design of next year's float begins even before this year's entry starts down Colorado Boulevard. Last year, more than 75 ideas were submitted, many by professional artists, cartoonists and graphic designers who live in the community.

"The dedication of this community is rather unique when you realize that such a variety of people--a doctor, a dentist, a couple of engineers, a teacher, businessmen, two housewives who love to weld--are some of the people who make up the workers on the float construction," said Gloria Winkley, director of publicity.

La Canada's entry is one of only six floats in the upcoming 60-float parade that will have been built by amateurs. The community's workers have brought home trophies for eight of their 12 entries, including the Founder's Trophy last year.

The community has gained a reputation for extensive use of moving figures on its floats--La Canada's is one of only a few that are fully animated during post-parade viewing. Engineers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena have worked on all of the floats, including last year's entry, entitled "Sheer Harmony."

The float depicted four animals--a tiger, giraffe, ostrich and hippopotamus--harmonizing on barbershop quartet tunes. Meanwhile, a snake wrapped around a spinning barbershop pole tried to cut the single hair of a pink elephant. Palm trees swaying in an exotic jungle garden completed the colorful entry.

That float won La Canada an award in September from the Tournament of Roses as Builder of the Year for Self-Built Floats.

"Our bylaws state that the float must be humorous and must be animated," French said. People are not permitted to ride on it because it would be difficult to select from among the many volunteers who work on the float.

It takes a driver, a co-pilot and an observer to maneuver La Canada's float along the route. Powered by a 1978 Oldsmobile engine converted to run on propane, the chassis is controlled with a simple hydraulic gearbox. It travels from 2.5 m.p.h (parade speed) to 7.5 m.p.h.--top speed for the two-hour trek from La Canada to the parade formation area.

All of the moving parts are powered by hydraulics and controlled using an old computer, said Bob Neilson, who is in charge of this year's decorations. He is a retired engineer who grows oranges in Central California when he isn't working on the float.

The community's entry this year is entitled "Bearly Balanced," and features a playful bear carrying a slingshot in his jeans pocket and riding a teeter-totter with other animals, including a frog. The frog kicks its legs to send the teeter up to its 21.5-foot height. The heads of the animals turn from side to side, and their bodies lean to keep their balance on the teeter.

The teeter is constructed of two pieces of 1- by 10-inch channel steel that are hinged in the middle to allow the float to pass under utility and television cable wires that obstruct the route from the construction site to Pasadena.

French, an office manager who gave up her job to oversee the float project this year, said construction activity "has reached hysterical time" as volunteer welders, shapers and painters give form to the model.

The float association is building the float at the rear of property owned by the Valley Water Co., 4524 Hampton Road. There, a donated trailer serves as headquarters, and a truck trailer is neatly stocked with an assortment of nuts, bolts and other equipment. A steel roof shelters workers, and there is a telephone and portable toilet. The standard garb of tattered jeans and sweat shirts worn by weekend crews belies their professional status.

The float will be moved Wednesday to a nearby paved parking lot beneath the Foothill Freeway for the final week of construction. More than $20,000 worth of flowers--including orchids, roses, nerine lilies, artichokes and kale--will be carefully stored in a donated refrigerated van until they are ready to be glued into place.

Two shifts daily of up to 120 people each are assigned to complete the float during the final week. Lunches and dinners for the hordes are supplied by local restaurants and service organizations.

Children anxiously await their 13th birthday when they are first permitted to join in the final madcap fun, French said. She got started when the older of her two teen-age boys reached decorating age.

After the parade, French said workers "take two weeks off to become reacquainted with our families."

"Then we trash the thing and start over," she said.

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