DOWNEY — Kelley Roberts, a 21-year-old Downey resident, spent a recent afternoon working on a small papier-mache dinosaur that will slide along the tail of its towering mother on New Year's Day.
Robert Kelsey, 21, spoke about piloting a float down the streets of Pasadena his first time as a driver. "This thing's a pain in the butt to parallel park," the Bellflower resident joked.
The young men are among scores of volunteers who work each year to bring Downey to the world's attention for a fleeting moment, when network television cameras focus on the community's float during the Tournament of Roses Parade.
This year's entry, called "Fun 'n' Play in Ol' L.A.," features dinosaurs that roamed millions of years ago near what is now Wilshire Boulevard and La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles. The mother brontosaurus will lift and move her head and tail, and a baby dinosaur will slide up and down the tail.
"Millions of people worldwide at least once a year know Downey is on the map," said longtime volunteer Doris Patterson, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Downey Rose Float Assn. "It's prestigious."
It's also a city tradition. The first float was entered in 1920, long before Downey became a city. The next entry didn't come until 1955, the year before Downey incorporated. Patterson figures that city founders, in part, resurrected the float project to help whip up support for cityhood. There has been a Downey float in the Rose Parade ever since.
City workers used to build the frame of the float, and association volunteers handled the decorating, said Cel Kimberly, who has helped build the floats for the past 20 years.
But after the passage of the tax-slashing Proposition 13 in 1978, city officials decided they couldn't afford to pay workers to build floats. The Downey Rose Float Assn. picked up the slack by raising more money and recruiting more volunteers.
The Downey float is now a member of a nearly extinct species. In a parade of corporate floats that cost as much as $200,000, the Downey entry is one of just six floats that are built entirely by volunteers, a Rose Parade official said. "It's a tradition that the tournament likes to hang on to," said Rose Parade spokeswoman Kristin Tranquada.
Long Beach is the only other city in the Southeast area that will have a float in the parade. But the city pays for the float, which is professionally built. The city will spend $95,000 on the float this year, a spokesman said.
By the time the Downey float rambles down Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard, more than 200 volunteers will have pitched in, from welding the metal skeleton and installing the hydraulic lifts to affixing thousands of roses, mums, carnations, orchids and other flowers.
The association chooses a float design through an annual contest. This year, there were about 50 entries suggesting characters ranging from bears to alley cats, Patterson said. The chief builder is Roy Long, a longtime Downey resident and steam fitter at the county's Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center. The rest of the volunteers are adults and students from Downey and surrounding communities.
Long says he has been putting in 15 to 20 hours a week since last May--"to give something back to the community. It's just a labor of love." Roberts and Kelsey say they volunteered because it's just plain fun--and they might meet a pretty girl or two amid the roses.
The materials for the float cost the association about $50,000, which was raised through numerous community fund-raisers during the past year. The city of Downey provided a $1,000 grant to the float association.
Association members prefer to raise money for materials and build the float themselves, rather than having the city or a corporate sponsor foot the bill or do most of the work.
"Pride is taken away when things are done for you," Patterson said.
The volunteers also have countless memories, some of harried and poignant episodes.
A welder's torch sparked a fire that devoured the grass mane of a unicorn on the 1984 entry. The fire broke out on the eve of the parade, after the flower markets had closed, Kimberly recalled. Association members scoured planted areas along local freeways and gathered the pampas grass they needed to replace the mane.
"Some police officers came by and asked what they were doing," Kimberly said. "When they found out it was for the float, they said 'Go ahead.' "
Then there was the 1987 entry, which featured an animated replica of the space shuttle. It was a natural because the shuttle is the most famous product to come out of Downey. Rockwell International, the shuttle's primary builder, has operated a plant in Downey for more than 40 years.
Association officials settled on the float design in late January, 1986. A few days later, on Jan. 28, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing seven astronauts.