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Jockeying for Parade Starts With 'Theme Draft' Picks

Planning: At February meeting, float builders learn if they'll be creating dragons or giraffes.


"No more dragons, please," Joe Delgatto says wearily into the microphone. "For the last time, we have too many dragons."

The words of this Sierra Madre dry cleaner spread over the Rose Room like a pesticide. About 40 people, nearly all of them men hunched at circular tables, groan. Rifling through briefcases and file folders, they begin to discard line drawings of floral parade floats--floats with dancing dragons, dragons swimming in the ocean, dragons riding in fire engines.

One man, instead of trashing his dragon float drawing, takes a pink pen, draws an X through the dragon and in block letters writes in: "GIRAFFE."

This is the Theme Draft, the odd and unofficial kickoff of next year's Tournament of Roses parade. The planning of parade floats is now a year-round, multimillion-dollar enterprise. The draft, a behind-closed-doors event, serves to prevent the chaos of too many eagles or eggshells, dolls or dogs, polo players or potbellied pigs.

The float builders--five cities, one university and four small companies that make their living constructing Rose Parade floats for corporate sponsors and nonprofits--must reserve each theme they intend to use.

It will take them about four hours, with builders taking turns claiming themes over 20 rounds the way pro basketball teams pick prized rookies. The process offers a rear window on a Southern California tradition, like a glimpse inside Wolfgang Puck's kitchen. It blends the feel of a carnival rehearsal with the formality of international diplomacy, the tension of a family reunion, the obsessiveness of Martha Stewart and the strategy of a silent auction. In all, more than 150 themes will be reserved on this Wednesday in February for a parade that will ultimately have fewer than 55 floats.

The builders arrive shortly before 8:30 a.m., a starting time that, like everything about the Theme Draft, is set down in a handbook that runs 42 pages. They sit at circular tables that must be 54 inches in diameter and eat a continental breakfast with coffee that must be brewed in a pot with the Tournament of Roses logo.

The coffee is appreciated. The builders have spent the weeks between the Jan. 1 parade and the draft compiling black-and-white drawings of possible floats on 8 1/2-by-11-inch sheets of paper. The floats must have some connection to the parade's overall theme--2003's will be "Children's Dreams, Wishes and Imagination"--but there are few other limits on design.

The presidents of the two largest building companies, Phoenix Decorating Co. and Fiesta Parade Floats, have brought more than 100 drawings of prospective floats. Both companies conducted mock drafts in the days beforehand, creating a priority list of their drawings like the Green Bay Packers rate collegiate prospects.

As the draft starts, the builders must remain seated at the round tables. Direct communication between the builders and the parade volunteers who administer the draft is forbidden. Lower-level parade volunteers serve as "runners," bringing the submitted designs from the circular tables where the builders sit to the panel of rectangular tables, where the judges pore over them.

Mike McFatridge, 31, construction chairman for South Pasadena's citizen-built entry, reaches into a glass bowl and selects a piece of paper with the number 1. He'll have the very first pick of themes.

"Excellent!" he says. "We've got our circus train locked up!"

South Pasadena's good luck only adds to the anxiety at other tables. The four float-building firms want desperately to snap up float concepts favored by companies and nonprofits that have long sponsored floats; Phoenix has already pre-sold four or five float concepts. But if a city with a high draft pick snaps up that concept, the building company won't have it to sell.

"The first two rounds are the toughest," says Larry Crane, who owns Charisma Floats, which had four floats in the 2002 parade. "I submit things that I really want to have, and then I hold my breath."

Adding to the tension, the cities of Downey and La Canada Flintridge have drawn the second and third choices. Phoenix President Bill Lofthouse, who has the fourth pick, is anxiously grumbling about "the silliness of this" process.

The draft is as secretive as it is strange. The builders all have deep personal and family connections to the parade and each other. In just one example, the father of Fiesta's president worked with the presidents of two of his son's competitors. The companies have varying reputations; Phoenix is known for its size and animation prowess, and Fiesta for its innovation in decorations (last year's big advance: dehydrated carrots). But in truth, the designers think remarkably alike. At the draft, the builders sit apart and rarely talk, conscious of theme theft.

"We play our floats extremely close to the vest," says Fiesta President Tim Estes.

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