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Driving force leaves a floral legacy

Els Hazenberg, who for decades has decorated antique cars for the Rose Parade, has chosen a replacement to take the wheel.

January 01, 2007|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

In the world that is the Tournament of Roses, the retirement of Els Hazenberg -- official decorator of the antique cars that ferry Rose Parade dignitaries -- feels like an earthquake.

The parade has printed special pins to commemorate her creative work. A museum-style poster sits on an easel at the entrance to the tent where she decorated all weekend, chronicling the history of her unique parade craft. After three years of practice, a replacement is ready.

"It has enriched our lives to be part of the Rose Parade," said Hazenberg, 64, who is assisted in her work by her husband, George, 73, an orchid grower in the Netherlands. "But at a certain age, you need to throw it over to a younger person."

For nearly three decades, the Hazenbergs have traveled from their home in the Dutch city of Aalsmeer so that Els can design floral displays for the automobiles that carry the parade grand marshal, Tournament president and Pasadena mayor.

It used to be that florists simply covered parade cars with a floral blanket, the kind that might be found on a casket. But over the years Hazenberg, with her detailed notes and planning, has turned car decorating into high art -- and brought her European cachet to Pasadena.

Her retirement is a jolt to Tournament traditionalists. The white-suited guardians of the Rose Parade pride themselves on upholding tradition, and the annual festival is governed by a complex bureaucracy of volunteer committees that can make the slightest shift feel like a revolution.

The Tournament of Roses selects the president of each parade eight years in advance, considered barely enough time to prepare for the role. And many of the odd jobs the parade has spawned -- floral glue mixer, float driver -- require such specialized skills that they change hands about as often as a Supreme Court seat.

Hazenberg's handpicked successor, highly respected Texas floral designer Keith White, 48, is spending his third year working alongside her, smoothly completing the transition of power.

"We're bringing in the younger generation," said John Delgatto, chairman of the committee that oversees the official cars. "But it's our hope that Els and George will be coming back and doing some consulting."

Hazenberg was living in Aalsmeer, site of the largest flower auction in the world, when a floral designer friend invited her to attend the 1977 Rose Parade. She was intrigued by the possibility of decorating a float, but figured such a task was unworkable for someone living overseas. Instead, she asked parade officials if she could come back the next year and decorate the official cars. They agreed.

Hazenberg brought Dutch floral discipline to her car designs, decorating in a style used at the summer floral festivals in her native country.

She mixes California roses with tulips and other flowers provided by Dutch growers, who sponsored her work in Pasadena for many years. FTD now sponsors the car flowers. She keeps flowers of similar colors and types together, slightly changing shades to create drama and the feeling of motion.

To make sure all the colors match, Hazenberg sometimes advises dignitaries who ride in the cars on what to wear.

Hazenberg says her longevity in the parade is based on strong relationships with the car collectors who donate their vehicles for the New Year's Day festivities. She is careful to ensure the cars, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, aren't damaged.

To do that, she creates blocks of green floral foam, soaks them in water, wraps them in moss, and ties them to the exterior of a car with electrical cords. The tying process alone takes a full day. The foam prevents the flowers from scratching the cars and the water inside the foam keeps the flowers fresh.

The foam process is only part of the Hazenbergs' routine. At 3 p.m. each New Year's Eve (midnight in the Netherlands), they toast the new year in their tent. The occasion, at first small and informal, has become a big party attended by dozens of parade volunteers, many of whom are too busy working at midnight in Pasadena to raise a glass.

The Hazenbergs have also developed a close-knit group of Pasadena friends and co-workers. Katie Miller, a Catalina Island schoolteacher, has been making signs for the cars -- spelling out "Grand Marshal," "Mayor" or "President" in onion seeds and rice -- for 28 years.

"We're like a family that sees each other the same three or four days every year," Miller said.

Hazenberg had talked about retiring for five years, but it took her time to find the right replacement. Top floral designers constantly travel to the next big show. White is a fellow globe-trotter who met Hazenberg when they made a TV special on flowers in Nebraska. White has visited the Hazenbergs in the Netherlands, and the two designers share similar views on color.

White and Hazenberg prepare for the parades like obsessive football coaches, studying pictures of previous designs and using computer software to design their arrangements.

"Els has kept such incredible logs of her work," White said.

The Hazenbergs said that despite their retirement, they planned to return to Pasadena to watch parade-related events that their floral work has left them no time to see. They expect to stop by the decorating tent as well.

"Once you're in the floral industry," Els Hazenberg said, "you can never leave it."


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