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Finding their place in the Rose Parade

The new owners of a float-building company put everything they've got into the spectacle.

December 29, 2009|By Corina Knoll
  • Katie Rodriguez, right, co-owner with husband Matt of Charisma Floats & Designs, helps volunteer Olivia De La Cruz, 12, of Castaic work on the company's Rose Parade entry saluting the Tuskegee Airmen.
Katie Rodriguez, right, co-owner with husband Matt of Charisma Floats… (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles…)

Night has fallen, so they work by streetlamp light.

Matt Rodriguez reviews the route with the driver. "Basically, same as last time," he says, pulling on the bill of his cap. "Use your radio."

His wife, Katie, untangles an electrical cord, her brow furrowed and eyes focused.

Behind them rises an enormous bald eagle, whose 17-foot wingspan serves as a backdrop for two fighter planes frozen in midair. Fashioned from foam, steel and a fanciful imagination, the eagle will land soon on a Pasadena street.

But tonight it remains in an Irwindale warehouse, waiting to be driven 21 miles along back roads at a sleep-inducing speed of 9 mph.

The Rodriguezes know the four- to six-hour trip well. They've worked in the float industry since they were young. But the stakes are higher now. Earlier this year, they took over Charisma Floats & Designs.

Though some Rose Parade floats are built by those who dream them up, most are contracted out to a pair of prize-winning builders: Phoenix Decorating Co. and Fiesta Parade Floats.

For the 2010 parade, Phoenix has built 18 award-eligible floats, including a Clydesdale-drawn snowscape from which Olympians Michelle Kwan and Bonnie Blair will wave. Fiesta will present 11 designs, including a show-stopping, 114-foot float featuring live snowboarding bulldogs.

Another company, Festival Artists Worldwide, has two floats up for judging. One of them consists of 65 dancers in sequined samba costumes.

Then there's Charisma, with just one entry. It's a quiet tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen -- no animation, no celebrities, no performers.

::

Matt Rodriguez, 30, would threaten to quit the business every October.

A trained mechanic, he started working full time for Charisma Floats in 2003, building motors and transmissions. He loved fine-tuning drive systems and hydraulics, but when the Rose Parade was months away and the pressure mounted, he'd push back his goggles and walk out of the warehouse.

Sometimes he'd be gone for days. He always came back.

Float-building, his wife says, is simply in his blood.

The two first met in 2000 when Katie was a student at Cal Poly Pomona, which shared a Rose Parade float tent with Charisma. A year later, Katie took a job at Charisma and ran into Matt again.

They got engaged at the Rose Parade in 2004.

Just before Christmas 2008, the owner of Charisma told the couple he was retiring and asked if they wanted to buy the 23-year-old business.

After a week of debate, they said yes.

"Momentary lapse of reason," jokes Katie, 32.

Securing the loan in the midst of a credit crisis took an additional three months. In the meantime, they attempted to win the business of the five new parade participants. They received no calls back. Four ended up going with Fiesta; one went to Phoenix.

Fortunately, Charisma had a relationship with the West Covina Rose Float Foundation, which wanted a military float. Freelance design consultant Raul Rodriguez (no relation to Matt) sketched out the float on which Tuskegee Airmen would ride, and construction began in the spring.

"I've never worked with the big guys," said the foundation's chairman, Frank Scalfaro. "I do know that the attention we get from Charisma is a very personal one."

When the foundation needed a place for its annual fundraiser, Charisma was quick to offer its warehouse. Donors arrived to find the place decorated to look like a USO facility, with 1940s music on the stereo. The Tuskegee float stood as the centerpiece.

In addition to the Rose Parade, Charisma has created floral effects for the Academy Awards. It also makes all of the paper parade floats for the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona. The Rose Parade, however, commands year-round attention and holds the most financial promise.

With only two full-time employees, the Rodriguezes necessarily have hands-on roles. Matt welds and Katie mans phones and supervises floral placement. She's also a full-time biology professor at Pasadena City College. In the weeks before the parade, she arrives at the warehouse every day after class while Matt pulls 13-hour shifts.

"Dinner right now is going home and grabbing a bowl of cereal," Matt said.

"I think the most quality time we've spent together was today, driving to the glue factory," Katie added.

The biggest thorn in the Rose Parade, they explained, is the schedule. "It's like dominoes in that if you miss one deadline, everything can start to fall," Katie said.

Matt grinned. "But there's nothing like New Year's Day."

::

The pre-Rose Bowl procession prepares to roll out, complete with police escort.

Charisma employees and their children are milling about, snapping photos. All are clad in the company's signature purple. "There's all this excitement with Matt and Katie being first-time owners," says Leilah Kelsey, 38, who has worked at Charisma for 15 years.

"It's always very stressful going out on the road," Katie says. Matt climbs into his truck, which is stocked with energy drinks and cookies. He'll drive just ahead of the float and watch for branches, debris and other obstacles. "I'm anxious," he says, gripping the wheel. "I just want to get started."

Katie joins him in the truck, and in the chill of a December night, the float and its owners carefully roll down the street.

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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