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Rose Parade floats go through a dry period

December 23, 2011 |  4:18 pm

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When Rose Parade float companies begin decorating, there’s nary a rose in sight. 

Why? Because float decoration is in effect a two-stage process. First come the materials that will not wilt or die. They include seeds, beans, seaweed, bark, straw flowers and the like. 

At Phoenix Decorating’s Rosemont Pavilion, one of two facilities the company maintains in Pasadena, dry decoration is nearly complete. Volunteers led by crew chiefs and their assistants have been at it since early December.

Each float has a master book of directions written by Phoenix floral director Lyn Lofthouse indicating the color, kind and location of the materials. For a float like the one sponsored this year by Trader Joe’s, the directions can get complicated.

“Everything on that float has some kind of specialized detail. There are cans" of corn and other products found at Trader Joe’s "that are heavily detailed,” Lofthouse said. There are dry materials over many sections of the float and “you just don’t slop it up there. There’s a direction to make it look sharp and clean.”

Some parts of the float are detailed enough to require the placement of individual seeds or beans one at a time.

This is where decorating crew chiefs and their assistants come to center stage. Some volunteers are repeat performers, but many are first-timers who need more direction. 

The Trader Joe’s crew chief, Nan Koupal-Smith, has been decorating the store’s floats for 10 years and fully understands the importance of getting small bits in the right place in the right way. “The placement of detailed pieces of material gives the surface a multi-dimensional look rather than a flat surface look,” said Koupal-Smith. Using single grains makes the float "pop so you can see the three dimensions. That’s what you want to see when you’re looking at it.”

Decorators place the dry material after applying glue to the surface. The white glue is similar to Elmer’s but a bit thicker.

And when it comes to the actual application, Koupal-Smith said, technique is a matter of individual preference and the material in question. “Some people use brushes, some people use sponges; it depends on how big the surface is. I use my hand. I’ve done it so long I can’t use a sponge.”

The importance of leadership on the decorating floor in finishing floats is not lost on Lofthouse.“I can’t do 22 floats by myself," she said. "So crew chiefs and assistants are an important part for me.”

And whence the army of volunteers so essential to finishing the floats? Phoenix gets them through its website and civic and other groups. Float sponsor employees are another source.

Many are longtime participants who have developed a true team sense with others on their crews. “We look forward to it and seeing everybody because we only see them once a year,” said Pasadena resident Cheryl Graffi, who has decorated floats for 25 years, all of them as a member of Koupal-Smith’s team. 

For first-timer Vicki Robinson, one of the service members from the Los Angeles Air Force Base working on floats this year, it is a different reason. “I just wanted to be part of it. I thought it would be fun, but I didn’t know what to expect. There’s real excitement here.”

-- Tom Reinken

Photo: Volunteer Cheryl Graffi touches up dry decoration material for the Trader Joe's float. Credit: Tom Reinken