PASADENA, Calif. -- Here in the shaded glades of live oaks and December roses, one of California's oldest civic traditions lives on in these cold nights and crisp mornings. This is the place where thousands of square feet of chicken wire, hundreds of gallons of glue and acres of seeds, plants and flowers somehow become the Tournament of Roses Parade each New Year's Day.
The festival was founded in 1890 by the Valley Hunt Club of Pasadena to celebrate California's mild winters, and it has evolved into a mix of blue-blood boosterism and up-to-the-minute Hollywood hype.
Volunteer "petal-pushers" join forces with deep-pocketed sponsors such as Eastman Kodak and Dr Pepper willing to spend up to $300,000 to promote their products to a worldwide television audience of 325 million viewers in 100 countries.
The hoopla has even inspired a subversive counter-event, the annual Doo Dah Parade in late November, in which an anarchic group of local wags sponsors a stream of Elvis impersonators, dogs in drag and other oddments, mocking the cherished, polite rituals of the Rose Parade and its organizers.
But for the real parade participants, the job is deadly serious, and this is their crunch time. At Phoenix Decorating, which builds half the parade's floats in the Rosemont Pavilion in the shadow of the Rose Bowl, workers are finishing what may be this season's most elaborate offering, Universal Studios' five-story facsimile of Dr. Seuss' Cat in the Hat, promoting the opening of Universal's new Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Fla., next year.
"I think it's safe to say it's the float this year," said Phoenix Decorating President Bill Lofthouse, a former painting contractor who has been building Rose Parade floats for 43 years, as he surveyed a recent test of the cat's hinged neck, which bends to let the float go under a 17 1/2 -foot-tall overpass along the parade route.
"This has been one of the really challenging ones."
With his trademark striped stovepipe hat made of red and white carnations and a black and white coat of crushed sweet rice, black firegrass, Japanese seaweed and onion seed, the smiling cat will roll down Colorado Boulevard on New Year's morning, propelled by a diesel engine and animated by gas-powered generators and a half-mile of hydraulic hose, as stunt actors playing Thing 1 and Thing 2 hang out of the hat and other actors portraying other Universal characters, such as Spider-Man and Popeye, pop out of a big red box.
Corporations and studios have been sponsoring Rose Parade floats for decades; MGM built a flower-filled Munchkinland 60 years ago to promote "The Wizard of Oz."
Universal had not offered one since 1970, but as studio designers watched the parade last year, they decided that its worldwide television audience of a third of a billion people would be the ideal captive market.
"This was one of the easiest business decisions I ever made," said Cathy Nichols, chairman and chief executive of Universal's recreation group, which oversees its theme parks, including the famous studio tour here. "It's an over-the-top entertainment experience, and that's a perfect match."
The cat will have a coveted spot near the front of the march (fourth in line) but it is hardly the only spectacular offering in this year's parade, whose theme is "Echoes of the Century."
American Honda is sponsoring a tribute to space exploration with a giant Buzz Aldrin floating above a lunar landing module, as Neil Armstrong's line about "one small step " plays over a sound system.
The city of St. Louis has a float drawn by Clydesdales, with more flower-and-glue horses on board, along with a flowery mock-up of Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, which was built in San ++ Diego.
In any given year, the 56-float parade has six to eight times as many applicants as it can accommodate, and it takes only about a half-dozen new participants a year.
Every surface must be covered with plants, flowers or seeds, and crass commercialism is frowned on.
"We sort of espouse a tradition in which the companies offer greeting cards to the world," said Steven Leland, the parade's VTC director of sponsorship and marketing. "It's not a hard sell."
Pub Date: 12/27/98