Easy on pomp

The Baltimore Sun

LANHAM - At a production studio in suburban Maryland, a worker is applying glitter to a replica of the Liberty Bell - part of the Pennsylvania float in this month's inaugural parade - when Earl Hargrove strolls in.

He's carrying a toy bugle in one hand and wearing a huge grin on his face. More than most people, Hargrove loves a parade.

Barack Obama has promised to bring change to Washington, but when the inaugural committee hired Hargrove Inc. to orchestrate events around his swearing-in, it instead chose experience.

Hargrove, a longtime Anne Arundel County resident who co-founded the company, has designed floats for every inaugural parade over the past 60 years, and now he's hard at work on Obama's.

He has been described as a "quintessential displayman," a successful artist and entrepreneur with a reputation as one of the nation's top parade float makers. He has worked the East Coast parade circuit since the 1940s, from the Delmarva Chicken Festival in Salisbury to the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City.

But inaugural events are the heart of his life's work. The 80-year-old showman is the Picasso of presidential inaugurations.

"The inaugural parade is for America," Hargrove, an energetic Marine Corps veteran, said in an interview. "From West Coast to East Coast. North. South."

Inaugural ceremonies also help to define a new presidency.

Excitement surrounding Obama's inauguration is likely to be stratospheric, but the celebration will be taking place during the worst economic climate for a new administration since Franklin D. Roosevelt's.

Orders have gone out from the Obama camp to tone down inaugural excesses and keep a tight rein on costs.

The floats in honor of the new president's native Hawaii, featuring a painted backdrop of mountains covered with lush tropical vegetation, and of Joe Biden's native Pennsylvania "are the smallest floats we've ever built," said Hargrove.

Hargrove Inc. recently won the million-dollar-plus contract to oversee general services for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, including decorating all 10 official inaugural balls and providing lighting, sound and video for those and other official events.

In all, the special-events company will handle about 40 official and unofficial inaugural celebrations, possibly including the Maryland Democratic Party's unofficial ball on Jan. 18 at a Washington hotel.

"Every day we're having to renegotiate prices. It's cut, cut out," Hargove said. "One of the [official] balls was supposed to have been carpeted, but they decided to do away with the carpeting" to save money.

"Another thing Obama didn't want - or his committee didn't want, and I assume it's him - they didn't want anything very flashy," he said.

As a result, set designs for the inaugural balls were given "a high-class American look" with very muted reds, blues and stars, he said. Based on current plans, stage construction for the balls, however, will still allow the new president and first lady to make the sort of dramatic entrances that have become an Obama trademark.

Hargrove's son-in-law, Tim McGill, who, along with his wife, Carla, bought the family-owned business earlier this year, said the inaugural committee has decreed that recyclable materials be used where possible.

The company will use biodegradable components in the thousands of directional signs it will print for various inaugural venues, for example.

In the spirit of re-use and cost control, a 60-foot-long American flag float, originally built for a Ronald Reagan inaugural parade, will make another appearance this year.

It was recently trucked to Maryland from a parade museum at Shenandoah Caverns, a Virginia tourist attraction owned by Hargrove.

Over the next few days, inaugural preparations will move into high gear, with the hiring of hundreds of part-time workers and almost round-the-clock shifts at Hargrove's sprawling Lanham headquarters, a former Volkswagen facility with more than 7 acres under cover and a vast collection of props that would be the envy of the Smithsonian.

The company was founded after World War II by Hargrove and his father, a department-store window designer who got his start decorating windows for drug and liquor stores in Prince George's County. It has staged hundreds of Washington events, from the dedication of major monuments on the National Mall to the lighting of the national Christmas tree every year since 1954.

Hargrove, who officially retired last year, still comes to work every day and is in charge of designing floats for the Jan. 20 parade.

At the moment, his desk in a corner office crammed with mementos of past inaugurations is strewn with photos of icons from Obama's home state, including the Illinois Statehouse in Springfield and Wrigley Field in Chicago.

Hargrove said he'd like to get Illinois-based Caterpillar Inc. to send a giant tractor to tow the Land of Lincoln float he's envisioning as the parade's highlight.

Details haven't been worked out, and Hargrove hinted that he's still trying to persuade the inaugural committee to OK the sort of parade showmanship that will grab the public's attention.

He speaks fondly of the World War II bomber he had flown to Washington and then perched atop an old hook-and-ladder truck in the 1989 inaugural parade to commemorate President George H.W. Bush's wartime exploits. A Bill Clinton inaugural parade float featured a huge jukebox and a rock band of pelicans whose leader played the saxophone, as Clinton did.

Still unclear is whether Obama or other top officials of the new administration will get personally involved in inaugural planning. Lady Bird Johnson was so hands-on that she made repeat visits to Hargrove's offices to check on a float for her husband's 1965 inauguration, and Vice President Dick Cheney gave orders for a stuffed bison, instead of a moose, on an 85-foot-long Wyoming float complete with a 1,000-gallon mountain stream that was used in the past two parades.

Hargrove, whose Maryland parade credits include designing floats for the 1954 celebration welcoming the Orioles to town and a 1995 parade honoring Cal Ripken Jr.'s consecutive-games streak, is a University of Maryland dropout who served two tours of duty in the Marines.

He has lived in Lothian for more than 50 years and personally contributed $2,500 toward the Maryland float that he built for Jimmy Carter's 1977 inaugural parade.

States and organizations can ask to have floats included in the parade, and it has become traditional to honor the home states of the new president and vice president.

Though his company has arranged numerous events for both political parties, his only presidential campaign contribution in the 2008 cycle was a $1,000 donation to Republican candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani, according to Federal Election Commission records.

He is also a major donor to his local congressman, House Democratic leader Steny H. Hoyer, a member of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (which is separate from the Presidential Inaugural Committee).

Predictions that 2 million or more people will crowd downtown Washington on Inauguration Day, weather permitting, could force parade organizers to alter their usual practice and pre-position the floats as much as 36 hours in advance, instead of the night before, Hargrove said.

One thing won't change: Hargrove will not be part of the crowd that watches the new president take the oath of office. It's a work day for him. He expects to be getting the floats ready, as he has done every four years since 1949, and to slip behind the wheel to navigate one of his creations down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.

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