Sparks were flying on a recent Saturday as Joss Rogers – welder in hand, a plastic shield and goggles protecting his face – joined a team of volunteers with one mission – complete South Pasadena’s float in time for the 133rd Rose Parade.
Rogers, the construction crew chief for the city’s entry, working at a fast clip these days, knows the clock is ticking as the countdown is on for the big day.
“It’s going smooth. I’m psyched and happy with how it’s moving along,” said Rogers, when asked for an update on the float’s progress.
Soon the majority of the construction portion of the float will end with the application of wet foam over chicken wire and a mass of metal to give the float its final shape after it hardens. Decorators will then begin painting its surface and apply natural materials and other components created off to the side of the main structure. In the final days leading up to the parade, thousands of flowers, many of them roses, will be applied, finishing off South Pasadena’s floral masterpiece.
Brant Dunlap, the president of the South Pasadena Tournament of Roses Committee, a group that meets monthly to discuss the float’s latest developments, also likes what he sees. “We are back, well on our way to building our float,” he said, “and I’m glad, especially after the pandemic cancelled the last one.”
The float, given the name “Sky’s the Limit,” draws smiles from those coming by the worksite behind the War Memorial Building in town and viewing a color rendering next to it. Featured are rabbits, raccoons and five ostriches, including the largest named “Theodore” wearing a jetpack, leather helmet, scarf and goggles, blasting off from a snow-covered mountaintop.
Its whimsical design incorporates a touch of the city’s early history when the Cawston Ostrich Farm was a premier tourist destination after opening in 1886. Ostrich drawn carriage-rides were among the farm’s main attractions back in the day.
Janet Benjamin, who oversees the float’s decorating side, says she’s pleased that “a lot of work on it is getting done ahead of time, which is always good. Everybody is working real hard and we fortunately have a lot of volunteers.”
Not wanting to say the float is ahead of schedule, Benjamin, pauses noting, “We’re doing well.”
Like Rogers, she knows time is at a premium for float builders and decorators with just over a month before the parade takes place. Benjamin is looking forward to the day when a large quantity of buffalo grass – both black and gray – arrives from a farm in the Midwest. It’s just one of the many logistical issues she faces in tackling her end of finishing the float as her team looks forward to soon covering the ostriches and raccoons with the grass.
In all corners under a giant tent, community members share their time helping in a variety of ways, doing what they can to ensure the float meets its completion deadline. It’s a pattern that hasn’t changed since 1910, the year South Pasadena put a float in the lineup for the first time, giving the city the proud distinction of having the oldest float in the event.
Be careful where you walk in the tent these days, warns Sharon Mitchell, a longtime worker, saying it can be “kind of dangerous,” adding: “There’s a lot of welding and other equipment. So, we’re really careful about only having adult volunteers who are pretty experienced working under here right now.”
Mitchell has been volunteering on the city’s float for seven years after helping construct what she calls “South Pasadena’s breast cancer float” back in 2015. A woman on her then dragon boat team in Long Beach designed the entry, “Still Winning,” as it simulated a pair of racing boats – featuring paddlers, a caller, and drummer – making their way down Colorado Boulevard to the applause of sideline viewers taking in the Rose Parade live, recognizing that participants on board were all cancer survivors.
“So, ever since,” explained Mitchell, “I’ve had an affinity for this group because they built a float for us. It was really an exciting experience for them to be a part of the parade, and when I look back I’m really glad we all had it.”
Beating cancer not once but twice, Mitchell affectionately calls those she works with on the float today “my family,” not forgetting, “It’s great to be a part of it, and it’s fun to watch it go down the parade route every year.”
Work on the city’s float is carried out Tuesday and Thursday nights from 6 to 9 p.m. at 435 Fair Oaks Avenue, followed by weekend hours – Saturday from around 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. All skillsets are welcome to lend a hand, insisted Rogers. “There’s just so much to do,” he said. “We will find something for you. The more the merrier.”
Anita Scott, another dedicated supporter, said she helps on the float “to contribute to the community in which I live.”
Not far away under the tent, Wendy Snow, who also enjoys contributing time to the effort, added: “I love the camaraderie, the friendships, the teamwork and everyone coming together.”
Snow likes the idea of meeting people from all parts of the country descending on South Pasadena to work on the float and complete something on their bucket list. “It’s nice that we can provide that for them,” she said.
James Jontz, the design chair for the South Pasadena Tournament of Roses Committee, has volunteered his services on the float for roughly 26 years. “It’s fun, most of the time,” he said when asked what brings him back to work on it. “The end of the process is the best part, getting it out of here, down the parade route. In the last two weeks [before it goes to the starting line] the community really rallies and comes out and supports it.”
Jontz, who has served in a variety roles on the committee over the years, including president, is responsible for the tent going up each year, making sure the lights and power at the event site are in good working order. Rental on the tent costs about $24,000 per year, said Dunlap, who projects that another $26,000 will be absorbed in construction expenses, including metal, and $31,000 more on decoration/floral, based on last year’s totals. There are additional bills to pay on top the three major items.
“The cost (of the float) is estimated at $100,000,” Dunlap pointed out in an appeal letter to the community seeking donations. “If this sounds like a great deal of money to fundraise every year you would be correct.”
To pay for it, committee members hold a handful of fundraisers, from a golf tournament, raffle, dinner/auction, to the president calling on the community for support, this year adding in his written correspondence: “We dearly want to keep this time-honored tradition alive for 2022. We are kindly asking for your monetary help. Any amount, small or large will make a difference.”
Volunteer driven, no one is paid for their efforts to build the float, stressed Dunlap. The float is 100% self-funded by a 100% volunteer workforce like Steve Fillingham, unwavering in his commitment, who said, “It’s about wanting to make a contribution,” on why he pitches into the float’s success each year. “I’ve helped with Little League, AYSO. I’ve been raised in South Pas all my life, so this is my way to help.”
While Rogers is the construction chair on the committee, Fillingham is his abled assistant, as both call the float site their second home, especially in the months ahead of the parade.
“I enjoy coming here,” stressed Fillingham. “It’s a good group of people.”
In his corner, showing strong support is Eric Nelson, another construction crew member, who has donated countless to the float since 2014. “There’s a lot of sense of fulfillment,” he said, after being asked what he gets out of it most. “It’s about being a part of something that millions and millions of people around the world watch.”
He estimates a combined 100 million around the world will view South Pasadena’s float on television and live down the parade route on New Year’s Day. “And I get to say, ‘I worked on this, on that, helping here, helping there, to make it happen.’ It’s really cool,” said Nelson, who calls himself “just a little farm boy, growing up in Minnesota” when the Rose Parade would come on the TV like clockwork each year.
“Thirty degrees below zero we were watching it every New Year’s Day,” he recalled.
Today, Nelson drives from his home in Carson, sometimes fighting weeknight traffic for 90 minutes or more to make the trip, but says he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I never imagined in my wildest dreams that someday I would be doing this,” he said. “Here I am working on the float, and I love it.”
For more information about South Pasadena’s float and to volunteer or donate, go to www.SPTOR.org or South Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association, P.O. Box 3662, South Pasadena, California 91031.