Without them, South Pasadena wouldn’t send a float down Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena for the Rose Parade each year.
“There’s just no way it would happen,” insisted Brant Dunlap, talking about the importance of volunteers, the workforce behind the city’s float, set to take its traditional 5.5-mile journey Monday as part of pageantry viewed by millions of worldwide television viewers and thousands more watching live from the sidelines, many bundled up to fight off the early morning chill. “It takes lots of people to build it – families, moms and dads, their children, individuals of all ages, even some who have it as a bucket list item.”
Dunlap, the president of the South Pasadena Tournament of Roses (SPTOR) Committee, a group of approximately 20 dedicated souls who meet monthly as a board doing the crucial behind the scenes work, dealing with the local float’s design, work assignments, fundraising ideas and other tasks, added: “We have nothing without the people who give up their time and energy to lend to the success of our float each year.”
In the final days and hours leading up to the parade, there’s always a little expected madness around the place where crews are busy applying thousands of flowers on South Pasadena’s float as part of the long tradition of the floral spectacle that welcomes in the new year.
Nothing ever changes during what’s known as “crunch time,” those precious days and final hours leading up to the point in which the city’s entry must be completed.
“We always do it somehow,” said a laughing Janet Benjamin, decoration chair for the city float. “It’s always crazy down the stretch.”
It’s all about community volunteerism and spirit for those feeling the crunch the most, some splattered in paint, hands covered with dried glue, smudges of dirt on faces doing what’s necessary to complete the massive task.
With the arrival of flowers on Tuesday – thousands stored in a refrigerated unit at the float site in a back parking lot of the War Memorial Building in town – a majority will be placed on board the float in the final 48 hours leading up to the parade to keep them fresh.
As the clock ticks down on the event, on the eve of the parade the float will leave a giant tent for the starting area on Pasadena’s Orange Grove Avenue.
Those working on it, quickly learn that it’s one of a half dozen that are self-built, short for saying no paid staff, only individuals giving of their time to the task, provide the free labor to construct it, unlike most of the parade’s commercially constructed entries. South Pasadena’s participation is the longest running, dating back to 1893, three years after the Rose Parade was launched. Proudly, it’s also the oldest of the self-builts.
Among those lending a hand one day in decorating last week were Diane Cavenee, an Orange County resident, and her grandson, Wyatt, from Lake Elsinore. Together they painted, applied glue to signs, clipped dried flowers and later ground rice to create the appearance of cement used for the curbing around the float’s base.
“It was great that they kept us busy doing different things so that you just weren’t sitting there doing the same thing all the time,” said Cavenee, glad to help out.
Her 11-year-old grandson agreed, adding: “It felt good,” noting that he liked the idea of contributing.
A few days later they were back for more, this time Wyatt bringing along his older brother, Landon, and parents, Eric and Kara, to take part in the experience.
“It’s such a crunch at the end,” explained Cavenee, who has witnessed the frantic pace of volunteers placing flowers on board the float in past years as a team of Tournament of Roses officials roll into the work area with vans full of judges – pens and clipboards in hand – ready to size up the city’s float for a possible award.
Float judging, open to the public, will take place twice at the float site in the days ahead, once on December 31 and the final slated January 1, both at 7:22 a.m. As part of the drill, TOR personnel thoroughly inspect it, carefully grading every detail before departing the scene after the ring of a bell.
Float awards winners will be announced at 6 a.m. January 2 on the footsteps of the Tournament of Roses headquarters on Orange Grove Avenue, not far from where a multitude of the floats, equestrian units and bands await the start of the parade start two hours later.
South Pasadena is used to winning these days. The city came away with the coveted Founder’s Award for its “Sky’s the Limit” last January. The 2021 parade was cancelled on account of COVID-19, but a year earlier the Mayor Award was earned for its “The Power of Hope” entry.
Local float builders hope South Pasadena’s “Spark of Imagination” float will be to the judge’s liking as it depicts a science fair, featuring a crazy house, plenty of cranks, twirlers, spinning gears, a goofy clock, and wild action as giant text books – science, atoms and chemistry – are stacked in close proximity to three mice dressed in lab coats.
Responsible for much of its development are co-construction chairs Rob Benjamin and Steve Fillingham, who, along with their team, know better than most what it takes to build the float after spending countless hours in the work tent in recent months.
Not having blueprints to build it, eyeballing the sizing and scaling, and figuring out the structural and artistic requirements for much of the float’s workload admittedly “has been a challenge,” explained Benjamin, saying he’s glad the float is on the home stretch to completion.
He’s been impressed with the number of helpers “who are given a job and come up with solutions I would have never thought of,” he said. “We’ve got some people who are taking a considerable amount of their personal time and expense to come here and work on the float, traveling 40 minutes or an hour and a half or longer to volunteer.”
Like Eric, Kara and their family members who made the trip from Riverside County, two others drove from nearby Perris to offer support. Some trekked from Santa Clarita while one came from Oxnard, a 72-mile car ride to South Pasadena. Two more annually make the trip from Minnesota just after Christmas to join in on what Dunlap calls “controlled chaos” around the float, especially during deco week, when there’s the usual last minute frenzy.
“It’s fun to see the people come, be excited, and solve the problems we give them and build this stuff,” said Benjamin.
On the decoration side, 14 different roses will compliment a wide assortment of natural coverings on the float, including bark, sycamore and liquid amber leaves, adding significantly to its overall look.
Brandon Carlson, a semi-truck truck driver by trade, refers to himself as “a worker bee,” saying he likes to fill the needs of either construction or decoration efforts day or night when he’s around the float. “I’m always there to help out,” he assured. “It’s a different experience I never thought I’d be a part of. I love it more than anything, that’s for sure.”
During float’s crucial timeline, December 26 to 31, those crunch time days, a bulk of the volunteers, including many area students and community members, come out to pitch into the cause.
Paying for South Pasadena’s float, which ranges from $100,000 to $125,000, is a chore in itself, asking those on the committee to go the extra mile to raise funds for its construction by organizing a series of yearly fundraising events to help defray costs associated with steel, flowers, wood, other materials and rental of the construction tent.
A golf tournament, a huge yard sale, raffle for tickets to the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl Game, and year-end Crunch Time Party – dinner, silent and live auction – at the War Memorial Building are the yearly big dollar attractions. An online auction, in which bidding takes place with any computer, tablet or mobile device, will add to the Crunch Time Party total this year.
A “never on Sunday” rule, which the Tournament of Roses established from the beginning in observance of church services, has delayed the New Year’s Day tradition one day to January 2.
Steve Fillingham, the co-construction chair along with Rob Benjamin, is working on his fifth float over the years. “Community involvement mostly,” he said when asked what he gets most out of being around the float. “It’s a fun experience for me meeting a bunch of different people, helping them out, teaching. I’ve learned a lot.”
With work still to be done as the pace continues to step up with the parade only days away, Fillingham, who grew up in South Pasadena contributing his time not only to the float but to AYSO, Little League and other key projects around the city, promised, “On January 2, we will be going down the parade route one way or another.”
Who’s counting? Not Courtney Dunlap, the daughter of the SPTOR president who believes she’s worked on 21 or 22 floats growing up in South Pasadena.
“I started out as a Girl Scout and never left,” said Courtney, who, like her father, was president of the organization at one time, and currently serves as the secretary. “It’s just a great sense of community involvement. I feel really lucky that we have a float and that we can work on it, decorate it as volunteers. It’s something I wish every city had.”
Driving the float in next week’s parade will be Diane Giles, who will be sitting alongside Rob Benjamin, working the animation on board. Atop the float will be Carrie Russell, Tara Carlson and Lindsey Busch dressed as mice in lab coats. The latter two, the Minnesota visitors, have worked on the float for seven years now and the SPTOR wanted to show its appreciation by having them be a big part of it.
Following the 2022 parade last January when the float was on display for several days at what’s known as Post Parade, Giles drove South Pasadena’s float back home. “It was a long adventure, but it was good,” she recalls, talking about the test run for her next mission in taking the city’s newest float out for a spin on Monday. “It’s going to be a blast. I’m excited.”
She’s also a core member of the decoration team committed to ensuring the float will look its best once it reaches the starting area Sunday night. The next morning she’ll be in the driver’s seat for the ride of a lifetime. “The community makes it awesome to be a part of this whole effort,” said Giles, a lifelong resident of the South Pasadena. “Since I was a kid I’ve always wanted to work on the float.”
Fillingham and Giles are engaged and looking to next June when they will be married. “That’s a whole new project we have after this project,” Giles said laughing. “Never a dull moment.”
The volunteers, the tradition, the friendships she continues make, brings Janet Benjamin, the deco chair, back for more each year to work on the float. Married to Rob, the co-construction head, the two are committed to the bitter end every year, putting in the extra time, determined to make it the best it can be.
“This crew I have next to me, I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world,” she said of the like-minded individuals around her. “This year we were a little behind and they asked if they could come in a little early and get some of the major work done before Deco Week, and it has been amazing. I can’t thank them enough. The people who come out are willing to do anything. They are excited to do it all.”
And be a part of something so meaningful, adding significantly to the pride, image and history of South Pasadena.
“That’s why we do it,” added Janet, “to give everyone the experience of decorating a Rose Parade float.”