Conversations in the Rose Parade float barns

by Laura Berthold Monteros

We dropped into a couple float barns this week to get a look at the floats in their final stages. First was the new spacious and bright headquarters of Phoenix Decorating Company in Irwindale. Man-of-many-hats Chuck Hayes introduced us to assistant volunteer coordinator Jay DeCastro, who has worked for float companies since 1986, and Maryann Griffin who told us she “absolutely loves” being around people and ensuring they are welcome.

The next day, we went to Rosemont Pavilion in Pasadena, which has been used by many float builders over the years. This year, Paradiso Parade Floats and Cal Poly Universities drove their entries from the far east San Gabriel Valley to finish up the floral on their floats. The cars that will carry the dignitaries are being decorated there, too; more on that to come.

In the Phoenix Decorating Company barn

Laura Farber

Laura Farber, who will have her turn as president of the Tournament of Roses in 2020 greeted us by the Theme Banner float. Asked if she was preparing for the 131st Rose Parade, she said, “Yeah. That’s what we do!” She has her theme (big secret) and has a list of potential Grand Marshals (bigger secret). “We have an eight-year build-up,” she said, referring to the Tournament’s executive committee ladder, from vice president to secretary, treasurer, executive vice president, and finally president.

“The last four years go by super quickly,” she said, adding that she’s getting ready early because she is an “excessive planner.” She said it will be fun to do the job from a different perspective as the third woman president and first Latina.

“We’re trying to expand outreach to the global community…. We’re talking to people about composites.” That might take the form of one float being sponsored by a region rather than a single country.

City of Hope

Next up was a close-up of a floragraph of the iconic City of Hope fountain that will be on the float, “Transforming Lives with Hope.” We spoke to Denise Heady, media relations, on the way in. She reminded us that the Wish Tree that stands on the Duarte campus is replicated on the float. There is also an online version where people can read or leave wishes.

“We chose the theme because it goes hand in hand with the [Rose Parade] theme of ‘Making a Difference,’” she said. City of Hope doctors, scientists, and researchers create new medicines and run clinical trials as well as caring for patients. She told the story of Daniel Bliley, one of the float riders, whose mother passed away from leukemia when Bliley was just 8. From the time he turned 18, he has been donating platelets to cancer patients every few weeks for 15 years. Chuck Hayes noted that the float is a team effort from beginning to end, “every step of the way. It’s a team effort to heal people.”

Tom Larsen

In his 10th year as a Petal Pusher—volunteers associated with Lutheran Hour Ministries—Tom Larsen comes all the way from the west San Fernando Valley. He sleeps in a camper on a side street so he doesn’t have to drive in every day, but he did do a test run on public transportation when Phoenix first moved to Irwindale. It took a long time and involved riding a bike and taking a couple buses and two trains.

Larsen signed up on the internet to work on the Lutheran float because he is a Christian and thought it would be a good fit. He was assigned to a different floats, but discovered something.


“It’s fun!” he said. “I just enjoy doing it. I’m especially happy with the Shriners group.” He chose that float this year to continue working with the same crew chief. “He’s the kind of guy you want to do a good job for,” Larsen said.

We found Margaret, a student at Alhambra High School, working on the Odd Fellows and Rebekahs float. She was painting on glue because a friend of her father is an Odd Fellow.

The United Sikh Mission float celebrates the Sikh culture and tenets of the faith, and serves as a means of educating people about Sikhism. Minu Singh, creative director, took some time to speak with us. We asked if more people have an understanding now than when the first float rolled along Colorado Blvd. in 2015.

Minu Singh

“I would say so,” she responded. “We got into the Rose Parade with the intention of spreading information. We knew it would not happen overnight.” Over four years, the organization has sought to educate viewers about one aspect of the Sikh faith at a time.

The 2018 float, “Serving Kindness,” focuses on one of the eight pillars of the faith, service, by depicting the kitchen in the Golden Temple in Punjab that feeds 100,000 people for free every day. Sikh Langar—“free kitchen”—is written on the door. That gurdwara has been making meals with since 1604, and gurdwaras all over the world extend the tradition to their communities. Gurdwaras also provide food during disasters, such as the floods and wildfires that have devastated parts of California in 2017.

Catherine Hafer

“It’s such a wonderful asset to be able to prepare within langars,” Singh said. The expenses are covered by donations and the preparation is done by volunteers.

As we continued our stroll through the facility, we found Catherine Hafer meticulously dotting yellow strawflower on a pineapple destined for the Trader Joe’s float, and Phoenix production manager Sean McMinimy, who promised us The Forum float, which seems rather plain, will have some surprises in the Rose Parade.

We ended up back at the Lutheran Hour float, “Bringing Christ to the Nations,” with Jan Foss.

Jan Foss and Marian Jacobs

“The Lutheran Hour does that,” she stated. She listed some of the ways the Lutheran Laymen’s League, which sponsors the float, makes a difference, including bringing dog handlers with comfort dogs to disaster areas. “Christ guides our way and sends us out to do things,” she said.

Foss is joined by four generations of her family in decorating this year, from her mother, who will be 90 in February, to her youngest granddaughter. Also pushing petals are her husband, daughter and son-in-law, son and daughter-in-law, and four grandchildren.

At Rosemont Pavilion

In previous years, Phoenix divided their entries between a facility in central Pasadena and Rosemont Pavilion near the Rose Bowl. Paradiso Parade Floats, Cal Poly Universities, and the Tournament of Roses vehicles were housed in a huge tent or under canopies. The move to Irwindale freed up Rosemont Pavilion for them.

Jordan Goad

Most of the folks were too busy to talk, but we did have a chat with Jordan Goad, who was working with corn husks on The UPS Store float. She has been decorating for eight years, since she was 12 and old enough to get into a float barn. She was following the steps of her elder sister, who worked on floats as a Girl Scout.

At the Cal Poly Universities berth, we spoke with float club chair Orlando Cabrera. The float club ties both campuses—San Luis Obispo and Pomona—together in this annual project. Cabrera is a senior at Pomona, majoring in Mechanical Engineering and minoring in math. On the float, he helped with the design, including welding, shaping metal, and screening, which left his hands covered in clumps of glue.

Orlando Cabrera

Though he didn’t start with the float club until his fourth year, he said, “I absolutely love it. It’s great because we compete with the pros. We can start a career before we finish school.” That’s because the float club is run by students and the design and building from the tires up is done by students. “We’re getting exposed to the outer world without being there.”

When he leaves Cal Poly, he said, “I want to use my degree to help people,” he said. He is looking to volunteer with the Peace Corps or Bridges to Prosperity. Failing that, he might go into auto design.