Herald American Lead Story

Downey float builders hope to win another trophy

DOWNEY — Members of the Downey Rose Float Association won a top prize in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade last year by depicting a peaceful home scene. This year, float builders are looking for adventure in a tropical setting.

Last year’s theme was centered on the home. Downey won top honors for “best depiction of home life in America” with a float showing a snow-covered cottage with people in a horse and sleigh in front.

“We beat out floats made by professional companies costing $250,000 to $350,000,” said float builder Jeremy Clinton.

This year the Tournament of Roses committee picked the theme “Find Your Adventure.”

The Downey adventure, designed by Jason Redfox, is composed of an island with tropical vegetation, numerous plants and trees with white birds as well as wild animals.

“Our theme is ‘Exploring the Everglades,’” said Kelley Roberts, 46, the Downey Rose Float Association’s chief float builder, who helped decorate his first float at age 10.

Roberts estimates 12,000 to 15,000 varied colored flowers will be pasted on the float, such as orchids and roses. He estimated a cost of $38,000 for materials, since all the labor is voluntary.

Since July, Roberts and his core team have been working nights on the float. They started working one night a week, but have increased that to four and five times a week as the New Year’s Day event nears.

In fact, the crew pulled all-nighters Dec. 2 and 4 to prepare the float skeleton for the Downey Chamber of Commerce Christmas Parade Dec. 6.

Work is done in a vacant building on the back lot of the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center.

“This is our home,” said another crew member, Mike Allhands. Other core builders are Andrew Malarkey, who often drives the float in the parade with the help of a navigator beside him inside the enclosed 33-foot long structure; Rafael Sanchez and Matthew Santisteven.

The float builders all have day jobs, which is why the float work takes place at night after regular daytime jobs, said Roberts, a mechanic inspector for the state.

“It’s also hard on your social life,” says Roberts, who is single.

Why the effort? To Roberts “it’s the challenge of taking something from a picture and making it into a three-dimensional item.”

Downey’s floats, which have won awards in four of the five past years, are all mounted on the same steel structure and powered by a 351 Windsor motor, which moves at about five miles an hour.

The float is 33 feet long, 10 feet wide and about 16 feet high, although a part can be lowered to go under a 15-foot bridge along the route to Pasadena.

Fortunately, the float does not have to travel to Pasadena on its own power. It is towed by Titan Towing Company, owned by Omar Camacho, who does it for free.

That saves us $3,000, Roberts said.

There were actually two floats in the Christmas parade, a skeleton of the Everglade scene and a flat platform with four to five benches carrying Miss Downey, Miss Junior Downey and Miss Teen Downey. In the Pasadena parade Jan. 1, only the Miss Downey Court, led by Miss Downey Alexis Gonzalez, will ride on the float.

Other guests have ridden on past floats, such as veterans last year, selected by the Downey Rose Float Association, a private, nonprofit group headed this year by Sue England.

England noted that Bill Porter, winner of the Ride the Float drawing, will also be on the float.

“This year the Tournament of Roses teamed with the National Park Service, which is celebrating its centennial,” England said. “I am excited that we are representing one of the national parks and think that ‘Exploring the Everglades’ will be absolutely beautiful.

“I can’t wait for decoration week to see the float come to life with the help of our members and all the wonderful volunteers that come out to help,” England said.

The association sponsors the Miss Downey Pageant as a fundraiser for the float. The Miss Downey Courts help out by selling snacks at the summer concerts in Furman Park, along with appearances at other fundraisers.

“We are accepting monetary donations year round,” Roberts said as the float group gets little, if any, financial help from the city.

Volunteers aree most important in the week starting Dec. 26, when work will take place from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. non-stop until Dec. 31. The main job is painting, cutting and pasting flowers and plants onto the float.

Food and restroom facilities aree available to the volunteers, Roberts said, noting that in past years several hundred have turned out daily to help. Most come year after year, many from the Los Angeles area but some from out of state as well.

If all goes well, the float will start its long, slow journey to Pasadena at about 5:30 p.m. Dec. 31, traveling north on Paramount Boulevard. Many residents often gather to see the float as it passes by.

Following the float is a motorhome, which will be the sleeping quarters for the crew. The float is expected to arrive in Pasadena about midnight and begins lining up for the parade at 6 a.m.

Afterwards it is usually put on display for a couple of days in front of the Embassy Suites Hotel, 8425 Firestone Blvd.

For more information on volunteering, call (562) 334-2440 or visit www.downeyrose.org.