Rose Fest Floats
An inside look at this year's floating theatre art
In a warehouse in Northwest Portland, Grace O’Malley reaches overhead to paint the sleeves of an enormous Indian girl’s robe, her bottle of water resting on a raccoon’s head. “Tables are hard to come by around here,” she says. It’s the constantly changing nature of float building, with few horizontal surfaces and things always moving around. Nearby, sparks fly from a welding torch. From bare chassis to headless bears, eleven floats are in various stages of completion two weeks before the Spirit Mountain Casino Grand Floral Parade.
SCi 3.2 is the Rose Festival’s official float builder. It’s a seasonal business. Much as she’d like to start planning earlier, SCi 3.2 vice president Kendra Comerford says nobody’s ready to talk Rose Fest until after the Christmas holidays. The number of floats fluctuates each year, as does the number of artists hired. This year, SCi 3.2 has a staff of about 22 people working on the floats. “So many of them do other things but reserve time for this project,” Comerford says.
This is O’Malley’s second year making floats. She likes the variety. “There’s something new every day,” she says. “Stuff you’ve never done before. I was making clothes for bears the other day.”
Most of the crew comes from a theater background, since float building demands many of the same artistic and problem solving skills as set building. Comerford herself has done just about everything in theater over the course of her life. But she prefers working behind the scenes to being onstage. “I found out you don’t have to do your hair and you don’t have to audition,” she says. In addition to her role at SCi 3.2, she stage manages for Pixie Dust Productions.
The company began in the ‘70s building theater sets. In 2010, it became SCi 3.2. Five of the employees, including Comerford, have worked together for more than two decades.
They consider floats much like theater. “The parade is a show,” says Comerford. “It is theatrical, it’s just moving.”
This Year’s Floats
SCi 3.2’s floats are dreamed up by committee. Each company sponsoring a float works a little differently, Comerford says. Some require multiple in-person meetings while others prefer to work with SCi 3.2 by emailing ideas back and forth.
Alaska Airlines’ Make a Wish float has a pirate theme this year in honor of a little boy’s desire to experience the Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland. He should be back from his trip in time to ride on the float. The large bird pirate gives a chance for softer decoration than the hard lines of the pirate boat, Comerford says. The pirate bird’s wings will be covered with anthuriums and its body with Kermit-green mums.
The Portland- Kaohsiung Sister City Association float has a dragon theme, in keeping with its dragon boat connection. Riders will be dignitaries from Kaohsiung. They also bring a group of young scholars. Coming to Portland to ride the float is a huge deal to kids in Kaohsiung, Comerford says. “It’s the carrot dangled for four years. If you’re not good, you don’t get to go to Portland.”
This year’s most controversial float is also the most expensive. Spirit Mountain Casino’s entry depicts a kneeling Indian girl, and a turtle surrounded by the words “Sweet Dreams for a Big World.” A bear, raccoon and rabbit also grace the float. Not only is the girl praying in what looks like a Christian way, she’s blonde. Tribal member Steve Bobb, Senior drew this one. He insisted on a blonde Indian to demonstrate his tribe’s value of inclusiveness. Some of their members are natural born blondes.
At the entrance to the SCi 3.2 warehouse, drawings of the finished floats hang beside a dry erase calendar. Pieces of floats are everywhere, waiting to be assembled. But you won’t see floats from past years. Not enough space, explains Comerford. “They’re all torn back down to motors,” she says.
Floral versus Paper
Among the world’s parades, floral parades are rare. In the Grand Floral Parade, every surface of the float visible to judges must be covered with organic material: flowers, seeds, shells, roots, etcetera. In the U.S., Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses and Portland’s Grand Floral Parade are the best known floral parades. They’re slightly more common in Europe, with Belgium and Netherlands perhaps having the most. Colombia, Thailand, the Philippines and New Zealand also host notable floral parades.
The term “paper floats” is used to describe all non-floral floats, such as those made with glitter and plastic. A paper float can become a floral float when covered with flowers. This happens just before a parade, so the flowers are fresh. The floats are built so flowers are easy to attach, with materials like plastic fencing for skirts of floats, and spray foam, to pin flowers into.
The Spirit Mountain float, for example, will qualify as being floral once all its surfaces are covered with organic material. The Indian girl’s skin will be coated with cornmeal, and her hair with raffia, which is a grass. The back of the float will feature live trees in pots amongst the flowers.
Many towns and organizations own paper floats that fold up and can be trucked from city to city for different parades. Every year SCi 3.2 brings in a different community float, and makes it floral for the Grand Floral Parade. This year is Olympia, Washington’s turn.
Some Rose Festival traditions go way back, others are fairly new; some have been tried and discarded, others revived. But the rose queen tradition is one of the most enduring. The first, Queen Flora, ruled in 1907. Since she was the governor’s daughter and thus a political appointee, she’s largely ignored in Rose Fest history. The tradition was dropped for a few years and picked up again in 1914 with the coronation of Queen Thelma (last name Hollingsworth), a 17 year-old file clerk. She was elected queen at 10 votes per penny. So this marks the 100th anniversary of the annual Rose Queen tradition. Look for a Queen Thelma impersonator on the Oregonian float.
This year’s theme is Making Memories. To the audience of the Grand Floral Parade, its key elements are easily apparent: float-building skills and tradition.