Decorating behind the scenes for the Rose Parade

ELLSWORTH — Sharon Stephenson considers herself a creative person, one who enjoys activities such as scrapbooking and stamping.

She has, however, had the chance to take her creative pursuits to a higher level — specifically, the famous Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., which precedes the annual Rose Bowl football game on New Year’s Day.

Stephenson, who works as the distribution and logistics manager at Hydro-Photon Inc. (makers of the water sterilization tool SteriPEN) in Blue Hill, spent the week after Christmas working with friends and family as part of a team helping to decorate a float for the 2015 Rose Parade.

It was her fourth time making the trip to Southern California to help decorate a float for the Rose Parade, which attracts more than 700,000 spectators and a TV audience of tens of millions in the United States and more than 200 other countries and territories around the world.

The parade, in fact, attracts more viewers — both in-person and those watching on a screen — than the football game does.

Stephenson’s connection to the parade is through one of her sisters, Karen Breshears, who used to work for Sunkist and helped decorate a float for the company more than two decades ago. She has been involved with many floats since then, and Stephenson has joined her on four of those occasions.

This year, Stephenson and a friend — Amy Keyworth, formerly of Stonington — went to Pasadena to help build a float for the specialty grocery store chain Trader Joe’s. There, they joined with Breshears and another sister, Laura Ostdiek, and their husbands to help decorate the float.

If decorating a Rose Parade float sounds like an easy task, think again. Companies that specialize in float design spend the year prior to the parade coming up with a concept that fits with the parade’s theme — the theme for this year’s was “Inspiring Stories,” for example.

By the time Stephenson and her fellow decorators arrived on Dec. 26, the structural skeleton of the float had already taken shape. Stephenson explained that the parade rules stipulate that “the whole float has to be covered in organic material — every surface,” which ranges from flower petals to seeds to seaweed.

That structure is covered with colors that indicate what type of seed or what kind of flower petal is supposed to go there.

“So decorating the floats is kind of like a paint-by-number,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson said she and Breshears spent several days decorating a bee that buzzes around a hive on the Trader Joe’s float. Crushed strawflowers were used to create the yellow, while ground-up seaweed provided the blacks and coffee was used to create a brown color around the eyes.

When it came to the bee’s wings, Stephenson wondered what material would be used to create a realistic look for them. A certain type of flower petal with a shimmering sort of translucent look was used, and Stephenson said “they turned out to be just right.”

Flowers, petals and other supplies are stockpiled and stored and then accessed by the teams of decorators. Another important item is glue — Stephenson said each of the petals on the bee’s wings, for example, had to be glued on individually.

In a 2010 by-the-numbers profile of the Rose Parade, the Los Angeles Times reported that 5,000 gallons of glue were used on all the floats in the parade. Stephenson said there a three types of glue to chose from — a light-duty whitish glue, and two others that are more like rubber cement.

The Trader Joe’s float was designed by Phoenix Decorating Co., a powerhouse that has been building floats for the parade since 1956 and which this year designed and built 17 floats in addition to the Trader’s Joe’s.

Phoenix’s floats accounted for nearly half of all the floats in the parade — 18 out of 40 — and the company took home eight awards, including “Best Use of Imagination and Innovation to Advance the Art of Float Design” for the Trader’s Joe float.

The company has two large facilities in Pasadena dedicated to float construction and dedication. Stephenson said several other floats were being constructed in the building she worked in. She said she likes working for Phoenix because they have buildings, while some other companies only have tents.

“They’re so cold,” she said. “It can feel like you’re an icicle.”

Though they’re in Southern California, it is winter there, too, and Stephenson said some mornings would bring temperatures of 35 degrees.

While Stephenson and Breshears spent time working on the bumble bee, her friend Keyworth worked on an oversized tomato seed packet. Ground rice was used for the white color, parsley created the green while crushed starflower provided the red.

A close-up view of the project would reveal each of those components, Stephenson said, “but from far away it looked like a seed packet.”

The floats have to be done by 2 p.m. on Dec. 31, when they are judged. Fresh flowers go on at the very end (including lots of roses, as the event name implies), and they are stuck in vials of water to keep them looking fresh for as long as possible.

Stephenson said it is “an amazing thing” to see the float when it comes out of the building, as that is the first chance people have to see the float in its entirety and truly appreciate all of the work that has gone into it.

“It really comes alive,” she said.

The Rose Parade dates to 1890, when it started in connection with games other than football that were designed to promote Pasadena as the “Mediterranean of the West,” according to the Rose Parade website.

“In New York, people are buried in snow,” said one of the organizers at an early meeting. “Here our flowers are blooming and our oranges are about to bear. Let’s hold a festival to tell the world about our paradise.”

Stephenson said working on the parade floats is a wonderful experience — she finds it particularly “fascinating” the different items that are used to create specific colors — but said she is glad that her involvement is somewhat sporadic.

Crews work in shifts from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. or from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., and are kept plenty busy with gluing petals, placing flowers and other decorating tasks.

“I wouldn’t want to do it every year,” she said, “because it’s a lot of work.”

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

Reporter at The Ellsworth American,
Steve Fuller worked at The Ellsworth American from 2012 to early 2018. He covered the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. A native of Waldo County, he served as editor of Belfast's Republican Journal prior to joining the American. He lives in Orland.
Steve Fuller

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