Local Float Builders Take the Thorns With the Roses

Times Staff Writer

In the float-building business, John Hubler is an anomaly.

While cities and corporations spend tens of thousands of dollars to fashion the world's most lavish floral displays on wheels, Hubler is coordinating the design, construction and decoration of Cal Poly's entry in the 1986 Tournament of Roses Parade on a shoestring.

"What we lack in money, we make up with muscle," boasted Hubler, a 21-year-old Whittier native who is this year's chairman of the university's Rose Float Committee. "We take a bit of pride in doing it our way."

Despite the odds, Hubler relishes the David-and-Goliath challenge. Working night and day with donated iron and piping and using mums and roses grown in their own field, hundreds of volunteers will finish the Cal Poly entry in the 1986 Pasadena parade only hours before it rolls past TV cameras on Colorado Boulevard.

And if history is any measure, Hubler's troops will produce another prize winner for the estimated 125 million viewers who will watch the annual New Year's Day pageant around the world.

Mechanical Engineering Major

"The tradition will continue," promised Hubler, 21, a senior at Pomona.

Only 12 float entries have a longer record of participation than Cal Poly in the 97-year-old parade. In the past two decades, the university has won 15 major prizes, including eight Princess Awards for best display of animation, a trademark of Cal Poly floats, which are built and financed entirely by students from Pomona and its sister campus in San Luis Obispo. Portions of the float are built in San Luis Obispo by a separate committee and then moved south to the Pomona campus in late November for final assembly.

It is an undertaking that defies economics. Hubler and his 18-member executive committee receive about $7,600 from the Pomona student body, and the San Luis Obispo group receives $6,500 to fund its portion of the task. A fall raffle on the Pomona campus raises another several thousand dollars, and that's it. Donations of construction materials and some flowers, including hundreds of orchids every year from actor Raymond Burr, keep costs to a minimum.

Volunteers deliver the biggest savings. Hubler said before the Cal Poly entry is completed about 200 students will work 25,000 hours on the project, much of that in the final weeks before the parade when production shifts into high gear.

Work Hums After Exams

When fall-quarter final exams end in early December, crews go to work around the clock in the rose float laboratory--a huge metal building on campus not far from the group's flower fields.

Hubler, who is living at home this summer with his parents in Whittier, estimates he will put 500 hours into the yearlong effort, a commitment that began four years ago when he entered the university after graduating from La Habra High School. He joined the Rose Float Club because of its diverse membership.

"All kinds of students are drawn to this project," he said, "from computer science majors to business majors to ag majors. That's different from other clubs on campus."

The first two years, Hubler did a little of everything--welding, hammering, gluing flower petals and even making food runs for other workers. A year ago, he handled donations, and this year he was named chairman of the entire operation, a non-paying position that he says gives him a chance to test his managerial skills.

Work on the 1986 float began in February when last year's float was dismantled. In May the float design was selected.

Design Shows Boy and Dogs

In keeping with the parade's theme, "A Celebration of Laughter," the Cal Poly float will depict a small boy struggling to give a big, cuddly-looking dog and her five puppies a bath. As the puppies overwhelm the boy, the tub overflows with water and suds in a Norman Rockwell-like scene. "Bubble Trouble" is the title of the entry.

Propane will power the 55-foot-long float as it covers the 5 1/2-mile parade route. A microcomputer will activate the float's animated sections.

Hubler and his committee will spend the coming weeks stockpiling scrap iron and other materials to build the float's frame once the final design is completed later this month. This fall the float should begin to take shape, and then in December the final push begins.

"It gets a bit frenzied around here at Christmas time," said Hubler as he walked through the rose float lab. Above one doorway was a sign that could be the committee's motto come those final, frantic days. It reads: "I'm not disorganized--just flexible."

Lab a Mechanic's Dream

The well-stocked lab is a mechanic's dream. Nearly a mile of hydraulic hosing hangs from the rafters. A row of soiled overalls covers one wall. There's a paint and glue room, and enough tools, band saws and discarded metal to open an auto repair shop. Even a high-powered stereo has been installed, and a barbecue is tucked away in one corner. "We spend a lot of nights here," Hubler said, "and music and food are a must."

One of Hubler's top assistants is his sister, Kristin, a junior majoring in business, who also graduated from La Habra High. She is president of the Rose Float Club and is in charge of rounding up volunteers to build the float.

"Those who work on the float become a family," said Kristin, 19. "It's a tight group of people. You build friendships as well as a float. The relationships are what keep us going all those long, cold nights in the lab."

Another incentive is the anticipation of watching the float turn the corner from Orange Grove Boulevard to Colorado on New Year's Day. Traditionally, those who work on the Cal Poly float position themselves on the parade route just east of the intersection across from the VIP reviewing stands.

"When that float comes into sight we let out a big cheer," Kristin said. "It's thrilling. But it's also disappointing. You work all those hours, days, months and there it goes in a matter of seconds. I always leave the parade a little sad."

Not her brother, who said he has not ruled out float building as a career.

"I leave the parade tired, dog tired," Hubler said. "I go home and sleep for 12 hours. It's always a great sleep."

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