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Builder of Floats is on a Roll

Times Staff Writer

When the big colorful floats finally roll down Broadway in Santa Ana today, Richard Gillespie will breath a sigh of relief.

For the past two weeks, Gillespie, 53, his wife, son and a few other workers have been clocking 18-hour days, putting the finishing touches on a fleet of six sculpted and animated floats in the 1988 Times Orange County Holiday Parade.

This endeavor is no hobby. It’s a full-time, year-round job. The Gillespies make a living from their eclectic craft of building all sorts of whimsical, self-propelled contraptions: papier-mache elephants that move their trunks, a giant clown head that rolls its eyes and a huge eagle that flaps its wings, among others.

The Gillespies’ company, Visions Parade Floats in Santa Ana, is one of four companies that are providing floats for today’s parade, and perhaps the only outfit in Southern California that makes reusable animated floats.

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“What we do is animated sculpture,” said Gillespie, who got his start in the parade business 6 years ago as a contract animator for C.E. Bent & Co. in Pasadena. Bent, which ranks as the country’s biggest float maker, makes dozens of floats every year for the Tournament of Roses Parade.

Gillespie still earns about half his income designing and animating Bent floats for the Rose Parade. But he saw a growing demand for Rose Parade-like floats for smaller parades with smaller budgets and went into the float-building business for himself 2 years ago.

Rose Parade floats, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build, are only used once. Gillespie discovered he could buy parts at a fraction of the their cost from used Rose Parade floats and recycle them into his own, scaled-down floats.

The company makes its money by renting its fleet to float sponsors of about 15 parades a year in western states from Oregon to Arizona.

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“Gillespie is doing a spinoff of Rose Parade (float construction) and scaling it down. He uses some of the technology that we use in the Rose Parade, but on a much smaller scale,” said Bill Lofthouse, co-owner of Bent, which this year is building 26 floats for the Rose Parade.

From that standpoint, Lofthouse said, he’s different from the other small float companies, which tend to build only platform floats. “He’ll be successful if he pursues the route that he’s going. Gillespie is a very talented man with a good idea.”

Float making has become a multimillion-dollar business over the years, thanks mostly to the popularity of the Rose Parade and its huge television audience, which attracts big money from corporate sponsors. Corporate giants like General Motors Corp. and Eastman Kodak Co. will spend more than $6 million at this year’s Rose Parade.

Visions Parade Floats is minuscule compared to two companies that make most of the Rose Parade floats, Bent, and its main competitor, The Festival Artists Inc. of Azusa. Bent, for example, is expected to have revenue in excess of $2 million this year.

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But the company has been expanding steadily. Gillespie, a former toy inventor and executive for Wham-O (the company that brought us the Hula-Hoop and the Frisbee), has cornered what he believes is an almost untapped market for transportable animated floats.

Gillespie said his gross revenue from float sponsorship grew from $90,000 in 1987 to $150,000 in 1988. And for now, at least, his rent is free: a large empty warehouse that formerly housed a car dealership in Santa Ana. Hopkins Development Co. is providing the warehouse at no charge until it develops the space later this year.

Saturday’s float sponsors included Pacific Bell; Great Western Reclamation Inc., a Santa Ana waste management company; and the U.S. Postal Service. Sponsors are paying from $5,000 to $15,000 per float.

For that, Gillespie decks out the floats with flowers, other decorations and signs identifying the sponsors.

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The Santa Ana parade, started in 1984, is one of the largest of the 300 to 400 parades a year in Southern California. Gillespie sees them becoming more popular as towns and cities celebrate centennials, then decide to turn them into annual events. Among the fastest growing are the Christmas and Mexican Independence Day parades in East Los Angeles. Increasingly these parades are luring large corporate sponsors, and potentially more demand for floats.

The business of float construction is one part finance, one part artistic talent, one part engineering skill and about 10 parts sheer ego, Gillespie said.

The construction of a float begins with the base, a structure made of steel pipe and welded onto a custom-built car or truck chassis. On one new float designed for the Santa Ana parade, Gillespie built a periscope for the driver to peer out through huge roses. The roses are made of steel rods and window screen wire, which are sprayed with plastic molding and then covered with pink and red straw flowers.

The craft cost about $40,000 and took 2 months to build. It was originally designed to be built for the Rose Parade at nearly twice the size and four times the cost.

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The float should bring in $15,000 to $20,000 per parade, so it should quickly become a money maker, Gillespie said.

On the animated floats, an array of electric motors and hydraulic and pneumatic pumps make wings flap, heads turn, ears wiggle and eyes roll.

Gillespie has designed his floats so that they can fold up for transport in large moving vans, a feature that he said is crucial for turning a profit. Otherwise, the cost of storage and transportation would be prohibitive.

The float business, he said, is characterized by intense rivalry where family reputations are staked on creating ever bigger and more complicated floats.

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“A lot of builders get on a huge ego trip and forget all about the business side,” Gillespie said. “I like to think of myself as a businessman first.”


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