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This Rose Parade marks a major step for a young float designer

Charles Meier pulled his first all nighter when he was 11 years old. His mother found him asleep in a flower box.

It was the night before final judging for the 1990 Rose Parade. Meier, a volunteer, had been running around for hours helping float decorators fill vials of water, scrape seeds and glue last-minute details. Exhausted, he finally crawled into a box that still smelled of orchids.

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His parents snapped a picture, not knowing that their son would go on to win South Pasadena’s float design contest just two years later, making him the youngest designer in Rose Parade history.

PHOTOS: Rose Parade float maker

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Nor did they imagine he would one day break through a tight-knit institution and start his own float company. When the 124th Rose Parade rolls out Tuesday, Meier’s company will be the event’s first new professional builder in almost two decades.

“I basically traded in stuffed animals for Rose Parade floats,” said Meier, 34. “Other kids were at home reading comic books, and I’m here organizing my float pictures into photo albums. It was what captured my imagination.”

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Meier still remembers the moment he fell in love.

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PHOTOS: The Rose Parade through the years

He was 9 years old, sitting in grandstand seats his parents had won in a raffle. It was sensory overload: Booming marching bands. Floats adorned with tractors and dancers on a giant piano. And color. So much color.

He started drawing floats that day. He studied flowers, memorized parade brochures and, accompanied by his parents, joined float decorating committees. He couldn’t stop talking about his ideas.

“I don’t want to hear you describe another float,” his mother, Carol, told him. “Just draw one and send it in and see if they will build it.”

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FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Rose Parade 

Every year, he submitted designs to his hometown float committee. On his 13th birthday, South Pasadena selected his drawing. Instead of letting the experts take over, he insisted on working with the graphic designer on his vision of two aliens playing tug-of-war with a spaceship.

“It was really kind of funny. He was so young. I mean, he was 13, just a kid,” said Dex Regatz, 82, the graphic designer who took Meier under his wing.

“Before they knew it, I had insisted I do the complete floral plan,” Meier said. “And they actually took most of those ideas and ran with them.”

He quickly became a live encyclopedia of flowers and colors.

He once exercised his mental floral database by designing a Valentine-themed float with 94 types of roses, an unmatched feat in Rose Parade annals. He juggled hot pink Hot Ladys, bicolored Panamas and King Kongs with hints of green.

He experiences his life through the prism of floats. Walking across moss inspired the furry texture for an animal. Coconut flakes, so white he thought they sparkled, looked perfect for celestial stars and eyeballs.

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To pay his bills, Meier worked as a senior caretaker and freelance floral designer.

But on the side, he continued to volunteer for South Pasadena and Sierra Madre. He won fans with his enthusiasm, many said, and he treated each float as an intricate work of art.

“I’m always so impressed with his floats. You can stand anywhere, from any angle, and it looks good,” said Gwen Robertson, a longtime Sierra Madre volunteer.

Meier worked at both Phoenix Decorating Co. and Fiesta Parade Floats, but advancement in the professional float-building world is rare — especially at a time when the market is shrinking.

For decades, three companies — Phoenix, Fiesta and Artistic Entertainment Services — have dominated the local float-building business. Combined, they built 38 of the 44 floats in last year’s Rose Parade.

So when a smaller company recently went out of business, Meier tried to launch a new venture with the owners. Their first potential customer, the city of San Gabriel, called two weeks later.

To prepare, Meier drove around town for inspiration and researched the city’s demographics. He studied pictures of local landmarks.

At the first meeting in January, he promised the committee that if it hired Paradiso Parade Floats, he could provide a one-on-one, boutique experience. He left them with a rolled-up drawing.

When the committee unfurled Meier’s intricate black-and-white sketch, it embodied everything they wanted in the city’s centennial float: mission bells, dancers, nodding oxen and woven baskets overflowing with grapes. A city rooted in history.

“He sold the committee on his vision, his passion,” Mayor Kevin Sawkins said. “Without even meeting with us and knowing exactly what we wanted, he had come up with this rendering that really captured a reflection of the community.”

But Meier didn’t hear any feedback for months as the committee sought approval to hire him.

Meanwhile, he tried to get others to take him seriously.

At the Tournament of Roses’ annual theme draft in February, when builders jostle to reserve designs for the next parade, Meier, the newcomer, was at a disadvantage.

Companies with the most floats the previous year get to pick first and often. With each round, builders claimed broad themes, like butterflies and nature and rainbows.

One by one, Meier’s options dwindled.

“No more submarines, no more birds, no more Rube Goldberg machines,” a Tournament of Roses official announced.

By the time it was Meier’s turn, more than 80 designs had been reserved. He anxiously submitted the mission architecture theme for the San Gabriel float — just in case they called back.

When they finally did in late spring, he still didn’t have a customer despite cold calls to 90 prospective clients. His business partners were thinking of moving on.

“It was relief,” Meier said, playing back the voice mail he still has saved on his phone. “All I wanted was an opportunity to show that we can build something distinctive. Something truly beautiful.”

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Two days before the parade, dozens of Meier’s family members and friends worked briskly under a giant circus-like tent filled with the smells of recycled Christmas trees and the cinnamon used to color the oxen’s hides. It was almost judging time.

Meier, like a director before opening act, called out directions as he hustled from one corner of the float to the other, running on less than two hours of sleep. He examined the wagon of overflowing grapes and adjusted orange and yellow roses tucked into replicas of citrus trees.

The activity around him seemed to quiet to a hum as Meier paused, picked up his drawing — his inspiration — and rested it on an easel near the float’s title, spelled out in white navy beans: “Celebrating Our Journey.”

Twelve judges slowly circled the float as Meier explained his vision.

“We’re going all out to give a drop-dead-gorgeous flower show,” he told them.

When the judges walked out, his entire staff exhaled and broke out in cheers and applause.

Stepping back, Meier craned his neck, brows furrowed, eyes tearing at the sight of his looming creation.

rosanna.xia@latimes.com


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