There are two types of Tournament of Roses parade floats, according to Linda Cozakos, president of the Burbank TOR Committee — the commercially built floats that are made with a whole lot of money, and the self-builts that are made with a whole lot of love.
The city of Burbank float is definitely the latter. It’s one of just six of the 45 floats in the Pasadena parade that is built purely on volunteer work, while others pay builders to bring their floats to life.
This year’s float features a giant animated caterpillar playing a harp, surrounded by 16 lively butterflies and oversized California poppies and daisies. Designed by Richard Burrow, with music composed by Ben Knorr, it is titled “Caterpillar Melody.”
The float is a yearlong effort that began as soon as the float team finished having its fun showing off last year’s float. Initial design ideas are submitted in January and selected in February.
“The design is picked through a worldwide open design contest. Anyone anywhere can submit a drawing,” said Steve Edward, vice president-float of BTORC and the man charged with constructing Burbank’s biggest caterpillar. Edward added that the team is already accepting designs for 2025.
A volunteer with BTORC since 1991, Edward has had an interest in float building since he was a student at Cal Poly Pomona in the 1980s.
“They taught me how to weld and hydraulics and flower growing and all sorts of interesting things that you get to do on this project. It has a worldwide audience. It has a deadline. It was all very exciting, and I got hooked,” Edward told the Leader. “When I came to Burbank, I fell in love with the people here.”
Primarily interested in the mechanics of the float, now Edward oversees every aspect of construction, down to butterfly wings, harp music and roses.
Lots of roses.
He will run the complex animations as the float takes its 5-and-a-half mile trek down Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena on New Year’s Day. He’ll be cramped under the float in a little nook in front of the driver, who operates the propane powered float blind with the assistance of an observer who calls out directions.
Float-building volunteers are tasked with a wide variety of jobs. Welders and engineers tend to the float’s frame, engine and hydraulics, while the craftier sort make signs, build critters, tend to the thousands of flowers, and decorate the float with organic materials — a Tournament of Roses requirement.
“There’s something for everybody,” said Edward. “What is your interest? If you are mechanically inclined, we’re for you. If you are artistically inclined, we are for you. If you like flowers, and you like organic material, we’re definitely for you.”
The float means a lot to a lot of people, said Edward.
“I’ve seen the float keep people alive. Sometimes, people just need a purpose. If you’re retiring and you can’t just stay home, it gives you a reason to get out and let loose that creativity. … A lot of friendships are made here. A lot. We’re one big family,” he said.
The parade float effort was in full swing this week — called “deco week” — as the decorating team brings to life the 44-foot-long, 21-foot-high behemoth. Soon they will don the float in thousands of flowers and submit it for judging.
It’s the most exciting moment for Edward, who got emotional thinking about it.
“At 6 a.m. on Jan. 1 on the front steps of the tournament house, the president of the Tournament of Roses will come out with a piece of paper in his hand, and we hope our name is on it,” he said. “That’s when we hope they call Burbank. And they say the award and we’ll say all right. We did it. We succeeded.”
It wouldn’t be the first time, either. Just last year, the Burbank float took home the Queen’s Trophy for best use of roses.
“That recognition is the culmination of a year’s worth of activity to that point,” he said.
And it’s when he finally gets to take a big breath.
Post-parade is when the team gets to let loose and have some fun with the float. It goes on display Jan. 1 and 2 in Pasadena, and then it is brought back to Burbank Jan. 3-7, when Edward will personally run animation for admirers to check out the team’s hard work.
The float is imbued with many traditions, secrets and sentiments by its passionate volunteers, some who have participated in float building for more than 40 years.
According to volunteers, when it comes time to deconstruct the float, workers and viewers will probably find it loaded with dimes and quarters. That’s because Edwards is always hiding them throughout the float.
Others have their various traditions, too, but the one that matters most to the team is what they call this year’s characters.
Terri Coomes, BTORC decoration director, said three of the characters are named after volunteers who passed away this year. The monarch butterfly is affectionately called Velma, after Velma McCarty, Cozakos’ mother. The caterpillar is named Beth in honor of Beth Yaros, a longtime member. Another butterfly is named after Jeannie Degenkolb.
If you ask any one of the Burbank float volunteers what their favorite part of float-building is, you’ll always get the same answer.
“It’s the community. It’s being part of a special family. And we do this year-round,” said Coomes. “It’s the people you meet and the people that you create this amazing thing with. And when you come here in the final week, deco week, when it’s full of volunteers, you feel so welcomed. City of Burbank does that for you.”
First published in the December 30 print issue of the Burbank Leader.