Tournament of Roses Parade with Tom Bowling

The 127th Rose Bowl Parade is TOMORROW at 8am PST, and we are could not be more excited! To get ready, we checked in with our own Tom Bowling, one of this year’s esteemed judges, to get some scoop on the big day. Thanks for joining us Tom!

How did you first get started in working at the Rose Bowl Parade?

I was doing an AIFD National Symposium in 1995 when I saw the person in charge of the flower room putting purple statice in a blender and pulsing it. When I inquired as to what this process was all about, she explained to me that she was grinding the statice to figure the square foot coverage for that material on a float for the company she worked for.  I was intrigued as I had watched the Rose Parade since I was a kid. It was a highlight of mine and a wonderful way to begin the new year. I never dreamed I would then be asked to join the Charisma Float team and begin as a decorator/floral designer for the parade floats!

What was your first year like?

My first year was pure magic! I was so amazed to see the construction of these mobile works of art and to learn how to design for a float versus a typical home arrangement. I learned to ‘paint with flowers’ and how to use (and not use) certain flowers and colors to get the maximum impact for the viewer and the TV camera. I loved learning from our seasoned professionals as well as viewing the floats from other builders to learn how they used certain flowers and why they were selected. Color, longevity, color read…all important considerations when choosing and designing with fresh flowers.

Tell us about your experience working on floats consistently through the years.

Over the 20 years of float history, I have had the opportunity to work with many fun and professional designers and decorators and thousands of volunteers to make these sleeping giants come to life. Each year presents its own set of challenges and rewards: certain key flowers being unavailable, temperatures so low that the glue will not set up, and rain that soaks through the tent to the point that you think you are working in a swamp, to name a few challenges. With all of the challenges there are at least that many and more rewarding experiences that keep you volunteering each year and coming back for more. I have forged a lifetime of friendships and fantastic opportunities. Working on the floats is what lead me to working on the Academy Awards for 15 years…. standing on the Red Carpet is something not too many people can say they have done.

We know there are schools in the area that contribute man power and creativity – do you work with any of them?

The past four years, I have been involved with the students at Cal Poly University. It is an engineering university that produces some of the most talented young people to the industry. Last year they devised a unique way to power all the animation that was on their float. It was done by installing solar panels on the top of a castle! How cool is that! I learn so much from these great students and it is a blast getting to advise them! I help walk them through color, texture, and the materials selection process among other things.

How are the floats constructed?

These floral masterpieces are works of art on wheels! They are painstakingly assembled and decorated by thousands of volunteer hours. The floats must be covered in only natural materials and cannot have been altered or color enhanced in any way. Every square inch must be completely covered. This can be done by gluing dried materials like seeds, beans, lentils, strawflower, crushed walnuts, corn husks, statice, and seeds to the canvas-like skin that covers the float. The canvas is actually window screen that has been sprayed with a resin to form a hard shell. This process is called cocooning. The construction techniques vary because the floats are made of varying materials; welded pencil steel, window screen, burlap, and sprayed on foam are a few of the construction materials that are used. Some materials, like rice, are applied one piece at a time with tweezers to make specific patterns. Kidney beans are also applied one at a time so they interlock to form a closed surface. Even magnolia leaves are ironed one at a time, then outlined in flax seed so they stay flat and the seed catches the sunlight to create bird feathers. Strawberry powder is blown on the faces of the characters to give them a more flesh-like rosy cheek appearance. Details are king!

How long does it take to build a float?

Wow, lots of variables in that equation. It depends on the complexity of the design; the amount of dry work versus fresh flowers in Aquafoam or in Aquapicks. A good general rule is from start to finish probably about three-and-a-half months from beginning to end.

Do you have any tips for surviving the float construction time?

Have a plan and work the plan. You decorate a float from the top down so the scaffolding does not break or destroy the work underneath it. It is similar to cooking a large meal or executing a large-scale wedding or event. You figure out a logical order of what can be done on which day and stick to the plan. Dry work starts weeks before and fresh work comes on more toward the end. Many of the arrangements are designed in Aquafoam in mache pots and wired in place after they are designed early in the week. These are kept in the refer trucks until they ready to be used along with the foam boards that each have 50 tubes of product that decorates float deck This usually happens at the 11th hour – right before final judging since no one can walk on the float once these flowers are in place.

Anything in Pasadena that is a “must-do” while designers are in the city?

Must do’s in Pasadena… where to begin… for two days after the parade, you can go see the floats on display at Pasadena High School. Getting up close and personal gives a totally different appreciation of the craftsmanship and care used to apply materials. Huntington Gardens, which is a world famous garden and library, is always a must see for me! Old Town Pasadena has fabulous shopping and amazing architecture to enjoy. You could easily spend a week enjoying the city before coming up for air! The sights the music, the animation, and of course the FRAGRANCE! It all comes together once a year to celebrate the City of Pasadena! It should be on everyone’s bucket list to see and volunteer to work on one of these masterpieces.

Any advice for designers looking to get involved with the parade?

Not everyone is a floral designer who works on the floats; in fact 98% are not… they are everyday people who want to have the experience of a lifetime! The Tournament of Roses website lists all the builders and how to contact them to volunteer to be a part of something GREAT!

Thanks for joining us Tom, and have a wonderful parade day tomorrow!

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