Charlie the Tuna is walking around here, shaking hands with the kiddies.
A caterpillar big enough to be a Godzilla sidekick in a Japanese horror flick is getting ready to do the Macarena … about 8 billion times.
This is one surreal place.
Volunteers signed up for the chance to stick flowers on Rose Parade floats inside a warehouse that smells like the elevator at work after that one overly perfumed and powdered lady finally gets off. Visitors line up for a chance to look down on the spectacle from a platform.
“I’m getting chills right now just talking about it,” says Maryann Griffith, volunteer coordinator for floats for Phoenix Decorating Co., a major parade float designer in Pasadena. “It sends tingles down my spine. You look at a nose in the parade, and you think, that’s my nose. I made that.”
For many, the Rose Parade is the main event in Pasadena on New Year’s Day. Football pales in comparison with pigs dancing the hula and King Kong stomping through a floral garden. But for Cougar fans, the floats definitely aren’t the biggest show in town - at least not Monday.
Cougars are an endangered species - virtually invisible anywhere near the Washington State/Pac-10 float. Meanwhile, backers of the Wolverines prowl everywhere.
Volunteers help cover every inch of every float with anything that grows in nature, from exotic flowers that look like refugees from “Little Shop of Horrors” to plain roses stored in individual plastic vials.
Each float is decorated with more flowers than the average florist will use in a year. A horse is crushed walnut and hemp. A pig’s tongue is red tea leaves, and cucumbers are green tea leaves.
“We are the undergrowth,” proclaims Pat Whitehead, holding up sprigs of spring arii to another man building trees.
They are also the Wolverines. Whitehead and his wife are part of the Nomads, a Michigan-based travel group that owns a plane. The plane dropped off 147 Nomads and turned around and flew back to Detroit to pick up another 153. On Monday, 77 of them helped build floats. Many wear Michigan T-shirts under red Petal Pushers sweatshirts. They have no doubts about the football game Thursday.
“We’re confident,” Whitehead says.
But what about the Cougars’ quarterback?
“Do they have one?” Whitehead asks coolly.
Where are the Cougars? Not doing the Macarena with sponsor Sunkist, and not in the Fun Zone float with Honda, and certainly not in the Fantasy on Wheels float with the Freemasons.
After turning over much bark and lichen, a lone Cougar is found. But the 1980 graduate doesn’t consider himself much of an alumnus. He’s tan and lives in Southern California. And he’s much more interested in talking about the float made by his company, Triple A in Southern California, than the Cougars.
“I’ve got a Cougar hat I’ve got to dig out,” Jeff Spring says hopefully. “I used to have a key chain but I used it so much, the Cougar head fell off.”
A check of the football floats doesn’t yield a touchdown. Volunteers paste down white and red mums to build a huge Washington State football helmet on the Pac-10 float. Just next door, they glue white straw flowers onto a Michigan football on the Big-10 float.
Most volunteers aren’t really that aware of a football game Thursday. They’re more worried about being at the end of their white straw flowers. Laura Hsu and Pui Hoang glue onion seeds onto posts holding Pac-10 school flags. They look at each other and giggle when asked about the Rose Bowl.
“I don’t watch it,” Hoang says. “I don’t either,” Hsu adds. But come on, this is the Washington State float, where cheerleaders will prance and the band will play the fight song during the parade. These are the volunteers? Doesn’t the team matter?
“I don’t watch football,” Hoang repeats. “Just the Super Bowl.”
“Who’s playing in the Rose Bowl?” asks Richard Lam, a 17-year-old who wears about as many white flowers in his hair as he sticks on the Michigan State football.
Ah, youth. Lam should listen to the float spectators, those people who walk on a platform above the floats and watch the work in progress. They wait in a line that stretches almost three blocks long just to see the floats-in-progress.
“Who’s gonna win the Rose Bowl?” a crew chief shouts up at the spectators. “Michigan,” comes the resounding reply, followed by a recitation of the point spread.
There must be someone among the spectators who made the trip from Washington.
Finally, there’s Washington State graduate Linda Whealdon in a gray Cougar jacket and her husband, Pat Danielson, who has a Cougar wallet. They drove their RV down from Enumclaw. The couple has invented new ways to use the word “party” as a verb. They’re still stunned that Washington State is in the Rose Bowl. And they’re a bit awestruck by the floats.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Whealdon, gazing down at Charlie the Tuna walking near his giant, golf cart-powered snail. “This is just incredible.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: COUGS ON THE WEB Can’t get enough of that Rose Bowl? Then plug into its past. Washington State University has posted film clips from the Cougs’ prior appearances and Wazzu ‘97 season highlights on its Web site. Cougars with computers, click here: http://www.wsu.edu/nwpr. Then select the Rose Bowl link. There’s video of leatherhelmeted players of 1916, the year WSU schooled Brown 16-zip. And there’s footage from 1931. All 11 of this year’s games are sampled, too.