DOING IT THEMSELVES; AMATEURS HAVE OWN ROSY DESIGNS : VOLUNTEERS BUILDING FLOATS FOR BIG PARADE.
In a garage filled with giant, disembodied foam heads and the screech of power tools, Steven Edward watches his Rose Parade float take shape.
That's the beauty of the project, Edward said: It is his float. And the volunteers stringing electrical wires in the belly of an immense sleeping bear? It's their float, too, he said.
Members of the Burbank Tournament of Roses Association are building this contraption themselves, without the help of a professional float-construction firm.
And in the modern Tournament of Roses, such self-reliance is rare.
When the annual parade snakes through Pasadena and across television screens worldwide Jan. 1, only six of the 54 floats will be ``self-builts,'' created through volunteer labor alone.
For the other floats, volunteers may glue on the final decorative touches - pound upon pound of rice grains, nuts and dried flowers - but the motorized guts and waving hydraulic arms are the work of a few companies specializing in float design.
Making your own float, one that won't look lame next to those built by pros, is a massive undertaking that gets progressively scarier as the parade date nears. But Edward, a vice president of the Burbank association, said the rewards justify the long nights and lost lunch hours.
``Where else,'' he asked, ``do you get to take a year out of your life and build a project that will be seen by 350 million people around the world, something that you can point to and say, I did that?''
Self-builts have long been a minority in the parade, in part because audiences have come to expect more elaborate displays each year, said parade publicist Nancy Atkinson. Gone is the simplicity of the early Rose Parades late in the 19th century.
``In the old days, people used to just pick their roses from their gardens and put them in their bicycles,'' Atkinson said.
While most corporations that sponsor Rose Parade entries can afford the cost of a professionally built float - $100,000 to $300,000 - some individual communities can't. Instead, they must rely on volunteers to draft blueprints, press local companies to donate materials and raise about $80,000 to buy everything else.
And then they are left on their own to piece together the machines.
Building floats is a long process, to say the least.
In May, the La Canada Flintridge Tournament of Roses Association began construction on its entry - a swampland fantasy of giant flying insects. As of last week, it was still a tangle of metal sitting in a parking lot near the Foothill Freeway.
``We're in trouble,'' said Jim Geoghegan, the construction crew chief. ``We've had rainouts, floods, power failures.''
But stare at the metal long enough and, with some imagination, the shapes of two separate floats emerge. The wire skeleton of a frog encases the remains of a stripped-down truck. On the larger float, two long, steel prongs stand ready to wave a big dragonfly and a bee, which are supposed to race each other across the swamp.
Although amateurs in the float-building world, some of the volunteers swarming over La Canada Flintridge's floats share years of engineering experience gleaned from Lockheed or NASA's nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Others have been sticking chicken wire onto floats for so long - their association has been around for about 20 years - that they've learned float building on the fly.
Geoghegan said his group can often produce better results than the professional float companies - at least, in his opinion.
``You can't compete with the money they have,'' he said. ``But you can compete in terms of how well it's designed and built.''
Individuality on wheels
In Burbank, Steven Edward's wife, Jennifer, shares Geoghegan's belief in the self-builts. When finished, the fruit of her association's labor, a 54-foot-long tableau of baby bears wreaking havoc while their father is asleep, will be as impressive as a professional float, she said. A man-sized cat will tip, over and over again, a pillar supporting a giant fishbowl. A lamp will swing above a set of immense children's building blocks.
``We're all using the same materials,'' she said. ``Sure, they're getting paid for their work, but there's nothing that says we can't do just as well.''
As tight as the float-building schedule is now, it is about to get worse. Once the basic float machinery is ready and certified roadworthy by parade officials, the work of piling on decorations begins. As many as 400 volunteers per day will be working on the Burbank float in the final week before the parade, painting and gluing and fixing.
Then on the big day itself, many of the exhausted volunteers, after spending the last year on construction, will either ride with their creations or watch them cruise the Pasadena streets. Many, but not all.
``By the time Jan. 1 rolls around,'' said La Canada Flintridge volunteer Ed Barlow, ``it's time to just put a tape in the VCR and watch it later.''
Photo: (1--3) Amid the tangles of metal, volunteers are building floats that will cruise in the 1998 Rose Parade. In the top photo, Patricia Johnson weaves in screening for the Burbank entry, ``Mama's Day Off,'' which includes the foam goldfish that Ellen Niit, left, carved and is carrying. A postcard, above, shows what the La Canada Flintridge entry will look like. The projects are exceptions to a rule that floats are professionally built for the big parade.
Myung J. Chun/Daily News