Ever wondered what would happen to the floats if it rained on the Days of '47 Parade?
Nothing much, according to Jana Richards, who has designed floats for Modern Display for seven years. In fact, sun is harder on their plastic petal skin than rain is, she says, pointing to a sheet of plastic on which frothy petals seem to be melting into glumps beneath the noonday sun."Even if it rained really hard I don't think anything except the letters would get ruined. And some glitter might wash off."
Richards majored in commercial design in college. "And then I had to throw away everything I learned. You know, they taught us that simple designs were best. `Less is more.' Well, with floats you use everything you've got. They have to be glitzy."
She is an expert. In times past there might have been other experts - men and women who had learned by trial and error, who made floats for their local LDS wards year after year.
These days, explains Jerry Dunyon, parade chairman, there are so many wards in line for a turn at building a Pioneer Day float that your ward may be chosen only once in your lifetime. One float does not an expert make.
Richards conducts free float-building seminars each spring. "Most of the people who come are the ones in charge of their ward float," she says.
Richards talks about floats as she stands behind the Modern Display store on Seventh East in Salt Lake City. There, under a canopy, three young men are giving form to her latest fantasy.
She holds a painting of a cartoon castle in her hand. Disney characters, larger than life, stand before it. Fireworks and streamers shoot up behind the castle towers. This will be the Modern Display float. Banners emblazoned with the logo "Coke" will give credit to the company sponsoring the Disney characters.
"They are going to make this even prettier than the design," she says confidently. Right now all there is to inspire her confidence are some cardboard towers on a plywood floor. But she knows the whole thing will soon be covered in sheets of petal plastic and petal paper and festooning, fringe and glitter. Wands of colored plastic will look like fireworks. Paper flowers will seem to blossom.
For a week before the parade the floats that Modern Display builds will be sitting at the Salt Palace. "We rent space there so we can put the finishing touches on and then not have to move them again until the parade," Richards explains.
These are floats in name only. On July 24 when you see 50 of them gliding down the street like swans, don't be fooled. These machines are earthbound in the extreme.
"I have no idea how much they weigh," says Richards. "I only know they're way too heavy for the cars." She points out a car underneath the float's floor. The car's body is sawed off at engine level. Windows, hood and top are gone.
Look closely and you'll see a piece of netting instead of a plastic sheet over the front of the float. That's to let air into the engine. Float engines tend to overheat.
"We extend the exhaust pipe way out to the rear of the float so the driver doesn't suffocate," adds Richards. She points out the little hole the driver gets to look through as he or she eases on down the road.
Modern Display is building eight floats this year, at a cost of $4,000 to $15,000 each. The firm's customers are large companies and cities. Richards explains that a $4,000 float is basically a remake of one from last year. (Her company keeps as many as 13 on hand - stored in their "float barn" on Salt Lake City's west side.)
For $8,000 a company gets a brand new standard-sized float. (According to parade rules, the floats can be no higher or wider than 14 feet and no longer than 60 feet. But 60 feet is too long to get around the corners, says Richards, so the standard floats are only 30 feet long.)
And a $15,000 float, what does that look like? Do you remember the KTVX float several years ago - the one with a carved Statue of Liberty and bust of Brigham Young, all covered in glitter? That was one of the best Richards has to offer.
Each of these fanciful creations represents a lot of weight, work and money. For the companies that sponsor them, it's worth it. "Their name is in view for maybe 1 1/2 minutes," says Richards. "That's longer than a TV commercial and besides, people might get up and go into the kitchen when a commercial's on. When a float is passing by, no one can resist looking at it."