On a recent Thursday, Tim Brugarolas and Bryan Bielawa were busy twisting pieces or welding portions of the “Dodo Bird Flight School” 2020 La Cañada Flintridge Tournament of Roses Association float.
“Right now, I’m shaping legs for the birds,” said Brugarolas, 15, a La Cañada High School student, as a light rain fell. “I’ve never done this kind of shaping before. I’m experiencing how the springs react, twisting them, just how they tighten. Before I was working on a propeller, and now I’m working on this.”
Added Bielawa, who graduated from LCHS in the spring: “Here it’s a lot of designing and thinking about how to make this part. How will I make all those propellers?”
The presence of the two teens, who both have been active in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Team 2429 at LCHS — a background that comes in handy in float construction — reflects an effort to reach out to more volunteers, who the nonprofit organization says are essential. Chuck Terhune, the association’s construction chair, said such volunteers are always needed to help with construction and financial donations — and thus keep the float tradition going well beyond Jan. 1, when “Dodo Bird Flight School” will join the next Rose Parade.
“Membership is dwindling,” Terhune said of the LCFTRA’s ranks. An older breed of volunteer is “sort of dying away. And new La Cañada is springing up and people just don’t have the time that they had because we overschedule our kids, I think.”
Terhune said membership in the organization, which had its first float, “Horse Play,” in 1979, has reduced from a “pretty steady” 600 to about 340. He said the decline began about 10 years ago.
“That’s really attrition,” Terhune said. “When this started, there was a different group of people. The city was brand-new. There were a lot more people who were working tech jobs. Now, it’s probably more financial show business. It’s more of a bedroom community. It’s a different mix.”
Terhune said it costs about $125,000 to build the float.
Association board member John Wolhaupter, who lives in LCF, said work on the float began around the second week of January with the demolition of the old float.
“It’s a full year,” Wolhaupter said. “It’s the same chassis. By Fiesta Days [which occur over Memorial Day weekend], we’ve taken everything off we’re going to take off, and then right after Fiesta Days we start putting it together.”
Like others, he noted the LCFTRA floats — fully funded by donations and his organization’s membership — have a perennial need for money.
“We always need donations,” said Wolhaupter, who was helping weld the main portion of the float.
He was joined by a small group of designers and welders also working on the float, which features multiple flightless birds playing instruments in a band on a zeppelin.
Designer Ted Baumgart, who was busy sculpting some of the birds, helped turn the idea of the “Dodo Bird Flight School” into a reality with his friends Tony Gleeson and Grant Delgatty. They were brought in after designer Renee Johnson and the group parted ways after four years together.
“It’s a different approach this year,” Terhune said. “We got Ted Baumgart and he’s got about 35 years of experience designing floats with some of the best in the business. He’s retired and agreed to design the float for us and he’s helping us build it this year. It’s going to be a big piece, because the zeppelin is a big piece. We’re going to have a separate little float that drives around — an ostrich trying to fly.”
Baumgart emphasized the group-effort nature of the process.
“There’s such camaraderie here, I call it float camp,” he said. “People have been volunteering on this. Some have been doing it for 10 or 15 years or more. I’m just the new guy on the block. I love working with these people and I love these problems to solve.”
Gleeson said Baumgart asked him to help out on the project.
“We sat down at a table,” Gleeson said. “We started doing sketches. I contributed a lot of character design. There are 25 birds on this float. He had me do the character designs … he went back to his studio and incorporated it into his sketch for an overall float design.”
Delgatty is building an all-electric satellite vehicle shown leading the way in the sketch of the “Dodo Bird Flight School.”
“He brought in the high schoolers,” Baumgart said. “I designed and illustrated the float design from many meetings with the float committee. I called Tony in to quick-sketch cartoon birds that were in my concept sketch, as he is an expert cartoonist. I cleaned them up and put them in the illustration.”
The float is being built near the Valley Water Co. off Hampton Road.
Bob Nielson, an LCF resident, said he had been working on the floats since 1979.
“I’ve worked on all of them — it’s fun,” Nielson said as he took a break from welding.
He, too, underscored the organization’s need for more money and volunteers to successfully continue.
“We probably have a turnover rate of 5-10% every year,” Nielson said. “Young people go to college or move out to a new job, or older people get fired [from their employment and stop participating] or they don’t want to be out in the hot sun.”
Nielson said over the years his time building the float has decreased from when he averaged eight-12 hours a day.
“I’m starting to think three or four hours is a long time down here,” Nielson said.
Baumgart said people who volunteer — Saturdays are the days to learn how to weld, while putting on floral arrangements happens much closer to the parade date — will acquire a lot of skills they normally would have to pay for at a college.
“This is a great opportunity for people to get a real taste of production and work with people, find out what skills they have, what skills they need,” Baumgart said.
For information about donating to the float, visit lcftra.org.