Cherry Blossom Festival parade floats are a family business for the Shaws of Maryland


The Shaw family from Frostburg, Md., has owned a parade float-building business for more than 50 years and three generations. They are longtime builders of the Cherry Blossom parade floats, which are assembled at the National Armory. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post )

John Shaw Jr. spent his 70th birthday, a Sunday, at work, making his way through a floor strewn with power tools, sparkly pink plastic trim, and enormous flowers and butterflies.

“Miss America will ride on this one,” he says, motioning toward a shimmering platform of blue and green on wheels. It won’t be the first time. When you’re in the parade float business, you meet a whole lot of Miss Americas.

Shaw’s family has been building, towing and decorating parade floats for more than 50 years. For nearly as long, their handiwork has been seen in the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, which is scheduled for Saturday. Last weekend, Shaw and his son and business partner, John Shaw III — the family calls him John John — towed 11 of the 70 parade floats in Shaw Parades’ Frostburg, Md., warehouse into the D.C. Armory, where tumbleweeds of tinsel-like festooning and plastic flowers blew gently across the floor.

Shaw and his wife, Martha, spent the better part of the week here, touching up the paint on the bird figurines, stapling fringe to the bottom of the floats and affixing the corporate logos of the sponsors who pay as much as $35,000 for a float that will make its way down Constitution Avenue.

Parades are “a complete broad spectrum of our country and what our country’s values are,” Shaw said. “You see all ages, all ethnic groups, from granddaddies to grandsons.”

That’s true on and off the parade route.

In 1954, Westernport, Md., insurance salesman John Shaw Sr. bought a kiddie ferris wheel. He’d drag it to church bazaars and firemen’s carnivals, where children would hop on for 10 cents a ride. In 1957, the Oakland Tire Co. gave him a small fee to drive it down the route of the Autumn Glory Parade in Oakland, Md. John Shaw Jr. was one of the riders and remembers looking out over the excited crowd.

That ferris wheel became the first float for what was then called Tri-State Parade Productions, and it’s still in use today. John Shaw Sr. bought two additional floats and provided rental, decoration and driving services for parades of all kinds and sizes.

“The Cherry Blossom Parade was one of his favorites. It was one of the biggest and still is,” Shaw said of his late father. “It gives one a special feeling to go by the monuments and see the White House as you go down the street. That’s not a normal parade perk.”

Shaw, who worked as a high school teacher and basketball coach, joined the family business about 30 years ago, acquiring floats from other small parade companies to gradually build his fleet. John John, his 36-year-old son who is also a teacher, has been helping out with the floats since he was 6. (Sometimes, John John brings along his own son, the fourth generation of Shaw parade men. But don’t expect to meet another John Shaw; the boy’s name is Landon. “We’re not royalty, so my wife said no to the fourth,” John John said.)

Most of the parades the Shaw family works have been around for decades. It’s rare to drum up new business, with one exception: gay pride parades, which are relatively recent additions to the parade circuit. The Shaws have staffed pride parades in Washington, Philadelphia and New York. John John says he isn’t sure what his grandfather, the company’s founder, would think of those, but times have changed: “I’ll just say, it’s different.”

But before the parade starts, the floats have to get to their destination.

Too delicate to drive on a highway in their finished state, partially constructed floats are covered in plastic and hitched to pickup trucks. They then slowly make the three-hour drive from Deep Creek Lake, Md., to the District, caravan-style. The Shaws used to communicate with one another on CB radios. They recall when truckers would honk and chime in on their frequency: “Hey, we’re in a parade!” Now­adays, the Shaws use Bluetooth.

It took several of those caravan trips to bring the floats into the Armory, where a team of builders, decorators and one welder worked. Shaw estimates that the company goes through half a million staples each year; he has a repetitive stress injury in his wrist to prove it and has to wear a brace. These days, John John does more of the construction; Shaw handles the finances and specializes in “giving out compliments.”

For the Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, the team decorates each float according to an artist sketch from JM Best Entertainment, the company that produces the parade. Each one is built on top of a farm trailer, with wood and steel. The Shaw company is responsible for all the floats on wheels; a separate company provides the helium balloons.

Once the shell of the float is sturdy, a large arts and crafts project begins. Three different materials comprise the bulk of the decorations: floral sheeting, a roll of vinyl covered in fluttering plastic petals; festooning, which resembles the garlands of tinsel that trim Christmas trees; and finally, 18-inch-long fringe to cover the wheels and undercarriage.

“I think that gives your float that special appeal of flowing with the wind,” said Shaw, whose company’s motto is “The Personal Touch in Customized Floats.” He laments that it wasn’t as good as it used to be. “They make it so cheap anymore that it falls off right here in the gym.”

The special appeal of a family parade float business is that every celebration brings you together. Sunday was no exception. A rectangular sheet cake from Safeway, one of the parade’s sponsors, sat atop a red, white and blue patriotic-themed float. The cake sported piped blue and white icing along its edges, reminiscent of the festooning. “Happy 70th Birthday Johnny,” it read. It almost looked like a Shaw Parades float, in miniature.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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