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Parading His Stuff for All to See

By Eugene L. Meyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 13 1997; Page B01

"Lemme show you something," said Earl Hargrove Jr., gesturing at 160 cardboard boxes stacked in a warehouse near the Capital Beltway in Prince George's County. Inside are "thousands and thousands of plastic flowers" Hargrove put to good use during the 1961 Kennedy inauguration. The plastic flowers "decorated all the balls."

Hargrove is a professional inaugural decorator preparing now for his 13th, and still he's holding onto those artificial flowers. "I kept them just for sentimental reasons. I never threw them away, and I'm gonna use some of them on these [parade] floats. Isn't that something?"

Indeed it is, as are many things in the Hargrove hall of artifacts.

"Eagles, my god, we got eagles," Hargrove said, shelves of them, from 100-pound eagles used in Richard M. Nixon's inaugurations to 1 1/2-pound fiber glass eagles used in more recent events. He's got rooms full of Santas, seals, pennants and flagpoles. He's got potbellied stoves, a rebuilt Conestoga wagon, carriages, sleighs.

"It just goes on and on," he said. "There's a story behind each one of these things. Lord knows, they think I'm crazy saving all this junk." Who? "Everybody, my kids . . . "

But in the cosmos of Earl Hargrove, there's a place for everything, and where better to put it to use than in the presidential parade? Hargrove, 68, creates literally larger-than-life fantasies, and the inauguration seems the perfectly hyperbolic setting for a man not given to understatement.

This year, his Lanham-based company is responsible for producing the floats for the first two of the five divisions in the Inaugural Parade; the other divisions are assigned to firms from Baltimore, Cambridge, Md., and Columbus, Ohio. Beyond that, Hargrove is decorating all 14 inaugural balls, the Democratic National Committee dinner, two banks and two or three private parties.

With all that hoopla hinging on the Clinton inauguration, you might think the guy's a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. Maybe, maybe not. Says he, "I'm anything I have to be."

Right now, he's the virtuoso of virtual reality, a Cecil B. DeMille of special effects and the hands-on manager of a firm whose work force of 135 swells during inaugural season to three or four times that number.

In the midst of it all, his firm is moving, from a 67,000 square-foot building on Martin Luther King Jr. Highway down the road to a 327,000 square-foot plant he recently bought from Volkswagen of America. Work is going on these days in both places.

Hargrove has an office, but he can hardly keep still. Like one of his mechanical devices on automatic, he prowls his domain. "You all right?" he asks wood shop foreman Tom Lennon on the fly. "The show goes on. We'll be all right," Lennon replies. "Damn well better," Hargrove says, and moves on.

In the float shop, five employees are working on inaugural eagles for Riggs National Bank. They are made of foam, covered with a hardening latex that isn't hardening fast enough. "You need more heat?" Hargrove asks. "Maybe you oughta get a heater in here. You need fans? I'll get them in here immediately."

Hargrove grew up in Cheverly, graduated from Bladensburg High School and dropped out of the University of Maryland. He served in the Marines, twice. His father started in the display business right after World War II, trimming liquor store and drugstore windows. Father and son also built floats for the 250th anniversaries of Arlington and Prince George's counties in 1946; the son decorated Cole Field House for the Prince George's Tricentennial gala last year.

Window trimming took a dive in the 1950s with the rise of television advertising, and Hargrove Displays branched out. The Hargroves did the Cherry Blossom Festival, starting in 1954; the Miss American pageant in Atlantic City; the Delmarva Poultry Festival; and, of course, the inaugurations. When the pope came to Washington, Hargrove turned the Catholic University gym into a sanctuary suitable for a Mass.

With his son at his bedside, the senior Hargrove died in 1971 in New York, where he'd gone to buy Christmas items for the White House.

Hargrove remembers the inaugurations as much by the floats he built as by the presidents. There was the "Lady Bird Special" train in 1965 for Lyndon Johnson's inauguration, and the 1981 float for the first Reagan inauguration that carried 350 members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the 53-by-23-foot-high American flag float in the 1985 parade, and the 16-foot-high cowboy boots that "marched" in the 1989 parade for George Bush.

This year's floats are taking shape inside the cavernous new warehouse. The floats follow fairly closely the guidelines outlined by the Presidential Inaugural Committee Parade Division, which seeks to celebrate American history from 1492 to the present. "They tell us their concept, we given them designs," Hargrove said.

Division I starts with the likeness of an American Indian and a tepee from South Dakota. Then, a Revolutionary War soldier "pulls the `We the People' float with the Liberty Bell," Hargrove said. Behind that is an enormous eagle on a chassis salvaged from an old school bus.

Division II begins with a fabric-covered faux train, powered by a Chevrolet dump truck engine with an automatic transmission, and with fake steam shooting from its wheels and smokestack. Forty-six people chosen by the Inaugural Committee will ride the 120-foot-long train. Hargrove plans to drive the locomotive.

As the floats near completion, the tension mounts. Sunday morning, the floats will move outside the warehouse. Soon after midnight on Monday morning, the convoy -- the floats, four trucks, several vans, a crane and a service truck -- will get on the road under military escort to the Capitol, arriving at Third Street and Independence Avenue SE two hours later.

Coordinating the convoy will be Bill Beach, 75, a retired Marine colonel working on his sixth inauguration with Hargrove. "It's just like an amphibious operation in the Marine Corps," Beach said. "There's no difference. You get all your bullets and beans in the right order and make sure your own support ammo doesn't shoot you down."

For those who think this is a once-in-a-lifetime, or at least a quadrennial, experience: Wrong. "We do something like that every week, someplace, somewhere," said Hargrove, whose company just finished up with the auto show at the Washington Convention Center.

And so, 10 days after the inauguration comes the Louisiana congressional delegation's four-night Mardi Gras celebration at the Washington Hilton. The backdrop for the stage is already built, with 10,000 light bulbs to illuminate it. There'll be 3,000 people, 2,000 flown up from Louisiana. There'll be a parade, floats, 450 costumes.

Said Hargrove, "It's unbelieveable; it's unbelieveable."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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