Earl Hargrove is in the background business.

Hargrove, who built his father's window-trimming business into a multimillion-dollar convention services corporation, provides staging and services for events including inaugural parades and balls, Miss America pageants, the national Christmas tree lighting, bowl games, papal visits, conventions, conferences, annual meetings and parties.

When George Meany died, Hargrove Inc. was called to prepare a place for his casket in the AFL-CIO headquarters.

In business for 27 years, he predates much of an industry that has mushroomed in the past decade in a town where groups constantly are looking for a podium or a plastic name card.

One way to get a sense of the array of services needed is to look at Hargrove Inc. The corporation includes a special events division that stages affairs such as the inaugural parade and the religious extravaganza coming to the Mall at the end of April. Another division handles conventions and provides booths, handles freight, sets up exhibits, makes signs and plans parties or anything else that needs doing.

Another division rents audiovisual equipment, supplying slide projectors, television equipment for closed-circuit TV or film equipment. Still another division provides wireless electronic simultaneous translation equipment similar to that used at the United Nations. "But wireless," Hargrove emphasized.

Hargrove Inc. and other area businesses help convention planners create concepts for conventions and clean up and print the results afterwards.

They rent tables and chairs, engrave plastic nametags, tape record and transcribe, provide clowns, magicians and orchestas, serve meals, provide models to act as hostesses at exhibits, set up programs for spouses and children, take delegates sightseeing, hang bunting from the ceiling, send security guards and ushers, computerize registration and take messages.

And unless something goes wrong, they are seldom noticed.

"We're really backdrop people. We're the ones behind the scenes," said Hargrove. "I've often thought at a presidential inauguration, we are the persons who could screw it up so badly that it could put a new president off on a bad foot" he said.

Hargrove's memories are not of disasters but of mishaps funnier in retrospect, such as an inaugural parade when his father sent him for a box of laundry soap to make the waterfall in the New York State float foam like Niagara Falls.

Clouds of irridescent soap bubbles followed the float and suds piled up in its wake.

Another time, a sheep from the Pageant of Peace held on the Mall at Christmas broke loose and ran up 14th Street. A police officer followed the sheep and brought it back in a sidecar.

Hargrove Inc. has its headquarters in Cheverly, where it keeps a warehouse stocked with ballon machines, booths, pushcarts, trellises and other items the company may need. It employs about 60 workers including sign painters, carpenters, sculptors and interior decorators.

"We have a plant in Atlanta, Ga., with the same services there," said Hargrove. "We worked in 38 different sates last year and in Central and South America. To make it, you have to travel, but Washington, D.C. is our home base," he said.

"About 60 percent of our business is in Washington. There are so many functions happening in Washington every day."