Earl C. Hargrove Jr., a titan of parade floats and bunting who operated the Maryland company that has outfitted inaugural processions and parties, trimmed the National Christmas Tree and orchestrated extravaganzas for decades, died April 6 at his home in Lothian, Md. He was 86.
The cause was progressive heart disease, said his son-in-law Tim McGill, who in 2002 succeeded him as chief executive of Hargrove Inc., the family’s Lanham-based provider of special-event services.
A master of visual delight, Mr. Hargrove began his career in the late 1940s as an apprentice to his father, who dressed the windows of Washington liquor shops and stores, including the old Woodward & Lothrop. As advertising moved to television screens and shoppers migrated to malls, the younger Mr. Hargrove ventured from downtown shop windows to projects on an increasingly monumental scale.
He first participated in a presidential inauguration in 1949, when he drove the mules pulling the float honoring Harry S. Truman’s home state of Missouri. A minor emergency erupted when the animals were spooked and departed from the parade route.
Every president since Truman has employed the services of Mr. Hargrove’s company. For Dwight D. Eisenhower, it supplied a parade float with a golfer — an homage to the president who putted on the White House lawn. President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural parade in 1961 included a replica of the PT boat he skippered during World War II.
In the swearings-in since Bill Clinton took office in 1993, Hargrove Inc. has been the general contractor for all official inaugural events, said McGill, who with his wife, Carla, purchased the company in 2008.
Besides the parades, presidential events have included pre- inaugural dinners, prayer breakfasts and inaugural balls.
A particularly challenging job came after George W. Bush’s contested election in 2000. Because the vote recount extended into December, Hargrove Inc. had only about three weeks to prepare for the inaugural events, The Post reported at the time. When incoming vice president Dick Cheney requested that the moose on the Wyoming parade float be replaced by a buffalo, Mr. Hargrove’s party planners obliged.
“I talked to every taxidermist west of the Mississippi River to find him,” one of Mr. Hargrove’s employees told the Associated Press. “They’re pretty rare.”
For more than 50 years, the company has decked the National Christmas Tree in Washington with its hundreds of ornaments and thousands of lights. Before the use of bucket trucks, said a daughter, Kathy Kelly, Mr. Hargrove donned a Santa Claus suit and scaled scaffolding to place the final star.
McGill said the Hargrove company has provided staging and production services for Washington events, including several National Cherry Blossom Festivals and the openings of the Korean War Veterans Memorial, National World War II Memorial and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Other clients have included the Washington Auto Show, trade shows across the country, and the Miss America pageant.
Earl Christian Hargrove Jr. was born in Richmond on Oct. 5, 1928. He grew up in Cheverly, Md., and graduated from Bladensburg High School in 1946 before serving in the Marine Corps.
Over the years, Mr. Hargrove acquired a massive store of supplies, including 160 boxes of flowers used at Kennedy’s inauguration and 100-pound eagles built for Richard M. Nixon’s inaugural celebration. Mr. Hargrove displayed his most prized items at American Celebration on Parade, an attraction that he operated along with Shenandoah Caverns near New Market, Va.
For decades, McGill said, Mr. Hargrove and his wife decked their Anne Arundel County estate, Holly Spring Farm, with themed Christmas decorations that drew thousands of visitors. He was a philanthropic donor to Marine Corps causes, said McGill.
Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Gloria Love Hargrove of Lothian; five children, Earl “Chris” Hargrove III of Crownsville, Md., Kathy Kelly of Grasonville, Md., Carla McGill of Annapolis and Cindy Hargrove and Carey Hargrove, both of Lothian; and seven grandchildren. A grandson, Clyde Kelly IV, died in 2001.
Known as the president’s prop man, Mr. Hargrove was coy on his politics. Once, interviewed on ABC News, he was asked if either party received special treatment.
“No,” Mr. Hargrove assured anchor Peter Jennings. “We play both sides of that street.”