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Catching Up With...Charles Meier
By Bill Coburn
Sierra Madre Rose Float Association floats have won major awards the last three years in a row: the Princessesí Award (most beautiful entry under 35 feet in length) in 2008; Lathrop K. Leishman Award (most beautiful non-commercial float) in 2007 and the Founderís Trophy (most spectacular built and decorated by volunteers from a community or organization) in 2006. One common denominator in those three floats was their designer, Charles Meier. The 29-year old Meier, who was born in Huntington Hospital in Pasadena and raised in South Pasadena, has won awards with five of the six floats he has designed that made it into the parade. In 1991, Meier found out on his thirteenth birthday that the float he had submitted to South Pasadena at age twelve had been selected for that yearís parade!
While his first float in 1992 did not win an award, his design for 1994 won the Founderís Trophy and his
1997 design won the Tournament Volunteers' Trophy (Best floral design of parade theme under 35 feet in length). And while 1992ís design, as I said, designed at age 12, was his first built float, it was not his first float design, as he had submitted designs in earlier years that were not selected.
Meier is the son of Stephen and Carol Meier, and attended Pasadena Poly, and did his undergraduate study at Wheaton College in Illinois. He received his Masters in Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Institute (University of Birmingham) at Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK. He has one sister, Marilyn, who currently resides in Seattle, WA.
His early memories of the Rose Parade trace back to the mid-1980s, when he remembers sitting on the parade route on his dadís shoulders, or standing on a ladder, and watching as the floats went by, and that one year, after the parade, he went home and put a green blanket over his jungle gym which he then poked with whatever flowers he could find. But he says he knew he was hooked the year his parents won a raffle for some bleacher seats, and he didnít have to peer over the heads of the people in front of him. He was nine years old. He went home that day, and started drawing floats. He has photos of every float in the parade for the last twenty years, and attributes the majority of his knowledge of floats and float-building to studying those photos repeatedly.
I had a chance to chat with Charles recently at Beantown in Sierra Madre, and hereís what he had to say.
BC: Three awards in a row, and youíve been the designer on all three of those and I donít think thatís a coincidenceÖ
CM: Before you go too much further, I do have to say that no Rose Parade float, not a single one in the parade, is one personís creation, and I happened to come along at the right time, when the organization was ready to sort of experiment with a new designer, and Iím happy to make the contribution that I can make. But I can draw the most beautiful picture in the world, and without the right team to bring it to reality, itís not going to make any differenceÖIt does have to be acknowledged that itís a group effort. I canít carry my graphic rendering down the street in lieu of a float.
BC: How do you factor in the animation, as far as when youíre going to put together a float, do you say okay, I need this much animation, or do you look at the float after itís designed and say, okay this could be animated, but this not?
CM: No, when Iím working on a concept, all of the components are kind of going simultaneously, Iím thinking about floral, and animation, and three-dimensional composition, all of that is going on simultaneously. Whatever float youíre designing for, itís not just a matter of whatís going to look pretty, what would be a cool mechanism, what would be a cool way for something to move, itís practically thinking through what can our group accomplish? What limitations do we have because of our chassis? Iíd love to design a float where the deck was only two feet off the ground, but Sierra Madre has no way to build it, because their chassis demands that the deck basically be four feet high. Similarly with animation, there are all sorts of cool things it would be great to do some time, but I have to think about what can our group handle with our engine, and our skill level. Probably the first thing that I think about is the overall size of the float, because of the freeway overpass, everything has to fold down to fit underneath of it, so the very first thing that I think about, even when Iím doing my early napkin sketches, I will rough out the dimensions, the length limit and also the height limit and try to think through how can these elements collapse in order to fit under the bridge. An added challenge that Sierra Madre has is that because our barn is only so big, we canít have for instance a large lift mechanism fold down on the back of the float, because the float would end up to long to fit into the barn.
BC: Would you pick a float as one of your favorites?
CM: No, I wouldnít do that. Iím totally invested in each float, as Iím working on it, and each creative process is a little bit different, and I enjoy each one in its own way.
BC: In coming up with a design, would you have a preference for something along the lines of entertainment or something international, or does the theme of the parade really steer you in one direction or another?
CM: I have sketched out in various forms or another probably over 200 designs, so there arenít many themes that I look at and go, Iíve got nothing for this. Thereís always something that will work and be interesting, and I really like the variety.
BC: How did you get started with Sierra Madreís Rose Float?
CM: I went away to school in Chicago, thatís when I left South Pasadena, and then I lived in England for a couple years and came back after this big long break and I just thought I miss working on floats. All of my friends from South Pasadena had moved on to other things, itís a different group of people now. I knew that Sierra Madre had beenÖchallenged in the past, up until 2006 they had gone 20 years without winning a prize, and I knew it was the smallest self-built. Also I grew up attending Sierra Madre Congregational Church, so Sierra Madre always kind of felt like a second home anyway, and I thought well, you know Iíll just sketch something up quick. I didnít spend a lot of time on the Bookworm idea, I just sketched it and sent it in, kind of on a lark, just to see what would happen, and I was really kind of surprised when they picked it, and also a little bit scared, because I didnít know any of these people and I didnít know what they could or couldnít do and very intentionally had tried to keep the Bookworm simple because I figured anything too ambitious might be a bit too big a bite to chew. But it went well, and that Bookworm float ended up far beyond anything that I expected it would ever be. It happens to be a really good group of people over there right now and we were able to try, especially with the hummingbirds two years ago, something very ambitious that I donít think they ever would have tackled before.
BC: Iíve been told that the relationship with you and Dick Sappington was something I should look into, Iíve been told your ability to work with him on the mechanical aspects of things is one of the things that has contributed to making things work so well.
CM: I would say that Dick is absolutely vital to the success of the last three floats. Heís the head of construction and he is the person who tries to find a way to turn my drawings into a steel structure. We do have to work together in that process. I do do plans and schematics, but we still have to talk through engineering, very often heíll need a support in a place where it just doesnít work and either we have to find a way to re-engineer that part of the float or Iíve got to come up with some way to revise the design, or hide the support steel with some sort of flower arrangement or something, but itís a very collaborative process.
BC: What is your motivation? Are you doing this because you want to be the guy thatís won the most float awards, or is it just because you enjoy doing it, or what is the motivating factor for you?
CM: WellÖsomething that Iíve said before to people is that one of the things I find so delightful about the Rose Parade is that itís a display of extravagant beauty, for no good reason, at all. And I think thatís something that people need, itís something that I need. Just to be reminded that there is beauty in the world. For me, it just comes naturally, itís not even the sort of thing that you plan or strategize aboutÖitís, you know, fish swim because thatís how theyíre made, and I seem to design floats because thatís how Iím made.
BC: Is there anything that you would like to say to this community?
CM: The last thing that one of the judges said to me before getting back into the judgemobile and taking off was that ďif there was an award for spirit, Sierra Madre would win itĒÖand itís really true. Itís very easy for some of these small volunteer organizations to develop an uncomfortable political tension but I think that the group that we have right now working on the Rose Float is really extraordinary in the way that weíre able to work with each other. And not that everybody is perfect and does everything perfectly. Thereís a lot of forgiveness that has to happenÖThe atmosphere of that group is what makes it so special, and what makes it possible. Weíre always ready to welcome new people, especially in construction. Finances are always a struggle. The degree to which the community gets involved directly influences the kind of float we have. Sierra Madre Rose Float Association has been a gift to me, itís been a great place to learn and grow, and the primary learning has nothing to do with floats or flowers. Itís learning to live and be in a community. The relationships and work that goes on all year long is valuable. Iím thankful, very thankful, that this group of people has been so patient with me, and so encouraging.
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