Inaugural balls and parade are less lavish this year

The colors will be muted. The staging, less lavish. And not one fireworks burst.

Amid all the inaugural hoopla, almost everything about the Obama Inaugural Balls and parade will be toned down from past inaugurations except one: the 80-year-old extrovert whose company designed and built Tuesday's parade floats and ball settings.

Earl Hargrove and his family's trade show and event company have had a hand in every inauguration since Harry Truman's. Though he suffered a slight stroke just months ago, he'll be there today driving the parade's biggest float — a 24-foot-tall, 60-foot-long American flag.

The company that he co-founded with his father six decades ago made this float — and six of the Inaugural Parade's eight others. Hargrove Inc. also is in charge of creating the settings for all 10 official Inaugural Balls.

Hargrove, who walks with an arthritic limp, stopped attending the balls years ago. But the former Marine, who keeps a stuffed buffalo head in his office along with a trove of inaugural mementos, hasn't missed the parade since 1949.

"It would kill me not to go," he says. And he means it.

Supplying inaugural events is not a big moneymaker for the company, but it is critical as an image-maker for future business. That's all the more important as the $8 billion trade show and special events industry is squeezed by the economy and corporate cutbacks. And for Earl Hargrove, inaugurations are his cosmic fuel.

"No one else living today can say they've been associated with 16 continuous inaugurations and everything in between," Hargrove says.

Hargrove has pulled back — he sold the company last year to his daughter, Carla, and son-in-law, Tim McGill, who has been CEO since 2002. Everyone knows, however, that the inauguration is still his baby. "He's the guy who got us here," McGill says of his father-in-law. "No doubt about that."

But for the first time in Hargrove's memory, the Presidential Inaugural Committee is twisting arms to cut costs.

The inaugural budget is $45 million, says Linda Douglass, the committee's chief spokeswoman. While that's up from the $40 million spent four years ago on George W. Bush's second inaugural, she says the extra money and more is needed for services for the larger crowds expected: more portable toilets and tents and larger video systems.

That's left the balls taking a budget hit.

"They've made it clear that they're not going to spend and spend," Hargrove says. Normally, the cost of the parade and balls would have risen 15% since the last, but the company has been asked to cut that back, he says.

As a result, Inaugural Balls will:

•Be less lavish. Rental carpeting, and the labor to lay it down and pick it up, is expensive. So one of the 10 balls won't have a lick of carpeting, Hargrove says.

•Share common décor. Past balls have each had different themes in the decoration, which raises design, labor and material costs, says Douglass. This time, all the balls share one theme, "Renewing America's Promise," and a muted patriotic color scheme.

•Reuse materials. Many platforms and stages for the events use plastic pipe for railings. Instead of buying new, the company is reusing whatever pipe is left from previous events. "If we don't own it, we don't use it," Hargrove says.

Similarly, the nine balls with carpeting will get it from Hargrove's stockpile.

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