Inaugural balls and parade are less lavish this year

•Reuse parade floats. Three of the major floats have been used in past inaugurals or other parades. One, a float that looks like a U.S. Constitution scroll, appeared in a non-inaugural parade years ago. The three got minor facelifts to look snazzy and new.

•Spread staging costs over additional events. The Inaugural Committee left in place staging used for a bipartisan dinner at the National Building Museum Monday night for a ball tonight.

•Make do with less. The balls will be flowerless, and there's to be no fireworks for the inauguration, says Douglass. "We didn't think we needed fireworks to add a sense of excitement, unity and hope."

Keeping the color scheme subdued

One change that saves no money, but clearly tones down the atmosphere to fit the struggling economy: muted colors.

Don't look for the fire engine reds and royal blues often seen at the balls. The patriotic blues, reds, golds and even the whites, have been seriously softened.

"Our marching orders were: Tone it down," Hargrove says.

Asking Earl Hargrove to tone something down is akin to asking President-elect Barack Obama to give up his BlackBerry.

But low-key it will be, even if it doesn't come naturally to a guy whose company not only has done the past 16 inaugurals, but also has staged the lighting of the National Christmas Tree for more than half a century. It also staged this year's Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn. The company has done decades of Miss America Pageant designs. It even staged the Desert Storm homecoming celebration.

"You have to take your personal feelings away from the inaugural. It's about our nation's future — and its past," he says.

For the most part, he says, presidents do the best they can. "I think every president I worked with did their best — except maybe (Richard) Nixon."

Truth is, his favorite president was Ronald Reagan. And he's met every one since Truman, except for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Truman caught him off guard.

A few days after Truman's inauguration, then twentysomething Hargrove was across the street from the White House, decorating the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building, when Truman walked by with his Secret Service agents and shouted, "You're doing a fine job, young fella."

"I was so stunned, I couldn't respond," Hargrove says.

He since has learned the etiquette of meeting presidents. "Two or maybe three minutes is all you'll get of a president's time. Then, they move on. They have too much else to do."

That's all the time he got with John Kennedy before an International Monetary Fund meeting for which his company did the design. He also recalls that Kennedy still was combing his hair when the presidential limo pulled up. When a photographer snapped a shot of Kennedy with comb in hand, the angered president ordered, "Can it!"

A tour of the event planner's domain

After reminiscing in his office, Hargrove is itching to show off the company's 400,000-square-foot headquarters, once a parts warehouse for Volkswagen of America.

"Let's get moving," he tells a reporter and slowly rises from his big, leather chair. "Follow me."

First stop: the boardroom.

The darkly paneled room is a gallery of inaugural paraphernalia. He proudly points to a framed letter from President George W. Bush, sent shortly after the 2005 inauguration. The letter notes that while it was very cold outside during the parade, "Our hearts were warmed by the colorful parade floats you made."

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