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.

•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."

"He's a good man," says Hargrove of Bush.

Hargrove passes his daughter, Carla, the company president. "Anything new?" he asks.

"We've got the mariachi band!" she shouts, sounding fully victorious. The band will play while riding on a Southwestern-themed float in the parade.

Hargrove walks into a bustling workshop where workers are rolling out inaugural posters. The company will print 100,000 square feet of inaugural graphics.

Then, he steps out to the sprawling area where floats are made. Hargrove is particularly proud of the towering flag float, which is covered with 5,000 yards of hand-tufted red, white and blue satin.

"Twenty-five Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are going to stand on that one," he says, beaming.

Walking by just then is Arthur Colbert, an African American who's worked on inaugural floats for Hargrove since 1969. "This inaugural," he says, "is special. Very special."

Keeping cool when things go wrong

Back in his office after the tour, Hargrove reflects on some pressure-filled inaugural moments.

During the Carter parade, a float for the state of Tennessee featured a barn with a live rooster. To keep the rooster in place, a rope was tied around its neck. But moments before the parade started, the rooster tried to fly off.

The float went rooster-less.

Before the 2005 Bush inauguration, it snowed heavily, covering the outdoor stage for a pre-inauguration show on the Ellipse near the White House. Just a few top Hargrove employees had Secret Service clearance to go on stage. So CEO McGill led the snow shoveling into the wee hours to clear the performance space.

Any disaster that can happen, will eventually, McGill says. The key to success in the special events business, he says, is how you handle a crisis. "You can't panic."

Hargrove says he never did, though he sometimes wanted to.

Most of the 400 employees worked through Monday night, including Hargrove. But he still will be there today to revel in pageantry.

"Sure, my family is worried," says the octogenarian.

"But I'd have a stroke if I didn't go. And they sure wouldn't want that."