American Celebration On Parade
Shenandoah Caverns, Virginia
Parade floats aren't meant to soothe the nerves. Garish, sparkly, humongous, often freaky-looking, they only work if they catch your eye on a city street, in broad daylight, among a lot of distractions. And you only see them for a minute.
Now imagine these same floats, dozens of them, frozen in front of your face and packed cheek-to-jowl in a vast, silent, dimly-lit warehouse. In a field. In Virginia. That gives you some sense of the strangeness of American Celebration On Parade.
This museum is the decades-long dream of Earl Hargrove Jr, who runs a company that has staged trade shows, conventions, and every presidential inaugural since 1949. For years he squirreled away his favorite giant props, or bought floats that he saw in other parades. "His wife threatened to throw him out of the house six or seven times because he kept dragging all this stuff home and putting it in his basement," said Joe Proctor, the attraction's general manager. Hargrove bought Shenandoah Caverns, which is just up the road, with the intent of eventually moving his collection to the above-ground property. In July 2000 he finally succeeded. According to Proctor, the 40,000 square feet here is nothing; Hargrove has a former Volkswagen parts warehouse in Maryland, packed with stuff, that covers 6.5 acres.
Jonathan, our tour guide, tells us that the purpose of the museum is "so the average American can see floats up close, the way they were meant to be seen." There certainly is enough here to grab the eye: giant ducks, a huge puppy in a wagon, a 21-foot-long roller blade, a 35-foot-long car, the upper body of a genie that alone is 30 feet high. And that's just within the first few feet of the entrance. It's only when you return to the lobby that you realize that you missed a titanic harlequin, strumming a banjo, sitting atop the ticket counter.
Jonathan tells us that "the average float is designed to last two hours," so it's impressive that any of these exhibits, some dating back to the Bicentennial, have survived. The materials that they're made of -- paper, wood, glue, straw, corn husks -- mean that they're not only fragile, but combustible. Virginia may be tobacco country, but there's no smoking here.
We are repeatedly told that Mr. Hargrove is not just an obsessed collector, but a shrewd businessman who reworks the floats that he likes for his own profit. King Neptune being pulled by a sea serpent? That used to be St George slaying a dragon, and his chariot was recycled from a Roman gladiator float. The ducks became hockey players in the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Parade. King Tut was a woman in the 1998 Miss America Parade. Hargrove was impressed by a 210-foot-long steam train in the 1994 Rose Parade, and simply used it again in Bill Clinton's 1996 inaugural.
Our attention is directed to a giant American flag, made of 5,000 square yards of crushed silk. Jonathan tells us that the crushing had to be consistent so that the flag looked nice. This meant that the job fell to one hapless Hargrove Inc. employee, who had to scrunch the silk with one, consistent hand for 250 hours. A sign announces that the flag was voted "America's Favorite Float" by visitors to American Celebration in 2006.
But how much stock should we put in that award? Reports that we've received about this place have hinted that American Celebration On Parade is deserted. But perhaps that's a mistaken impression; maybe us puny humans just get lost among the strings of garland -- and astronauts -- hanging from the lofty ceiling, or the merry Christmas lights that seem to wrap around every surface, or all the giant rabbits, elephants, parrots, polar bears, and pelicans. There might be a bus load of Boy Scouts here, and you'd never notice them next to the stuffed bison and mammoth Indian head.
Hargrove's extensive work in Washington has given the museum some props with political baggage. Jonathan tells us that some people have refused to walk under the Museum's fake marble archways because they were used in George W. Bush's 2001 inaugural. Others have refused to walk on the museum's red carpet because Bill Clinton might have used it. "This carpet is PRESIDENTIAL red carpet," he says with a sigh. "It could have been used by Bush or Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon. I don't know; it's not marked."
Jonathan reassures us that Mr. Hargrove, who is now in his seventies, is still on the prowl for new material. And Jonathan himself has no fear that American Celebration On Parade will ever run out of floats for its collection. "You don't normally hear about France having a huge parade," he tells us, "but Americans have a parade for EVERYTHING."