Lanham -- Earl C. Hargrove Jr, the energetic, proud owner o Hargrove Inc., one of the nation's largest decorating and convention firms, has a visitor but is nowhere to be found.
"Where is he?" an assistant asks.
"He's up in the flowers," another employee says.
Eventually, Maryland's king of special effects appears, carrying a box of plastic posies. "Welcome to the crazy house," he says.
The crazy house is a sprawling warehouse in Lanham where scores of carpenters, artists and craftspeople are working around the clock to decorate the company's 12th presidential inauguration.
That translates into 10 balls, nine parade floats, four dinners, and an inauguration-eve presidential gala at the Capital Centre to be designed and delivered by the week of January 17 -- less than two weeks. And all in conceptual sync with "An American Reunion: New Beginnings, Renewed Hope," the theme developed by the Presidential Inaugural Committee.
No sweat. "You gotta understand," Mr. Hargrove says. "This is our 12th inaugural. Through the years, you learn what is needed as well as expected."
As he strides through the drafty warehouse, Mr. Hargrove passes the icons, symbols and emblems that have represented and shaped American civilization.
They are jumbled together as improbably as they are in the pageants and spectacles that mark our lives. High on a balcony, King Kong and a sassy Uncle Sam sit side by side, awaiting their next outings. A Ringling Brothers circus sign hangs next to a huge presidential seal. There are faux palm trees, an Oriole Bird and a plethora of cut-out Capitol domes. Thousands of other props, backdrops, drapes and trimmings fill all available storage space.
A gargantuan American-flag float -- built in columnar sections to create a rippling illusion -- commands the warehouse floor. "There are probably half a million staples in that float," Mr. Hargrove says.
The ingenious float, inspired by a display Mr. Hargrove saw at the New Orleans World's Fair, was originally built for Ronald Reagan's second inaugural parade, which was canceled because of the bitter cold. Resting on pipes, the float was rolled into the Capital Centre, where the Reagans reviewed the truncated parade. The flag also appeared in George Bush's 1989 inaugural procession carrying Bob Hope, Chuck Yeager and Uncle Sam.
This year, 100 people of all races, creeds and colors representing the "Family of America" will ride the float, Mr. Hargrove says.
Beyond the flag, the wooden scaffolding for a towering jukebox float is near completion. The jukebox also will have a passenger; one of the president-elect's personal heroes, in fact: "Elvis will be there singing," Mr. Hargrove says. (Actually, it will be an Elvis impersonator.)
At the inaugural committee's request, the rock and roll float will also include something for children. Hargrove employees are constructing a band of animated pelicans in top hats and black tie. In honor of the new president's musical skills, one pelican plays a huge golden saxophone.
As he passes the early stages of the Arkansas float, Mr. Hargrove wags a finger at a wooden frame and asks two carpenters, "Is this going to work OK now?" He offers a pointer or two.
Following the inaugural committee's wishes, he remains silent on what the float representing the president's home state will feature. "It's very high tech," he allows. "That's the only thing I'm going to tell you."
Then it's up to the balcony, to the flowers. "You see these flowers over here?" he asks as he points to hundreds of boxes of artificial flowers, sorted by color and kind. These artificial blooms were assembled into "hundreds and hundreds of flower balls" used in John F. Kennedy's inaugural parade in 1960, Mr. Hargrove explains. "America the Beautiful" was the theme that year.
"Dad and I bought all these flowers and we're still using them," he says proudly. "Hargrove is a recycler and that is really what we're all about. We have to; it's the only way we'll make money."
Hargrove Inc. has grown from a modest, pre-World War II window-trimming business founded by Mr. Hargrove's late father into a $30-million-a-year business with over 100 employees. Four of five Hargrove children work for the company and a fifth will fill in during the inaugural crunch. In addition to its decorating work, the company also produces trade shows and exhibits, and provides audio-visual and simultaneous translation services.
The company has produced all kinds of major spectacles, from the Miss America Pageant to a papal visit to Washington. Hargrove Inc. produced the first Cherry Blossom Parade in 1954 as well as the gigantic Operation Desert Storm procession in 1991.