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The head-turning showpieces that once reigned in inaugural parades are things of the past. The good news? Now you can stand on one. By Molly E. McCluskey
The 1989 inaugural featured a bevy of giant floats, such as this eagle. Photographs courtesy of Hargrove Inc.

George H.W. Bush, 1989: This float was paired with another of the former World War II aviator’s planes.

The Statue of Liberty lives with a cootie.

Or rather, a model of the New York City landmark and a giant rendering of the title character from the Milton Bradley game Cootie. The two icons share space at the American Celebration on Parade, a curious collection of rousing Americana in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Inside the warehouse/museum are the products of a lifetime of imaginative thinking—the floats that Earl Hargrove Jr. has been sketching, building, and driving for more than 60 years, from dragons to trains to an American flag as large as a theater stage.

Visitors are greeted by 20-foot-high carousel horses, a 30-foot-tall grinning jester, and a 25-foot-high bust of a woman, crowned and dazzling. A dragon that looks as if it could breathe fire is crammed in with larger-than-life toy soldiers, an American eagle the size of a small prop plane, and a pirate’s ship as long as a tractor-trailer. Ringing the walls are the seals of every presidential inauguration from Truman’s to Obama’s, the remnants of now-recycled floats made on-site by the Hargrove team. Presidents and First Ladies stood on these floats—and now the public can.

Harry Truman, 1949: Truman’s inaugural featured a much simpler float of his home state.

But there’s a reason the objects are in a museum. While inaugural parades carry on, the golden era of floats has passed, and the multi-level sequined and flashing mobile jubilations seem out of place amid today’s more toned-down celebrations. Three of Obama’s six inaugural floats in 2009 had been used previously, one in a non-inaugural parade.

Blame balloons, which have become more popular, or the floats themselves, which are increasingly expensive. “Back when we started, if you had $1,000 or $1,500 for a float, that was a lot of money,” Hargrove says. “Today they can run as high as $200,000 or $300,000.” Most, he notes, cost $25,000 to $75,000.

Hargrove, known as “the President’s prop man,” built Hargrove Inc. on the backs of floats, creating a thriving, Lanham-based company that now manages myriad events for the inauguration, from balls to signs. But floats remain his love, and when he passed the company to daughter Carla Hargrove McGill and son-in-law Tim McGill in 2008, the octogenarian kept the American Celebration on Parade museum for himself.

Presidential props: The American Celebration on Parade museum showcases various other floats and props.

Although he realizes the future of floats is uncertain, Hargrove isn’t ready to give up on his life’s passion. (This year’s inauguration was the 17th he has worked on.) “The past two or three inaugurals, the floats have become less important,” he says. “But as long as the inaugural committee wants them, we’ll build them.”

January’s floats, which were created in just weeks, might eventually find their way to the American Celebration on Parade—just as holiday ornaments gravitate to the attic—where they’ll remain available to the public year-round.

“The float business really in many ways has changed,” Hargrove says. “It’s just like the whole world has changed.”

This article appears in the February 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

Posted at 10:00 AM/ET, 01/28/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Photographer Andrew Propp was on location to capture the historic occasion.
Photographs by Andrew Propp.

Washingtonian photographer Andrew Propp braved the cold and crowds on the Mall Monday afternoon to document the second swearing-in ceremony of President Obama. See a few of his favorites below.

Posted at 11:00 AM/ET, 01/22/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
A limited number of tickets are being made available online, starting today. By Carol Ross Joynt

Some lucky and fast-acting members of the general public will be able to attend one of the two invitation-only “official” inaugural balls. The Presidential Election Committee announced Friday that “a limited number of tickets for the Inaugural Ball” will be made available to the general public. Up to two tickets will be issued on a first come, first served basis to individuals who sign up at a special Web page. The public tickets cost $60 each.

The Inaugural Ball will be held Monday, January 21, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown DC, the same location for the other official ball, the Commander-in-Chief’s Ball for members of the military.

Numerous organizations are sponsoring dozens of other unofficial and state balls throughout the city, beginning on Thursday, January 17. Most of these balls are open to all for the price of a ticket. Our list of inaugural balls is updated on a regular basis.

Posted at 12:10 PM/ET, 12/28/2012 | Permalink | Comments ()
The official presidential inauguration committee is mindful of the economy and that this swearing in is a second act. By Carol Ross Joynt

By all early indications the 2013 inauguration will be a robust five days for Washington, with many balls, receptions, and other events and a prevailing attitude of glamorous celebration, but if there’s any over-the-top partying it will come from the unofficial realm of the occasion. Within the “official” ranks of inaugural planning there’s a keen awareness that given the flaccid economy and the stresses of the fiscal cliff, the order of the day will be scaling back from the size and hoopla of the first Obama inauguration. For example, there will be no concert on the Mall and fewer than the ten official inaugural balls of four years ago.

Officials within the presidential inauguration committee (PIC) stress that the 2013 inauguration will have the same “excitement” of the campaign, but the prevailing tone is clear: that keeping with precedent and in recognition of the nation’s ongoing economic recovery, the events and activities surrounding President Obama’s second inaugural will be smaller in scope than four years ago, according to a PIC official.

Public donations are needed to fund a lot of the official festivities that are separate from the swearing in at the Capitol. To that end, last week the PIC announced it would accept corporate contributions—after initially saying it would not—and the amounts targeted are, at the highest level, $250,000 from individuals and $1 million from institutions. In return the donors will receive a package of tickets for a variety of events, including seats at the parade. Tickets for the swearing-in ceremony are harder to come by and are issued through members of Congress and the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

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Posted at 02:35 PM/ET, 12/12/2012 | Permalink | Comments ()
Here’s a list of the first 35, with more to come. By Carol Ross Joynt
Barack and Michelle Obama at an inaugural ball in 2009. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user The U.S. Army.

Do you want to attend an inaugural ball? There will be plenty of opportunities during the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. State societies and other organizations have begun to make public information about their planned balls. There will be something for everyone, in just about every price range. Most are black-tie, but not all. There are 17 state society balls, 18 so-called “unofficial” balls, and at a later date, the presidential inauguration committee (PIC) will announce the “official” balls, which four years ago numbered ten. (The Washingtonian is also hosting its first ever inaugural ball, at the National Air and Space Museum on January 20; more details are available online.) It’s safe to assume President Obama and the First Lady will attend some of the balls, though exactly which ones will likely not be made public until closer to the events.*

This inauguration weekend will be different than most because inauguration day, January 20, falls on a Sunday. While President Obama will take the oath of office that day at the White House, he will be sworn in again publicly at the Capitol on Monday, January 21, followed by the traditional parade. Balls and galas will happen Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights of that weekend, and we’ve even found one, the Sister Cities International Inaugural Gala, happening on Thursday, January 17. 

Below we have links to the balls that have set up pages for information and tickets.

State Society Balls

Arkansas Inaugural Gala 
Sunday, January 20, 8 PM to 1 AM
National Press Club
Tickets: from $125 general admission; $200 VIP
Dress: Black tie

Delaware Inaugural Ball
Sunday, January 20, 7 PM
The Fairmont Hotel, 2401 M St., NW
Tickets: $410
Dress: Black tie

Florida Inaugural Ball 
Saturday, January 19, reception at 6 PM, dinner at 7, ball from 9 to 12:30
Andrew Mellon Auditorium, 1301 Constitution Ave., NW
Dress: Black tie

Garden State Inaugural Gala
Sunday, January 20, 7:30 to 11:30 PM
Washington Court Hotel, 525 New Jersey Ave., NW
Tickets: start at $225
Dress: Black tie optional

Georgia Inaugural Gala
Sunday, January 20, 7 PM to midnight
National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave., NW
Tickets: $150 members; $200 nonmembers
Dress: Black tie

Hawaii State Society Inaugural Ball
Sunday, January 20, 6 PM to 1 AM
Renaissance Arlington Capitol View Hotel, 2800 S. Potomac Ave.
Dress: Black tie or ethnic formal

Illinois State Society Inaugural Gala
Saturday, January 19, 8:30 PM to 1:30 AM
Renaissance Hotel, 999 Ninth St., NW
Tickets: $260
Dress: Black tie

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Posted at 02:10 PM/ET, 12/11/2012 | Permalink | Comments ()
With the ceremony just 55 days away, Washington prepares for the pomp and circumstance. By Carol Ross Joynt
It’s just 55 days until Inauguration Day. Image courtesy of spirit of america /

The presidential inauguration is 55 days away. It is an occasion that transforms the city at just about the bleakest time of year. A record 1.8 million people came to DC for the 2009 ceremony, when Barack Obama was sworn in as the nation’s first African-American president. What it will mean for Washingtonians—apart from houseguests and traffic hassles—is a three-day weekend that becomes a four- or five-day extravaganza of parties, balls, and other related events. Hotels will charge ridiculous prices (the Four Seasons, for example, has a one-bedroom suite for $20,000), restaurant reservations will be hard to come by (meaning book early), and hopefully Mother Nature will spare the region a blizzard or extreme cold (it was 28 degrees four years ago).

President Obama is scheduled to privately take the oath of office before noon at the White House on Sunday, January 20. The public swearing-in at the Capitol will happen the next day, Monday, January 21, which is also Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This will be the seventh time that the inauguration has fallen on a Sunday, necessitating the one-day delay in the official ceremony. The first time it happened was in 1821 for President James Monroe’s second swearing-in. Anyone who has ever stood outside in the cold for the duration of a presidential inauguration has to be miffed that Congress changed the start of the presidential term from March 4 to January 20. That change was ratified in 1933, and we’ve had to bundle up ever since.

Over the next several weeks we will bring you regular updates on inaugural events, parties, balls, and the swearing-in and parade, plus related news from hotels, bars, and restaurants. For now, here’s some interesting trivia that, once absorbed, can guarantee legitimate “inaugural geek” cred, or simply provide something to talk about at holiday parties. Much of it is from a background conversation with a key member of the team of Congressional staff working on every detail of the inauguration.

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Posted at 02:10 PM/ET, 11/27/2012 | Permalink | Comments ()