For 14 years, a Jackson County businessman has put his creative talent and skills of working with flowers on display for millions of people to see.
Crothersville native Bobby Eldridge, owner of Prestigious Affairs formal wear and florist business in downtown Seymour, recently spent a week in California, serving as a primary floral designer for the annual Rose Parade in Pasadena on Jan. 1.
He led a team of volunteers in creating two floats this year, one for the popular television show “The Bachelor” and the other for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, which also served as the main sponsor of this year’s Rose Bowl.
Both floats won awards. The Bachelor _— “Love is the Greatest Adventure” earned the President’s Trophy for most effective floral use and presentation. Northwestern Mutual — “Dancing into Adventure” won the Past Presidents’ Trophy for most creative design and use of both floral and non-floral materials.
Eldridge is contracted annually by Fiesta Parade Floats to help install the hundreds of thousands of blooms that cover the elaborate floats. Fiesta designs a total of nine to 12 floats annually for the parade, Eldridge said.
This year marked the 127th Rose Parade, which featured 44 floats and more than 100 other entries.
As one of only about 1,200 accredited members of the American Institute of Floral Designers, Eldridge was first chosen for the honor to participate in the Rose Parade back in 2002.
Each year, he selects a few Jackson County residents to take with him to California to assist in the work and to experience what it’s like to be a part of the parade.
Those accompanying him this year were Sue Nehrt of Crothersville and her daughter, Renee Nehrt, owner of Boutique Elise in Brownstown and Melanie Eglen Bradley, a Cortland native who now lives in Los Angeles.
Eldridge and his local volunteers left for California on Dec. 26 — the day after Christmas.
“A lot of people think we go out and have a really good time, that it’s all fun and games, but there’s a lot of variables we have to deal with, and it’s a lot of hard work that goes into getting those floats ready. It can be very stressful,” he said.
One of those variables is the weather. Because they are working with live flowers, including tropical species from all over the world, they only have a short window of time the flowers will last. If it’s too cold out, the blooms will die and turn brown immediately.
They started working on the floats on Dec. 27 and have to be done by Dec. 30. On Dec. 31, the floats were transported to downtown Pasadena for the parade.
“We have four days to get everything finished,” he said. “That’s not a lot of time.”
But even with the time crunch, Eldridge said this year was extremely difficult because of the weather conditions.
“It put us about three days behind,” he said.
With a tropical beach theme, the Bachelor float consisted almost entirely of exotic flower species. Those types of flowers can’t be used in temperatures below 40 degrees, Eldridge added.
“It was 37 degrees,” he said. “For the first three days we couldn’t do any installations until the weather broke 40 degrees. The last 22 hours straight is what we spent turning the Bachelor float around.”
One of the highlights of working on that particular float was getting the opportunity to meet Bachelor Ben Higgins and his parents, Eldridge said. Higgins, who got to ride on the float, is a Warsaw, Indiana, native who stars on this season of the hit ABC reality show where a bevy of beautiful, single women compete for his affections.
The float they completed for Northwestern Mutual revolved around a little girl named Peyton, who was diagnosed last year with terminal leukemia. It was designed around a winning essay she wrote about her dream to dance as a ballerina.
Designed to look like a music box, the float featured a 45-foot tall ballerina sculpted to look like Peyton, who was able to ride on the float in the parade.
“It was really pretty, with all this orchid detail on the ballerina skirt. It was probably my favorite. The amount of flowers we used on it was just unbelievable,” Eldridge said of the float.
Not knowing exactly how many flowers are used, Eldridge said the figure is in the hundreds of thousands. Comparatively, he uses just hundreds in weddings.
They also are able to use non-flower materials, as long as it’s still organic.
“We used onions, crushed pecan shells, coconut and cinnamon, parsley because it’s this beautiful green color,” he said.
The senses are put into overdrive with the amount and variety of sights and smells, he added.
“When you walk in there are so many thousands of stems of flowers that we have to work with,” he said. “We have one complete semitrailer that houses nothing but orchids. It’s just crazy the amount of flowers we have at our fingertips.”
Luckily, they never have a shortage of flowers to use, he added.
After all the hard work, Eldridge said he enjoys getting to go to the parade on New Years Day to see all the floats and the reactions from the crowd.
One year he even got to ride on the Miracle Gro float.
“It’s very emotional, but yet rewarding at the same time, because me and my entire team get to see our finished product coming down the street and see the reactions of all the people,” he said. “It’s quite an honor and a sense of relief too that we pulled it off again.”
But not completing a float in time will never happen on Eldridge’s watch, he added.
“You have your sponsors who have put a lot of money into their floats, so it’s not even an option,” Eldridge said.