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Theres more to judge than meets the eye

For most of you, going to the Southwest Airlines Grand Floral Parade is a once-a-summer shot of pomp, pageantry and pooper-scoopers.

For a select few, though, it's a chance to grade and choose another select few.

We're speaking of the judges that group of parade junkies who evaluate all that pageantry and pomp and, yes, probably even the pooper-scoopers.

While you're sitting back in the lawn chair, applying another layer of sunscreen and looking for the cotton candy guy, parade judges are whipping out notebooks and scribbling cryptic notes to themselves about float structure and horn angles.

So, before the parade passes by, let's take a moment to imagine seeing the show through the hardened gaze of a Grand Floral Parade judge.

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In some ways, judging the floats is easier than judging the rest of the parade, Darrel Buttice says.

'All the judging is done by the time the parade starts, because you need to have the award banners out in front of the floats,' he says. Buttice points out that there are 19 awards and 23 floats, something which tends to cut down on disputes, particularly since the floats sponsored by Southwest Airlines and the Rose Festival Association are ineligible for awards due to the high profile of the two organizations.

Additionally, the banners heralding the awards appear to be virtually interchangeable. The Queen's Award, Governor's Award and Mayor's Award would at first glance seem to signify little more than the gender of the presenter. But there is a definite hierarchy of awards, representing, in the examples above, placement based on size of the float, workmanship and craftsmanship, and best display of mechanical animation.

Buttice, chairman of the Grand Floral Parade, says that the animated floats those with moving parts always come under careful scrutiny. 'All the surfaces have to be covered,' says Buttice, who by day works with the Portland public relations firm Conkling, Fiskum & McCormick. 'That makes it more difficult, because even with the moving parts, everything still has to be covered.'

The trick is to cover every surface on the float with an organic material, he continues. Organic material needn't be flowers. 'It could be bark, seeds or corn silk,' Buttice says. 'That's where the technique comes in. If you go watch them building the floats, you'll see people spending hours using sunflower seeds or peppers just to make an eye.'

Judges watch the floats being made on Thursday, and visit again Friday. Final judging is done Saturday morning before the parade begins, and the judges demand that everyone riding the float be in position when they do their pre-parade inspection.

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It is with a touch of melancholy that Dan Foster will judge the parade's marching bands Saturday instead of being among them.

Foster has been the band director at Portland's Benson High School for 10 years, and the Tech marching band has been a regular parade participant for most of those years. 'We got bumped out this time based on scoring from the year before,' he says with a sigh.

He will be one of six judges voting on awards to be given at the conclusion of the parade.

Foster and Todd Zimbelman, associate director of bands at the University of Oregon, will be judging what's called 'general effect.' Two other judges will grade the music; two more will critique marching ability.

As Zimbelman explains, the judging process leaves room for some confusion. 'For general effect, music and motion are the two things you go on.' Zimbelman says he watches the marchers to see 'how the toes and heels strike the ground, and how well they have formed straight lines.' Foster checks to see whether the horn players, for example, are all carrying their instruments the same way. Thus, a band can start the parade on a sour note without having played anything.

Zimbelman says judges like to evaluate bands by how well they turn. But the Grand Floral Parade bands catch a break here because the judges stand on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard next to Burgerville, which is several blocks away from a turn.

A key decision for a band director, naturally, is determining what song to play. A piece should showcase the entire band and, ideally, carry some degree of difficulty.

'It makes a difference,' Zimbelman says. 'Musically, if you're doing 'Louie, Louie,' there's really not much to it. You'll get credit if you do it well, but if someone else comes along doing Shostakovich, well, that's got two thousand more notes.'

Both judges said they look for tonal control from the band, meaning the ability to play both loud and soft. They also check to see whether a band is using its full array of instruments. Foster admits that he's switched some students from the trombone to the tuba simply with parades in mind.

'You've got to get some bass,' he says. 'You don't want to sound like an AM radio.'

Roger Anthony is the Portland Tribune's editor. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .