By Pat Metzker
Months in the planning, Jerry Treiber has made final touches to the Star Wars costume float of the 501st Legion: Vedas Fist. For the past 33 years, Treiber has built floats for the Racine 4th of July Parade. I talked with Treiber this week while looking at the 48-foot float depicting the utility cargo skiffs used in "Return of the Jedi."
“Surface utility vehicles used to transport passengers and cargo" that float about on anti-gravity field, Treiber explains. Members of the Midwest Garrison will ride on the float in the parade. The group of costume enthusiasts are devoted to fundraising, charity work, and volunteerism.
Treiber, born in Racine and Graduate of Park High School estimates he's entertained a million Racinians over his career in float building. Studying graphic arts at Gateway and UW-Parkside, Jerry had Charlie Arnold (1936-1975) as a mentor. Arnold who built 80% of the parade floats from 1936 to 1974, motivated Jerry to start Laughing Giant Design in 1975 dedicated to float design and fabrication. In addition to floats, Jerry has also participated each year with the Summer Art Project of the Racine Downtown Association.
In the early 70’s when Jerry started there were 17 major commercial floats in the Fourth of July parade: Johnson Wax, Walker, Twin Disc, Rexnord, Modine, Jacobson, Western Publishing, and Case to name a few. Floats in those times were contracted for around $3,000, where float entries today can exceed $40,000.
According to Treiber, in the commercial division today SC Johnson builds the only true float. Jerry’s definition of a float is a motorized type design from a vehicle such as a bus or truck chassis. Vehicles were stripped down to the engine, drivers’ seat, and chassis and then floats are built around and upon them. Drivers would have small sight hole and radio contact with spotters outside for safety. Others define a float as a decorated platform towed behind a vehicle. Jerry’s vehicle type float designs have placed in the top 3 award categories each year, except the last two when his floats were not involved in the commercial category.
Many companies that participated in the ‘70’s and 80’s would use their floats for the Racine and Kenosha parades. The two communities would coordinate the dates of two days together. With the Racine parade falling on a Friday, then the floats were driven to Kenosha taking up to a 3-hour drive for the average 15-mile trip. One year, one of Jerry’s floats was 90’ long and 16’ high which would be larger than today’s standard semi-truck and trailer. Logistics of movement of the floats required a police escort, public utilities planning for power line height, and then a staging area for the next day at the host community.
The large commercial floats were used not only for two parades in July, but often once again in summer for company picnics and again at Christmas time for the Downtown Christmas parade. The floats were stored wherever the sponsoring company could find room, especially by November or December when Azarian would need space for boat storage. Many of the components of the floats were stored, recycle, or reused for the theme of the current years float design.
The change in popular float design to a “trailered” type display is what you see most on the parade route today. This has caused a reduction of commercial float encased vehicle type float entries. Fewer volunteers volunteering their time and concerns over the liability of employers are also reasons mentioned by Jerry. Prior to the recession, companies are choosing to spend precious marketing and promotion dollars on the most urgent of needs to generate sales nationally and internationally rather than on community exposure.
Jerry sees the trend in parade floats continuing to be quicker, cheaper and less intricate in design. Since Racine is noted in USA Today as one of the “10 Great Places to Your Patriotic Colors” and having one of the largest parades in the Midwest, the tradition of float building and design will continue. Thousands of people for years to come will enjoy Treiber’s creative talents.