Local Toy Inventor Helps Westchester Go Big in Celebrating America’s Birthday

“It takes a lot of eye, and a lot of math.”

Dan Garr is looking up at his latest creation, shielding his eyes from the sun. He’s got less than 10 days to finish construction on Westchester Lutheran School’s entry in this year’s Fourth of July Parade sponsored by LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce, and there’s still a lot of work to be done. But it’s Sunday, so he’s given his team some time off.

No, they’re not a crew of hired hands, but a group of friends, neighbors, and even some former students – each with their own particular set of skills and a willingness to donate their time to help build the float.

By contrast, the Rose Parade in Pasadena has an official headquarters, corporate sponsors, and professional float-builders (whose work is supplemented by a volunteer workforce) – but, in the L.A. neighborhood of Westchester, the annual parade that celebrates America’s birthday has got a lot of heart but not a lot of money behind it.

And so, to the community, a guy like Dan Garr is a hero. And he’s got both the eye and the math skills needed to erect a monumental masterpiece of this scale – pretty impressive for a parade that’s in the tradition of the small towns of America.

Story continues below

But then again, this is a guy who worked with James Cameron on the scale models for "Titanic." And this is a guy who, as part of his company Hot Buttered Elves, invents toys and other products (like his on-the-go juice blender, the Revablend) for a living.

He’s kind of got the 3-D modeling thing down.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s easy for him, per se – especially when the motif has to change every year. Because while it may take a good eye and the ability to work with numbers to actually build the float, it takes a lot of inspiration to come up with what the float is actually going to be.

And that’s where art steps in. You can learn technique, but you can’t take a class in inspiration.

Fortunately, for as long as Garr has been building these floats, he’s had his son Luke – now nine years old – as his muse. You can see his son’s influence also reflected in Garr’s 2014 float, which featured a flag-waving boy holding a model airplane (based on a photo taken of Luke).

float boy
Courtesy of Dan Garr

This year’s parade centers around the concept of “An American Adventure” – and while to most that may evoke images of Route 66, the Gold Rush, or setting sail on a raft down the Mississippi River, Garr has settled on a depiction of an astronaut (specifically, Buzz Aldrin) planting an American flag onto the surface of the moon, a recreation of that famous scene from the Apollo 11 landing on July 20, 1969.

Call it the ultimate American adventure, making its way down Loyola Boulevard from Westchester Park to Loyola Marymount University. And that idea came straight out of the mouth of Garr’s son, Luke, who’s now a third grader at Westchester Lutheran.

“I would’ve never thought of it myself,” Garr says, adding that it’s “out of this world!”

Although the “moon man” portion of the concept is pretty much done at this point (aside from needing a coat of white paint), Garr has got just a few days left for the remaining pieces of the float, which include Planet Earth looming in the background and the American flag waving at the fore. It doesn't take long to build their wooden frames when he’s wielding a nail gun, but getting the right shape and proportions takes, if nothing else, a bit of finesse.

That’s where the “eye” part of the equation comes in.

Once the heavy-lifting portion of the construction is done, Garr will transport the float on a flatbed to Westchester Lutheran School, where dozens of parents and their kids – sometimes even those who already graduated a year or two ago – will gather to put the finishing touches on the float.

dan garr inspects float.jpg
Sandi Hemmerlein
astronaut float
Sandi Hemmerlein


And while they’ll have no fresh flowers to festoon this float with, Garr gives them something just as good (at least, when you’re a kid): tissue paper cut up into confetti-like squares. That’s what will cover the outside of the chicken wire flag, giving the impression that it’s truly flapping in the breeze (much like how the tissue paper gave a feathery exterior to a larger-than-life bald eagle in 2013).

And it’s that excitement of the kids – particularly those who return year after year – that motivated Garr to build the first large-scale float in the parade’s history. And it’s what’s kept Garr going for nearly a decade.

“Beyond the nails and chicken wire,” he says, “the most important reason that I build floats is for the families and kids in this community.”

Though it stands in the shadow of the 405 -- just northeast of LAX, one of the country’s largest international airports -- the Westchester community works hard to stay together and to preserve a small-town feel. But they haven’t been shy about “going big” with their parade, which has taken place every year since 2000.

Past floats built by Garr and Westchester Lutheran students and their families have included a giant American flag with 10-foot musical instruments coming out of the top, LMU’s mascot “Iggy the Lion” (in celebration of the university’s centennial), and even a tableau of the LAX area for Westchester’s 75th birthday in 2016, featuring the Spruce Goose flying over the LAX Theme Building and Randy’s giant donut.

That one took home the honors for “Best Overall” parade entry last year, but Garr brushes off the idea of actually trying to win anything.

But there is the tendency to try to top the success of the prior year’s float. “Somehow our ideas kept getting more creative,” Garr says. And he adds probably the most essential element to his award-winning creations: “More and more people started helping.”

If you’d like to see Westchester Lutheran’s tribute to the Space Race – conceptualized by Luke Garr and built by a team under the leadership of his father, Dan Garr – the annual parade starts at 11 a.m. at Westchester Park and Recreation Center, near the intersection of Manchester Avenue and the PCH at 7000 W. Manchester Avenue, Los Angeles 90045. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis and is free to all.

For Garr, the parade provides something so precious and priceless that it’s worth any amount of expense or effort that he puts into his volunteer work as a participant every year.

“You can actually feel yourself in a moment that you want to keep forever,” he says.

dan garr float
Courtesy of Dan Garr
float_july 4
Courtesy of Dan Garr


eagle float
Courtesy of Dan Garr


dan garr float
Courtesy of Dan Garr


Top Image: Courtesy of Dan Garr 

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading