A swinging Flower Show

It will blossom to the beat of jazz beginning Sunday at the Convention Center.

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A passion flower. The Philadelphia Flower Show opened March 2. (Bonnie Weller / Inquirer)

Floral designers Bob and Karen Lamsback do just about every color scheme and theme for their customers' swanky weddings and galas, birthdays and bar mitzvahs.

But not at the Philadelphia Flower Show. There, their signature traditionally is elegant, European-style bloom displays.

Except this year.

The 2008 show's theme is "Jazz It Up," a celebration of the music and gardens - the "aura and flora" - of New Orleans. Not exactly holly and harpsichords.

So the Lamsbacks are adopting a super-modern style for the central feature, the first thing visitors see at the show. That means geometric shapes, sharp color combos like blue and purple and pink and brown, and flamboyant features like pendulous crystals, floral chandeliers and feathers.

"This year will be more theatrical," says Bob Lamsback, "like something you'd see in the Museum of Modern Art."

The show - which last year drew 259,000 - opens to the public Sunday and runs through next Sunday, March 9, at the Convention Center, 12th and Arch Streets. Members of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society get a preview Saturday.

The Lamsbacks, married for 30 years and in business for 25, live in Langhorne and do their designing out of a four-story, Old City rowhouse notable for its narrow staircase and "Quaker kitchen" in the cellar.

They commute together and sit mere feet from each other in a small, second-floor office. You'd think, especially at Flower Show time, they'd be at each other's throats.

"We're together 24/7 and we love it. Right, dear?" Bob asks Karen. "We don't know any other way," she replies sweetly.

They also know their way around the show. This is their 18th time participating and their second central feature. In 2000, they illustrated the theme "Gardens for the New Millennium" with vignettes from three memorable New Year's Eve celebrations around the world.

Their 2008 design, approved early last summer, will have a grand archway for visitors to walk through. It'll mix music - a playful saxophone, hyper-bass and moss-covered piano with two loops of floating, lighted piano keys and musical notes - with tropical flowers and a waterfall on the side.

The effect, Bob says, "will be like when you go to a Broadway musical and the curtain goes up and you hear the first big song. Wow!"

The show will have real music, of course, from the likes of Big Sam's Funky Nation from New Orleans and local jazz performers like Dave Posmontier. But they won't be smothered in orchids like the oversized faux instruments on the archway.

Hanging heliconia and ginger, bird-of-paradise and anthurium in hues of red, orange and yellow will complement the orchids and tumble down the archway sides. They'll be interspersed with ancient protea and the weirdly beautiful aechmea, a type of bromeliad.

Bromeliads will be a dominant plant at the show - almost 2,000 of them. "More bromeliads than you've ever seen in your life," promises show designer Sam Lemheney of the Pennsylvania Horticutural Society, which produces the event.

The tropical flowers - tens of thousands of them - will be coming from places like Hawaii, Chile, the Netherlands, California and Florida. Three times during the eight-day show, after the public goes home at night, the cut varieties will be replenished, even on the giant chandeliers, which can be lowered and raised as needed.

Show veterans jokingly call this "change out" ritual "Groundhog Day," like the cult movie about an endless time-loop. And vets include not just Bob and Karen Lamsback, but their kids Brian and Christina. All are Villanova University grads or grads-to-be, so every one of the family's 10 to 20 temporary show workers is naturally, a Wildcat.

Behind the archway, they'll decorate six "rhythm rooms," outdoor entertainment areas - hot stuff right now - with distinctive personalities and those chandeliers again.

The black and red "room" has "a clubby feel," with black banquettes and rhinestoned black and red pillows. The Asian-style black and yellow room combines sleek black bamboo and yellow orchids and calla lilies.

The blue and purple, spa-like "room" actually was inspired by a restaurant at the Four Seasons hotel in the West Indian resort of Nevis, where the Lamsbacks vacationed last July.

Other "rooms" are hot pink and chocolate brown, like a wine bar; orange and pink, like a New Year's Eve party dusted with confetti, mirror bits and orange feathers; and a green and white melange of triangles, "like a piece of modern art," Bob says.

Hanging out with Bob and Karen is a lesson in showmanship - and following your heart. Sort of like "The Big Easy."

Years after walking away from the corporate world to start a flower business, they're still having fun. "True," they say, not surprisingly, in unison.

For the record, Bob adds, "it helps to be organized to the nth degree."


2008 Philadelphia Flower Show

Saturday

Preview day for Pennsylvania Horticultural Society members.

12:30-1 p.m.: Hoppin' John parade and performance, Bourbon Street Stage.

1:30-2 p.m.: Settlement Music School Jazz Ensemble, Legends Stage Presented by Settlement Music School

Sunday

11:30 a.m.-noon, 12:30-1 p.m., 1:30-2 p.m.: Sam Ruttenberg Trio, Legends Stage Presented by Settlement Music School

Noon-12:30 p.m.: UCC Brass Band - parade and performance, Bourbon Street Stage

1-1:30 p.m.: UCC Royal Brass Band Concert, Bourbon Street Stage

2-2:30 p.m.: UCC Royal Brass Band Concert, Bourbon Street Stage

Monday

11-11:30 a.m.: Hoppin' John Parade and performance, Bourbon Street Stage

11:30 a.m.-noon, 12:30-1 p.m., 1:30-2 p.m.: David Posmontier, pianist, Legends Stage Presented by Settlement Music School

Noon-12:30 p.m., 1-1:30 p.m.: Hoppin' John Concert, Bourbon Street Stage

2-2:30 p.m., 3-3:30 p.m. and 4-4:30 p.m.: Big Sam Concert, Bourbon Street Stage

4:30-5 p.m., 5:50-6 p.m., 6:30-7 p.m., 7:30-8 p.m.: Crosstown Brass Quintet, Legends Stage Presented by Settlement Music School

5-5:30 p.m.: UCC Royal Brass Band parade and performance, Bourbon Street Stage

6-6:30 p.m., 7-7:30 p.m.: UCC Royal Brass Band Concert, Bourbon Street Stage

(More details and a complete schedule are available at www.theflowershow.com/attractions/entertainment08.html)

Source: Pennsylvania Horticultural Society


Jazz It Up

The 2008 Philadelphia Flower Show is open to the public Sunday through the following Sunday, March 9, at the Convention Center, 12th and Arch Streets.

Hours: Sundays, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m.-9:30 p.m. (Best viewing hours are after 4 p.m.) Box office closes one hour before show ends.

Tickets: Box office prices for adults are $28 opening Sunday, $26 next Saturday and Sunday, $24 weekdays, and $13 for children ages 2 to 16. The show offers a family fun pack, $65 for two adults and two children under 16. Advance tickets are $22 for adults, $21.50 for groups of 25 or more, and $13 for children ages 2 to 16. Visitors who get their hand stamped can leave and reenter the same day without paying a readmission fee.

Getting there by public transit:

SEPTA has routes on Regional Rail trains, buses, subways and trolleys to Market East station near the Convention Center. SEPTA offers a "Flower Show Special Bouquet Pass," which includes unlimited transportation on its lines plus an adult Flower Show ticket. For SEPTA information, call 215-580-7800 or go to www.septa.org.

Amtrak riders save 20 percent off the best available regular fare for coach travel to Philadelphia through March 11. Call 1-800-USA-RAIL or book online at www.amtrak.com and refer to fare code V759 when making reservations.


Virginia A. Smith, The Inquirer's gardening writer, will blog from the Flower Show at http://blogs.phillynews.com/inquirer/kisstheearth/ For Inquirer coverage of the Flower Show go to http://go.philly.com/phillyflowers


Contact staff writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.