Admittedly, this winter hasn’t been all that bad, but that doesn’t mean we’re not still impatient for spring to hurry up and get here. If you’re itching to stop and smell the roses — and the freesia and gardenias — have no fear, the world-renowned Philadelphia Flower Show is just around the corner. This year’s theme, “Explore America,” will celebrate the 100th anniversary of our National Park System. Look forward to Native-American-inspired art, sculpted animals, floral totems and a dazzling waterfall. In addition, there’s a new Railway Garden for train fans, “Butterflies Live!” where you can interact with the little beauties, a Pop-Up Pub Garden and country music and dancing to really help shake off those winter blahs.
Ron Mulray has been coordinating award-winning floral exhibits for decades. We spoke to him in his bustling shop, the Philadelphia Flower Co., which he runs with his family members.
PGN: So where does the name Mulray come from?
RM: It’s Irish, an uncommon name. If you ever meet someone named Mulray, I’m related to them somehow, guaranteed.
PGN: You have a lot of relations here in the store.
RM: Yes, I opened the store in 1987 when I was 20. We’re Irish-Catholic so there were six kids and I had three working with me — two sisters and my younger brother — as well as my father, who was a retired police officer.
PGN: How did you get started?
RM: When I was 11, I got a job selling flowers on Vine Street, before they dug out the expressway. A neighbor would pick us up after school and drop us off on a 2-foot island with cars streaking by at 60 miles per hour. And when the light turned red, we’d sell five red carnations wrapped in white deli paper for $2 to the motorists. We’d be out there for rush hour, from 4-6, and then go home. You’d be shocked at the amount of flowers we were able to sell. I did that until I was 16, when I moved indoors and swept floors at a flower shop. One day, the phone rang and a customer wanted a funeral arrangement late in the day. No one wanted to do it so I jokingly volunteered and the owners said, “OK, go ahead.” I did and after that, I didn’t have to sweep anymore. I worked as a floral designer through high school and went to college to become a graphic artist before I discovered I hated it. Being stuck in a little cubby hole with a pencil was not for me. This was just as they were starting to use computers. I remember we went to Channel 10 to see their new state-of-the-art computer. [Laughs] My smart phone can do more now than that fancy computer was able to do. Anyway, it wasn’t for me. I went home and told my mother that I was going to open a flower shop. I got in the car and drove around and saw a shop with a for-rent sign in the window, called the number, met on Thursday and signed the lease on Monday. I was so young I took my older sister with me, who was nine-months’ pregnant. The leasing officer apologized and said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t put your wife’s name on the lease.” I told them it was OK and signed on my own. They never asked me for any ID or how old I was; I just had to put down first and last month’s rent and I was in business. I’ve been here almost 30 years!
PGN: So did you always like flowers or did you just fluke into it?
RM: Once I got into the flower shop, I discovered I really had a passion for it, but the hours are crazy, especially around the holidays. So I went to school for a “normal” job, but I found I’d rather jump out the window than be stuck in front of a computer screen for eight hours a day. The flower biz is so different. Every day is a new challenge. We might help people celebrate the happiest occasions or grieve on the saddest occasions. I just love it!
PGN: Tell me a little bit about AIFD?
RM: The American Institute of Floral Designers. We have about 1,500 members worldwide and it’s an accreditation in floral design. AIFD members are on the cutting edge of the floral industry. To become a member you have to take a standing test creating five floral designs and a written test.
PGN: What kinds of things would be on a test?
RM: Theory, primary colors, what is a triad color combination, what is an analogous color, name the elements and principles of design … They could show a picture and ask, “Are the flowers terraced? Are they grouped? Are they pillowed?” That sort of thing.
PGN: And you’re going to have an exhibit at the Flower Show?
RM: Yes, we’ve been doing it since 1997. This year we have about 25 designers coming together. We have people who work in films, people who do large interiors, Broadway, upscale events, a little of everything.
PGN: What’s a favorite exhibit you’ve done?
RM: It’s always the one yet to come, so I’ll say this year. We’re doing Redwood National Park. We’re doing a walk through that will feel like you’re in a redwood forrest: dirt on the ground, pine cones and pine needles everywhere. We partnered with a set designer so there’ll be an 18-foot sculptured redwood tree that you can walk through like you see in TV ads. When you look up, there will be all sorts of things to see inside: chandeliers and vines, crystals and jewels. Our color pallet is red, so most everything will be in all tints, tones and shades of red. It’s going to be magnificent.
PGN: How long do you get to set everything up?
RM: Four days. It sounds like it’s not a long time to get everything done but it is. We used to have five days and everyone complained when they cut it back, but I think it’s fine; it forces you to work smarter to get everything done. For us, it’s less expensive to pay for everyone to come in for fewer days.
PGN: So you’re one of six kids?
RM: Yes, I’m number five. My brother Chris is number six; he works with me here and he’s gay too.
PGN: What’s a fun family memory?
RM: I liked being part of a big family. You’re never bored, you always have something to do with someone. Even now, with just the immediate family and nieces and nephews at holidays, there are over 40 people. The other good thing was that if you got in trouble, it didn’t matter because you were only going to be in trouble for 10 minutes a day at most before someone else did something worse! My mother was the disciplinarian, so if she ever said, “Wait ’til your father gets home!” we secretly were relieved because he was the pussy cat; he didn’t even like to discipline the dog!
PGN: Was it ever scary having a cop for a dad?
RM: No, he never brought it home with him, ever. The most I ever heard was on occasion if he came home and we were watching that show “Cops” he’d tease us, “Turn that stuff off, I live that.”
PGN: Speaking of TV, I’ve watched shows that picture fields of corn or acres of tomato plants, etc. But I never see commercial fields of flowers. Where do you get them from?
RM: Jersey! You can go there and see fields of locally grown flowers, especially end of summer/early fall. They have marigolds and zinnias, sunflowers. The Van Dyke Brothers in Millville specialize in tulips and have some of the finest around, but we also get a lot of flowers from California. Internationally, we get a lot from Colombia, Ecuador and Holland. And the Canadians, they’re doing a great job growing snapdragons and Gerber daisies and potted plants; they come down often. This is such a great location: We can order Holland flowers on Monday, they’ll be cut and shipped and in our store by Wednesday. For a past Flower Show, the theme was Africa and we wanted some specialized flowers. We called a vendor who walked through the field as we were FaceTiming so I could see and pick which ones I wanted. It was amazing. We handpicked flowers off the side of a mountain and, with overnight shipment, I had them the next day! The world is so small now, we used to be limited by season, but now you can get almost anything any time.
PGN: What makes a good designer?
RM: Passion. I was in a life-drawing class once and, on some days, I’d do really good and on others I could barely make a stick figure. I asked the professor about it and he told me it came down to passion. He said, “You’ll know you love what you’re doing when you have 102 fever and you have to do it and you don’t mind.” A little bell went off and I realized that was me with flowers. I could be home in the middle of something else and I’d drop everything if they needed me to come in and work. I don’t care what you do, you just need to have passion for it.
PGN: I don’t know, I hosted karaoke and there were plenty of people who had passion — didn’t make them good!
RM: [Laughs] OK, maybe, but it’s subjective too! When we do the Flower Show, it’s a judged competition but we make sure to use that passion to analyze everything we do, to check every small detail, because I believe what you put in is what you’ll get out. We’ve won a ton of awards, including Best in Show for the past three years, because when we finish setting up we look and say to ourselves, Was this the absolute best we could have done? That way we don’t later feel, Wow, we should have done such and such. No. We use our passion to take it to the next level so, no matter what the judges say, we know we left it all out there.
PGN: And speaking of leaving it all out there, when did you come out?
RM: When I was about 7, my mom was watching “The Phil Donohue Show” in the kitchen and they had a panel of different type folks — a drag queen, a cross dresser, someone who was transgender, a gay man, a straight man — and he went around to each one to ask them how they identified. I walked in to get something to drink and looked up to watch. After the gay man identified himself as such, I turned to my mother and said, “I’m him,” and kept walking. But, I don’t know that I ever flung the door open. I dated someone for a long time and I’m sure that answered most questions. Though at one time my mother did confide to me that she thought he was gay! I just told her she needed to ask him.
PGN: You needed one of those T-shirts: “I’m not gay but my boyfriend is.”
RM: I know! But I’m sure she knew. I never dated a woman, hung around with groups of men and I’m a florist. I remember during the Gulf War my father came in the room and joked with us, “OK, you, you and you. You’re all going!” My brother is gay too so I said, “Hey Chief [my nickname for him], you know that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?’ We’re telling!” We all just laughed. They were always very accepting, there was just never a fling the door and let the glitter fall moment. I was always wearing it anyway, especially doing drag.
PGN: How did you get into that?
RM: By accident! I was in P-Town with my brother Chris at Carnival. They do a big drag brunch and the entire town goes out in drag. I had no desire to participate but Chris really wanted to and didn’t want to do it by himself. So I bought a goofy black dress, grabbed some old shoes and went to a salon to get someone to do my makeup. There was a young boy doing the styling and he asked me what I wanted to look like, and I was like, “I don’t care, whatever you think.” He turned me away from the mirror so it would be a surprise and when he finally turned me back I was like, “OMG, I’m stunning!” I looked like Divine. Suddenly I was like, I need a wig! And shoes! I just loved it. I was walking Main Street holding babies and getting my picture taken! Ironically, Chris hated his look; he’d borrowed a catsuit from our sister — he was tall and thin back then — and it wasn’t working for him. I had so much fun that I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ve hosted shows and done all sorts of things.
PGN: Celebrity you’d like to pin a corsage on?
RM: You saw me do the mayor!
PGN: I didn’t. What happened?
RM: I was at the [Flower Show] press conference one year and I grabbed the mayor and put a boutonnière on him. Just as I pinned him, an API guy took our picture and it went viral. Anyway, I’ve met a lot of people: Joan Rivers, Eartha Kitt, Bette Midler. When I was still underage, one of the guys I used to work for was a big gambler. He used to take me down to A.C. and I’d usually watch him lose a lot of money. They’d let me sit next to him even though I was underage, so I met a lot of people through him as well: Boy George, Patti Labelle, one time Diana Ross came by while we were having dinner, grabbed a crouton out of our salad and popped it in her mouth as she said hi on her way to do her show. It was a five-star restaurant at the Golden Nugget and it was one of those fancy salads that they prepare tableside. The waiter was pissed that he couldn’t serve us the salad though we were like, “Come on, who cares! Just serve it!” But he was like, “Absolutely not. She reached into your bowl” and wheeled it away to start again.
PGN: What are you looking forward to seeing at the Flower Show?
RM: Oh I get excited by everything. I get to see friends who I only see once a year so it’s like going back to summer camp for me. I enjoy seeing what everyone’s doing; it’s like meeting at the craft hut at camp. And having a chance to see what you’ve been conceptualizing for 18 months come to life is an amazing feeling. To see it go from a thought in your head to 2D on paper to actually seeing it visualized on the floor is a special feeling. This year is going to be spectacular!
The Philadelphia Flower Show runs March 5-13. For more information or tickets, visit www.theflowershow.com.