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20110114_MISSION_PRODUCT-SHOWMISSION — Nearly every year after the Christmas gifts have been opened, the Gerlach family unloads containers filled to the brim with dehydrated lemons, grapefruit and other local citrus products to transform their dining table into a 24-hour craft station.

Mary Virginia Gerlach, the family’s designer, slips into her dining room any chance she gets. She takes a few minutes in the morning before heading off to work at Pizza Hut’s McAllen corporate office. In the evening, she and her granddaughter, Makenzie Gerlach, will work together, and just before bed, if there’s enough time, Gerlach said she’d add a few more touches to her entry for the Texas Citrus Fiesta’s Product Costume show.

The show, which jump starts the annual community event, will be held Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Mission Community Center at 1420 E. Kika de la Garza Loop.

“We have so much fun doing it,” Gerlach said Monday evening standing in front of a table covered with plastic containers filled with dehydrated fruits and seeds.

20110114_MISSION_PRODUCT-SHOW_02For years the Gerlach family have worked on different aspects of the festival, including selling barbecue sandwiches before the Parade of Oranges or being Gerlach’s model. This year, Makenzie, a nine-year-old fourth-grader at Bryan Elementary, will transport to the 1930’s as a passenger on the Orange Blossom Special, the theme for the contest, on her way to the Texas Citrus Fiesta. Her brother, Kyle, is the newest model, showcasing a hat on Saturday.

Gerlach, who began working in the product costume show consistently about 18 years ago, initially found trouble getting into her new hobby. Years ago, designers belonged to small garden club cliques that rarely, if ever, shared their techniques with outsiders.

“There’s no way I could have ever won against those costumes,” Gerlach gushed. “They put out some awesome costumes.”

Through trial and error, however, Gerlach was able to pick up her own techniques, perfecting her skills on her own watch. Since then, Gerlach said she’s been eager about sharing tips she’s learned, even a few picked up from former tight-lipped designers.

Now, experienced product costume designers freely share their knowledge to encourage others to continue the local Fiesta tradition. A number of veteran designers have offered tips to other would-be designers in a booklet that’s available at the Texas Citrus Fiesta office. Designers also exchange ideas at local seminars open to anyone interested in learning to make costumes with local products.

When she first started, the four different categories were always “loaded to the max” with contestants. These days, as more potential designers are busy with work and careers, the competition has few new competitors.

“I’m so glad they continue to participate,” she said of other designers. “It would be so sad to see this art form die.”

As far as the Gerlach family is concerned, they’re just getting started. Her granddaughter, her design and construction sidekick, plans to do her own designs when she gets older.

The two said their participation in the show is more about bonding with family and learning how to work with their hands.

“I love it,” Makenzie said as her eyes scanned the table covered with Rio Grande Valley product.

Officials with the Texas Citrus Fiesta said they’re finding that new waves of younger designers are starting to become interested.

“The kids are really excited,” said Berta Filut, the executive director of the Fiesta, explaining that young girls in local Girl Scout troops have started to design costumes.

Previously, students at Mission High School learned a few techniques for dehydrating products that eventually led them to become designers, said Filut and the show’s chairwoman, Betty Ramirez. Today, they attribute the high volume of participation to their seminars that help new designers.

“We really want to foster more interest in a one-of-a-kind tradition,” Ramirez said.

Like Gerlach, the women said mothers, who traditionally worked on designs in prior years, are often too busy working to design a costume. And Winter Texans, who also used to participate, are now involved in other activities.

But as of Tuesday, they had 11 entries, Ramirez said.

Show Co-Chair Minnie Rodgers said she is excited to see the new interest and participation in creating costumes for this year’s show.

“What I have enjoyed is the new generation coming up. Mary Virginia is a pro who has been doing it for many years. Now we have this Girl Scout troop…and a mother-daughter team…. We also have a man this year for the first time in a long time (except for the Gerlach family who have always helped) and he has done all the work,” said Rodgers.

“It’s been real heart-warming for me. It’s brought a smile to my face. We don’t want something like this to die,” she said.

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