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Getting through the '5 1/2-mile smile'

Designer Raul Rodriguez will view Monday's parade from his 500th float.

January 01, 2012|By Tiffany Kelly, tiffany.kelly@latimes.com
  • Raul Rodriguez, with his blue hyacinth macaw Sebastian, in his living room in Los Angeles on Friday, December 22, 2011. Rodriguez has designed over 500 floats, and this year, he will ride on the Indonesian float, the 500th he has designed. (Tim Berger/Staff Photographer)
Raul Rodriguez, with his blue hyacinth macaw Sebastian,…

A week before Christmas, Raul Rodriguez was sitting in his Hancock Park home, visually recounting his career. He moved from vintage picture frames to scrapbooks, stopping at one illustration of a Rose Parade float he designed for the City of Cerritos in 2003.

“They wanted to stress reading and they had just built their new spectacular library that was all titanium and they told me to do a model of the library,” he recalled. “They said, ‘What do you think of that?' and I said, ‘It's really boring!'”

Instead, Rodriguez designed a 50-foot-tall bookworm, nicknamed Professor Wormington, holding books and a magic wand. The float was awarded a Judge's Special Trophy.

“There's always a better way of making things happen,” he said.

On Jan. 2, Rodriguez will ride on the 500th float he has designed for the Rose Parade. His first one glided across the Pasadena route when he was 15, the result of winning a high school competition for the city of Whittier. In the decades since, he has imagined designs for Disney, Six Flags Magic Mountain and Hilton Hotels.

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“I've met so many wonderful people and I love my work,” said the designer, a man of medium height with a slim build and a neatly trimmed beard.

A native Angeleno, Rodriguez grew up in Boyle Heights and was exposed to art through his mother, an artist, and his mother's uncle, a painter. His parents encouraged him to express himself creatively and be a “hands-on” artist as a child. Later, they got the chance to ride on Rose floats Rodriguez designed.

He often invites guests over and, for evidence, his living room was decorated for an imminent holiday party. Icicles hung from a chandelier, trees created from glass ornaments stood in the corners and Christmas music emanated from hidden speakers. On the lawn outside of his historic house, a swan-shaped sleigh driven by larger-than-life elf dolls reached higher than his second-story windows. He loves to entertain, he said, and welcomes 300-500 friends, family, reporters, local politicians and entertainers after the parade each year.

Leslie Kawai attends his parties annually, which she calls “fabulous events.” The two formed an instant bond when she was crowned Rose Queen in 1981. Her daughter is Rodriguez' godchild.

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