Raul Rodriguez, an acclaimed float designer who created hundreds of floral confections for the Rose Parade, has died, his family announced. He was 71.
Rodriguez died of cardiac arrest at his home in Pasadena on Wednesday afternoon, according to publicist Harlan Boll.
Rodriguez's career as a champion float maker began at 15, when he designed his first Rose Parade float for the city of Whittier and took home a trophy. He went on to design at least 500 floats and won multiple awards.
A third-generation Angeleno, Rodriguez was born the day after New Year's Day, 1944, the oldest of three born to a sheet-metal worker and a department store supervisor. He was raised in Boyle Heights, and his family moved later to Whittier, Norwalk and Santa Fe Springs.
His parents recognized his knack for art early and encouraged him, he later told The Times. "My mother wouldn't erase the drawings I did on the dining room wall," he said in 1992.
He made his debut as a Rose Parade float designer in 1960, when he won a high school contest to design a float for the city of Whittier. Rodriguez and his family camped out overnight on Colorado Boulevard that New Year's Eve, warming themselves with hot chocolate and waiting for the design, titled "Snowbound" and based on a poem by the city's namesake, to drift by. He took home a trophy that year.
"Early in my life, I got to see my imagination become reality," Rodriguez told The Times in 1995.
At the age of 15, Rodriguez received a scholarship to the Art Center College of Design, taking three buses to get to class. The journey took him past a stately mansion in Hancock Park. "I would daydream, 'Maybe someday I could live here,'" he wrote in a 1999 column published in the Los Angeles Times. He bought it in 1981.
He joined the Army and was stationed in Taipei; upon his return he enrolled at Cal State Long Beach, where he specialized in drawing, painting and illustration. After graduating, he worked briefly for Walt Disney Co. before embarking on parade floats.
He always regarded himself a dreamer, as did others.
"It isn't a real world that Raul lives in," Jim Hynd, the floral director of Fiesta Parade Floats and a longtime collaborator with Rodriguez, told The Times in 2002. "He's never grown up."
Rodriguez dreamed up Indonesian rainforests, winter wonderland scenes, a white swan that carried his mother and father -- all done up in blooms and petals. One year a huge, carnation-draped Queen Isabella gestured at a globe and nodded toward Christopher Columbus, played by Rodriguez himself. His designs won nine of 19 awards at the parade that year.
He built a reputation for designs borne from months of research and executed with a stunning level of detail.
He formed a design firm in the late 1970s. While working for Heath & Co., he designed the iconic pink neon facade of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas and the 22-story clown that adorns the front of Reno's Circus Circus hotel and casino.
FOR THE RECORD
Feb. 19, 7:50 p.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that Rodriguez and his firm designed the facade of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas and the clown for Reno's Circus Circus. He designed both while working at Heath & Co., a sign manufacturer based in Los Angeles.
But parade floats remained his passion, despite the fact that months of work was routinely dismantled soon after the procession ended.
"It doesn't bother me at all," Rodriguez told The Times in 1992. "Life is moments of beauty. Everything is temporary."
"So many things get left to chance," he added. "The weather might wipe out blue cornflowers, so you have to think of something to replace them. A few years ago, Santa Ana winds kicked up and toppled a 19-ton circus tent on seven of my floats. Suddenly, a lot of people who thought they'd have time off for Christmas were working 24 hours a day."
In a career spanning more than 50 years, Rodriguez produced at least 500 floats. His last appearance at the Rose Parade was in 2013, when he and his bright blue macaw, Sebastian, rode in a float designed for Dole that featured two giant parrots perched on a tree and a volcano with bright-red petals for lava.
He won hundreds of awards for his float work, becoming the most decorated float designer in Rose Parade history. But he measured his success, he said, largely by parade-goers. "The minute I see a big, wonderful smile…. Oh man, the feeling that comes over me when that happens is unbelievable," he told The Times in a profile that ran New Year's Eve of 1995.
Rodriguez's survivors include his spouse, Robert Cash, and his sisters Irene Rodriguez-Morgan and Teresa Arzola.
A funeral service is planned for March 7 at 11 a.m. at St. Andrew Church, 311 North Raymond Ave., Pasadena.