Raul Rodriguez dies at 71; designer of fanciful Rose Parade floats

Rose Parade float designer Raul Rodriguez, whose creations won about 30 Sweepstakes Trophies, has died at 71

Designer Raul Rodriguez's towering, wildly fanciful creations were seen by millions of people around the world.

But only for a moment as they passed by.

Rodriguez was undoubtedly the most famous of Rose Parade float designers, with more than 500 floats to his credit, many of which won awards, including about 30 Sweepstakes Trophies for most beautiful entries.

Though his elaborate creations were often more than a year in the making, Rodriguez was OK with their ephemeral nature.

"Life is moments of beauty," he said in a 1992 Los Angeles Times interview. "Everything is temporary."

Rodriguez, 71, was an institution in the parade, often riding his floats with a pet macaw on his shoulder. He died Wednesday at home in Pasadena. The cause was cardiac arrest, Robert Cash, his husband, said.

Rodriguez, who designed his first float at 15 for the 1960 parade, had been in declining health. His last floats were for the 2014 event.

"Floats have a lot of features, like animation, but Raul had this real floral flair and ability to use that element," Bill Flinn, chief executive of the Tournament of Roses, said Thursday.

Rodriguez created as many as 21 floats for a single Rose Parade.

"When you do as many floats as he did, there's a danger that everything could start looking the same," Flinn said. "But not with Raul. There was always a new idea coming around the corner."

Although Rodriguez did other design work, including at Las Vegas hotels, creating floats was his year-round job for clients including Macy's, Kaiser Permanente, FTD, China Airlines and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Some of his creations:

•1982: A colossal Miss Piggy, reclining on a sofa and being serenaded by Kermit the Frog.

•1987: A Hanging Garden of Babylon motif with a mythical winged creature holding up cascading gardens.

•2013: Jungle ruins, giant exotic birds and a volcano shooting flames 20 feet in the air.

The jungle float was the third of four he designed for Dole Food Packaging.

"Our objective was to have the most over-the-top, vibrant, colorful and exotic entry," Dave Spare, vice president of Dole marketing, said Thursday. "If you look at his vision and the floats he has done, that is exactly what Raul is about."

Rodriguez, who traveled extensively to take in views of nature and architecture, was not interested in realistic portrayals.

"We would talk about a rain forest setting," Spare said, "and he would say, 'Remember, we are talking about a fantasy of a place.' So, we would have palm trees dripping with purple and white orchids instead of palm fronds."

All four of the Dole floats won Sweepstakes Trophies.

Rodriguez was far from a pushover with clients, which the city of Cerritos discovered in 2003 when it approached him about creating a float.

"They had just built their new spectacular library that was all titanium and they told me to do a model of the library," Rodriguez told the Glendale News-Press in 2012. "They said, 'What do you think of that?' and I said, "It's really boring!'"

Rodriguez instead designed a bookworm, 50 feet tall and holding books, on the theme of reading. The float won a Judge's Special Trophy.

He was born Jan. 2, 1944, in Los Angeles, and grew up in Boyle Heights and Norwalk. When he was a junior at Santa Fe High School, he entered a contest to design a Rose Parade float for the city of Whittier.

Beginning his lifelong habit of basing his floats on research, he turned to a 19th century poem, "Snow-Bound," by the city's namesake, John Greenleaf Whittier, that describes a post-storm winter landscape as "a universe of sky and snow." Rodriguez's winning design had a mighty figure representing the north wind blowing frozen air over the float, which also featured young women dressed in Santa hats.

While still in high school, he won a scholarship to take courses at Art Center College of Design. His college degree was from Cal State-Long Beach, and he spent two years in the Army.

He was too ill to design floats for the 2015 parade, and for the first time in many years watched the event from home on television.

"I expected him to be a little bit sad," Cash said. "But he was like a kid watching the parade. He was thrilled, seeing all the people enjoying it.

"That's what the joy was for him."

In addition to his husband, Rodriguez is survived by his sisters Irene Rodriguez-Morgan and Teresa Arzola.

david.colker@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidcolker

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