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

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.

“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.

“We're very close. He's like a brother to me,” she said. “He's so charismatic and you talk to him and you think immediately of how down to earth he is, given his talent. He's friends with such a wide variety of people.”

At the center of the soirées is Sebastian, Rodriguez' 9-year-old blue hyacinth macaw, who has his own room on the first floor of the house. Twenty minutes into Rodriguez rehashing the past, the bird begun squawking, until his owner unlocked his cage and placed him on one shoulder. Sebastian then emitted soft greetings.

“You have to understand — I'm merely the perch,” said Rodriguez. “Everyone wants to see Sebastian.”

This year, they'll ride together on the Indonesia float that Fiesta Parade Floats constructed, along with nine other of Rodriguez' designs.

Artistic Entertainment Services is constructing a float he designed for China Airlines at a facility is Azusa. Sebastian travels with Rodriguez in the car to the float facilities, entertaining volunteers and clients. Families and children ask to take photographs with the bird, he said, and in December, Sebastian posed with employees from Dole, one of the companies that hired him to design a float this year.

Rodriguez doesn't plan to slow down his lifestyle any time soon. Asked about a future retirement from designing and illustrating, his answer was a simple: “When I drop in my tracks.”

Robert Cash, his manager since 2006, said Rodriguez is always thinking about his work, even when stopping for a meal or to watch television. “His wheels are always spinning,” he said. “He's always designing. Even when he's taking a break, I can almost see his mind spinning.”

Cash describes the designer as a hard-working perfectionist who dutifully researches what his clients desire before sketching renditions of the floats: “What I see is his great passion for his art and his love of his art and how important every detail is to him.”

For now, Rodriguez is focused on getting through the Rose Parade, which he calls “the 51/2-mile smile.”

“I think it inspires a lot of people in different ways,” Rodriguez said. “If we can start the year on a positive, we did our job.”

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