Backstory: Extinction of an American icon?

The Massachusetts plant that hatched 20 million plastic flamingos shut its doors this week.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For connoisseurs of seascape paintings there is J.M.W. Turner's "The Fighting Temeraire." For motorcycle mavens, the Ducati Desmosedici RR. For wry lawn ornamentarians there is the Featherstone Flamingo.

Plenty of the kitschy pink birds, in "feeding," "standing," and "flying" poses (the latter with propeller wings), will be around for as long as it takes molded plastic resin to degrade. An estimated 20 million have been sold.

But there could quite possibly be no new fledglings – at least not of the authentic strain that flocked, incongruously, from this red-brick, northeastern industrial city for nearly half a century.

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Union Products, the flamingo manufacturer since a young designer named Don Featherstone rendered it in 1957 and tapped into a national fascination with all things Floridian, stopped producing the birds in June and officially closed here Wednesday. Dennis Plante, the company's president, has reportedly said three firms have expressed interest in acquiring the mold, so phoenicopteris ruber plasticus, as its creator once called it, could be spared from extinction.

Still, a rueful murmuring has spread as the ironic icon gets its due. The ubiquitous pop-culture commentator Robert Thompson of Syracuse University told the Los Angeles Times: "[T]here are two pillars of cheesy, campiness in the American pantheon. One is the velvet Elvis. The other is the pink flamingo."

Somewhere along the way to becoming "notorious" kitsch – a moment crystallized by the 1972 John Waters film, "Pink Flamingos" – the birds "became an emblem for crossing boundaries of art and taste, [and then] an emblem for crossing boundaries," says Jenny Price, a Los Angeles writer who decoded the plastic flamingo and other phenomena in her 1999 book, "Flight Maps."

Some might call it a suburban scourge. But thisbird also has defenders.

"I think it beats the heck out of a silver 'gazing ball,' " says the genial Mr. Featherstone. "Although when you combine them it's kind of nice."

The Union Products website depicts the three-foot-tall birds wading in a marsh. Featherstone – who rose through the firm to serve as president from 1996 to 2000, when he retired – has known buyers to deploy plastic flamingos in plausible settings. But he concedes that most go for a different effect.

"I always said if you put six of them around a tractor tire painted red, white, and blue and put petunias in it, in front of a nice house, it looks pretty tacky," Featherstone says with a laugh. He keeps 57 flamingos on the lawn of his Fitchburg, Mass., home in the summer, to commemorate the year he crafted it, fresh from art school. (He would eventually sculpt 700 "character" ornaments for the firm.)

Flamingo fanatics often end up mounting big-scale tributes of their own. Susan Cutter, a geography professor at the University of South Carolina, bought her first pair when she lived in New Jersey in 1983. She quickly assembled a flock that, she says, "migrated" with her to South Carolina 10 years later.

She now keeps 40, ceremoniously retiring ones that fade.

"They're whimsical, tacky, just plain fun," says Professor Cutter, who says she also dabbles in other flamingo collectibles, including stuffed Beanie Babies. "I love the color. You know, they bring a smile to your face. And I think that's the appeal." She calls the plant closure "a very sad day. It's such an American institution."

Jane Powell, who runs a jewelry and pawn shop with her husband in Rockledge, Fla., says an online flamingo-fan forum she visits has been abuzz about the flamingo's apparent demise. "Some of the ladies use them as reindeer replacements at Christmas," she says.

"The gold ones are going for outrageous prices on eBay," says Ms. Powell. "I wish I could get a pair, but I'm not sure I want to spend $80. I really need to get to Wal-Mart and buy a few pairs of the pink ones...."

Until recently, the birds could be bought in bulk by retailers at 16 for $42 from the factory, with minimum orders of $500. Last week a pair could be found for $12.95 at Amazon.com.

Plastic injection molding has long been big business here in Leominster, the "Pioneer Plastics City" as well as the "home of Johnny Appleseed."

DuPont had a presence here for decades. Foster Grant sunglasses were made here, several residents proudly note, along with Hula Hoops and other toys. Fosta-Tek still operates here, making helmet visors for the military, says a receptionist at the reverently quiet National Plastics Center and Museum on Derwin Street. A nearby firm called Nypro makes covers for cellphones.

In its hard-working hometown, the pink flamingo actually seems a little underrepresented, given its cult status. At Union Products, buttoned up behind a "For Sale" sign, President Plante's old assigned parking space bears his name framed by flamingo silhouettes. The only other specimens easily seen on a recent afternoon were the duo in the corner of the museum lobby.

"The craze seems to be outside of Leominster," says Bob Macdonald, a retired dental technician who is helping out as a handyman at the First Baptist Church, just off Monument Square. "But for some strange reason that little bird has had an impact.... No matter what state you visit, you see them."

"In the summer this town is loaded with flamingos," insists Anne Le'Cuyer, working the register at the Tails A Waggin pet store just down the street. She doesn't own a flamingo herself. (Mr. Macdonald says he thinks he's probably had a specimen or two, over the years.)

Here, more than anything it's about a loss of industry.

"It was a big deal when we reported that they were going out of business," says Jeff McMenemy, editor of the Sentinel and Enterprise newspaper here. "It's not like there are people crying in the streets or anything. But I think it's kind of one more thing, a lost tradition for the area."

Union Products, which could not be reached for comment, has cited simple economics for its closure. Featherstone recalls a sales spike of about 8 percent in 1997 at the 30th anniversary, when he says nostalgia began to lift the flamingo. He regrets that his old firm won't have the bird for its 50th.

Others are incredulous. "Most companies would kill to have something the world knows about and likes," says Marc Abrahamson, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research in Cambridge, Mass., a magazine that awarded Featherstone its Ig-Nobel Award, celebrating the unusual and imaginative, in 1996. In 2001 Mr. Abrahamson helped organize a boycott of flamingos produced for a few years by Union Products without Featherstone's signature, which had been a mainstay since 1986. Abrahamson saw that move as part of a failure to promote a winning product.

"I tried phoning them and literally could get nobody to talk to me," he says. "It started to feel a little bit like the old days [when] you read about people trying to deal with the Nixon White House during its final days."

Featherstone shrugs off the signature saga. He says he is hopeful about the future of the product he thinks of as one of his kids. "Let's see what happens," he says. "I think the old girl isn't dead yet."

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