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Is the pink flamingo an endangered species?

The original version of the plastic flamingo may be singing its swan song after inspiring countless pranks — and being alternately celebrated as a tribute to one of nature's most graceful creatures and derided as the epitome of American pop culture kitsch.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The day Mayor Dean Mazzarella turned 40, he got a surprise.

"After I woke up and went out for my morning run, I came back and there were 40 pink flamingos in my front lawn," Mazzarella recalled. "Someone had put them there as a joke."

Now that he's 49 — "the same age as the pink flamingo," he notes — he hopes both he and the iconic lawn ornament that his city claims as its own will still be around next year to celebrate 50.

But the original version of the plastic flamingo may be singing its swan song after inspiring countless pranks — and being alternately celebrated as a tribute to one of nature's most graceful creatures and derided as the epitome of American pop culture kitsch.

Union Products Inc. stopped producing flamingos and other lawn ornaments at its Leominster factory in June, and is going out of business Nov. 1 — a victim of rising expenses for plastic resin and electricity, as well financing problems.

The small privately held firm has been in talks with a pair of rival lawn ornament makers interested in buying the molds and resuming production of the flamingos, designed in 1957 by local son Don Featherstone.

"We think the flamingo will go on," Keith Marshall, Union Products' chief financial officer, said at the company's aging brick factory, where just a few years ago more than 100 employees churned out flamingos by the millions.

Just a couple workers were still around to wrap up business. At the front desk stood a lone flamingo with the words "Happy 50th birthday" written with a black marker on the side, symbolizing hope that the flamingo will rise phoenix-like from the ashes to be reborn.

Other companies' knockoff versions of the Featherstone original remain in production. But the uncertainty surrounding the original has aficionados of kitsch snapping up what they can via the online auction site eBay and elsewhere in case Featherstone versions go out of stock for good.

Mike Smollon, a firefighter who sees plenty of plastic flamingos in his Boynton Beach, Fla., neighborhood, traveled to Leominster to attend a wedding last month and was surprised to learn the city about 50 miles northwest of Boston is home of the original flamingo.

"I guess it never dawned on me that pink flamingos would be made anywhere else than Florida," the 55-year-old said.

Smollon had never owned flamingos before. But, on learning of Union Products' demise, he was inspired to drop by the factory and buy a dozen pairs — $15 per pair for regular pink ones, and $25 for gold-colored special issue flamingos commemorating the bird's upcoming 50th birthday.

"This could be the end of them, and I wanted to get some," he said.

Smollon shipped the flock home and gave most of the birds to friends. He kept the most valuable ones for himself — those he had autographed by Featherstone during a visit to the retiree's home in Fitchburg, just down the road from Leominster.

Featherstone, who wrote a 1999 book about his creation called "Pink Flamingos: Splendor on the Grass," studied art before Union Products hired him in 1956 to expand a line of lawn ornaments that consisted of two-dimensional renderings of animals. Featherstone sculpted his 3-D flamingos from clay, working from photos of the birds in National Geographic.

The birds typically sell at around $10 for boxed sets of two — one standing nearly 3 feet high with its head held proudly erect, the other bending over as if munching on grass. Their legs consist of spindly metal rods that can be planted in the ground. The Featherstone originals have their creator's signature etched into the bird's plastic rear end.

The ornaments hit the market in the late 1950s when the color pink was in vogue, and America's exploding population of suburbanites sought to add flair to their lawns, said Kevin McCarthy, a retired University of Florida professor and author of several books on Florida's history and culture.

Meanwhile, the state's population was booming, and its tropical mystique rubbed off on the rest of America.

"The flamingo is an icon of Florida, and harkens back to a past when there were wild flamingos in large numbers in south Florida," McCarthy said.

But the birds also came to symbolize bad taste. They became the namesake of the 1972 John Waters film "Pink Flamingos," an epic to excess that celebrated a wide range of perversions. Some residential developments even banned flamingo ornaments from lawns.

The bird also became a target of pranksters, some of whom swiped the ornaments from front yards, took them on the road, and then sent photos to their owners showing the kidnapped birds in front of sights like Paris' Eiffel Tower.

The pink flamingo enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s with the popularity of the television police show "Miami Vice," whose opening credits featured images of real birds. Today, the flamingo image is found on everything from doormats to swizzle sticks to roadside motel signs.

Featherstone originals remain a top seller in the gift shop at the National Plastics Center, a museum in Leominster that tells the story of the plastics industry both locally and internationally, including the pink flamingo.

"What started out as a fun fad turned into the ultimate in tacky, and evolved into kitsch art on your front lawn," said Marjorie Weiner, the museum's outreach coordinator. "You really can't help but smile when you look at them, and giggle, because they're funny."

Whatever the Featherstone flamingo's fate, Leominster's mayor plans to hold a party celebrating the creation's 50th birthday next June on the Town Common, which he hopes to fill with flamingos. Mazzarella said his city of 46,000 has purchased the rights to the Internet domain name in hopes of capitalizing on its legacy.

"I don't think the pink flamingo is dead at all," said the mayor of the city. "But whatever happens, he was born here — that can't be taken away from us."