Thursday, June 25, 2015

Pink Flamingos (Worcester’s Own)

As cultural connoisseurs are well aware, Worcester is something of a touchstone for matters pop-cultural.

One of the things that made me enormously proud as a kid was that Worcester’s rock radio station – WORC – was a guinea pig for trialing new songs. “We” – the WORC-listening, request-making, gum-smacking teens of Worcester – were apparently more capable of figuring out what was going to be hit or not a lot better than those presumably more sophisticated, big city, big-haired Philadelphia teens on Bandstand. We determined what they bopped to.

I first heard about this when “Rhythm of the Falling Rain” by the Cascade’s – one hit wonders if ever – was popular. It made the charts on our say-so.

And the first station to play The Beatles in the US of A? None other than WORC.

By this point, I had already dropped WORC and was pledging allegiance to WBZ in Boston, dumping Dick “The Derby” Smith for “Juicy Brucey” Bradley. But d
espite abandoning Worcester’s own, I was still capable of pride in our rock ‘n roll accomplishment. (WORC  - ‘1310 on your dial’ - now broadcasts “full-time in Spanish with a tropical format” (Wikipedia), while WBZ is all-news. Time and culture march on.)

Rock ‘n roll was not Worcester’s only claim to fame.

Worcester was the birthplace of the smiley face.

I remember wearing one when they first came out, when I was in high school. If I’d only hung on to that early-on pin, I could get rich on eBay. Imagine: I was once in possession of one of the original emojis!

But wait, there’s more…

Worcester was also the birthplace of Donald Featherstone, who designed (invented? discovered?) the pink flamingo. The actual design (invention? discovery?) occurred down the road in Leominster. But Leominster’s part of Worcester County, and Featherstone was from Worcester. So, once again, a cultural triumph for the Heart of the Commonwealth.

In fact, cultural-wise, the pink flamingo – first produced in 1957 – predated The Beatles and the smiley face, which were both from the sixties.

This was in the news yesterday because Featherstone has just died.

Whether derided as tacky or treasured for their kitsch cool, his birds have dotted the cultural landscape — not to mention lawns around the world — ever since.

That design was but one of more than 650 he created, ranging from the perennially top-selling swans to an ostrich Mr. Featherstone liked a lot, even though it never took off. The pink flamingos, however, were always the most memorable.

“We sold people tropical elegance in a box for less than $10,” he told the Chicago Tribune on the birds’ golden anniversary. “Before that, only the wealthy could afford to have bad taste.” (Source: Boston Globe)

And while on the subject of taste, Featherstone and his wife dressed for years in matching outfits, designed by Mrs. F and made of wildly patterned material. (It was difficult enough disposing  of my husband’s ratty old clothing. I don’t envy Mrs. Featherstone’s task of sorting through four wardrobes chocked full of crazy outfits.)

Featherstone didn’t have an easy go of it his last few years. He suffered from something called Lewy’s body dementia, a really dreadful malady. But:

Mr. Featherstone lived long enough to see a Disney movie character named after him — a pink flamingo, of course — in the 2011 film “Gnomeo and Juliet,” about a romance between garden gnomes.

During his last days, a pair of pink flamingos flanked the fireplace in his room at Caldwell, and he slept on sheets of a flamingo hue.

Nice to learn that he died surrounded by his invention.

RIP to another quirky Worcester one-off.



Back when Pink Slip was a dewy-eyed, sweet young thing, I wrote about pink flamingos a couple of times. One of the posts was a general paean to lawn ornaments, written when it was announced that the Union Products Company (which originated and produced them) was going out of business; the other announced a reprieve.  After nearly 10 years, it’s hard not to recycle an occasional topic…

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