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Donald Featherstone, father of the plastic lawn flamingo, died Monday. He spent his final days in a room with pink sheets and a pair of his long-necked, spindly-legged creations flanking the fireplace. His wake is tomorrow, and his funeral mass will be held this Saturday. Millions of his pink children, the tribe of Phoenicopteris ruber plasticus, will survive him.
My family taught me to sneer at the plastic flamingo. To look down my nose at it. Lowbrow. Trailer-trash kitsch. The problem with a flamingo, though, is you can’t really win a sneering contest with that hooked beak. Flamingos spend their lives looking down their noses at everything. Even the plastic ones, whose facial features are subtly altered to give them a cuteness few live flamingos truly possess. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, how often in the staring contest between good taste and simple happiness, happiness ultimately wins. As their creator would put it, “I loved what I did. It’s all happy things… They have been called very tacky, but more than not, they’ve been called fun.” His wife of 40 years would add, “Donald always said, ‘You don’t take yourself too seriously because you’re not getting out alive anyway.’”
Featherstone was a classically trained painter as well as a sculptor, who in his free time filled his own home with paintings that “looked like they were done by a master from the Renaissance”. But he filled his backyard with plastic flamingos. 57 of them, to be exact, in honor of the year they were first manufactured. Humble and good-humored, he happily attended flamingo-themed events, keeping his highbrow side quite private. “He decided it would destroy the illusion and pleasure for people who knew him for the flamingo.”
He and his wife, Nancy, even dressed the part, accumulating dozens of matching flamingo-themed outfits, sewn by Nancy herself. “We do everything together, so I figured why not dress alike, mostly in flamingos?“
The saga began in 1957, when Featherstone, unemployed and in “great fear of starving to death” after declining to facilitate trysts for his old boss, took a job at Union Products, a plastics company in Leominster, MA, designing lawn ornaments. “My friends said plastic places will prostitute my work and I’d make no money, but it was worth a try.” Before sculpting the templates for the iconic pink bird, Featherstone had been asked to sculpt a duck for mass production. He bought a real duck, named it Charlie, and kept it in the sink, studying it. Once the duck sculpture was done, Charlie was set free in a local park. Their next request: flamingos.
There aren’t, however, any live flamingos to be had in Leominster. National Geographic, though, had recently run a story on flamingos, “Ballerinas in Pink”, complete with NatGeo’s famed photography. Captivated, Featherstone selected two images to sculpt from. Within weeks, the templates for his long-necked progeny were finished. Propping up the long-necked plastic bodies on flamingos’ characteristically long, spindly legs proved difficult, though. “I always hated the wire legs,” Featherstone admitted. But the anatomically-incorrect wires kept the lawn ornaments cost-effective, and easy to stab into suburban sod.
In his 43-year career at Union Plastics, Featherstone designed over 700 lawn ornaments. One ornament, a white planter swan, actually sold better than the flamingo (impressive, since at the peak of their popularity, Union Plastics was selling a million flamingos a year). But the swan, neither garishly Pepto-Bismol in hue, nor hovering haughtily above the fray on long wire legs, failed to attract the same attention. “That hurt its little plastic feelings, but what can you do?”
“We sold people tropical elegance in a box for less than $10. Before that, only the wealthy could afford to have bad taste.” “People say they’re tacky, but all great art began as tacky.”
I suspect some here would contest those sentiments, but what, exactly, is a guy who’s trying to keep his highbrow side private supposed to say?
In the nearly 60 years since they were first hatched, the pink plastic birds have attracted controversy as well as affection. Some communities have banned them. Other communities – namely Madison, Wisconsin – have declared them to be their official bird. They’ve been the subject of a successful boycott jointly arranged by the Annals of Improbable Research and the Museum of Bad Art. And “flocking” with the pink plastic birds, a fundraising tactic somewhat reminiscent of the ice-bucket challenge, strikes those who enjoy it as good, clean fun, but those who don’t appreciate it as a shakedown:
In the dead of the night, [members of your fundraising committee] place the flamingos in the yards of the friends that all of your supporters paid to have “Flamingoed.” Each of the flocks will have a note explaining how a friend of theirs paid to have them “Flamingoed” in support of your fundraiser. Also, the note will let them know that if they pay your group a donation, you will remove the flock and send it to the yard of any friend that they choose. This Fundraiser continues to feed on itself as the flamingos migrate from victim to victim.
Sell Anti-Flocking Insurance to supporters so that they will not get “Flamingoed” for $10 extra.
I briefly belonged to a bible church that used flocking as a fundraising tactic. If any of the congregants failed to find it hilarious, they kept their irritation well-hidden. At the time, I couldn’t help but feel like an outsider to the church’s redneck-inflected culture, but as I grow older, the sheer joy and camaraderie congregants got from doing something so tacky and juvenile to each other becomes more precious. We aren’t getting out alive anyway. There are worse things human beings can do to each other than prefer a good laugh to good taste.
In addition to his wife and his myriad plastic offspring, Featherstone is survived by two children, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.