Death of the Flockfather

 

Union-Products-Flamingos-960x691Donald 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.”

Don and Nancy FeatherstoneHe 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.

Plastic-Flamingos-in-the-Wild-960x667I 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.

There are 28 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. user_44643 Inactive
    user_44643
    @MikeLaRoche

    When I first read this headline, I thought maybe one of the roosters in the Chix PIT had kicked the bucket. ;-)

    • #1
  2. user_605844 Inactive
    user_605844
    @KiminWI

    You made my day with that story Midge! Thanks!

    I remember the opposite of flocking in college. That is, “friends of mine” would, after imbibing a few beers, would go On Safari, collecting the birds from neighborhoods and transplanting them into a rival dorm floor’s showers. Occasionally, a garden troll would  come along for the ride.

    • #2
  3. Kay of MT Member
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    Great story, sorry about his death.

    • #3
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Love it, Midge. Great post.

    • #4
  5. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    “People say they’re tacky, but all great art began as tacky.”

    Exactly, but my first and favorite housewarming gift upon moving to Florida was a pair of “pinks” from a friend who thought she was being funny. Little did she realize I would install them beside my koi pond because they scare away predatory birds while adding a bit of kitsch. They are replaced every couple years when they fade because it wouldn’t be my Florida Miami Vice without them!

    • #5
  6. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    EThompson:

    “People say they’re tacky, but all great art began as tacky.”

    Exactly, but my first and favorite housewarming gift upon moving to Florida was a pair of “pinks” from a friend who thought she was being funny. Little did she realize I would install them beside my koi pond because they scare away predatory birds while adding a bit of kitsch. They are replaced every couple years when they fade because it wouldn’t be my Florida without them!

    That’s a lovely story, and the perfect complement to the OP.

    • #6
  7. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Daughter 3 will be heartbroken – she adores Flamingos.

    • #7
  8. TG Thatcher
    TG
    @TG

    Pink flamingos are PIT-worthy.

    • #8
  9. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Awesome story, Ms. Rattlesnake.

    One of the all-time-greats for Ricochet.

    Thank you.

    Speaking of which, we need to add “all-time-great posts” or “best posts ever published on Ricochet” to our cloud on the right. :)

    • #9
  10. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Thanks all, and image credits are due!

    The pair of flamingos reclining on raspberry plush:
    Improbable Research

    The photo of Don and Nancy in matching attire:
    Leominster Champion

    The pair of Phoenicopteris ruber plasticus enjoying the American Southwest:
    From the Featherstones’ book, The Original Pink Flamingos: Splendor on the Grass.

    • #10
  11. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    skipsul:Daughter 3 will be heartbroken – she adores Flamingos.

    His children live on, though. Possibly as many as 20 million of them.

    • #11
  12. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @JudgeMental

    This is a great post specifically as a reminder of all of the thousands of random bits of Americana out there.  There was an actual person behind each and every one of them.  And in most cases, virtually no one has any idea who that person was.

    • #12
  13. Jason Rudert Member
    Jason Rudert
    @JasonRudert

    This is very thoroughly researched.

    In my old neighborhood, there was one particular block where all of the houses had a bunch of them. They would migrate back and forth up and down the street, get into conflicts, celebrate the holidays–there was one year a pink flamingo nativity scene–they are part of the cultural fabric of this country.

    • #13
  14. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Jamal Rudert:This is very thoroughly researched.

    My favorite bit of research was managing to scrounge up a PDF of the original National Geographic article that inspired Featherstone. There they all are, the pink ballerinas. The photos are a bit damaged by time, but all there.

    In my old neighborhood, there was one particular block where all of the houses had a bunch of them. They would migrate back and forth up and down the street, get into conflicts, celebrate the holidays–there was one year a pink flamingo nativity scene–they are part of the cultural fabric of this country.

    Featherstone said he’s spotted some of them with antlers, arranged to pull a plastic Santa’s sleigh. Also,

    “I’ve received some very touching stories about the flamingos. One in particular was a woman who was very sick, and loved her flamingos. Every morning, her father would go outside the window of her room and move her flamingos around the yard. She would wake up every day to find where he had put them.

    “We’ve had a request for a new set to be included in someone’s wake and funeral. The person loved their flamingos, so we went to the wake and there they were on the sides of the casket. The birds went to the cemetery with the flowers and stood at the grave site.”

    People love these birds.

    • #14
  15. user_352043 Moderator
    user_352043
    @AmySchley

    My favorite picture of pink flamingos.

    tumblr_n91t6rCXfu1ql4w28o2_1280-680x510

    “It only takes a flock of flamingos 30 seconds to strip the flesh off even a T-Rex. Beware of these vicious birds!”

    • #15
  16. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    I love tacky and bright-colored yard art  I like to think mine is tacky-chic, but one woman’s tacky-chic is another woman’s tacky-tacky.  I don’t care though because it’s fun and happy, just like Mr. Featherstone’s pink flamingos.

    • #16
  17. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    Years ago, I remember seeing one perched in an inaccessible location at Seneca Rocks, WV.  I still don’t know how it got there.

    • #17
  18. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Beautifully done, Migde. You made my day.

    • #18
  19. Jason Rudert Member
    Jason Rudert
    @JasonRudert

    I heard they had a hard time keeping the position of the eye-painter staffed. They would go mad about every nine months.

    • #19
  20. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    • #20
  21. user_352043 Moderator
    user_352043
    @AmySchley

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Thank you, I was thinking about that exact bit.

    • #21
  22. user_241697 Member
    user_241697
    @FlaggTaylor

    One of the all time great Ricochet posts! Cheers to you Midge!!

    • #22
  23. user_138562 Moderator
    user_138562
    @RandyWeivoda

    This may be the best obituary ever written for Ricochet.  Well done, Midge.

    • #23
  24. user_252791 Inactive
    user_252791
    @ChuckEnfield

    Great writing Midge!  I listened to a story about Donald on NPR, which I thought was very good, but yours is much better.

    • #24
  25. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    There can only be 1 appropriate memorial to the gentleman…

    flamingo

    • #25
  26. user_656019 Coolidge
    user_656019
    @RayKujawa

    I have never been to Hawaii but when I was on travel one year at Newport Beach I decided to buy my first Hawaiian shirt, and now I have five of them. Anybody who is interested, you can get Hawaiian shirts with a tasteful pink flamingo and palm trees design on it, either white or black background, made of 100% cotton. I found it at some place called Aloha Shirts Market. I’m thinking of buying one after reading this post. Thanks, MFR.

    • #26
  27. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @EustaceCScrubb

    Great story, Midge! I would be curious about how Featherstone felt about one of the even more tacky homages to his creation from filmmaker John Waters:

    pf

    • #27
  28. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Great story, charming post. Thank you!

    • #28

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.