June 23, 2015

It's a sad day for Leominster, Massachusetts and for Madison, Wisconsin: The man who created the pink plastic flamingo has died.

Donald Featherstone was 79. His iconic, unforgettable lawn sculpture was designed in 1957, based on a photograph in National Geographic.
The flamingo ornament was one of hundreds of items he made for the Union Products plastics company in Leominster, Mass. The AP reports that Featherstone spent 43 years with the company, "rising to the position of president before his retirement in 1999."... Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzorella called Featherstone a "local classic."
Leominster, Massachusetts has lost its local classic, but there is loss too in Madison, Wisconsin, where Featherstone's flamingo is the official city bird:
Ald. Marsha Rummel, 6th District, who sponsored the resolution [in 2009], said she was 22 on the day 30 years ago when 1,008 of the venerable lawn ornaments appeared on the [Bascom Hill] on the first day of classes for UW-Madison students. That "unique event that signifies something that makes us a very special place" is "captured in our imaginations forever," Rummel said.
From the website of the Wisconsin Historical Society:

The pink flamingo flock represented a celebration of sorts for the Pail & Shovel Party which had won reelection to head the Wisconsin Student Association, the official student governing body. This admittedly absurdist party had formed primarily as a joke, campaigning in the spring 1978 student elections to convert the school budget into pennies to be dumped on the UW's Library Mall where students could use pails and shovels to take what they wished. The Party also promised to flood Camp Randall Stadium for mock naval battles, buy the Statue of Liberty and move it to Wisconsin, and change every student's name to Joe Smith, "so that professors in large lecture courses would know everyone by name."

Contrary to even their own expectations, the Pail & Shovel Party garnered enough votes to win a plurality.... In their first year in office Mallon and Varjian wreaked havoc with the $80,000 budget allotted to student government (funded primarily through tuition fees of $2 per student), spending it on such events as a Little Feat concert, toys to occupy students during the boredom of class registration, a toga party for 10,000 people (blessed via telephone by Animal House star John Belushi himself), and a partial replica of the Statue of Liberty placed on the winter ice of Lake Mendota.

Mallon later commented, "The student government at that time consisted of the self-appointed descendants of the superstar leftists of the sixties. ... It was very closed, very humorless and extraordinarily serious - about as dry and boring and distant from the mainstream students as it could have been."
Got that? Wisconsin students were sick of humorless leftists in 1979.

Now, there's also a fashion angle to this Featherstone story: Featherstone and his wife Nancy wore matching outfits for 35 years!
[W]e have four wardrobes of twin outfits, hanging two by two, organised by season and occasion. I always make myself a feminine version of Donald's outfit, though; it's not unisex, because I like ruffles and girly things. I'd describe our style as traditional – we're not concerned about following fashion...

If we need a new outfit, we go to the fabric shop together and pick out something we both like. Donald is an artist – he designed the now iconic pink plastic flamingos you see in gardens – so has an excellent eye for colour and is comfortable wearing distinctive designs. Whenever I see flamingo fabric, I buy some and make us an outfit; we now have more than 40 in their own special closet.

Whoever gets there first gets to choose what we're wearing. It's not a stampede, though; we're both amenable to the other's choice...  We both have very strong identities as individuals and wearing the same clothes doesn't affect this; clothes don't make your personality. Instead, dressing the same gives me a lovely feeling of closeness to Donald. I've never not felt like doing it; we've done it for so long now that it would feel unnatural not to.

Donald used to have to travel for business and when I packed his case, I'd tell him which outfit to wear on which day, so we coordinated even though we were apart. It helped us feel connected to each other. But his boss realised Donald was much more productive if I came along, too, so I'd help out at the conventions. It was good for business, because people would seek out our stall year after year to see what we were wearing.

We don't like to be apart. Donald proposed on our first date and we've been together almost all the time since. If you want to do things by yourself, why get married?... As we spend all our time together, we always eat the same food, too, which is good because we have matching stains on our outfits.
Oh! That brought tears to my eyes. Poor Nancy!


Scott said...

A gay couple I know said that back in the 1960s, they owned a row house with a small front yard in Hoboken NJ; and they were occasionally bothered by the city police for parking and other petty crap. One of the guys finally had enough, so in a fury he stuck a half-dozen pink plastic flamingos in their yard.

The harassment stopped. And the police encounters after that were polite and even somewhat protective. The guys have no idea what the pink flamingos communicated to the cops, and I sure can't figure it out either.

damikesc said...

Got that? Wisconsin students were sick of humorless leftists in 1979.

Must be nice to be trendsetters so long ago.

The Godfather said...

I believe the pink flamingo is also the mascot of Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, VA.

traditionalguy said...

About time the symbol of Florida Confederates was removed to Wisconsin. They won it fair and square.

Fernandinho Beach had many flags for real: Spain, Brittain, U.S., Confederate, U.S. , Flagler Railroad and Screaming Flamingos.

jameswhy said...

For those of you not from around here Mr. Featherstone's hometown is pronounced, counterintuitively, "Lemon-ster."

Petunia said...

I have four in my front window box, and two in Packer colors in the flower bed. I have been standing on one leg in my yard in tribute.

virgil xenophon said...

About some 30 yrs ago some car dealer in Albuquerque, NM (iirc) bought 1,000 Pink Flamingos for a big sale on a Saturday. He spread them all over town on Sunday night, and each night moved them all pointed in the direction of his dealership in an increasingly concentrated flock until by Saturday they all ended up on his car lot. LOL! Talk about great PR!

cold pizza said...

So, big, pink, plastic tombstone? -CP

J2 said...

Darling couple. Their outfit concept and story is so romantic.

Julie C said...

I recall that in the town of Celebration Florida, the Disney designed town, they had really strict rules about what you could have in your front yard, so someone would go around town at night planting pink flamingoes in various yards and public places.

Fernandinande said...

...the pink plastic flamingo has died.

We hardly knew him.

dbp said...

Leominster is also the birthplace of Johhny Appleseed--A fact I only learned when driving through and seeing the sign. I had previously (somehow) thought Appleseed was a mythological character like Paul Bunyon. Note: I did not grow up around here (or anywhere, if you ask my kids).

Quaestor said...

Another bit of esoterica for my crowded brain to file and index. The only other Featherstone in there is Guthrie Featherstone Q.C. M.P., head of chambers at One Equity Court.

I suppose I should mention that John Water's first nationally distributed film was titled Pink Flamingoes, a cult classic by now. That feature was also the vehicle that introduced Devine to an astonished world of high-flown cultural pretense.

Quaestor said...

Johnny Appleseed is a mythological character. (I'm one of those who agrees with Joseph Campbell that mythological is not necessarily synonymous with fictitious.) Jonathan Chapman is not. The myth hold that Johnny Appleseed, following a commandment from God, wandered into the wilderness sowing apple seeds as he went in order to provide for the coming waves of settlers into the Ohio Valley. Jonathan Chapman in reality earned his living by selling rooted and balled saplings, mostly apples but other fruit tree as well, to famers. He never owned a nursery, but he didn't need one. He planted trees on any piece of suitable open land he discovered in his peregrinations. Later he would return and harvest the young saplings for sale. Another point of departure from the myth, The seeds Chapman planted were purchased from cider mills, thus the apples that resulted from his enterprise were not the delicious fruit, the delight of the innocent. They were hard and bitter, suitable only for the production of cider. So if anything Chapman should be noted for his contribution to American drink.

steve uhr said...

I voted for Pail & Shovel as did everyone else I knew. I didn't even know there was a student government before that.

Fond memories of the Toga Party -- The toga was the only thing many people wore.

Christy said...

You all are just too subtle for my poor brain. Pink flamingos are a gay symbol, but googling it gets null results. Is this one of those things I know that is just wrong? Or is it a John Waters' hometown tradition?