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Animal kitsch might draw herds of tourists

Thursday, August 23, 2001

Nothing is more American than an enthusiastic goof coming up with a wild idea to make money, then pushing the frontiers of good taste and reason to make it happen. And there are no limits to what we will buy.

Case in point: What started three summers ago as cow statues in Chicago has become a tourist phenomenon of animal statuary that has swept the country. Pittsburgh is one of several cities that have either resisted or not tuned in; hard to tell which it might be.

As I was reading about this in The New York Times the other day, my first thoughts were, "Someone believed in this idea enough to give it voice," and then, "Enough people agreed."

The concept actually originated in Zurich, Switzerland, with two artists. A Chicago businessman saw their cow statues on a visit there and returned wanting to replicate them. As far as anyone knows, no city in Europe has appropriated the idea. Here, of course, we mass-produce whimsy.

And so the businessman proposed the idea to the city of Chicago and found a major underwriter. From there, it took the appropriate turn straight to tourism kitsch.

Even though nearly every profitable idea is chased by a money-making frenzy of merchandise, photo ops and souvenirs, you gotta love this country. We have imagination, and we are soooooooo easy.

We also have a splendid national collection of animal kitsch, from cities and towns to highways and byways. In various road trips, I have seen larger-than-life pigs atop barbecue restaurants, jack rabbits above entrances to trailer parks and various cows and horses on top of everything from tack shops to dairies. A life-sized steer has stood on top of H.L. Moss Co., an appliance repair shop in Tulsa, Okla., for 30 years. When I lived there, driving past it delighted me, evoking a sense of fun that reminds me of the time my brother put a plastic soldier on our grandfather's forehead when he dozed off one afternoon.

More than a few cows on buildings would have destroyed the fun of seeing the one. But replication has its rewards.

In Chicago, 340 life-sized cows standing all around the city attracted $200 million in tourist dollars in 1999. You figure with all the reasons to visit Chicago, it would be hard not to attribute some of this windfall to other things, and yet many cities apparently understand how to interpret the summer-kitsch-art portion of a total tourism kitty.

Baltimore became strewn with fishes. Horses stood around Lexington, Ky. Cincinnati did pigs; Tampa, turtles; and Orlando, which desperately needs tourists, decided on lizards. In a surprise move from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, people began popping up in variations on the "American Gothic."

People is a good idea for cities that don't bring an animal immediately to mind -- Pittsburgh, for instance.

Possibly, our not joining the first wave of enthusiasm for animal statues had nothing to do with our aversion to such things. Probably, we just couldn't think of the right animal to represent us. Deer and raccoons spring to my mind, but no one wants to see any more of them, even if they don't move.

With a little reflection, we might choose elephants. Like Pittsburgh, they are clannish and intelligent and have long memories. The gals hang together, go to the bathroom together and look after each other's kids. And elephants are surprisingly beautiful, while people who don't know them think they are gray and smelly. Besides that, the Pittsburgh Zoo has two baby elephants that were conceived naturally. No other city in North America can make such a claim.

Whatever we choose -- feisty old plaster ladies carping on benches, plaster people who left here before they got famous, plaster guys in parking lots with spatulas, or plaster pigeons and sparrows fighting over a piece of caramel popcorn -- we might want to get on this pretty soon. Chicago auctioned its cows for $3.5 million. Now, it has funky furniture art strewn over Michigan Avenue, and people are sitting on it.

We could do that. Put La-Z-Boy recliners along Penn Avenue. Maybe some TV sets. It may not draw tourists, but it might encourage more people to stick around Downtown after work.

Diana Nelson Jones' e-mail address is djones@post-gazette.com.

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