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David Templeton's Seldom Seen: Flamboyant flamingos fade while geese gather

Sunday, May 19, 2002

By David Templeton, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Seldom Seem, David Templeton's whimsical perspective on life and times in and around Washington County, appears weekly in Washington Sunday.

The pink flamingo is dead. Long live the gray goose.

Springtime is when the pink flamingo usually shows up on front lawns as readily as tulips and daffodils.

But try finding this pink piece of classic plastic in Washington County nowadays. The famous, long loved and much maligned pink flamingo has flown the coop, split the suburbs, fled the frontage.

In local lingo, few now mingle with the pink flamingo.

And there in its place, filling the ornamental vacuum with realism rather than pink provocation, are plastic ducks and geese, some wearing caps and coats and others with bright bows around their skinny necks. Regarding our outdoor affections, geese now hold the lease.

If they were germs, we'd have an epidemic. By all accounts, they are contagious. Find a house with a goose or duck and chances are the neighboring houses will have them too.

That's the case on McClane Farm Road in Chartiers, where 17 houses in a little more than a mile feature white ducks or gray geese on their otherwise beautiful lawns.

"I used to have a pink flamingo, but it got old, and I didn't like it anymore," said Dorothy Macik, a McClane Farm Road resident who offered reasoning behind the goose boost and flamingo flame-out. Her manicured front yard features three geese, with two in the back yard. "These are more natural-looking," she said. "That's why people go for them more."

In retrospect, she said, a pink flamingo might be OK in the Everglades, but not in Chartiers. Besides, pink clashes with green.

Macik so loves her geese she decorates them. For Christmas, she strings them with lights. They get green bows for St. Patrick's Day and red bows for Valentine's Day. For now, they look proud with red, white and blue bows around their necks. These aren't Canada geese. They are full-feathered Yankee-Doodle Dandy geese.

Flambeau Products Corp. of Middlefield, Ohio, has manufactured the so-called "ornamate" geese since 1997 and has seen the market fly high since then. A spokeswoman said the geese are the company's most popular item, with the market growing annually. Flambeau makes decoys for hunters, so it prides itself in realism.

The pink flamingo, meanwhile, seems ready to qualify for the federal endangered lawn ornament list, after 43 years of controversial ornamentation. But even if the geese now rule local lawns, the pink flamingo continues to soar in the American psyche.

In 1996, it won Harvard's Ig Nobel Prize for art, transcending its reputation for tackiness to become an honored American icon that defines an age by engendering loving contempt.

Don Featherstone, the retired president of Union Products in Leominster, Mass., created the pink flamingo in 1957. His book about the pink flamingo, "Splendor on the Grass," prompted one reviewer to call it "a culturally tolerated symbol of taste gone awry."

An annual pink flamingo festival is held in Maine. There are pink flamingo clubs throughout the nation. As with Christmas lights, some people strive to see how many pink flamingos they can fit in their yard, and one lady managed 2,000. Flamingo Surprise, a company in Cleveland and Chicago, puts pink flamingos in people's yards surreptitiously for birthdays, anniversaries or as practical jokes designed to turn the person's face pinker than the invaded lawn.

Municipalities have passed ordinances forbidding pink flamingos, but protests and court challenges have managed to reinstate our inalienable right to put pink flamingos beside the posies.

A General Motors dealership won a promotional award by buying 1,000 pink flamingos and setting them up at a different location each night. Curious residents and the news media turned the invasion into a raging mystery.

On the final day, the pink flamingos appeared at the dealership and the promotion brought incredible publicity. The problem was, people kept stealing the flamingos, and the dealership had a tough time keeping the promotion going with a dwindling supply.

Love them or hate them, the pink flamingo, unlike the uninteresting goose, has become part of the American counterculture.

During my local investigation of the pink flamingo, I finally found a flock in the most unlikely place after asking tough questions, shaking down a few suspects and using unethical tactics. But there they stood, five pink flamingos in East Washington, and the owner proved to be none other than Hugh Taylor, chairman of the Washington and Jefferson College Art Department.

What's a reputable art professor doing with such contraband? It's like catching a drug agent with marijuana or a symphony conductor with a Britney Spears compact disc.

Blasphemy, but I allowed Taylor to explain.

He puts pink flamingos in his yard each spring as a joke -- an in-your-face commentary on American bad taste and suburban tackiness. It's an extension of his collection of pink flamingos, including a neon flamingo in his front window.

"Years ago, when I moved here, I noticed the tackiness around me, the bad architecture of the buildings and the lack of good taste in America," he said. "This is my response to it.

"So the first warm spring day, that's when I liberate the pink flamingos."

Taylor sometimes puts two flamingos in the courtyard of the Olin Fine Arts Center, again as a joke. That usually prompts a W&J fraternity to steal them. One year, a fraternity put the heisted flamingos in then-W&J President Howard Burnett's yard. Even Burnett got a chuckle.

"The plastic color is so artificial and so inappropriate for the northern suburbs of Western Pennsylvania that it is glaring and startling," Taylor said with glee.

So are geese healthy for American culture?

I should think not. It's healthier to be in the pink.

David Templeton can be reached by e-mail at: dtempleton@post-gazette.com

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