LEOMINSTER, MASS. - Don Featherstone has designed dozens of plastic ducks, cows and Santa figures over the years at Union Products Inc., but only one became an icon of cultural kitsch. Meet Don Featherstone, vice president, sales manager, company jester ... Pink Flamingo Superstar.
He takes his fame in stride.
``I don't go out looking for it, but you'll get newspapers that'll pick it up ... and then all of a sudden you'll get three to four hundred people calling for the same article.''
A drawer in his big wooden desk overflows with articles. And when a zany morning disc jockey is facing a slow day, guess who gets a call? Featherstone. Hundreds of times.
Featherstone didn't invent the pink flamingo. But he sculpted the model that became famous. Today Union Products sells about a quarter of a million flamingos a year. Flamingo trivia buffs know that Union Products' birds are sold in pairs, one with its head up, the other with head down, for about $10.
Featherstone's name is engraved on the bottom of every one.
Lawn-ornament flamingos date back to the mid-1800s, said Featherstone. The oldest one in his personal collection is a cast-iron bird made in 1908.
``People always had poor taste. They put cherubs all over their yards and hung gargoyles off the buildings,'' he said.
James Sullivan, one of the four men who founded Union Products right after World War II, hired Featherstone in 1957. Featherstone was 21.
``I came here and never left,'' he said. Sullivan, 89, and another founder, George Progin, 88, continue to work at the company, housed in part of the old Viscoloid Co. complex in Leominster.
The first Union Products flamingo was a flat, injection molded polystyrene version that the company silk screened. An employee had seen a magazine story about how to make a wood flamingo for the yard. Union Products turned out a plastic version that was functional, but less than aesthetically pleasing.
``They looked like stuff you'd find in manual training class, with cut wood,'' Featherstone said, digging through his desk for an old product catalog. The year before he arrived, the company introduced a three-dimensional foam plastic flamingo, but dogs liked to chew it up, so it was pulled.
After he arrived in 1957, Featherstone sculpted Charlie the Duck, then helped build a better flamingo. Two halves were injection molded, then glued together. Then in the early 1970s, Union Products began to blow mold flamingos, and the blow molded bird soon won out over the injection molded variety.
Sales of lawn ornaments took off after World War II for a very simple reason: People were building homes, moving from city apartments to new suburbs, at a record rate. A flamingo gave the tract home some pizzazz.
In some cities, though, the flamingo began to take on a negative image.
Then a rebirth started about 10 years ago, as people began giving flamingo parties and hiring firms to put hundreds of rental flamingos in someone's yard in the middle of the night as a gag.
The tacky image today has settled into something softer, a whimsical statement in a troubled world.
``There's 250 people in this factory employed making these `whimsical' products,'' Featherstone pointed out during an interview in the Leominster plant in April.
No manufacturer holds a patent on the fabled fowl. At least two other firms also make flamingos: Lawnware Products Inc. of Morton Grove, Ill., and TPI/Tucker Plastics Inc. of Coaticook, Quebec.
So the pink plastic flamingo has flourished. Did Feather-stone ever imagine it?
``Of course not. No more than the chicken with a bonnet that I'm sculpting right now is gonna make it.''
Meanwhile, the pink flamingo sells itself.
``When you're at a trade show and they ask, `What does your company make,' and you say `Pink plastic lawn flamingos,' they know who you are, where you're located, and that's it,'' Featherstone said. ``If I told them flowerpots, they would never know, but everybody knows Union and knows that we make that flamingo.''
Next year is the flamingo's 40th anniversary. The company is not planning any special promotions (other than an all-white model named, of course, the Snow-Mingo).
That's OK, the calls will roll in anyway, as sure as the flamingos drop from the blow molding machines at Union Products.