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Backstory: Extinction of an American icon?

The Massachusetts plant that hatched 20 million plastic flamingos shut its doors this week.

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For connoisseurs of seascape paintings there is J.M.W. Turner's "The Fighting Temeraire." For motorcycle mavens, the Ducati Desmosedici RR. For wry lawn ornamentarians there is the Featherstone Flamingo.

Plenty of the kitschy pink birds, in "feeding," "standing," and "flying" poses (the latter with propeller wings), will be around for as long as it takes molded plastic resin to degrade. An estimated 20 million have been sold.

But there could quite possibly be no new fledglings – at least not of the authentic strain that flocked, incongruously, from this red-brick, northeastern industrial city for nearly half a century.

Union Products, the flamingo manufacturer since a young designer named Don Featherstone rendered it in 1957 and tapped into a national fascination with all things Floridian, stopped producing the birds in June and officially closed here Wednesday. Dennis Plante, the company's president, has reportedly said three firms have expressed interest in acquiring the mold, so phoenicopteris ruber plasticus, as its creator once called it, could be spared from extinction.

Still, a rueful murmuring has spread as the ironic icon gets its due. The ubiquitous pop-culture commentator Robert Thompson of Syracuse University told the Los Angeles Times: "[T]here are two pillars of cheesy, campiness in the American pantheon. One is the velvet Elvis. The other is the pink flamingo."

Somewhere along the way to becoming "notorious" kitsch – a moment crystallized by the 1972 John Waters film, "Pink Flamingos" – the birds "became an emblem for crossing boundaries of art and taste, [and then] an emblem for crossing boundaries," says Jenny Price, a Los Angeles writer who decoded the plastic flamingo and other phenomena in her 1999 book, "Flight Maps."


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