Two decades ago this month, a billboard appeared atop a roof in West Hollywood that read: "Our Son Tom Died in Vietnam Because a Politician in Washington Refused to Admit His Mistakes."
Others messages followed, each startlingly political amid the river of commercial advertisements along Santa Monica Boulevard:
"Dear Mom and Dad, Your Silence Is Killing Me. In Southeast Asia, on Campus, in the Streets."
"Fascist Terror in Chile. No U.S. Aid!"
"Stop the Nuclear Arms Race . . . Before We Go Broke . . . Or Go BOOM!"
Themes Change With Times
Put up by a group called Women Strike for Peace, the messages have changed with the times. The latest, on display since last October, is as fresh as today's headlines: "Nicaragua--Another Vietnam?"
The billboard, which cost $2,977 to erect in 1967, has proved an advertising bargain for Women Strike for Peace, which found no takers in the outdoor advertising industry for its original anti-war message.
"We had enough money to get onto one of the huge billboards on the (Sunset) Strip, but they wouldn't accept it. It was too controversial," said Mary Clarke, a coordinator for the group and one of its founders.
An appeal to the membership produced an offer from Ethel Stubbs, who with her husband, George, owns the building at the corner of Harper Avenue.
"I said to my husband, 'We have our own building, why not let them put up the message on our building?' " Stubbs recalled. "He said fine and we did. And it's been very useful ever since."
And cheap. Renting such a billboard, known in the trade as a "junior paint" because it is hand-painted and smaller than a freeway advertisement, could cost $800 a month or more.
But Women Strike for Peace has gotten its message across to tens of thousands of people a day for 20 years for no more than $6 a month in lighting bills and $250 to paint each new slogan by hand.
Recent texts have included "One Nuclear Blast Could Be the Last" and "What to Do in Case of Nuclear War--Kiss the Children Goodbye."
A 1973 billboard about Chile was taken down after someone who apparently objected to it splashed the building with paint, but Clarke said there have been no other unpleasant repercussions.
One of those who gets the message is Joseph R. Blackstock, research director for Patrick Media, a major outdoor advertising firm formerly known as Foster and Kleiser.
"I remember agreeing with them," Blackstock said. "I said, 'Yo! Right on.' "
He credits a mysterious "X-factor" for the success of some billboards no matter what they sell, whether it's beer or anti-war sentiments.
"You've got to capsule the idea briefly, so that passing motorists can absorb the idea emotionally . . . in a way they'll remember or take action or do something about it," he said.
"These people have done that real well."
Women Strike for Peace was launched with a round of "Martinis for Peace" cocktail parties in 1961. The group staged nationwide demonstrations on Nov. 1 of that year to protest the testing and stockpiling of nuclear weapons.
The group was supposed to disband after that, Clarke said, "but the women said, 'No, we want to continue.' I think they liked the style of it. Not tightly organized. No constitution. No bylaws."
"We were all leaders," said Orpha Goldberg, another coordinator of the Los Angeles chapter. "That's why I liked the group."
The demonstrators in 1961 were especially concerned about reports that atmospheric testing left deposits of a radioactive isotope, strontium 90, in milk.
In Los Angeles, more than 2,000 women assembled on the front steps of the State Building, according to press reports at the time. Clarke said 4,500 people were there.
"We went to see good old Mayor Yorty to talk about an end to testing, both by the United States and the Soviet Union, but he wouldn't even see us," Clarke said.
"He had some nasty remarks in the papers. I don't bother with people like that."
Yorty had urged the public "not to be duped by Communist-inspired groups."
Although members of the group were summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1960s and were investigated by the FBI and the CIA, its organizers say Women Strike for Peace has no political affiliation--certainly not with the Communist Party.
"To suggest that we are part of a 'front' or that we are stooges is to impugn our integrity, our intelligence, our patriotism and our sex," Ethel Taylor, national coordinator of the group, wrote in a letter to the editor of Washington Post in 1983.
The Post had raised the suggestion because leaders of Women Strike for Peace had met with Soviet officials at world peace conferences, but the newspaper later printed an apology.