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In the Pink : Festivities Celebrate 25th Birthday of Famous Panther

November 12, 1989|BARBARA KOH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He sells fiberglass and Brazilian yogurt, eats lunch with Japanese office ladies, brings silent cheer to sick children and hovers above Macy's Thanksgiving parade. One look at him, and you start mouthing his song.

He's hot--hot pink--and last week the Pink Panther turned 25. Last week, which his creators dubbed "Paint the Town Pink" week, he celebrated with a slew of visits to hospitals, cheerleading contests at malls and a celebrity-studded charity fund-raiser.

Monday, he was honored with proclamations in Hollywood and in Culver City, where his home office, MGM/UA Communications Co., is located.

To accept his Culver City award, the debonair cat was chauffeured in a 1959 pastel pink Cadillac convertible from the MGM/UA building kitty-cornered from City Hall. The 6-foot-tall, slender panther, dressed in black-sequined tuxedo jacket with tails, ruffle-front shirt and metallic silver bow tie, hopped over the car door, waving and landing elegantly on his watermelon-sized feet. "He's the Fred Astaire of cartoons," said Friz Freleng, 82, who created the cat with Dave DePatie. "He doesn't dance, but he's very graceful."

"Pink," as he's affectionately called at MGM/UA, caused a stir among the residents who had come to the City Council meeting to talk about housing and budget issues. Councilman Steven Gourley read a proclamation calling Pink a "citizen of the world (who) has kept a special place in his heart for Culver City," while the rest of the council sang the Pink Panther song. Pink, his jaws fixed in a grin, kissed Mayor Jozelle Smith.

The now-famous cat had humble beginnings, his name coming from the pink jewel stolen in the first "Pink Panther" film.

Freleng, also a mastermind behind Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird and Bugs Bunny, was asked by director Blake Edwards to fashion an animated title for the 1964 movie, in which Peter Sellers tries to stop David Niven from nabbing the legendary "Pink Panther" gem. Henry Mancini had not yet written the snappy Pink Panther tune, but gave Freleng a tempo to go by. "It was 7 1/2 minutes long--probably the longest title that was ever done" at that time, Freleng said.

Pink "became silent because he couldn't talk over the title," Freleng said. He also became "a real egotist," pushing signs with his name onto the screen every time the credits to the human actors appeared.

That first title led to other titles in the six Panther sequels. Freleng and DePatie also entered into a partnership with Edwards and producers Marvin and Walter Mirisch to make theatrical cartoons, such as the Oscar-winning "Pink Phink," shown before the features in theaters. From the 1970s to 1984, Pink Panther cartoons aired on networks Saturday mornings. Today, the cartoons can be seen on cable television in the United States. They are still aired regularly abroad. "There is no language barrier," Freleng says of his pantomime panther.

There seems to be no sales barrier, either. The cat, at 25, has become a salesman as well as an industry in his own right. Worldwide, there are more than 250 licensees with more than 2,000 Pink products, that rake in retail sales of $300 million annually, says Mike Georgopolis, president of licensing and merchandising for MGM/UA. The company declines to disclose how much it earns in Pink Panther royalties.

In Italy, boys and girls buy hollow Ferrero-brand chocolate eggs, to find a surprise inside--plastic pieces that they put together to make a 2 1/2-inch-tall Pink Panther in cowboy, English bobby or one of 10 other guises. In Brazil, Pink is on television, pushing Batavo yogurt--and those who buy it get a Pink Panther sticker with each carton.

In Japan, where a premium is put on Hello Kitty, Snoopy and other embodiments of cuteness, Pink has his own line of eyeglass cases and handkerchiefs. "OLs"--office ladies, the Japanese slang for secretaries, clerks and other office workers--can bring their lunch in sleek Pink Panther bento boxes that come with Pink Panther-adorned chopsticks.

Back in the United States, plush Panther dolls first came out in the mid-'60s, riding the success of the movies, said Georgopolis. Pink Panther merchandise has since exploded to include slippers, night shirts, beach towels, key chains, Christmas ornaments, notebooks, pendants and Hallmark cards. The Lange Pink Panther ski boot--hot pink with Pink Panther at the heels--retails for $450, according to Susan Notarides, MGM/UA vice president of marketing and operations. A 15-inch-tall plush Panther sells for $25; the four-foot version goes for $120.

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