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Courtesy of the Coroner : Innovations: Are you just dying to surprise that special someone? Consider 'Skeletons in the Closet,' a catalogue of . . . uh . . . truly unique gifts.

August 30, 1993|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the beach towels with body outlines or the personalized toe tags on sale at the L.A. County coroner's office seem tasteless, consider the items that were rejected:

* Celebrity autopsy reports.

* Coffee mugs plastered with vultures.

* T-shirts that say, "Our day begins when your day ends."

Explains coroner marketing czar Marilyn Lewis: "We can't get tacky."

So don't look for body-bag sleeping bags, cadaver calendars or slogans such as "My mobster uncle went to the coroner's office and all I got was this lousy T-shirt" in the 1993 Coroner's Catalogue.

Department officials opted for a gentler brand of humor to save their program for youthful drunk drivers. They invented mascot Sherlock Bones--a skeleton with pipe, trench coat and magnifying glass--and stamped his image onto clothing, tote bags and coffee mugs.

For months, the merchandise moved modestly, raising some $15,000 for the anti-drunk-driving effort last year. Then, a week ago, the Associated Press told the world about the souvenirs.

Within three days, about 600 phone calls--including a few from Germany and New Zealand--had jammed the coroner's switchboard. CNN visited. Chevy Chase's new TV show checked in. And a woman rang to say she couldn't sleep thinking about coroner employees stripping toe tags off real corpses to offer for sale. (They don't.)

But most just wanted to know where the "gift shop" is located.

It's a question that drives Lewis crazy. "There isn't a gift shop," she sputters. "It's just a closet"--rapidly going bare--outside the department's executive offices. And the nearest thing to a salesclerk is a summer intern who's now answering a special coroner catalogue hot line, (213) 343-0760.

Among the callers: a radio station broadcasting a live funeral, the National Sherlock Holmes Society, requesting a shipment of mugs, and a New York coroner describing his own morbid merchandise--the Deady Teddy stuffed bear.

The barrage of attention is overwhelming, Lewis says: "Nobody can get any work done."

*

In going retail, the coroner's office joins a growing coterie of government agencies trying to raise money without raising taxes. The county's animal-control department, for example, sells designer dog tags. And the sheriff's homicide unit recently marketed a "Body-Bag Sportswear: One size fits all" shirt.

Perhaps the most successful venture is San Diego's City Store, which expects to pull in more than $200,000 this year selling old parking meters, street signs and manhole covers. The most popular items? "Swimsuit Optional" signs, used when nudity was allowed at Black's Beach, and bullet-ridden "Discharge of Firearms Prohibited" signs, which proved so popular that replicas had to be manufactured and shot up at the police pistol range.

The Los Angeles coroner's catalogue, however, surely ranks as the most unusual, says Dusty Brogan, marketing specialist with the L.A. County Beaches and Harbors Department. "They've been really creative."

Skeletons in the Closet, as Lewis refers to it, began in 1988 with blue, credit-card-sized plastic toe tags, attached to key chains. Distributed as part of a "sober-graduation" program for high school kids, the tags were imprinted with student names and the message: "This could be you. Please don't drink and drive."

Later, someone suggested selling the items. T-shirts, mugs, lapel pins and tote bags were gradually added and, last month, Lewis dreamed up the body-outline beach towels. Also planned are coroner baseball caps, jackets, stationery and watches, the latter complete with skeleton arms.

The profits are earmarked for a program that brings young, convicted drunk drivers into the coroner's lab to see what happens to victims of alcohol-related car wrecks.

"Nothing that Steven Spielberg or Wes Craven can put on the screen will match what they see on this tour," says Craig R. Harvey, who runs the youth program. "And there's no recidivism that we've heard about (among 1,100 participants)."

Because of that, coroner officials hope the public will be forgiving of the gently macabre humor behind the merchandise that helps pay the bills.

It's tough to come up with something that isn't offensive, Harvey acknowledges, but he thinks Sherlock Bones is perfectly benign. "This is no different from a matchbook that says

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