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Last Puff for the Cowboy of Sunset Strip

Icons: The Marlboro Man is dismantled after 17 years as a Hollywood landmark under terms of tobacco lawsuit settlement.

March 10, 1999|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hollywood's biggest cowboy rode off into the sunset Tuesday.

Workers dismantled the 70-foot Marlboro Man on the Sunset Strip to begin phasing out tobacco billboards across Los Angeles. The billboards are now banned as part of a $206-billion agreement that cigarette makers signed to settle state lawsuits.

A huge anti-smoking advertisement will take the place of the landmark cowboy billboard at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Marmont Lane.

It's about time, said officials from Los Angeles County and the city of West Hollywood, which has 61 billboards concentrated along the Sunset Strip.

It's too bad, countered onlookers who stood in the rain to watch workers take the huge plywood wrangler down from the boulevard perch it has occupied for nearly two decades.

The Marlboro Man's last ride was in the back of a stake bed truck. As he was hauled away, the only part of his cutout face still visible was his nose.

He seemed to be turning it up as a disdainful salute to the politicians and lawyers who did away with him.

"This is a real shame," said sign supporter J.J. Englendar, a graphic artist who lives in Hollywood. "This sign is an institution. It's not right."

Passerby Hugo Hidalgo shrugged off suggestions that cigarette advertising turns teenagers into smokers--a complaint made by attorneys general from the 50 states who signed off on last November's tobacco company settlement.

"Since I was a kid I've seen that sign. I smoke, but not because of that sign. I don't even smoke Marlboros," said Hidalgo, a designer from Hollywood. "This billboard is famous. You see it all the time in movies and in videos."

The anti-smoking billboard that will replace the cowboy will be commissioned by the state Department of Health Services. It will remain in place through Marlboro's Sunset Boulevard lease, which expires Jan. 14. After that, the sign will be rented to a regular advertiser, said Tim Fox, a spokesman for the Outdoor Systems billboard company.

Under terms of the tobacco lawsuit settlement, cigarette billboards across the country must come down by April 23, officials said. The deal requires cigarette makers to spend about $325 million a year to fund a new foundation to perform smoking research and provide grants to states for anti-smoking programs. The state lawsuits sought reimbursement for the billions of dollars spent treating ailments linked to smoking.

Installed 17 years ago, the towering Marlboro Man quickly came to symbolize the flamboyance of the trendy Sunset Strip. To some, the cowboy was more art than advertising.

"A billboard He-Man that is a more enduring urban monument than almost any other building in Los Angeles, the Marlboro Man has transcended the realm of pure advertising to become one of the most effective landmarks in the confusing landscape of our city," architecture expert Aaron Betsky said in a 1991 Times art review.

Ironically, when time came Tuesday for the cowboy to go, workmen were almost too quick in removing him for even his most vocal critics.

West Hollywood City Councilman Paul Koretz called a news conference on a sidewalk beneath the billboard to praise the departure of an image he said "personifies the glamorizing of a deadly habit."

But the billboard crew nearly had the sign dismantled before television news cameras showed up. So Koretz stalled them with a coffee break.

"We got them some Starbucks to get them to slow down," said Charles Smith, an American Cancer Society representative from Northridge. "We got the guy up on top to come down for a cup."

Television cameraman Denny Macko asked for another moment's delay--so he could take a cigarette pack out his raincoat pocket and light up. "You liberals know how to tell us to live," Macko said, taking a deep puff before the news conference began.

Paying no mind, Koretz pulled a Marlboro pack from his pocket and dumped its contents on the ground. Then he ceremoniously stomped on them.

At Koretz's side were Johanna Goldberg, a local American Lung Assn. vice president who lives in Van Nuys, and county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. He praised what he characterized as "this landmark agreement."

After the news conference, Koretz and the others hurried to their cars, leaving the smashed cigarettes and the discarded Marlboro pack lying on the sidewalk. Nearby, Frank Rosenberg seemed happy to see the cowboy and the politicians go.

"It's time for something new," said Rosenberg, an interior designer who lives nearby.

"A lot of people come to the Sunset Strip to see the billboards. But this one was passe."

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