Cathy Farmer is on the phone. She's trying to rent 56 pink flamingos for her mother's birthday. The plastic kind.
It's not easy.
Not every place she calls--party stores and such--even has pink flamingos, much less 56 of them. Or if they do, they're for sale, not rent, and that can get pricey.
Also, Cathy wants to surprise Mom. That means fetching the flamingos Friday and hiding them, then sneaking out at midnight to stick them into the lawn so her unsuspecting mother will awaken Saturday to their cheerful presence.
Also, all of this will happen in Florida, and Cathy lives in Maryland.
And, her mother has a postage-stamp lawn so it's not clear if all those 'mingos will fit.
Then there's this: "My mother hates pink flamingos. She may just go after them with a baseball bat."
Cathy is part of a Great American Flamingo Fling. For reasons that no doubt lie deep in the national psyche, there's been a flamingo craze afoot for a few decades now. It flares with special intensity at this time each year as the unbearable lightness of spring spreads over the land, filling winter-weary souls with fresh joys and wacky ideas.
Flamingos are just so us.
"It's huge, it's crazy, it's expanding all over the country," says Ralph Fazio, who with his brother Rick runs Flamingo Surprise in Cleveland and Chicago. For a fee, Fazio crews sneak onto your lawn at midnight and stick plastic flamingos--or any of 74 other items, including cows and storks--into the grass. They're getting 30 to 100 orders a day, with franchises in San Francisco, Oklahoma City and Atlanta. "People love it because it's just so wonderfully gaudy."
Steve Colby, who operates the Flamingomania Web site out of Hagerstown, Md., says sales are "excellent"--not only of classic lawn flamingos but flamingo aloha shirts, frames, ornaments, toilet bowl brush holders and the wildly popular "Stupid Flamingo Hat."
"It's just fun," Colby says. "We've sold 'em to churches for fund-raising, to individuals trying to bust neighborhood covenants. Flamingos are big with sport parachutists as mascots. We sold inflatable flamingos to a group that travels--they take pictures with their flamingos at places like the Arc de Triomphe."
Colby speculates that people like them because "there's so much uptightness anymore about status, it's kind of a reverse-status, anti-snob kind of thing."
Gail Hoehl, 39, a piano teacher in Silver Spring, Md., has 2,000 lawn flamingos and related items. "I've done my downstairs studio all in flamingo," she reports. "Flamingo drapes, upholstery, pictures, artwork, everything.
"Friends and neighbors say you just cannot be unhappy in this house, because they're so wonderful."
Hoehl deferred to the neighbors' sensibilities by hiding her lawn flamingos "behind some bushes so you can't see them from the street. But when you walk up to the front door, they're waiting in ambush."
"PINK. PLASTIC. PROUD," proclaims On Stagnant Pond, a site (http://www.ospsitecrafters.com) that provides flamingo landscaping tips ("There's no such thing as too many flamingos"), flamingo dance info and a guide to "refurbishing" flamingos.
Dan and Donna Flamion of Indiana cranked up their site, the Pink Flamingo, in '97 after Donna appeared in the audience at NBC's "Today" show clutching a lawn flamingo that caught Al Roker's attention.
Now the Flamions (at http://www.thepinkflamingo.com) are happily selling flamingo flags, kites, windsocks, mailboxes, mugs, pens, wind chimes, earrings and birthday cards.
They'll rent 50 lawn flamingos for $100.
Had Cathy only known.
Who knows how it all began? Hoehl, the collector, studied the question and learned that Florida's Hialeah Race Track imported real flamingos from the Caribbean in the '20s, and things just went from there. Soon the well-to-do were putting out metal, bronze or wooden flamingo ornaments as status symbols to show they'd been at a Florida resort.
Flamingos for the masses, however, had to wait for the advent of plastics technology in the '50s--and the genius of one man.
The lawn flamingo so universally loved and reviled was conceived, designed and sculpted in 1957 by a guy named Don Featherstone. Fresh out of art school and unaware of the world-historical significance of what he was about to do, Featherstone went to work for Union Products in Leominster, Mass., which was then producing flat, silk-screened animal figures.
Assigned to create full-bodied versions, he started with the duck "because ducks sold the most. Then I took them one by one and turned them into three-dimensional plastic items," Featherstone, 65, says by phone. "That's how it started."
In his four decades with Union, which he now owns, he designed more than 600 animal figures. More than 20 million of his pink lawn flamingos have been sold. His 1999 book, "The Original Pink Flamingos: Splendor on the Grass," containing pictures people sent in of his flamingos in various funny and beautiful poses, was an instant cult classic.
Featherstone had been serious when he sculpted the original bird. Unable to work from live models, as he did with ducks, he sought inspiration in a series of luxuriant flamingo photographs in the October 1957 National Geographic.
Over the years, as his creation came to be seen as the quintessential Icon of Tacky, Featherstone good-naturedly went along.
Today, he says: "They touched the fact that we like tropical elegance, but we can't afford it so we settle for plastic."