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Celebrities Without Blemish

August 15, 2004

It was strangely soothing in recent days to witness celebrations and plaudits rained on two characters who don't exist outside of our imaginations. One is Donald Duck, the irascible single father in the blue suit, who wasn't born 70 years ago but got drawn for a movie back then. The other is Smokey Bear, a.k.a. Smokey the Bear, the amiable, very wise woodland creature who's advised Americans for six decades about who can prevent forest fires.

Maybe Americans need diversion from an already endless political campaign. We now encounter so many new, New NEW images that coming upon familiar benign symbols in an age of televised vitriol is warm, comforting, like finding an old toy years later. Past generations grew up sharing the same icons as their parents. Mickey, Mighty, Goofy, Bugs, Elmer et al did not change. Even the national grandpa, Walter Cronkite, delivered news forever. Today's cable clowns change with the seasons.

Now, we have fervently popular singers and groups who age into has-beens as quickly as last year's expensive laptops. They're here, then gone and forgotten before 13-year-olds turn 15, coming and going with a movie or ad campaign free of emotional attachment nurtured by years of exposure. Not as memorable as seeing an annoyed Donald with wingtips on his hips or the genial bear reminding us, "Only you.... " Now that some forest fires are good and some are bad, what's a bear in a funny hat to say? To be sure, long-lived characters, even Ronald McDonald and that congenitally congenial mouse, are commercial products who've reaped billions. Human icons these days are risky, falling easily into trouble with drugs, drinking, shootings, sexual assaults. It's safer for parents to buy even an obstreperous Yosemite Sam than invest in, say, a transitory athletic hero unable to master the burdens of sudden wealth and manners.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 17, 2004 Home Edition California Part B Page 12 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Cartoon characters -- An editorial Sunday on Donald Duck and other cartoon figures described the Disney icon as a single father. Although he is the guardian of Huey, Dewey and Louie, these characters are his nephews, not his children.

Donald Duck arrived in a 1934 summer Disney cartoon named "The Wise Little Hen." Now, Donald has his own star along with 2,256 other celebrities on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Smokey is older than your average bear, having emerged from World War II concerns about balloon-borne firebombs igniting coastal woods. He was soon personified in a bear cub orphaned in a New Mexico forest fire. For 60 years the same ad agency -- Foote Cone & Belding -- has done its consistent pro bono work with Smokey and fire prevention. No bar arrests for Smokey. No flash pictures of late-night dumpster raids. In fact, there's a carefully enforced federal statute strictly protecting use of Smokey's image. Would that some wannabe human icons were as vigilant about behavior and image.

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