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Gas Station Icons Being 86ed

After 45 years of guiding drivers to their next fill-up, `meatball' 76 signs are becoming casualties of corporate consistency.

May 14, 2006|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

In January, an earnest woman named Kim Cooper was driving through Lincoln Heights when her neighborhood gas station caught her eye. The station's familiar 76 insignia, its stocky blue numbers splashed against a sea of orange, had been supplanted with a sign that looked like, well, everywhere else. The new 76 was set against a backdrop of red, and a boring red at that -- "a queasy color," she recalled with a grimace, "like liver."

Cooper, the publisher of a magazine called Scram -- a "journal of unpopular culture" -- does not typically concern herself with the goings-on of megacorporations like ConocoPhillips, owner of the 76 brand.

But the 76 logo, she decided, isn't just an ad. Not anymore. The orange balls that have rotated above gas stations for 45 years are a piece of roadside Americana, and in Southern California they are an iconic part of the sightline, not much different than palm trees or the Hollywood sign. They no longer belong to a boardroom, Cooper decided, but to the public.

"I felt," she said, "that this shouldn't pass unnoticed."

Later that day, Cooper launched an Internet blog -- www.savethe76ball.com -- dedicated to the balls' preservation.

At first glance, it seemed a little frivolous. In a city of transit and transients, is this what preservationists are left with -- fighting to save relics of urban design known in the subculture of petroliana as "meatballs"?

It hasn't taken long, however, for the campaign to catch on. Heartfelt response has poured in, not just from random drivers, but from prominent voices in architecture and design, a board member of the Los Angeles Conservancy, even the 79-year-old man who designed the balls in the first place to mark the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle.

Houston-based ConocoPhillips, which has been quietly replacing the balls with more modern-looking signs for at least six months, declined to respond to detailed questions about its decision. In a written statement, a spokeswoman said the balls were being replaced -- and the logo's color changed to red -- to give a "common image" to the company's 76, Phillips 66 and Conoco gas stations.

"We appreciate motorists' loyalty," the statement said. "Though our look is a little different, the quality of our products and our commitment to our customers remains the same."

To Cooper, 39, who has also worked on an online crime diary of the year 1947 in Los Angeles and provides guided tours based in part on that work, it sounds like a bunch of corporate hooey, "the complete rejection of the goodwill that this brand has built."

"You can look at them as some ugly thing that should be thrown away," she said. "Or you can see them as the best expression of America -- a gleeful, bright California image, a masterpiece of salesmanship and graphic design."

Many of the 1,600 postings to Cooper's online petition suggest that she is not alone. "Please don't destroy my childhood memories," one reads. Another asks: "Why does everything we love in life go away?"

While the testimonials trickle in, the balls continue to fall each week. In Echo Park, at Alvarado and Sunset. Below Griffith Park, at Franklin and Beechwood. And at Dodger Stadium, where Union Oil had a fruitful sponsorship from the start of construction, where Vin Scully once responded to home runs by announcing that Union 76 would be making a donation in a player's name, and where, during some evening games, the orange ball beyond centerfield sometimes made it seem as if there were two suns setting over the city.

*

In 1961, Ray Pedersen was a hard-charging, 34-year-old art director for the advertising firm of Young & Rubicam, working out of its downtown Los Angeles office. Union Oil Co., the venerable California firm founded in 1890, asked Y&R to design a sign that would rise next to a cable-supported "sky train" at the World's Fair.

Pedersen began fiddling with the advertising schematic Union Oil was already using -- the blocky numbers, the orange-and-blue motif that seemed radical at a time when most of the competition had settled on tamer reds, whites and blues.

"I thought: 'We've got to do something really hot -- a big ball, lit from the inside,' " he said.

By the time he had found someone who could mold plastic into two halves of a ball that would reach 12 feet in diameter, he had spent an estimated $50,000, he said. A Y&R manager called in a rage.

"He said: 'What are you doing up there?' " Pedersen recalled. "I said: 'I'm hanging a sign, man!"

Pedersen said he was nearly fired -- but Union Oil loved it. Company executives declared that they would erect as many balls as they could. The first went up in Redondo Beach. By the end of the decade, there were thousands, mostly in the West.

They became an oddball expression of unity. Union Oil eventually created tiny versions that could be affixed to car antennas, and distributed millions of them. Nowhere, it seemed, did they have as much resonance as they did in Southern California.

Preservationists attribute that to two things.

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