Thanks to the discerning eye of J. Eric Freedner, we've been alerted to design changes at the modernist William Pereira-designed 76 station in Beverly Hills, CA. Of all the 76 stations which still proudly fly the orange ball, this is the most unique and architecturally significant, and we've let ConocoPhillips know that the Los Angeles conservation community will be scandalized if its classic beauty is marred by one of the new blisterpak-style red signs. Would you dress Audrey Hepburn in Juicy Couture?
J. Eric says: The actual name of the dealer is "Jack Colker's 76" and he has an address on North Crescent Drive. The station is on the corner of Crescent and Little Santa Monica Boulevard and is the only remaining gas station in downtown Beverly Hills. Perhaps that accounts for the high volume of business done there, especially at rush hour.
Below, a night shot of the station interior on 2/15, revealing newly installed red pump panels, replacing the previous stainless steel. Regular visitors to this site know, when the creeping red appears, it means the beloved orange ball is soon to fall. But we also know that ConocoPhillips has decided to manufacture a limited number of red 76 balls for installation at select stations. Could one of those red balls be destined for Beverly Hills?
Right now there are at least two notable stations in the L.A. area that have red signage on the pumps, but still retain their orange 76 balls: Beverly Hills, and the station at the high-traffic corner of Melrose and Highland. If these highly visible stations aren't on the short list to retain their balls, we'd like to know why not.
For more of J. Eric Freedner's and Earl Ma's photos of the Beverly Hills 76 station, just click.
Last week, Nathan Marsak and I got up uncommonly early to accompany intrepid LA Observed videoblogger Jacob Soboroff on a tour of the surviving 76 Balls of North-East LA. Later, Jacob followed sign-spotting legend J. Eric Freedner deep into Orange County for a sneak peak at the new, red 76 Balls being readied for, ahem, erection.
Do click over to LA Observed's Native Intelligence section to read Jacob's take on the Save the 76 Ball campaign and for a brief visit with a few of the folks behind this website.
[Americana] Saving Ray's Balls
We've all experienced it: a late night when you've run out of gas or are in desperate need of a bag of Funyons. Just when you've given up, out of the unforgiving void emerges a beacon of hope in the form of a floating orange and navy orb. Such is the magic of the 76 ball, the electric signage of what were once known as Union 76 gas stations, a glowing (literally) example of effective branding for nearly half a century. That is, until ConocoPhilips acquired California Unocal in 2002 and instituted a plan to replace the balls beginning in 2005, enacting a "destroy all balls" policy for the felled orange giants.
Enter Kim Cooper. The Los Angeles-based cultural historian's quest to save the eight-foot, 400-pound balls took shape when her local 76 station's ball disappeared, only to be replaced by a flattened disc with a red background instead of the familiar orange. "I didn't know at first exactly why I was so upset when they got rid of the ball in my neighborhood," Cooper says, but as the campaign grew, she found that the 76 ball held a special place in the collective memory of West Coast natives. "Several families have told me that it was their child's first word; that every time they drove past a 76 station their child would say 'ball' and it became this special family memory."
Cooper began the fight to save this icon of the American West from her living room with the site Savethe76ball.com, eventually bringing on her partner from the 1947 Project historical crime blog, Nathan Maransk. Together, the two amassed almost 3,000 signatures in an online petition that demanded ConocoPhillips save some of the balls to be put on display in museums. As a result of their efforts and the extensive media coverage thereof, the Texas-based oil conglomerate recently announced that it will donate several of the balls to museums across the country.
Although thrilled with their success, Cooper says the battle for the fate of the balls is not yet over. The Save the 76 Ball Project is also asking that a few select, historically significant balls be preserved at their original locations, that ConocoPhillips foot the bill for transporting the unwieldy orbs, and that a ball be given to the original designer, Ray Pederson, who built and hand-painted the first ball himself for the Seattle World's Fair of 1962.
-Ayse Arf, from LA CityBeat
Photo by Scott Eklund / Seattle P-I
A Save the 76 Ball campaign aims to preserve the former gas station mainstay, designed by Ray Pedersen. Pedersen, who lives in Bellingham, first displayed his creation at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. Pedersen gases up at this station in Tulalip, coincidentally one of the last gas stations in the U.S. with one of the icons.
A roadside icon, the 76 ball, comes 'round again
Fans save Ballard High grad's vanishing slice of Americana
Stopped at a traffic light two blocks from her Los Angeles home, Kim Cooper stared at the 76 gas station she has driven past hundreds of times and tried to figured out what was wrong.
Then she got a terrible, unsettled feeling.
"I'd always remembered seeing a big, beautiful 76 ball," she said of the '60s-era rotating sign that had illuminated gas pumps across the West Coast and at her neighborhood gas station.
"And they had replaced it with this flat sign and a color that looked like a slab of raw liver."
A Web search informed her that the balls had begun to come down three years earlier, in 2003, a few years after Unocal sold the brand to Tosco Corp., which then became part of ConocoPhillips.
Color experts hired by the company said the orange balls didn't fit with the company's bright red and white designs.
Cooper never met Ray Pedersen -- the Ballard High School graduate who designed the orange 76 ball and debuted it at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair -- but that day launched a Web campaign to save a slice of Americana that was quickly vanishing from the nation's landscape.
Cooper's online petition has attracted about 3,000 signatures and recently persuaded ConocoPhillips to change course -- installing about 75 newly painted red balls in high-traffic locations in California and saving about 30 of the old orange ones for museums.
Even the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is considering adding a 76 ball to its collection, a spokeswoman said.
"I got a call about that, and I said, 'You've got to be kidding,' " said Pedersen, a 1944 Ballard High School grad. "But it's been out there for 45 years, and it's become part of the American psyche. It's an icon, right?"
Pedersen, 80, studied business at the University of Washington, and in 1954 was hired by Young & Rubicam, a Los Angeles company that designed Union Oil's advertising.
Union Oil's circular orange logo with blue letters had been used for more than a decade when Pedersen was hired, and the company wanted to establish itself as the gasoline leader in Los Angeles, which is still North America's largest gas market.
In late 1961, after Pedersen designed several successful print and TV ads, his boss sent him to Seattle with an assignment to create advertising for the 1962 World's Fair Skyride, sponsored by Union Oil.
The Skyride, now used at the Puyallup Fair, traveled from the northeast corner of the fairgrounds to a second kiosk 1,400 feet across.
Pedersen's boss expected typical, square signs near the boarding kiosks. "But those flat lollypop signs were boring," said Pedersen, who awoke one night with a vision.
Pedersen knew hundreds of people would be waiting in line and wanted a sign they could see from all angles. He designed murals, showing people where they could go with Union Oil and complementing the ride's brilliant reds. But he needed something that would stick in people's memory.
"You know how you wake up in the middle of the night?" asked Pedersen, who lives in Bellingham. "It was like that -- and I had this idea of a big ball."
When a Union Oil senior vice president saw the 8-foot globe installed a few days later, he said it was the best sign he'd ever seen.
"We've got to put one of these on every station we own," Pedersen recalled him saying, adding that the vice president, who later became CEO, initially ordered about 3,000 balls for stations in 13 Western states. It's been reported that the numbers peaked in 1969, when more than 18,000 gas stations in 37 states had 76 balls.
Pedersen, who handled the Union Oil account for 12 years, said it seemed natural to follow the station balls' success with replica antenna toppers.
Millions of the toppers traveled the world and spawned dozens of competitors. Kim Koga, executive director and curator of the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles, remembers one on her family's Volkswagen Squareback in the late '60s. She also remembered the unique artistic value of the illuminated, rotating station balls.
"It was kind of minimalist in shape and the writing and the color," she said. "It shouts '60s orange and was such a popular part of the American landscape, we had to save one."
But it wasn't easy. Letters and e-mails went unanswered by ConocoPhillips, which didn't want to discredit its trademark and brand by distributing the old balls.
Koga tried for months to track down a ball -- even contacting a Los Angeles company she knew had helped take them down. Finally, last week, after months of discussions with ConocoPhillips, the company said the museum could own one.
"We were pleasantly surprised that we had underestimated the affection that people have for the orange 76 ball, so we decided it would be a good thing to set aside about 30 vintage orange balls so they could be viewed in public arenas such as museums," ConocoPhillips spokesman Phil Blackburn said.
The Museum of History and Industry in Seattle received an e-mail from ConocoPhillips asking if it was interested in acquiring a 76 ball, spokeswoman Mercedes Lawry said. Museum officials thought it was an interesting artifact, but didn't see how it would fit with its mission, she said.
After finding out that a local man had designed it for the World's Fair, Lawry said the museum might reconsider its assessment.
The switch to more modern red and white designs came after surveys showed that customers preferred well-lit, bright gas stations, Blackburn said. While ConocoPhillips plans to install new red 76 balls at California stations, no plans for new balls in Washington have been made, he said.
And the orange balls continue to come down.
Cooper, an author and cultural historian, knew of only one 76 ball that remained in Western Washington -- at a station in Tulalip off Interstate 5's Exit 199, coincidentally where Pedersen buys his gas.
However, the ball has been painted red, and neither a station employee nor Blackburn knew when the change occurred.
"Orange is a color you can own, and Union Oil did," Pedersen said, standing under the sign this week. "That's probably why they picked it in the beginning. For years, when people saw orange they thought of Union Oil.
"Now it's gone to a liver red that is almost like McDonald's. They're making a huge mistake."
Cooper said it would also be a mistake not to save one of the balls for Pedersen -- the Seattle native who designed the icon of American motor culture.
Blackburn said the balls are "absolutely not for sale," despite dozens of requests from collectors, including "Reservoir Dogs" star Michael Madsen.
"It is important that the brand be protected," Blackburn said.
"Though there may be a historical case to be made to consider an individual collector if the circumstances and criteria can all be worked out to mutual satisfaction."
Where Pedersen might put it? That's still in question.
"I live in a community with a bunch of Republicans that have their flags up," said Pedersen, a self-proclaimed liberal veteran.
"I said if I get a ball, I'll put that up on a pole, see what they think about it."
ABOUT THE 76 BALL