Burma-Shave rhyme signs, Howard Johnson's orange roofs, KFC's revolving chicken buckets: all pieces of modern Americana that today exist mostly in memory alone. Now, the iconic orange-and-blue Union 76 gas-station ball is on its way to joining them - unless Kim Cooper can stop it.
Cooper, 39, is a native Angelino and self-proclaimed "ultimate dilettante." From editing and publishing Scram, a journal of un- popular culture, to co-hosting the "1947project," a blog and bus-tour series highlighting LA's off-the-beaten-path crime sites, "my job is rescuing the underdog from neglect and destruction," she says.
The underdog this time is the 76 ball, the 45-year-old victim of a quiet marketing shift that began just after the 2002 merger of gas giants Conoco and Phillips.
According to its 2004 annual report, ConocoPhillips, which operates Conoco and Phillips gas stations, as well as 76, that year initiated a project to streamline the three brands' marketing efforts. So while its Web site refers to the 76 logo as "a long-trusted symbol [that] means something special to our customers," its most recent graphic-standards manual calls for a brand-consistent red-and-blue color scheme, rather than the historic, eye-popping orange.
"They began knocking down the 76 balls," Cooper recalls. These omnipresent symbols for gasoline in many parts of the US were methodically being substituted with ground-level "monuments" or taller, disc-shaped signage. Many of the LA area's 400 spheres have already been replaced, including the one that rose above Dodger Stadium for decades.
Cooper teamed with LA author Nathan Marsak in January to launch www.savethe76ball.com, a Web site dedicated to preserving the 76 balls "for generations to come." Featuring 76 sphere-related news, history, photos, and discussion, the site includes downloadable "I love your 76 ball" calling cards and a link to an online petition urging ball lovers to boycott ConocoPhillips-brand outlets if the company "does not demonstrate greater respect for the history and good will associated with the 76 ball."
Orb enthusiasts have responded in droves. The petition has 2,100-plus signatures, many accompanied by wistful, ball-inspired recollections and pledges to pump at Exxon or Shell. |
Cooper's endeavor has been showcased by media outlets from the LA Times to the BBC. Actor Michael Madsen even offered to help out, then asked where he could get his hands on a retired sphere. And following a Seattle radio interview, Cooper was contacted by former Young & Rubicam art director Ray Pederson - the man who designed the original ball as signage for a Union Oil Co.-sponsored sky-tram ride at the 1962 World's Fair - who offered his enthusiastic support.
Although ConocoPhillips has issued a statement thanking 76 ball junkies for their patronage, the company has yet to discontinue its icon-devastating, brand-continuity effort. But "the fact that people feel as strongly as they do about the balls," Cooper says, is a testament to their resonance.
"Children look for the 76 pumpkin every Halloween, and it makes them happy," she says. And the company's ubiquitous car-antenna mini-balls, introduced in 1967, became both a promotional coup and a still-strong fad: By the late 1990s, 76 was dolling out 4 million toppers every year.
Cooper admits that on some level, the effort is prank-like and "silly." She says she's "been attacked by people for putting my energies into this rather frivolous and highly charged campaign."
But saving the 76 sphere is about more than a gas-station sign. "If you don't look at what's around you, it's very easy to not care if things get knocked down and destroyed, things that actually reflect the culture, history, and changes of your place," she explains. "I think it's a tragedy."
Exhibition coordinator and librarian, LA Museum of Contemporary Art
Researcher, The Oakland Museum of California
Copyright © 2005 PRWeek
photo by Ricardo DeAratanha, LA Times
WANTED: for a major opportunity to help Save the 76 Ball, any 76 Ball fans in Indianapolis who have some 76 memorabilia handy and would be willing to loan it to our Earl Ma before Monday, please contact us immediately. This is your chance to be part of a very cool, celebrity surprise that will be posted on this site presently. Antenna toppers, keychains, magic 76/8 balls, decals, t-shirts, anything will do, and we are grateful for your help. Thanks!
And now a word from our Nathan:
The Oasis re-imaging campaign, expected to continue through 2007, is giving the Phillips 66, Conoco and 76 branded stations a consistent look across the country. Additionally, the company has improved a number of offerings to help strengthen the brands and bring them under the umbrella of ‘ONE!’ – one company, one image, one credit card, one quality product.”
- ConocoPhillips 2004 Annual Report
I trust many of you are familiar with the “Save Ray’s Balls!” campaign at http://www.savethe76ball.com/ -- not only are the balls going, but the gas station architecture as well, as part of the nefariously-named Oasis Campaign. Check out the Oahu photos at the top of the savethe76ball page to see what they’re up to.
Here is the Pereira & Assoc. 1965 Union Oil station --
-- further seen here -- http://you-are-here.com/googie/_76.html -- could she be next?
Will Beverly Hills lose Trader Vic’s and Pereira’s 76 in one fell swoop? Given the sterling history of preservation in BH… Gershwin House, Beverly Theater…
(…thanks to Adrienne Biondo for [unknowingly] allowing me to steal her wonderful photo from LAOK.)
What a thrill for this native Angeleno to pick up the "bulldog" (Saturday's preview) edition of the Sunday L.A. Times and discover that reporter Steve Gold's delightful story about the 76 Ball was on the front page, under the fold!
Welcome, L.A. Times readers, and for those who haven't seen the piece yet, you can read it online here. (But to see the silly photo of me posing like Atlas with a 76 meatball in my palm, you'll have to pick up the paper.)
And there are so many terrific comments on the petition this morning. Please sign if you haven't already, and spread the word to your friends. If the 76 Ball is going to be saved, it's up to people like you to quickly show the new owners that this is just bad business.