John Waters’ childhood yard was an exercise in good taste. His mother, the president of a local garden club, cultivated burgeoning flowerbeds and precise hedges. In their buttoned-up Maryland suburb, lawn ornaments of any kind, let alone plastic pink flamingos, were anathema. One house down the street had a fake wishing well and that was painful enough.
“I don’t remember ever seeing a pink flamingo where I grew up,” the filmmaker muses. “I think I saw them in East Baltimore.”
In 1972, Waters released the film Pink Flamingos, which was called both an abomination and an instant classic. The movie has almost nothing to do with the tropical fowl that stand sentinel during the opening credits: The plot mostly concerns the exertions of a brazen and voluptuous drag queen intent on preserving her status as “the filthiest person alive.”
“The reason I called it ‘Pink Flamingos’ was because the movie was so outrageous that we wanted to have a very normal title that wasn’t exploitative,” Waters says. “To this day, I’m convinced that people think it’s a movie about Florida.” Waters enjoyed the plastic knickknack’s earnest air: Though his own stylish mom might have disapproved, the day-glo wading birds were, back then, a straightforward attempt at working-class neighborhood beautification. “The only people who had them had them for real, without irony,” Waters says. “My movie wrecked that.” Forty years later, the sculptures have become unlikely fixtures of a certain kind of high-end sensibility, a shorthand for tongue-in-cheek tackiness.
But, for his part, Waters says he has completely OD’d on the flamingos. For one thing, he learned during an ill-fated Floridian photo shoot that he doesn’t like real birds, and they don’t like him. (“You can’t just mosey into a pit of pink flamingos. I have tried.”) For another, the lawn sculptures have become “loaded objects,” classist tools of the well-to-do mocking the taste of the less fortunate. The real plastic flamingo is in a sense extinct, Waters says: “You can’t have anything that innocent anymore.”
First designed in 1957, the fake birds are natives not of Florida but of Leominster, Massachusetts, which bills itself as the Plastics Capital of the World. At a nearby art school, sculptor Don Featherstone was hired by the plastics company Union Products, where his second assignment was to sculpt a pink flamingo. No live models presented themselves, so he unearthed a National Geographic photo spread. It took about two weeks to model both halves of the bird, brought into the third dimension by then-revolutionary injection-mold technology.
A flamingo-friendly trend was the sameness of post-World War II construction. Units in new subdivisions sometimes looked virtually identical. “You had to mark your house somehow,” Featherstone says. “A woman could pick up a flamingo at the store and come home with a piece of tropical elegance under her arm to change her humdrum house.” Also, “people just thought it was pretty,” adds Featherstone’s wife, Nancy.
That soon changed. Twenty-somethings of the Woodstock era romanticized nature and scorned plastics (à la The Graduate). Cast in flaming pink polyethylene, the flamingo became an emblem of what Nancy delicately calls the “T-word”—tackiness. Sears eventually dropped the tchotchkes from its catalog.
But then, phoenixlike, the flamingo rose from its ashes (or rather, from its pool of molten plastic: As demonstrated at the finale of Waters’ film, flamingos don’t burn, they melt). As early as the 1960s, pop artists including Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg had begun elevating the low brow and embracing mass culture. And then, of course, Waters’ movie came out.
By the mid-1980s, the flamingos were transitioning from a working-class accessory to an elaborate upper-class inside joke. They furnished colorful substitutes for croquet wickets and clever themes for charity galas. The bird became a sort of plastic punch line, and, at worst, a way of hinting at one’s own good taste by reveling in the bad taste of others.
Waters got tired of it and gradually gave away his flamingo collection. “It’s a classist thing,” he says. “People like them in a way that’s not that original anymore.”
In their yard near Leominster, Nancy and Don Featherstone typically tend a flock of 57 (a nod to the creation year) that neighborhood college students feel compelled to thin. “They steal ’em,” Featherstone says. “You’ve got to have a sense of humor.” As for Waters’ movie, the Featherstones haven’t seen it, and seem to regard it as a bit of a knockoff. (“My creation was out long before he started his stuff,” Featherstone says.)
Even Waters, who these days maintains that plastic lawn flamingos should be kept inside, “like pornography,” hasn’t hardened his heart entirely to the creatures. Visiting his hometown one Christmas, he noticed that Santa’s sleigh had landed in his formerly tasteful childhood yard, drawn by a dashing team of pink flamingos. “I almost cried when I saw that,” he admits. “I thought it was so sweet!”