By Dave Barton
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It's no Shell Answer Man, no Exxon Tiger—no Murph, for that matter—but news that the big orange Union 76 ball is quietly going the way of $1.50 premium should have you reaching for something. Perhaps your Union 76 antenna topper—2.5 million reportedly sold in 1993? Or else, nothing; it's nothing, right?
Nothing is mostly what you get when you visit the ConocoPhillips Internet home page (the company, whose name blends two formerly high-octane gasolines—Conoco and Phillips 66—now owns the 76 brand), where rumors of the ball's replacement by a mere rectangle are just that. But a recent online story from the Los Angeles Downtown News says the ongoing deflations began last year. It reports the gelding of the brand is—wait for it—"part of a change in corporate identity" that included painting over the huge 76 logo on the side of the Petroleum Securities Building in downtown LA, which had been there since 1951.
ConocoPhillips isn't saying anything, at least to us; a spokeswoman did not answer requests for comment. A non-threateningly worded statement on its website reads, ". . . many products and divisions have developed, but all of them rely on the trust the public has developed for the familiar red and blue 76." And there's your problem; the blue numerals, at least, arefamiliar—edged in that same white pinstripe. But who ordered the bucket of Pantone color PMS 485—a dark red, which replaces the familiar orange? (And who names a red color PMS?)
"The red is really ugly. It looks like liver," says Kim Cooper, who, with Nathan Marsak, runs the Los Angeles website 1947project.blogspot.com, which revisits significant crimes from 1947, when the Black Dahlia was killed. Last week, the duo started an online petition to save the 76 ball, which has inked nearly 50 signatures. "I just launched this thing as a rage reaction, purely," Cooper says. "Those signs looked great. I don't know how they kept them up, but they looked so sharp. I associate it with the Finish Fetish art movement of the late '60s, [Ed] "Big Daddy" Roth and the whole LA biker/car thing. It's a tragedy." Particularly because it was so recognizable.
Union 76 used an orange circle with a blue "76" as its logo for at least 50 years; its animated, orange-headed "Minute Man" mascots (they stood for quick service) started appearing in the 1950s on maps, doing things like checking your battery and washing your windshield. The antenna ball dates to 1967, Cooper says, and the freestanding giant ball sign—visible from freeways everywhere—is from the same time period, getting front-page exposure on a 1966 Union 76 map of northwest Orange County. It is—was—one of the more significant icons of corporate branding and roadside architecture ever, says architectural historian Alan Hess, who—among other works on Frank Lloyd Wright and ranch houses—wrote and updated the genre-defining book Googie, which ranked previously overlooked 1950s commercial structures like coffee shops up there with Wright.
"It works perfectly for its function, which is to grab attention and convey the fact that this is a Union 76 station. The fact that it's three-dimensional, that it rotated originally, makes [it] stand out very strongly," says Hess, an Irvine resident. "I am distressed to hear that they're going to be disappearing, I am sure for no good reason."
Officially, the reason is unclear—but the motivation is all around us. The Union 76 ball was one of the final holdouts from an era that brought us such curb feelers as the neon cowboy, Vegas Vic; the yellow neon bear—a promotional sign for service stations with Bear-brand wheel-alignment equipment; the fiberglass cows atop assorted dairies, giant fiberglass golfers and muffler men; the Jack-in-the-Box-headed intercoms; and the hamburger-headed chef Speedee, who was McDonald's restaurants' original mascot. It was a throwback to what we think of as a simpler time, when restaurants were shaped like hot dogs, zeppelins, derbies, owls or bulldogs—and aimed at making you pull over.
"Put it in the big context: at the heyday of commercial roadside in the '50s, there was diversity, a lot of both local and chain organizations that put out their signs—and sometimes whole buildings," Hess says, "and it added a great deal of vibrancy and energy."
And then, he adds, "a great many people, especially academics, interpreted it as clutter." And cities legislated against it, and gradually the 76 balls stopped turning, and the signs came down, leaving us where we are today: unable to see where we're going.
"Signs need to be lower now," Hess says, "again, this is because of city ordinances—and so you can't see what the service is until you're almost on top of it. Functionally, they do not work anymore."
But at least they're patriotic.