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Preservationists Fight to Save Piece of Americana

August 24, 1991

MIAMI (AP) _ A billboard showing the Coppertone symbol of a bare-bottomed little girl and her playful dog has been a fixture of downtown Miami for more than three decades, and a battle is brewing over a proposal to tear it down.

″That’s everybody’s favorite sign in this town,″ said Jerry Bengis, whose family put up the billboard and has maintained it for 33 years. ″Whenever there’s any negative press on signs and billboards, they always say - ‘except for the kitschy little Coppertone girl downtown.’ ″

Preservationists don’t usually fight for billboards, but say the image of the dog pulling on the pigtailed girl’s bathing suit is a piece of Americana worth saving.

″It brings back so many wonderful memories that are part of what we’ve all grown up here with,″ said Louise Yarbrough, executive director of the Dade Heritage Trust. ″It’s part of this city. We feel strongly it should stay here.″

She wrote to Coppertone’s owner, Schering-Plough Health Care Products of Liberty Corner, N.J., when she found out it was considering tearing down the familiar neon sign, which covers the side of a 13-story building on Biscayne Boulevard.

Company officials say the billboard’s themes of ″Don’t be a paleface″ and ″TAN don’t burn″ are outdated in these health-conscious times.

″Neither statement is in vogue with current thinking″ about damage from sun overexposure, said company spokesman Doug Petkus.

″We appreciate the fact people recognize our logo as part of the landscape,″ he said, but added there were financial considerations.

No timetable has been set for reaching a decision, he said. There’s a similar billboard near the airport and four others around Florida.

Ms. Yarbrough said it would be a mistake for the company to do away with such an enduring image recognized around the world.

″As Coca-Cola found out a few years ago, NEW is not always better,″ Ms. Yarbrough wrote to Schering-Plough President David Collins earlier this month.

She said that while the battle to keep the Coppertone kid may appear frivolous, part of Miami’s heritage is at stake.

Coppertone was developed by Miami Beach pharmacist Benjamin Green in the early 1940s and today is the leading seller in the $150 million sun-protection industry. Schering-Plough acquired Coppertone in 1957.

Artist Joyce Ballantyne, who used her 3-year-old daughter Cheri as a model and borrowed the neighbor’s dog when she sketched the logo, is surprised by the fuss over the billboard.

″It’s sort of a human-interest fluke,″ said Ms. Ballantyne, 72, of Ocala.

The artist, who has worked on everything from the baby on the Pampers box to the Wheaties Breakfast of Champions, said she has no sentimental attachment to the billboard other than the fact her daughter posed for it.

But while Ms. Ballantyne said ″it’s much ado about nothing,″ she understands why people care about preserving the pop-art icon.

″It has to do with vacations and summertime, and associates itself with a good time,″ she said.

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