On the Ball

How the 76 Ball Was Saved.

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A grassroots group formed to save the 76 balls, but has ConocoPhillips lived up to its promise to do so?

Credit: Arin Greenwood

About a year and a half ago, Kim Cooper and her husband, Richard Schave, were driving in Los Angeles—perhaps to get some dumplings for lunch, she recalls—when at a stop light she happened to look up and find herself shocked by what she saw: changes to the Union 76 gas station on the corner. Big changes.

The colors of the station were different: The standard orange and blue colors that had been there for as long as Cooper could remember were gone, and they'd been replaced with bright and jarring red. And the station had installed a sign—a terrible sign, Kim says, a sign that looked like a gigantic, blood-red "blister pack" that aspirin might come in.

"Now that 76 Station had never had a 76 ball, but it was the standard orange and blue. And suddenly it wasn't anymore," Cooper says. "I just sat there festering, going, 'That doesn't look right. That looks really wrong. Did corporate, like, send out the wrong plastic?'"

After lunch, Cooper went home and tried to find out why the gas station looked so different. She discovered that Unocal, a California company and the gas station's previous owner, had been sold to ConocoPhillips, a Texas company whose corporate color is the red Cooper found so jarring.

Cooper found out that ConocoPhillips weren't just changing the colors of the old Union 76 stations; they were taking down the large, spinning, iconic 76 balls, destroying them.

"I had a gut reaction to the loss that shocked me," Cooper says. And so she asked her husband, who designs Web sites, to put together a site so she could try to stop ConocoPhillips from taking down the 76 balls. That night, using free software from Drupal.org, Richard created www.savethe76ball.com, and it soon became clear that Kim was not the only person who noticedand resistedthe loss of the orange spinning sign. People began signing the petition on the site; a talking (and seemingly depressed) 76 ball made several appearances in the syndicated comic strip Zippy the Pinhead; "And then, next thing I knew, the BBC was doing a story, 'Hey, can we have our balls back?'" Cooper says. "And it really just steamrolled from there. "

Why were people so interested in this spinning signage and its seeming demise?

John Cirillo, who keeps a Web site devoted to gas station signs, remembers when the 76 ball first debutedat the 1962 World's Fair, in Seattle. "I grew up in Seattle where they had Union 76 stations in good numbers. At that time [in the late 1950s], Union was still using the big round orange disk, which doesn't look bad either. But in 1962, we went to the Seattle World's Fair, and the Union 76 exhibit was a sky ride across the fairgrounds. And there at that exhibit, the world saw for the first time those big round orange 76 globes. It made a big impression on me at the age of seven."

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Kim Cooper and Nathan Marsak

Credit: Arin Greenwood

Cooper and her cohort Nathan Marsakthey give crime tours of Los Angeles together—say their quest to save the 76 ball has a hint of nostalgia to it, too. Nostalgia for a unique California that they think is slipping away, bit by bit. "What's important about the 76 ball is that it's very much our version of the sun. California. Beach culture. It's a big orange orb that spins, for example, in the exact same way the planet spins," Marsak says.

All these distinctive signs of California, Marsak says, are being taken down by out-of-state companies that don't have any attachments to the distinctive signage that mean so much to Angelinos. "Small changes do make a difference," Cooper says. "In the long term, you lose 50 signs, not just 76 balls, and that's really going to change the landscape. But even just one brand disappearing is kind of one piece of the chorus, one bit of the music that creates this kind of wonderful, groovy, pop world. "

Cooper and Marsak are standing at a Union 76 station at an intersection in Los Angeles that also has a Starbucks, a check-cashing shop, and a place where a person can get accordion lessons. The station's pumps and shop are outfitted in bright red, but the orange 76 ball is still orange and blue. Cooper goes inside the shop to ask if the ball still spins; a moment later the ball begins rotating, and Marsak says that when he was a kid, he and his family would buy their Halloween pumpkins from a stand across the street from this station. He says that this Union 76 station used to put a jack o' lantern mask over this spinning 76 ball. "What will kids see now? What will they remember?" he says.

More than 3,100 people have signed the "Save The 76 Ball" petition to date. People are buying a lot of "Save the 76 Ball" t-shirts and miniature 76 balls that can be stuck on a car antenna. And ConocoPhillips seems to be making concessions in response.

"We were a little surprised, but thrilled, that our customers wanted us to make the balls available for all to see," says Philip Blackburn, a ConocoPhillips spokesperson. "We are making the balls available out of our pride in being part of this West Coast tradition and in response to the feedback from our customers. "

ConocoPhillips is planning to keep the spinning signs, but to change them from orange to red. It plans to donate 30 or so of the old orange 76 balls, some to museums such as the American Sign Museum in Cincinnatti and the San Diego Auto Museum, and one to Ray Pederson, the man who designed the original ball for the 1962 World's Fair.

Ray Pederson, for his part, says he is both pleased and a little bit flummoxed by this outpouring of interest in his 76 ball. Ray remembers that coming up with the idea of the ball was simple. "They wanted signage for a ride at the World's Fair. The only conceivable thing I could think of was a giant rotating ball. You'd see that big ball all the way across the park," he says. "I spent so much money on it they almost damn fired me. ConocoPhillips is now replacing the balls with the red color. I said to them that it doesn't bother me at all, the balls being red. It's fine. I don't think they destroyed anything. I've done so many designs. It's OK, it's cool. The thing lasted for 50, 60 years. That was several lifetimes ago," he says. "The ball was just part of a milieu of things I did. I designed Yoplait packaging, cigarettes. I didn't think much of doing things like that then. It was just part of the game. It was my idea to do the antennae balls, too. I've got about 15 of those damn antennae balls."

And yet, Pederson says: "A year ago I was down on Newport beach, coming in on a yacht there from Catalina. And I tell you from 10 miles out we saw the ball, and I said, 'Yup, there's my ball. '"  

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