In the Pink : Weeklong Festivities Celebrate the 25th Birthday of Pink Panther


He sells fiberglass and Brazilian yogurt, eats lunch with Japanese office ladies, brings silent cheer to sick children and hovers above Macy's Thanksgiving parade. One look at him, and you start mouthing his song.

He's hot--hot pink--and today the Pink Panther turns 25. This week, which his creators have dubbed "Paint the Town Pink" week, he is celebrating with a slew of visits to hospitals, cheerleading contests at malls and a celebrity-studded charity fund-raiser.

Monday, he was honored with proclamations in Hollywood and in Culver City, where his home office, MGM/UA Communications Co., is located.

To accept his Culver City award, the debonair cat was chauffeured in a 1959 pastel pink Cadillac convertible from the MGM/UA building kitty-cornered from City Hall. The 6-foot-tall, slender panther, dressed in black-sequined tuxedo jacket with tails, ruffle-front shirt and metallic silver bow tie, hopped over the car door, waving and landing elegantly on his watermelon-sized feet. "He's the Fred Astaire of cartoons," said Friz Freleng, 82, who created the cat with Dave DePatie. "He doesn't dance, but he's very graceful."

"Pink," as he's affectionately called at MGM/UA, caused a stir among the residents who had come to the City Council meeting to talk about housing and budget issues. Councilman Steven Gourley read a proclamation calling Pink a "citizen of the world (who) has kept a special place in his heart for Culver City," while the rest of the council sang the Pink Panther song. Pink, his jaws fixed in a grin, kissed Mayor Jozelle Smith.

The now-famous cat had humble beginnings, his name coming from the pink jewel stolen in the first "Pink Panther" film.

Freleng, also a mastermind behind Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird and Bugs Bunny, was asked by director Blake Edwards to fashion an animated title for the 1964 movie, in which Peter Sellers tries to stop David Niven from nabbing the legendary "Pink Panther" gem. Henry Mancini had not yet written the snappy Pink Panther tune, but gave Freleng a tempo to go by. "It was 7 1/2 minutes long--probably the longest title that was ever done" at that time, Freleng said.

Pink "became silent because he couldn't talk over the title," Freleng said. He also became "a real egotist," pushing signs with his name onto the screen every time the credits to the human actors appeared.

That first title led to other titles in the six Panther sequels. Freleng and DePatie also entered into a partnership with Edwards and producers Marvin and Walter Mirisch to make theatrical cartoons, such as the Oscar-winning "Pink Phink," shown before the features in theaters. From the 1970s to 1984, Pink Panther cartoons aired on networks Saturday mornings. Today, the cartoons can be seen on cable television in the United States. They are still aired regularly abroad. "There is no language barrier," Freleng says of his pantomime panther.

There seems to be no sales barrier, either. The cat, at 25, has become a salesman as well as an industry in his own right. Worldwide, there are more than 250 licensees with more than 2,000 Pink products, that rake in retail sales of $300 million annually, says Mike Georgopolis, president of licensing and merchandising for MGM/UA. The company declines to disclose how much it earns in Pink Panther royalties.

In Italy, boys and girls buy hollow Ferrero-brand chocolate eggs, to find a surprise inside--plastic pieces that they put together to make a 2 1/2-inch tall Pink Panther in cowboy, English bobby or one of 10 other guises. In Brazil, Pink is on television, pushing Batavo yogurt--and those who buy it get a Pink Panther sticker with each carton.

In Japan, where a premium is put on Hello Kitty, Snoopy and other embodiments of cuteness, Pink has his own line of eyeglass cases and handkerchiefs. "OLs"--office ladies, the Japanese slang for secretaries, clerks and other office workers--can bring their lunch in sleek Pink Panther bento boxes that come with Pink Panther-adorned chopsticks.

Back in the United States, plush Panther dolls first came out in the mid-'60s, riding the success of the movies, said Georgopolis. Pink Panther merchandise has since exploded to include slippers, night shirts, beach towels, key chains, Christmas ornaments, notebooks, pendants and Hallmark cards. The Lange Pink Panther ski boot--hot pink with Pink Panther at the heels--retails for $450, according to Susan Notarides, MGM/UA vice president of marketing and operations. A 15-inch tall plush Panther sells for $25; the four-foot version goes for $120.

Last month, Pink graced boxes of Kellogg's Froot Loops. Since 1980, he has rolled out pink Owens-Corning fiberglass insulation in TV commercials. "We thought (he) would fit--he's the same color as our product," said Fritz Lalendorf, Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. marketing manager, who noted that most other brands of insulation are yellow or off-white. Peter Craighead of the ad agency Ogilvy & and Mather, who helps manage the fiberglass advertising, said "sales have responded positively" to the Panther.

Pink also prances at NFL games. In the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, he floats in the air, swinging a 70-foot tail and dressed in a floral-print bathing suit, inner tube and scarf. "Only the Pink Panther is silly enough to go out in November with this get-up on," Notarides said.

The suave cat is a "cradle-to-grave" character--like Mickey Mouse, he appeals to all ages, Georgopolis said. But Pink stands out because "he is known by his music, not only by his looks and his color," Georgopolis said. "The Japanese, Italians, Brazilians, the British, can all whistle the Pink Panther theme."

Like many other stars, Pink balances his money-making with philanthropy.

A pilot "Pink Says Think" campaign on college campuses has such slogans as Exercise your mind, energize the body, and Refuse to abuse. The Panther appears as a poised, if not preppy, college character, with sunglasses, polo shirt with the collar turned up and vest. The message is that "you can be real cool, but think about it while you do it," Notarides said.

His favorite part of this week, Pink explained in pantomime, is visiting children in Southland hospitals, where he wins them over by patting their hands or stroking their cheeks with a bulbous paw.

Tonight, he schmoozes at Ed Debevic's in Beverly Hills, at a fund-raiser for the Starlight Foundation of Southern California, which grants wishes to seriously ill children. Party-goers can bid for original Pink Panther animation cels, Pink Panther ski boots and other Pink paraphernalia and eat pink shortcake with raspberry sauce.

Creator Freleng, said he had not envisioned Pink's success when the cat came out of "the end of my pencil."

"I'm surprised that he's lasted this long," Freleng said. But, calling Pink a "magician and egotist" and "a sophisticated bum," Freleng said, "he's somebody everybody would like to be like--in front of the screen all the time--to be strong, to be able to push themselves to the front."

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