Fiberglass Dogs

by

09/27/2005

4 W 43rd St, New York, NY 10036

Neighborhood: Times Square

There was a while when it seemed like every year New York played host to a parade of hand-painted fiberglass animals. The cows were the most famous. The German shepherds were a lot less famous and they disappeared from the streets pretty quick. But, here and there, you’ll still see one, sitting guard outside the entrance to a hospital or behind a wrought-iron fence in someone’s 3×3-foot front “yard.” The fiberglass dogs are special. They come from good stock, their lineage tracing back to the first-ever fiberglass animal. This is their story.

On one sunny summer day in 2002, a flatbed truck carrying a very unusual payload rolled through Times Square. Standing on the low bed of the trailer were 15 identical, life-size, fiberglass statues of dogs. German shepherds all, they had a bare, unfinished look, like unpainted ceramic pieces. And, though inanimate, they seemed to be enjoying the ride, watching the sights go by, the way dogs like to do from the backs of trucks. When their lost out-of-town driver stopped to ask for directions, a small crowd of passersby gathered to gaze and smile upon the dogs, marveling at the strange spectacle they made and wondering who they were, where they came from, and where they were going.

I wondered, too, and wrote down the company name from the truck so I could track down their story.

Later that summer, I found out that 100 fiberglass German shepherds would hit the streets of New York under the auspices of the American Kennel Club, each one hand-painted by a different artist. And, much like the CowParade of 2000 that had inspired them, they would eventually be auctioned off for charity; specifically, to benefit professional and volunteer Canine Search and Rescue organizations throughout the U.S. The project was entitled “America’s Tribute to Search and Rescue Dogs,” and it was dedicated to the brave canines who worked tirelessly in the days after September 11th, searching the rubble of the World Trade Center for signs of life.

Designed by the artist Robert Braun, whose other works include life-size robotic dinosaurs, the fiberglass dogs bear a striking resemblance to Frederick Roth’s Balto, New York’s only statue to commemorate a canine. Standing on a rocky promontory in Central Park, Balto is “dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin 600 miles over treacherous waters, through arctic blizzards…to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925.” The journey that the fiberglass dogs took to New York City was much longer, though far less perilous.

The dogs had traveled 1,451 miles from a small town in central Nebraska. Nicknamed “Smile City,” Gibbon is the birthplace of TV star Dick Cavett and is the hub of Nebraska’s turkey industry. Of its 50 local businesses, the largest are the Norbest plant, which processes 15,000 turkeys per day, and the Gibbon Pack plant, which processes 1,600 head of cattle each day. And there’s a smaller company in Gibbon that also makes its living from animal production, though in a far less gruesome fashion.

Prewitt Fiberglass Animals is owned and operated by Charlie Spencer. I gave him a call soon after seeing the dogs and he told me that Prewitt Fiberglass Animals is a third-generation business begun by his great-uncle, Bob Prewitt, who invented the first fiberglass horse back in the 1960s.

“He was making one-horse horse trailers and everybody told him that the trailer was too small, and that their horse wouldn’t fit in there,” Charlie recalled, “So he had a gal by the name of Gladys Brown sculpt the first horse, and he made a fiberglass horse and put it in there. Well, he sold 30 horses and no horse trailers. So he decided he’d get into making horses instead of trailers.”

Today, the Prewitt factory still specializes in horses. Most of them go to stores that sell Western gear, and some go to rodeos or private ranches. “Our horses are pretty easy to make and they look real nice,” said Charlie. “We do about 40 different animals–gorillas, tigers, giraffes, horses, pigs, elk-we do real nice-looking elk.” Many of the gorillas go to ice-cream shops around the country. “They’ll put a gorilla out there with an ice-cream cone. Miniature golf courses, too. Or a zoo. A mascot for a school–that’s pretty popular.”

Charlie Spencer’s company has made thousands of fiberglass animals for fundraising efforts in different cities. Though this trend was sparked by the CowParade, Charlie’s company doesn’t do cows. “We don’t mess with cows,” Charlie said, “not everybody wants to do a cow in their city.” Aiming to please, he’s made fiberglass buffaloes for Buffalo, New York, racehorses for Lexington, Kentucky, and different animals for several other cities and towns around the country. “So far, with the auctions we’ve had, we’ve helped to raise over $5 million for charity.”

Charlie ships most of his animals by truck. The sight of a fiberglass menagerie rolling through town is not only surprising and delightful, it’s good advertising. Charlie told me he thought that his truck driver got lost in Times Square that day on purpose, “just to show the dogs around, cause everybody was going crazy over them,” a reaction that surprised Charlie. When he shipped a truckload of fiberglass guitars to artist Peter Max, to be painted for the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame, New Yorkers weren’t very excited. Nobody approached his driver to talk about the fiberglass guitars.

“Nobody was overly too friendly,” Charlie said, “But with the dogs it just seems like it breaks a barrier between people, and you just talk away.”

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