Remember -- Smokey marks his 50th anniversary

February 06, 1994|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

The peaked campaign hat, jeans and sunny expression are still there. So is his ever-present warning: "Only you can prevent forest fires."

But as he celebrates his 50th anniversary as America's best-known public service symbol -- next to Uncle Sam -- Smokey Bear is sporting a sleek, new '90s look, thanks to the electronic imagery of a Baltimore County artist.

This summer, the U.S. Forest Service will mark Smokey's Golden Jubilee, and part of the celebration is a commemorative poster created by Mike McConnell of Phoenix.

Mr. McConnell's colorful cartoon-style poster shows Smokey in his habitat with the animals and people who share it. The poster has a contemporary twist, as Smokey urges people to recycle their trash. And as always, he tells campers to douse their campfires.

Mr. McConnell's poster is the first to be produced electronically since the series began in 1945. Working from his home -- built around an old log cabin -- he created the poster on his Macintosh computer with graphics programs and transmitted it by telephone to Forest Service headquarters in Washington.

"No need for paper, paint, the frustrating search for a parking space in our nation's capital," Mr. McConnell said. "All today's artist needs is a Mac and a modem."

The 40-year-old illustrator learned of the Smokey Bear project last spring from the art director of Porter/Novelli, a Washington ad agency for which he does "story boards," the concept sketches used to develop advertising campaigns. The firm also works with the Advertising Council, which promotes public service ads.

Mr. McConnell quickly sketched a rough black-and-white line drawing and scanned it into his computer. Next he "painted" in the colors with graphics software and sent it to Porter/Novelli's computer. The Forest Service chose his concept over several other submissions -- but still wanted changes.

In the original, the forest scene was a big thought bubble over Smokey's head. Officials wanted Smokey in the forest. The original also had a rabbit dousing a campfire with a bucket of water. The Forest Service wanted a human to do that. Even Smokey himself can't put out a fire. All he's allowed to do is hold a shovel and deliver a message, Mr. McConnell said.

The final version is far more detailed than the first sketch, and Mr. McConnell said he never would have finished it if he had been using traditional oils, acrylics, pastels or crayons.

"I wouldn't have had the patience to do it," he said. "But with the computer you can do everything so quickly. I can refine and change colors right on the screen."

A 1975 graduate of Maryland Institute in fine arts and printmaking, Mr. McConnell specialized in story boards produced with the traditional pen, ink and paintbrush. He said he never even touched a computer" before 1991.

But as the recession gripped the advertising business and computer graphics continued their inexorable advance, he returned to the institute for computer courses and found a new world.

When he finished the poster last summer, he joined a cooperative program with the Smithsonian Institution and Forest Service to illustrate a Smokey Bear learning kit that preaches fire prevention and safety to children from kindergarten to third grade. The kit -- including a copy of the poster, a jigsaw puzzle and line drawings of Smokey for children to color -- was an instant hit, and Smithsonian officials say they've been overwhelmed by requests for it.

Mr. McConnell's Smokey is the latest in a long line that began with a forest fire prevention campaign in 1942. Wood products were vital to America's war effort, and the government feared sabotage or enemy attacks on the country's forests.

The advertising industry helped spread the message, and the War Advertising Council produced a poster featuring Walt Disney's Bambi -- the fawn who escaped a forest fire. Bambi's success persuaded officials that a forest animal made the best messenger.

In August 1944, the council decreed the messenger would be a black or brown bear, wearing a campaign hat and an intelligent, appealing and slightly quizzical expression. Albert Staehle, an animal artist, used the description to create the first bear symbol, unveiled in 1945 and named Smokey. Contrary to

popular belief, the real-life Smokey didn't appear until six years later, when a burned cub turned up after a fire in Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. When his burns healed, the cub was ensconced in the National Zoo in Washington and declared the living Smokey Bear.

The symbol and message of Smokey Bear are embedded in the American consciousness. In 1952, Congress approved the "Smokey Bear Act," which strictly regulates the use of the image, and a licensing program was set up to control the sale of items bearing Smokey's name or picture. Royalties go to the forest fire prevention program.

The original Smokey died in 1976 with no offspring -- despite the zoo's best efforts at breeding. He was buried in Smokey Bear State Park at Capitan, N.M. Shortly before his death, an "adopted son" was taken to the zoo to carry on the tradition.

That Smokey died in 1990 and has not been replaced.

Although the Smokey education kit is designed primarily for teachers, anyone can request a free copy from the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Smithsonian Institution,

Arts and Industries Building, Room 1163 MRC 402, Washington, D.C. 20560.

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