Nipper Mania A dog's life: As a 14-foot piece of canine kitsch comes home, RCA's trademark pooch is still bigger than life around town and beyond.

April 12, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

For fans around the world, Nipper is not just the RCA trademark, he's the lovable dog they never had.

For Baltimoreans, Nipper is not just the lovable dog they never had, he's a colossal piece of urban bric-a-brac they nearly lost forever.

Tomorrow, Baltimore reclaims part of its quirky identity when the foot RCA logo moves to the new Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center after two decades in a Fairfax, Va., back yard. This summer, the City Life Museums plan to mount the 1,700-pound dog on a roof on the East Baltimore campus.

With Nipper's Neighborhood, the museum's interactive children's exhibit depicting life in old Baltimore neighborhoods, the pooch's rightful place in the city's visual vernacular is sealed.

When city residents think Nipper, they don't necessarily think RCA, says Sally Johnston, curator of Nipper's Neighborhood. "It's a big, big statue that people got attached to for over 22 years."

In 1976, the crumbling Nipper was sold for $1 to a Virginia collector, outraging Baltimoreans who equated their home with the big dog and Victrola perched on a Russell Street rooftop. Through private donations, the City Life Museums raised $25,000 to bring back the restored pup for Baltimore's Thanksgiving parade last November.

In some ways, Nipper never really left the city. Peer into vintage, gift and music shops around Baltimore, and Nipper frequently peers back: as dusty trinkets, salt and pepper shakers, plaster and paper mache paperweights, and advertising ephemera.

But the world's most famous fox terrier doesn't just belong to Baltimore. Through hundreds of thousands of "His Master's Voice" reproductions of infinite variety, Nipper has traveled the globe and transcended his role as a cute and loyal advertising gimmick to become a cuddly collectible, a vehicle for cautionary messages, a friend that kids and adults flock to for countless photo ops.

He recalls your grandmother's Victrola with its stack of scratchy 78s and her early television console (the first on the block). Never mind that Nipperscape is a popular World Wide Web site, Nipper represents an ageless and corporeal -- if not human -- constant in a virtual world.

"There's something about Nipper that makes you want to scratch him behind the ears," says Neil Maken, a California antiques dealer and merchant of Nipperie, a name coined to represent Nipper collectibles.

Yesterday Once Again, Mr. Maken's Huntington Beach shop, is a nerve center for Nipper collectors around the world. "I just sold an old European street sign, a dog and gramophone that hung over a shop in England, made of porcelain on steel. A Nipper collector in Japan picked that up," he says. How much? "Many hundreds of dollars" is all Mr. Maken will disclose.

What prompts collectors to "kill and bite and rip your throat out for a piece of Nipperie," as Mr. Maken so delicately puts it? "First of all, he represents a newly emerging industry, one that turned into a multibillion dollar industry. Also he's just a very lovable kind of dog. I've traveled to Great Britain quite a bit. You wouldn't believe how many dogs I've met over there named Nipper."

Tomorrow, however, Nippers 'R Baltimore. At 9 a.m., the mammoth canine with a puzzled tilt to his head will make the City Life Stroll from Pier 6 to the new museum in the company of pals Nipper and Chipper, stars extraordinaire of high-tech RCA television ads. The live RCA mascots come courtesy of Thomson Consumer Electronics, the Indiana-based manufacturer of RCA products that donated $7,500 toward the big Nipper's return to Baltimore.

That the company also contributed 1,000 plush Nippers for promotional hoopla is not surprising. Ever since Nipper was a trademark, he was a giveaway.

In the 1890s, the original Nipper was captured listening, head cocked, to a cylinder phonograph in England by artist Francis Barraud. He called the painting, "His Master's Voice."

Later, Barraud substituted a flat-disk phonograph for the cylinder phonograph in the painting and sold the image to the Gramophone Company Ltd.

In 1901, the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, N.J., acquired the U.S. rights to the Nipper image. Eldridge Reeves Johnson, Victor company founder, spent more than $24 million to promote the Nipper trademark.

Nipper souvenirs, from miniature dollhouse discs to powder compacts, touted the company's products from its start until 1929, when RCA bought Victor and kept Nipper as its corporate symbol.

In the late 1960s, Nipper largely disappeared from RCA promotional material and products. General Electric purchased the RCA-Victor Company along with the Nipper trademark in the 1980s. But the canine was not fully resurrected until Thomson Consumer Electronics, which had acquired RCA's home entertainment division from GE, sent him back to work in 1990, minus the gramophone. Instead, they gave Nipper a sidekick, a puppy christened Chipper, after a contest drew 85,000 name suggestions.

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