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Leaping for lizards



The Doors sang, "I am the lizard king." The Budweiser ads use the critters. Otherwise, there are precious few references to the reptiles in pop-culture circulation. For the most part, lizards are, well, kind of cute, but they don't really do anything special, and they don't have any particular significance. Your cat might chase one around the yard. Boys seem to have a curious affection for torturing the little guys.

So why did Orlando decide to use the lizard -- 200 human-sized fiberglass lizards, to be exact -- as a way to draw attention to and raise money for the downtown arts district?

"They're whimsical," says Brenda Robinson, executive director of arts and cultural affairs for the city.

If you prod a little deeper, you find that the lizard was selected pretty much by default.

The whole idea started with a trip Glenda Hood took to Chicago last summer. At the time, Chicago was displaying some 320 fiberglass cows up and down Michigan Avenue. "Cows on Parade," as the display was called, sought to draw an additional 1 million tourists and $100-$200 million of their money for area businesses, about 300 of whom had sponsored the faux cattle for between $2,500 and $11,000 each. And in the spirit of capitalism at its best, the Windy City offered a ton of merchandise, including T-shirts, hats, jackets and plush toy cows for the kiddies.

As put it, the event was "Chicago's most popular public art exhibit, udders down." Hood liked the idea -- and the fact that Chicago boasted a $3 million profit by later auctioning off the cows. So she promptly instructed Robinson to, well, copy Chicago's idea.

We're not the only ones to steal the idea. In fact, there are up to 30 North American cities putting up fiberglass somethings-or-other. Most of the selections tie in to regional history and heritage. Cincinnati and Des Moines, for instance, are putting up pigs. New Orleans has fiberglass fish. Perhaps best of all, Rhode Island has a couple hundred Mr. Potato Heads. Perhaps lamest of all is New York. Like Chicago, it chose cows, which seems to lack imagination.

But the funny thing is, even Chicago swiped the idea from Zurich, Switzerland, which a year earlier had scattered a bunch of "cow objects" around town.

So what critter best represents Orlando? What we have in spades is mosquitoes -- and nobody thinks of them as being at all pleasant. Or even whimsical.

Maybe alligators? The problem's obvious: They're ugly, and they scare people. Also, as Robinson points out, a bunch of alligator statues around town would surely piss off the area's Seminole fans.

Lizards got extra credit just because of their name. You can take away the "d" in lizard, replace it with a "t," and you have "LizArt" -- a perfect title for a project to benefit the arts community. That's the soon-to-be-trademarked name for this whole deal, with a website,, due in July. The exhibit itself, "Lizards on the Loose," will appear starting in October in Loch Haven Park, Lake Eola Park, Orlando Centroplex, Orlando International Airport and the Orange County Convention Center to "kick off the arts season," Robinson says, adding that it fits into the downtown theme that Orlando is a "great place to live, work and play," she says. "We'll add more ‘play.'"

Maybe. "Seeing a lizard in sunglasses makes me think of a beer commercial," says playwright Morris Sullivan.

For the exhibit, artists can submit drawings of their lizard renditions. Robinson's hoping for celebrity lizards, like "Lizard Taylor" or "Lizard Minnelli," to accompany the more generic "tourist lizard" or "surfer lizard." Each selected artist will receive roughly $1,000. The city gets to collect the money garnered by the auction. That money and the merchandise profits will be earmarked for the arts community.

And, Robinson insists, it's "a public arts project that doesn't cost the public anything." The approximate $4,000 cost of each lizard will be sponsored by a local business -- Robinson has 25 commitments so far, including two from arts patron and City Beverages president Ford Kiene. Each sponsor will get to have its name emblazoned on the sculpture's base.

While Sullivan thinks any fundraising effort for the arts is a good idea, he wishes the mayor would have consulted the arts community. Maybe they could have come up with something more original.

For the city, there's no down side. Well, perhaps one: "We don't know how we'll follow this," Robinson muses.

May we suggest fiberglass mice? They were quite popular in Apopka last year. And Disney would love it.


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