Merck promises to pay expenses for Coppertone Girl sign

The Coppertone sign that hangs over Biscayne Boulevard and 73rd Street is widely considered to be a piece of Miami history, an iconic image that hearkens back to another, in some ways more innocent era. But whatever the sign’s historic value, it's expensive to maintain, and that fact has put its fate in doubt various times over the last five decades, only for some organization or civic group to step in at the last minute. And so it has happened again.

The sign’s latest savior is Merck, the parent company of Coppertone sunscreen makers Schering-Plough. The company has told the sign’s owner, the MiMo Biscayne Association, that it will donate $1,800 every year for the next five years to pay for the liability insurance and general upkeep of the 52-year-old sign.

“The brand is committed to our Little Miss Coppertone – she’s part of our heritage and our future. We appreciate the opportunity to partner with you to keep such an important piece of history alive, “ wrote Evan Bashoff, Merck’s Suncare marketing product manager, in an email he sent to MiMo Association President Nancy Liebman on Dec. 9.

According to Liebman, Merck found out that the MiMo Association couldn’t continue paying for the sign’s $1,200 yearly premium after reading Open Media’s story about sign’s uncertain future.

Liebman said the money will also serve to mend the girl’s foot, which was cracking due to lack of maintenance.

The sign is currently on the northern wall of a building at 7300 Biscayne Blvd. and has been owned by the MiMo association since 2008. The contract between the MiMo Biscayne Association and the building’s owner, Debra Ohanian, called for the association to pay the insurance — due by the end of December — and Ohanian to cover the electricity bill for the sign.

When the association announced they couldn't pay for the premium Ohanian said she would pay for this year’s insurance , but could not guarantee that she would make any future payments.

The donation by Merck will preserve what many consider a piece of Miami history.

Jerry Bengis, a local art appraiser and the son of the man whose company orginally built the sign, says the image is burned in the American psyche. He compares it with Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can painting.

“It’s so iconic, it’s a trademark, something associated with South Florida.” said Bengis in a previous interview.

The sign and its history over the last five decades:

1959: Pin-up artist Joyce Ballantyne recreates a 1953 Coppertone sun tanning ad that was destroyed in a fire. The ad shows a pigtailed girl with her bathing suit being tugged down by a small Cocker Spaniel.

1959-1991: Florida sign maker Tropicalites produces a 35-foot version of the ad. The "Coppertone Girl" sign occupied at least half the north wall of the now-demolished 13-story Parkleigh Building in downtown Miami until Miami Dade College bought the property to construct its Wolfson Campus.

1992-1995: Schering-Plough, the pharmaceutical company that makes Coppertone, salvaged the sign and donated it to the Dade Heritage Trust. The sign remained gathering dust in a warehouse for the next couple of years.  

1995-2007: The sign is repaired and mounted on the east wall of the Concord building at 66 W. Flagler St. across from the courthouse.    

2008-current: In 2008, the sign was donated by Dade Heritage Trust to the MiMo Biscayne Association, which oversaw a major $100,000 restoration funded by Schering-Plough after the sign had been damaged during the 2005 hurricane season and placed in its current location on the MiMo District.

Merck Cooppertone letter