Local Obituaries

Miami adman who gave birth to the ‘Coppertone Cutie’ dies at 91

The Coppertone Girl sign shines once more on the streets of Miami in this December 2008 photo after its move to Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast 73rd Street in the new MiMo/Biscayne Boulevard Historic District. Coppertone parent Schering-Plough paid for the renovation.
The Coppertone Girl sign shines once more on the streets of Miami in this December 2008 photo after its move to Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast 73rd Street in the new MiMo/Biscayne Boulevard Historic District. Coppertone parent Schering-Plough paid for the renovation. Miami Herald file

Bernie “Tommy” Thompson Jr.’s sketches of his 2-year-old daughter Linda that November Miami day of 1953 set forth one of the great “whodunit” mysteries in the ad world.

Just who is responsible for the “Coppertone Cutie?”

This much is clear: Coppertone suntan lotion was invented in Miami in 1944 by Benjamin Green, a Hungarian-born druggist from Cleveland. He opened a pharmacy in Coconut Grove at Douglas Road and Day Avenue, according to his obituary in the Miami Herald in 1978.

Green sold out in 1950 to three Miami investors who, three years later, strolled into the Tally Embry advertising agency in Coral Gables with what seemed a simple request: Handle our account and come up with an ad campaign.

Enter Thompson, then the agency’s 28-year-old art director. Thompson pulled out a sketch pad, a pencil and sketched his daughter Linda, who was then 2, and the family dog, Snookie.

Thompson, who died Aug. 5 at 91, drew a winner.

Tally Embry’s staff was impressed with Thompson’s ad campaign idea and paid Hialeah commercial artist Pete Porter $500 for an oil painting of a wholesome little girl with clear tan lines and a frisky dog.

Coppertone’s owners wanted childlike innocence. Porter used photos of two or three little girls shot by photographers from Tally Embry. He also posed his own girl, Robyn, then 2 1/2, and finished the original girl-and-naughty-dog painting, he told the Herald in 1991.

That’s when the story gets busier, with women coming forward over the years to claim they were in the photographs that led to Porter’s painting, which, he said, was later destroyed in a fire.

Coppertone, which had been sold again to Schering-Plough in 1957, went looking for a new model for an updated image. Coppertone hired artist Joyce Ballantyne, who recreated the 1953 ad campaign with her own painting, using her 3-year-old daughter Cheri Brand as the model. That painting became the basis for the billboard.

The famed image has been a fixture in Miami for decades. The “Tan don’t burn” sign hung on the north side of the now-demolished Parkleigh building in downtown Miami from 1959 to 1991. The sign, donated to Dade Heritage Trust, was in storage until it was hung on the Concord bulding on Flagler Street near the Miami courthouse in 1995. The sign was restored for its move north to the MiMo historic district on Northeast 73rd Street and Biscayne Boulevard in 2008.

Linda Parks, Thompson’s daughter, was cool with being the original inspiration for her father’s sketch and doesn’t mind that it’s not her “tush seen ’round the world,” as a Herald headline once touted.

“As far as the models, I was too young,” Parks explained. “The other artist’s daughter was too pixie. They hired another model and then various different ad campaigns with different models.”

Thompson delighted in what his sketch led to over the years.

“He would talk about it,” Parks said. “Dad was a commercial artist and worked for a lot of high-profile clients. But, to him, that was a job. Later on in life he had his own agency, but at the time he was a young kid starting out. One thing I remember is we had bottles and bottles of Coppertone oil and people would say, ‘What did he get for the logo?’ and Daddy would say, ‘It was just my job working for Tally.”

Parks continued: “He was a low-profile person. His order would be the Lord, his family and then World War II. It wasn’t like him to start glorifying everything and touting his accomplishments.”

Born July 14, 1925, in Inverness, Florida, Thompson graduated from Miami High School. He joined the Navy at 17 after pleading with his father to sign off on his early entry. During World War II, he served as an aviator and gunner in the South Pacific aboard the USS Bunker Hill, USS Essex, USS Rudyerd Bay and other aircraft carriers.

After returning to Miami after his 1946 honorable discharge, he met the woman who would become Katharine Jamesson Thompson, his wife of nearly 69 years. Along with his work as a commercial artist, Thompson was ordained a Baptist minister.

“He worked all year to make sure we had a wonderful summer vacation. He took us all around the U.S. in a camping trailer,” Parks said. “He was a great dad. He was always involved in our activities.”

His artistic talent, however, skipped a generation.

“I had zero talent in the art area but he has a grandson that is an unbelievable artist,” Parks said. “Jarred [Corey, an artist and art teacher at McArthur High School in Hollywood] has a website and attributes everything to Pop-Pop.”

In addition to his daughter and wife, Thompson is survived by children Lisa Corey and Tom Thompson and six grandchildren. Services were held.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen

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