The Story of Three 1970’s Posters: Tennis Girl; Hang in There, Baby; and Farrah

Why, oh why, should I write about this, you ask? Well, because, they all hung in my family’s summer cottage. So, let’s find out how they came to be and the legacy they leave.

Remember the Tennis Girl Poster? A very cheeky one, indeed. What throws many off is it is British. Most assume American origins. It shows an attractive woman from behind (hint, hint) walking towards a tennis court net. In her right hand is a (wooden) racquet. Her left hand reaches behind for some unknown reason lifting a short, white tennis dress. The movement exposes most of her back side.

The poster became incredibly popular and was shrouded in a bit of, “who was she?”

According to accepted sources, the photograph was taken by then-30-year-old Martin Elliott in September, 1976. The model was 18-year-old Fiona Butler, his girlfriend at the time. The photo was taken at the University of Birmingham’s tennis courts.

The dress was hand-made by Butler’s friend Carol Knotts, from a Simplicity Pattern with added lace trim. Knotts also supplied the tennis racquet, with all of the borrowed items later returned by Butler to Knotts after the shoot with the gift of a box of chocolates.

The image was first published as part of a calendar by Athena for the 1977 Silver Jubilee, the same year Virginia Wade won the Wimbledon ladies’ singles title. Athena negotiated an agreement to distribute the image as a poster. It achieved widespread distribution, selling over 2 million copies at £2 per poster. It remains a popular print to buy on Amazon and Posters.com.

Butler, who subsequently broke up with Elliott, has said she was not embarrassed about posing. Nor is she bitter in never receiving any money from the photo. Elliott sold the rights but retained the copyright, earning him an estimated £250,000 in royalty payments.

Butler, now Walker, is a mother of three, once a freelance illustrator in Droitwich Spa, Worcestershire. Elliott died in 2010. Knotts, now a barrister living in Gloucestershire, put the dress and racquet up for sale at an auction on 5 July 2014, the day of the 2014 Wimbledon Championships – Women’s Singles final. The dress was sold for £15,000, while the racquet went for between £1000-£2000. The Athena Tennis Girl poster dress is now part of the Wimbledon Museum collection.

“My children have never been upset about it,” Butler, now 62, has said, “It’s really nothing that anyone could be offended by. It’s just a bit of fun. I think it was banned in a couple of countries but really I don’t think there was anything to get upset about. It was just a picture of a very sort of ordinary girl, and there’s something in that that appeals to people. I think it’s the light that makes it so appealing. It never ceases to make me smile when I see it.”

Here is some associated weirdness. In 2015, Peter Atkinson from Marsh Gate, Cornwall, came forward to insist the photo was actually of his ex-wife, producing in evidence two items, one showing the same image and the other a close variant, both of which were dated 1974, two years before Fiona Butler’s photo shoot. Nothing has come of the claim.

How about the next one. “Hang in there, Baby” became both popular catchphrase and motivational poster. There were several versions of the poster, featuring a picture of a cat or kitten, hanging onto a stick, tree branch, pole or rope. The original poster featured a black and white photograph of a Siamese kitten clinging to a bamboo pole and was first published in late 1971.

Victor Baldwin owned a portrait studio in Beverly Hills, California, photographing famous clients including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Ronald Reagan. His first love was animal photography, and he worked both in animal portraiture and as photo editor at Cat Fancy and Dog Fancy magazines.

In 1970, Victor and his then wife Jeanne Baldwin co-authored a children’s book, The Outcast Kitten, featuring the photographs Victor had made of their cat Sassy and other cats he owned at the time. Sassy, who has the fictional name Wiki in the book, is a lost kitten adopted by a mother cat with two kittens of her own. He attempts to be accepted by his adoptive siblings by performing acrobatic tricks. The “chin up” image is used within the book as well as on the back cover.

Before it was published as a poster, fans of the book wrote requesting copies of the photograph. It was also used to sell subscriptions to Cat Fancy, prompting more requests. Baldwin, himself a fan of the picture, saw an increasing demand and produced it as a poster, choosing the words “Hang In There, Baby” to accompany the image.

The poster struck a chord with 1970’s Americans and became one of the best-selling posters of the era. Baldwin received letters from people telling him that the poster helped them through recovery from surgery, accidents, and other difficult events. Baldwin himself said “she gave solace and strength to people everywhere, in all sorts of trouble, including myself”. By 1973, Baldwin had sold 350,000 copies at $2.00 each. He lived for a time solely on the income from the posters, taking a break from studio work.

The poster’s popularity spawned imitators, and for a time, dozens of versions were available, using photographs or images of different cats – including at least one “blacklight” version – all with some variation of the “hang in there, baby” text. “As a matter of integrity”, Baldwin sued each infringement he could find, winning every case. He was awarded just enough to cover legal fees. By the time the poster’s initial popularity had waned, Baldwin estimated over 10 million unauthorized versions and direct copies of the poster had been made.

A copy of the kitten poster hangs in an outer office of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The vintage poster originally belonged to his father, former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Victor Baldwin made approximately $700,000 from sales of the posters, much of which went to settle his divorce, which he was apparently happy to spend it on. Baldwin produced other animal themed posters throughout the 1970’s, as well as licensing a wristwatch, mugs, glasses and other products featuring the “Hang In There, Baby” cat image. The original poster was one of the earliest motivational posters and is now considered a valuable collectible.

1976 was a big year was a big year for Farrah Fawcett. She achieved breakout success on the small screen as one of Charlie’s Angels and her iconic swimsuit poster was released. This pinup poster would be prominently placed on millions of bedroom and dorm room walls across the United States and around the world. It also became a defining feature of the 1970’s and is considered to be the best-selling poster of all time (a record unlikely to be broken).

In 1976, Ted Trikilis of poster manufacturing company Pro Arts Inc. was swayed to feature this mostly unknown woman because of her appearance in shampoo ads. Fawcett said in 1977, “The reason I decided to do a poster was, well, if you don’t sign a deal to do one, somebody does one anyway, and then you get nothing.”

She exerted control over her photos. After she’d been disappointed by the work of two other photographers, she suggested to Pro Arts that freelance photographer Bruce McBroom, with whom she’d worked before, get the assignment. Pro Arts wanted Fawcett to wear a bikini, but instead, she opted for one-piece swimwear. This was what she normally wore, in part to conceal a scar on her stomach that dated from childhood.

The shoot took place at her Los Angeles home, which she shared with then-husband Lee Majors, star of The Six Million Dollar Man, on a hot summer day in 1976. Fawcett did her own hair and makeup. The different swimsuits she put on were from her own closet. Instead of following the directions she’d been given to create “sexy” images, she decided, “I’ll just do it the way I want.”

When she selected a form-fitting red swimsuit, McBroom thought it was perfect. He realized he had a blanket from Mexico in his truck that would make an ideal backdrop. After retrieving the blanket, he asked Fawcett to get comfortable and began shooting with his last roll of color film.

After reviewing McBroom’s shots, she had a favorite that she marked with a star. In this picture, a gleaming smile flashed from her tanned face, which was surrounded by her tousled golden hair. Fawcett’s red swimsuit wasn’t overly revealing in her seated pose, but her nipples were clearly outlined by the red fabric of her swimwear.

Pro Arts followed Fawcett’s instincts and went with her selection. It was a wise choice. The poster was an instant hit. By March 1977, five million copies had been sold. Devoted fans of the poster were convinced they could see the word “sex” spelled out in the waves of Fawcett’s hair.

The success of Charlie’s Angels, the Fawcett-starring television series boosted the poster’s sales. But Fawcett deserves plenty of credit. As McBroom later said to Time magazine, “It was Farrah’s pose, Farrah’s suit, Farrah’s idea. She picked that shot.”

Fawcett’s famous swimsuit poster went on to sell more than 12 million copies, making it a boundary-breaking bestseller. She would earn $400,000 in royalties, dwarfing the $5,000 she received per episode of Charlie’s Angels during her one season on the show.

Though she would have other accomplishments, this swimsuit photo was always a big part of Fawcett’s story, just as it was a big part of the story of the 1970’s. In 2011, two years after her death, Fawcett’s red swimsuit and a copy of her iconic poster were donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to join its collection of culturally significant objects.

So, there you have it. Three posters, three stories. What I have left out is the parodies that abound from all three. They have been mocked, honored, and parodied too many times to share. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then these have been well flattered.

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