ELKTON - Ever since she showed up here in a skimpy sundress, fishnet stockings and a red feather boa, Gertie has been the talk of this cozy, old-fashioned town.
Fans admire her flamboyant sense of style. Detractors call her a floozy. She made newspaper headlines when she fell (or was pushed) and needed plastic surgery. And she won a local popularity contest.
It's quite a bit of buzz for a statue of an elk.
Then again, Gertie is an attention getter, a large piece of public art, by far the most conspicuous of eight elk statues on display in this community at the northeastern tip of Maryland.
"She's our celebrity," says Mary Jo Jablonski, Main Street manager for the Elkton Chamber of Commerce and Alliance.
The other elks, built of fiberglass and decorated by local artists, the library, the high school and the senior center, are equally fanciful. Elkton installed its life-size, 100-pound sculptures in front of public buildings and offices in mid-April, a new instance of the nationwide fad for animal sidewalk art that includes Baltimore's colorful crab exhibit.
One elk is called "A Stitch in Time" and is covered with a bright quilt, hand-painted by seniors. Another is "Ancient Northern Elk," featuring a leatherlike skin imprinted with tall trees.
A third is "Forever," a whimsical bride whose antlers are draped with tiny bells and a sheer veil, a reminder of Elkton's one-time fame as the quick-marriage destination of the East Coast.
None of them, though, has captivated Elkton quite as much as "Queen Mother Gertie," which was designed by the Red Hat Society, a national organization of middle-aged women devoted to dressing in red hats and purple outfits to have fun. They made 8 1/2 -foot-tall Gertie an honorary Red Hatter, with a large hat, heels and red lipstick.
Plenty of people have opinions about Gertie here in this town of 13,000, the Cecil County seat. On Main Street, which still boasts a pharmacy with a lunch counter and a quaint private wedding chapel, townspeople have chuckled over Gertie's attire and debated whether it's appropriate for her dress to be so short that it reveals her teensy red bikini.
Lyons Pharmacy manager Sandy Barnett calls her "something else." Town Commissioner John K. Burkley II, whose insurance office looks out on Gertie, says: "The vast majority of people think it's a riot."
Not everyone is equally amused. After the exhibit's April 17 unveiling, Gertie prompted a flurry of critical letters to the local newspaper.
Most folks in town, though, have rallied to the elk's defense. Ronda Turk, a Chesapeake City painter and sculptor, is delighted by the attention Gertie is getting. Last week, the Cecil Whig published the results of an informal poll to choose the best elk. Gertie proved red-hot: She was crowned the winner.
Turk and several female friends, all proud members of the Red Hat Society, spent cold winter weekends in her garage painting the risque sculpture.
"I tell everyone she's actually the only elk that is fully clothed," says Turk, 61.
Gertie has endured more than jokes and insults. On the night of May 14, someone knocked Elkton's flashy newcomer from her concrete post near Main and South streets. Tipped on her side, Gertie was in bad shape. Her paint was scraped, several rhinestones were missing and her right antler was broken.
An auto body shop came to her rescue. David Coleman, owner of Purnell Body Shop, discovered that the bonding adhesive he uses to repair Corvettes was just the right material to fix Gertie's cracked antler.
Her cosmetic work done, Gertie returned to her pedestal. But days later, Coleman got a new patient: the Northern Elk. The more sedate statue, the favorite of the police chief, was tipped over last Monday night. One of its antlers is cracked.
Elkton police Chief Richard Pounsberry suspects a prankster. "We've got a serial tipper," he quipped while meeting with Jablonski to discuss the case.
Nonetheless, Pounsberry says, the town is taking the vandalism seriously. Shenanigans appear to be a new hazard for sidewalk art. Last week, one of Baltimore's crabs was pinched outside a grocery store. The 75-pound crustacean, called "Chef Crab," was returned the next day to its spot in front of Eddie's of Roland Park.
Elkton spent $1,200 apiece on its giant elks, chosen in honor of its name. The town is so named because it sits at the head of pointed waterways that resemble antlers, not because the area once had an abundance of elks.
The statues will be on display until they're auctioned Oct. 14. Proceeds will go toward promoting and revitalizing Main Street. Jablonski hopes to put on free concerts and events to draw people downtown.
That was the idea of the elks, she says, and it's paying off. Tourists have come from neighboring Pennsylvania and Delaware to snap photographs. Newlyweds have posed beside "Forever," standing in front of the courthouse and across from the Historic Little Wedding Chapel, the last of a dozen private chapels that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s when Maryland had no matrimonial waiting laws.
Locals are drawn to the "Golden Elk," designed by the high school and covered with tiny black-and-white photographs of graduating seniors from 1950 to 1984. Glenn Hines showed up in the rain Wednesday morning to see if he could find his picture among the Class of 1967. He was amused, saying, "It's different, all right."
Among Gertie's many visitors are women in elegant red hats.
"Hattitude" is the elk's official name. But in honor of her late mother, Gertrude, Turk also painted "Queen Mother Gertie" beside a tattoo of a red hat on her rump.
"My mother had the most wonderful sense of humor," Turk says. "She's probably in heaven, looking down and laughing."