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“Greatest Show” vs. “Greatest Snow”: Moab’s Role
by Vicki Barker

If climate change means Moab winters will feature progressively more snowfall, the desert may yet yield a champion ski team and join the choir in singing praise for “the greatest snow on earth.”

It’s a catchy slogan that Utah won the right to use 15 years ago after a legal battle with the circus Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows Inc. Known as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the circus challenged Utah in 1988 when the state filed to protect its play on the slogan it had been using since 1959.

P.T. Barnum coined the phrase, “The Greatest Show on Earth” in 1879 when his circus merged with its largest competitor at the time, the Bailey Circus. The slogan also was later used as a movie title.

As Utah pointed out, the circus didn’t object to Utah boasting “the greatest snow on earth” until the moniker became common on state license plates. The new, white plates -- the first of a series of plates aimed at promoting tourism -- also depicted a skier. They were first issued in 1985. Ten years later, Utah won its case for federal trademark protection of “the greatest snow on earth, ” successfully arguing that the slogan had become identified with Utah’s ski industry.

The circus had worried that the public might perceive a link between the circus and Utah’s ski slopes, and by “diluting“ the power of the original slogan, cause actual economic harm to the circus. Upon winning the case with the federal trademark panel, Utah’s assistant attorney-general Ralph Finlayson quipped, “the snow must go on!” The circus appealed, but Fourth District Court upheld the defendant, the Utah Division of Travel Development.

The circus wasn’t the only disgruntled critic affecting the fate of the plates in 1988. While the case simmered in litigation, residents in red-rock country scoffed at the little skier swooshing the slopes and made the case among themselves that snow wasn’t the best thing about Utah. A visit to Arches National Park was “the greatest show on earth.”

Earliest report suggests Delicate Arch license plates idea originated with Moab artists. The Salt Lake Tribune, Sunday, September 4, 1988. From Barker Collection

In a story from Moab picked up by The Associated Press and published throughout the state, two artists in Moab expressed disdain for the state’s newly official “Ski Utah” decorative plates. Sharing gripes with a reporter, Dutch Walker and Eric Witte swilled drinks at a local tavern and poked fun at Utah’s transparent vanity about the white powder of the Wasatch Range, and its “panting pursuit” of the 2002 Winter Olympics. They reiterated an old and familiar sentiment that Moab should change allegiance and adjust boundaries to become part of Colorado to obtain proper appreciation.

The plates should have Delicate Arch on them, the reporter said. They should say, “Ski Moab!” Witte said. And we can have our own Olympics, Walker cried. An idea was born.

Moab artist Dutch Walker collaborated on idea combining rock art, Delicate Arch, and the upcoming winter Olympics in a 1988 illustration. From Barker Collection

Walker (now deceased) went to work sketching an animated Kokopelli petroglyph in full ski gear swooshing down the western slope of a snow-capped Delicate Arch. Below were the words “Petrolympics 1988-89.” Within weeks, he was selling “Ski Moab” t-shirts out of a teepee he erected on Main Street. He noted at the time that German and French tourists in particular loved the novelty.

A few years later, Utah unveiled a new and colorful license plate to commemorate the state’s centennial. Delicate Arch had finally made its way onto Utah plates in designation of Utah’s 100 years of statehood. Below the arch were the words “Centennial 1896-1996.”

The specialty plates, first issued in 1992, were to help promote and pay for an upcoming statewide centennial celebration. Bruce Louthan of Moab, who served on the Centennial Committee for Grand County, said he was unsure exactly how the idea originated, but Delicate Arch would seem an obvious choice to promote tourism and world-wide visibility for Utah.

“It turns out somebody in Utah County wanted to champion it, which seemed odd to me at the time,” Louthan said. “It was something to get away from Park City’s domination of the plates, I think.”

In January 2007, the state Legislature passed a bill approving a new slogan and license plate design for Utah, and removing “centennial” from the Delicate Arch plates.

The plain white “Ski Utah” plates with the little skier at bottom were retired for a new design with mountains and a skier on the bottom half, a red-rock panel of petroglyphs above, and a new slogan across the top: “Life Elevated.” Below, the hard-won slogan, “greatest snow on earth,” remains.

Hayden Sky Zieler, 8, a Moab native, models original “Ski Moab” t-shirt. Photo by Vicki Barker

The Delicate Arch design on the plates meantime has become so popular, a sundry of souvenirs and commercial products sport the design on sales racks everywhere. Manufacturers do not have to get permission to use the design, as it is in the public domain, said Charlie Roberts, spokesman for the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles.

“It’s very popular,” affirmed Callie Tranter, administrative assistant at the Grand County Travel Council. “Delicate Arch is out there all over the place, on a lot of promotional products. It does a lot for our state, and for our area.”

Roberts calculated that of nearly 2.7 million vehicles registered in Utah (including ATV’s, motorcycles and trailers) in the past fiscal year, more than 10% sport the Delicate Arch plate.

“They pick the arch because it’s this area, or they don’t like the snow,” commented Marcy Babcock, who processes vehicle registrations as deputy assessor of Grand County. Lately, there has been an uptick in registrants choosing the “Life Elevated” plate with petroglyphs and mountains, she said.

As for the “Ski Moab” t-shirts, an employee of the T-Shirt Shop that bought the design from Walker said sales of the shirt, which was altered to remove the date 1988-89 from Petrolympics, have remained fairly consistent over the years, though “it does better this time of year.”

“It tends to be more of a repeat type of customer who buys them,” said the employee, who preferred use of only his first name, Mike. “It’s more of a spoof, a joke, or a pun.”

There are out-of-town customers who have bought the shirt in the past and return seeking that specific design, Mike said. And there is a particular customer whose name he does not know but who he believes is from Park City who comes to the shop regularly just to buy the “Ski Moab” t-shirt. Says Mike, “It’s just a lady whose son is on a ski team or club. She comes in a couple of times a year, and buys them for new members.”

He was unsure whether the ski club is in Park City or Moab.

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