Boys with Toys
What do Big Daddy Roth, Billy Carter and a thief at the local library all have in common? That’s the conundrum of this month’s query into the unique history of Venice past.
If you’re a guy, and grew up in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, I’d bet you probably built some sort of model kit at one time or another. Be it model planes, boats, cars – my specialty – or even weird specialty items, I’m sure you knew of the big 3 plastic model suppliers back then: Monogram, Aurora and Revell.
And to my surprise, I only recently found out that Revell Authentic Kits were made right here in Venice. After probably reading on all the boxes I used to own the name Venice a million times or more.
Revell, Inc. began operations in the 1940s in a very modest rented space and grew in thirty years to occupy a manufacturing complex of several buildings here in Venice. The models produced by Revell so dominated the world market in hobby kits that the name "Revell" became synonymous with plastic models.
Revell first brought the all-plastic model kits to the public’s attention in the early fifties, and then proceeded to capture the great, wide real world with its miniature versions of almost everything that flew, floated, or rolled. Boys growing up then built models simply as part of being adolescents. And then probably took them out to their backyards and blew em up with firecrackers, like me and my friends proudly did.
Everyone made at least a couple of models, but for many boys it became something more, being introduced to the basic principles of design, form, and construction. Many an engineer, architect, dentist, artist, illustrator or auto mechanic began honing his skills by assembling model kits and admiring the dramatic, colorful paintings on Revell’s packaging.
Back in February 1951, the talk among hobby dealers at the New York Toy Fair was about a toy company, Precision Specialties of Los Angeles, that was showing some all plastic model car kits. At the front of their exhibit room stood a short, smiling bespectacled fellow, Lew Glaser, who proudly showed the company’s collection of plastic toy cars on metal leashes and model kit versions of the same cars. They were called "Highway Pioneers" and marketed under the brand name "Revell."
Lew Glaser had been born in Brooklyn, New York in 1917, but moved to Los Angeles with his mother when he was five. While in elementary school, he sold newspapers to help supplement his mother’s income, and by junior high he was doing chemistry and electronics experiments in his home lab. He got his ham radio license at 13, and soon became fascinated by innovations that captured his imagination, and found he could immediately digest and understand their intricacies.
After graduating from Roosevelt High School in 1934 – in the midst of the Great Depression – he went to work in a radio repair shop, which four years later he bought for $100: $25 down and $5 a week. "It was quite successful in a small way," he later recalled, "but I was looking around for other things, and I got intrigued with plastics." He found a company that had a few hundred dollars worth of machine tools that they wanted to sell, so Glaser bought them for $750, and voilà, was then in the plastics business. He set up shop in a small space on Washington Boulevard in L.A, later adding an injection-molding machine to his next more spacious quarters, a couple of storefronts with a wooden shed on the roof, at 212 Western Avenue.
Precision Specialties was the name of the company, and they produced a little bit of everything, including aircraft parts and radio accessories. But the product that became the core of their business was a lady’s cosmetic compact. Glaser marketed the compact under his own trademark, Revell. The name was suggested by an employee, who won a $25 war bond in a "name the company" contest. It derived from the French word reveil – "awaken." But Glaser liked the sound of it, probably because it sounded a lot like the name of cosmetics giant Revlon.
By 1946, Glaser decided to gamble in the toy business. First off, a plastic washing machine for little girls to wash doll clothes; next a Pluto flashlight, then a set of circus toys. In 1950 Revell unveiled the 1911 Maxwell pull car, which finally struck a chord in the minds of toy buyers from the larger chain stores. This led to an extended line of ‘Highway Pioneer’ toy cars, but the difference was that these models were sold as disassembled kits, to satisfy the growing hobbyist interests.
And soon the orders poured in. It made sense because these all-plastic kits were so easy to build that even a 10-year-old could successfully complete the model, and then play with it like a toy. And the level of detail in the models satisfied adult hobbyists. With orders for tens of thousands, Glaser knew he had found his niche in business. But there was only one problem, he needed more space.
To make room for expansion, in February 1953, Revell moved to a brand new facility at 4233 Ocean Park Avenue – soon to be renamed Glencoe – right here in Venice. To celebrate its grand opening, Revell invited hobby industry leaders to a big bash at the plant, with old-time autos as the theme. Men received straw hats and fake cardboard mustaches for the event. And the stars of the day were Lew Glaser and his wife, Royle Glaser, arriving in a vintage Cadillac in fittingly appropriate get-ups. They looked straight out of the movie "The Great Race," all aglow in long driving coats, goggles and ribbon-wrapped bonnet.
By 1956 Revell had come a long way, both financially and in size. The complex in Venice had grown to encompass eight acres and filled a half-dozen buildings, where 25 injection molding machines ran round the clock and more than 300 people were employed.
I daren’t go into all the details of their success based on the idealization of plastic models emulating the world back then. Just believe that it held true. But what does this have to do with Big Daddy?
Ed "Big Daddy" Roth was born in Beverly Hills on March 4, 1932. Ed’s dad was a German cabinetmaker and it was in the workshop where Ed learned how to build crazy stuff out of wood. He purchased his first car, a 1933 Ford Coupe, in 1946 shortly after WW II ended. He graduated high school in 1949, and went on to college majoring in engineering so he could advance his knowledge in automotive design. Ed did pretty good in college but got bored with his engineering and physics classes because they just didn't have anything to do with cars.
By 1958, Roth had begun creating automobiles in his garage, using junkyard parts and a newly developed product called fiberglass. Ed’s first car was called the "Little Jewel" and then shortly after that came the "Outlaw," which showed the world that anyone could design and build a car without being some kind of certified automotive engineer. All you really needed was imagination, some motor head know-how, and a lot of elbow grease and gumption. "I just drew the cars," he said. "Once I got em to a point to where they looked right, I stopped and drew em again out of glass and steel."
Presto! His garage became his studio where other creations came to light, including the "Beatnik Bandit," "Mysterion" and "Rotar."
In April of 1961, Ed received a phone call from Royle Glaser asking if he would like Revell to produce models of his custom show cars. Roth’s answer was a hearty affirmative. "It freaked me out to see a mainline company even tryin’ to dig this stuff," he commented. So Revell American produced model car kits that featured the "Outlaw," "Beatnik Bandit" and " Road Agent." Roth signed a ten year contract with Lew Glaser – who he described as "this happy little square fella" – that gave Roth two cents royalty for each model sold. During 1963, Ed brought in $ 32,000 in royalties. Now go figure out the math; that's how popular Ed's creations were, accounting for almost 16 percent of Revell’s annual revenues.
Ed trucked his "Outlaw" to the Venice plant parking lot and worked with the R&D team to make sure they did the model right. He liked the boys at Revell because they grooved on the same things, spoke the same language, and enjoyed kicking around ideas. The car deserved a first-class treatment for it was truly an innovative blending of the classic hot rod and way-out contemporary styling.
Next Ed spent a week at the Glaser’s home, lounging around the swimming pool, posing for wacky photos to be used on kit boxes and in advertisements. "He was a great, great guy. I adored him," said Royle Glaser. "He was off-the-wall creative." The only nagging problem was coming up with a nickname for Roth, who thought his high school moniker "Big Ed" worked just fine. But the Revell PR man didn’t. After dickering over the nickname for months, "Big Daddy" was suggested for a handle. "Cool!" Roth agreed. And the legend was born.
"Big Daddy" was a genius at designing cars, but it was the popular monster Rat Fink that brought him fame. Rat Fink started as a drawing that Ed had put on his refrigerator. By 1963, teenagers across America were buying Rat Fink model kits and mass-produced Rat Fink T-shirts. Other model kits in the newly developed Revell Roth Monsters line, a gang of hot rodding monsters included: Mr. Gasser, Drag Nut, Mother’s Worry, and Superfink. Mr. Gasser, a big-eyed, wild-haired, gape-mouthed hot-rodder happily shiftin’ and steerin’ his ’57 Chevy, went directly from the back of a t-shirt to a model kit, becoming an instant hit.
"Rat Fink" became a household word in the vocabularies of America’s teens. He and the rest of the monster gang soon became heroes to young kids across the nation who could relate to the stories and themes of the gang. The general message intended was that being different or weird was o.k. and being a Fink or a Weirdo was cool, too.
But by 1966, the fever subsided as quickly as it had risen, and the monsters had departed the Revell catalog. Also, by this time, Roth started chopping motorcycles and hanging out with bikers, and Revell didn’t want to tarnish its public image by being associated with roughnecks. His business fell apart and he had problems with the law. He bottomed out, found religion, and disappeared.
Ed Roth passed away on Wednesday April 4, 2001, at his home in Manti, Utah from an apparent heart attack while working on his latest project. His finkdom is extremely missed to this day.
In 1969 Lew Glaser’s personal life took on an ominous overtone. His doctor discovered cancer spreading through his body, and informed him that he might have as few as six months left to live. So he turned the day-to-day company operations over to his wife Royle, and she became president and chief operating officer in 1970. By 1972 Glaser’s cancer had progressed to the point that it became difficult for him to come in to the office on a regular basis. So he set up a work place at the dining room table at home, working in his robe and pajamas. Finally, on September 12th of that year, the cancer won, and Lew’s work was completed.
Which now leaves us with Billy Carter, the goober loving brother of our 39th President. After his brother took office in 1977, R&D boys at Revell saw a magazine picture of Billy in front of his red-neck-rustic gas station. This sparked some brainstorming that led to the brilliant idea of customizing a real Chevy Scottsdale pickup truck, giving it to the nation’s new number one bubba, and then making a model of "Billy Carter’s Pick-Up."
They contacted Billy and struck a deal promising him a cash advance, a royalty on sales, and a new pickup truck. Revell then customized a vehicle tricked-up to South Georgia standards: a wooden front bumper, a CB radio, chrome 8–spoke wheels and a case of soft drinks in back. The truck then went to the Venice plant to be copied and made into the "Redneck Power Pick-Up" model kit.
Billy and his wife flew out to Venice to meet Revell’s executives and have his picture taken with the pickup for publicity. Royle Glaser welcomed him to the plant and took him on a tour of the facility. Workers on the assembly line recognized him, and the whole shop floor immediately shut down. Glaser, a thoroughly West Coast person, stood dumbfounded. "He was like a pop star!" she exclaimed. Everybody wanted to shake his hand or get an autograph. A few months later, the truck was delivered to Billy, nattily dressed in his usual leisure suit, who accepted it gratefully, rewarding the courier with an autographed can of Billy Beer, with his endorsed image as a beer drinking, southern boy, in exchange.
After the collapse of the Billy Beer venture, he had to sell his home to settle back taxes with the IRS. An acknowledged alcoholic, he got sober in early 1988 and began concentrating his efforts on trailer park homes before succumbing to pancreatic cancer later that year, on September 25th.
The 1970s saw a change in the way kids chose to spend their free time, with more options available to absorb their interests. Concomitantly, Revell’s sales of model kits declined steadily during the late 70s. The idea of possibly selling out to a larger, more financially robust company was bandied about. In March 1979, the merger of Revell, Inc. with Compagnie General du Jouet, the French company handling distribution of Revell’s kits in that country, was announced, and the writing was on the wall for the Venice-based company. By 1980, most of the old-time employees had received pink slips, and in 1982 Royle Glaser reluctantly departed the company her husband had founded 41 years earlier.
In 1986, the company was again sold, this time to Odyssey Partners of New York, which also acquired Monogram Models at the same time, with the intent of consolidating the two companies. It was announced that Revell’s operations would move to Illinois.
When the process of packing and moving Revell’s assets began, many old-time employees returned to the plant on Glencoe for one last, sentimental walk around the familiar halls. Some took photos of their old work stations and picked up a souvenir or two for keepsakes. Ed Roth wandered through the rapidly-emptying buildings, and somebody gave him a couple of old photographs once used to publicize his "Big Daddy" monster cars. It was a very sad time for all involved.
And the end of a great era just quietly slipped away. Today the address of 4233 Glencoe is just the entryway to the parking structure for the Marina Marketplace shopping center. I wonder if all those shoppers entering are aware of the major history of that address. I’m sure they’re not.
And now to the nefarious thief at the local library. Last year, during the celebration of our centennial, the front entry showcase featured a collection of all things Venice: the prow from a gondola, centennial stickers, an old Venice High School band jacket, old photos, commemorative posters and banners, even two old Revell model kit boxes. One was of Roth’s first classic hot rod, the "Outlaw," a green and white dream machine bucket-T 2-seater convertible. The other was of the futuristic Pontiac "Club de Mer," also a 2-seater, but these were in individual pods with their own windshields and one gigantic tail fin on the cosmic blue rear end. Both of these were in prime condition, featuring unmade models inside. When the display was taken down and put into storage briefly, the model kits turned up missing. Some dastardly know-it-all knew a good thing and swooped in for the steal. And let those who once held these treasures be damned. It was a simple petty theft by some asshole future felon working at the library. The kits are reissues and easily replaced - eBay is full of them. But still, the loss of these gifts hurt deeply.
So if you know of their whereabouts, please come forward and we’ll issue an all points bulletin and wrangle in this devilish culprit. Or should we say ratfink?