|The Cult of the Muffler Men
All across America, there are those who know of the monumental Muffler Men, and those who don’t. A cult of the informed, if you will.
Are you of the hip, the one’s who know and possibly obsess about these huge, lifeless, fiberglass Muffler Men? Do you recognize all the possible variant forms these simple left hand down / right hand up giants could morph into? Would you believe it all started in Venice?
Back in 1962, a local guy named Bob Prewitt received a call at his fiberglass company, located at 4054 Glencoe Avenue – today, one half block south of Costco, on the east side of the street. It was from a new Route 66 establishment, looking to make their mark in Flagstaff, Arizona. They were calling themselves the Paul Bunyan Café, and they needed some sort of monumental statue to help promote themselves.
So Bob came up with a solution to their marketing problem. A big, tall guy – big, tall fiberglass guy – that would be Paul Bunyan, in both size and in dominant arrogance. At least among the garish roadside attractions popular along that highway at the time.
But by the next year, Prewitt Fiberglass Company was sold to entrepreneur Steve Dashew. At the time, Dashew was in the boat business, and was looking for something that he could do when things were slow, as he also had some fiberglass skills. Steve renamed the business International Fiberglass Company and proceeded to make his Paul Bunyans - a single statue mold created for the cafe and parlayed into a roadside industry - an almost ubiquitous highway citizen throughout all of America.
Initially, his company sold a few figures here and there, one of which went to an American Oil gas station in Las Vegas. The owner indicated his sales had doubled after installing his Paul Bunyan. That became the start of the “invasion.” Steve’s company started selling programs to the oil and rubber industry, turning out thousands of commercial statues in the 1960s and 70s. These characters were sold as attention getters for retail stores. The idea was to get them in front of the biggest traffic flow, preferably on the corner of an intersection, ensuring fantastic results whenever the figures went up along the roadways.
They came in two sizes: 18 and 25 feet tall, and usually have the right hand facing up, left facing down for holding objects. In big quantities they were around $1,000 a piece. Individually about $1,800 to $2,800, depending on detail and accessories. The company had a variety of figures which they adapted from the one mold — such as golfers, cowboys, spacemen, Indians, muffler men, etc. Fill in the beard in the mold, or add a new chest for Indians, etc. and voila! Another new humanoid colossus.
The four most common original types were: Bunyans, Indians, Half Wits (country bumpkins resembling Alfred E. Neuman) and Cowboys. In the case of the original Paul Bunyan, the order was for a 20 foot character size. The molds were then made, and the first Paul was born. And eventually, out too came all the cousins. The hands were set up to hold Paul Bunyan’s ax. The tooling was expensive, it was thousands to make new tooling. So they reused it for the other statues. To create the first Indian, they took the chest mold and added a plaster splash, which gave them the Indian look, and made new arms.
Miss Uniroyal was unusual, the only fiberglass woman in a bikini produced in quantity.There were two versions, you know - she came with a dress. You could take off the dress and there was a bikini underneath. Those were cool. And she seemed modeled after a celebrity from the 1960s... I think their sculptor had a thing for Jackie Kennedy.
The biggest program was with Texaco - the Big Friend. They ordered 300 in 1965, with an option to order 2,700 more... a total of 3,000 Big Friends by the next year. The Big Friends were all identical when they were built. The uniforms were all that yucky Texaco green color. And these guys actually came out a little larger than was originally budgeted.
International Fiberglass employed a sculptor by the name of Sasha Schnittman who created the Big Friend. Sasha was the first and only “fine arts” sculptor that worked for the company, because she was just too difficult to work with. She drove Steve nuts. To Sasha, the Big Friend was not just a point of sale display but a work of art.
They started building the units but Texaco was not ready to roll them out on the original schedule, and they had this production line going. They ended up with almost all 300 standing, tied together in a field behind their factory. At some point a chopper flew over with an LA Times photographer and the secret was out! Attack of the giant men had occurred in Venice!
Then Texaco decided that they did not like the entire promotional idea. They had nowhere to store all these giants. In any event, the program met an early demise and the advertising campaign just sort of went away on its own. It’s rumored that all the Big Friends were ordered to be destroyed, and in the end, they met an early grave.
The business remained great fun for Steve. The only problem was that he had to spend a lot of time away from home on sales trips. In ‘72 or ‘73 the statue business really tapered off and eventually the industry died a natural death. And when they sold the business, all the remaining molds were destroyed in the summer of ’76.
Over the years, many of these giants’ features were altered by their owners and other accessories added to create the Golfer, the Gas Station Attendant, etc. All these giant men are most commonly referred to as Muffler Men because of their frequent and continuing use at muffler shops.
But who today is still aware of them, is still part of the cult?
Some of us may remember these Muffler Men from recent local journeys, there’s that big golf giant on the 405 in Carson, a big Pancho at some taco stand in Malibu, and it’s probably true that downtown L.A.’s famous Chicken-Boy is really a Muffler Man with a chicken head. Come on! Look at the hands.
There’s still Muffler Men mania alive all across America. A whole strata of people are totally into the Muffler Men history and locations. www.agilitynut.com/giants is a comprehensive site of a lot of the existing Paul Bunyan giants. And much more.
Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead comic strip frequently looks to these large, looming nemeses for reassurance and beguiling humor. “Do not be afraid. We come in peace. We are here to serve. And make an art statement,” say a quartet of Muffler Men in varying neo-utilitarian poses.
Long live the Muffler Men! Let them forever be revered! And thanks to those fiberglass junkies back in the 60s, who created a veritable roadside industry and cult, all right here in Venice.