Reminder – it is the fourth of July and that means we honor a Quirky Berkeley tradition and go on a notional field trip.
Dig the tubas! Or are they sousaphones?
Our notional holiday field trip today isn’t far away, just 20 miles south to Hayward, to Bell Plastics at 2020 National Avenue.
Plastics, you say. Yes plastics. Plus a marvelous collection. Look at them! A gang of fiberglass advertising titans, survivors of a different time, when our advertising tastes were simpler and less jaded and less hip than today. They are relics from what Marcus Greil so brilliantly called “Old Weird America.”
These are all in the yard of Bell Plastics.
Bruce and Mark Kennedy opened Bell Plastics in 1979. They are a custom plastics fabricator, a job shop that handles custom or semi-custom orders from small to medium-size customers, batch jobs, or one-off jobs. There are NDA’s covering much of what Bell makes, but not on the taxi signs shown above with Bruce Kennedt.
As Mr. McGuire says to Benjamin Braddock: “I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.”
But this field trip is not about plastics, it is about the giant sculptures.
The whole fiberglass giant thing started when Bob Prewitt, owner of Fiberglass Animals in California, received an order from Sacramento for a 20-foot Paul Bunyan in 1962. The buyer backed out. Prewitt threw the statue on a trailer, hit the road along Route 66 looking for a NEW buyer. He didn’t have to go too far – he sold the statue to the Lumberjack Cafe on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona.
That’s all Prewitt made – one statue, one customer – but he launched the armada. He sold his business to Steve Dashew, a fiberglass boat-builder. Dashew named his new company International Fiberglass.
He marketed Paul Bunyan and it clicked.
Over ten years, a number of variations on Paul were made and sold, with the new name for the genus – Muffler Man. He made and sold women in bikinis, cowboys, Indians, astronauts, giant chickens, pirates, dinosaurs, miners, wagoneers, golfers, Yogi Bears, tigers, and more.
By the 1970s, the giants were starting to look worn out and the idea started seeming a little, well, silly. In 1976 Dashew sold the business and destroyed the Paul Bunyan mold.
Bruce Kennedy collects them.
He restores them, for himself and for others. He sometimes casts molds and replicates them. Above, Barry Baber, who has a great touch with fiberglass, is working on David, as in Michelangelo’s David.
Big Mike, a muffler man shown here to the right of Paul Bunyon, was Kenndy’s first giant.
Kennedy had long had his eye on Muffler Mike (born 1966), found first at the Morris car wash on Mission Boulevard in Hayward and then at the Tyre Treds warehouse also on Mission. Note the red hat in the upper photo – it would soon turn blue. At the car wash, he held a bucket and a scrubber.
In 2011, Kennedy bought Mike and brought him to Bell Plastics. He had holes in his arms and legs and at least one bullet wound. WHO WOULD SHOOT BIG MIKE?
Bell Plastic’s Facebook page has photos of the raising of a restored Big Mike on March 29, 2013.
Mike is still a special part of Bell Plastics.
Not many fiberglass statues can boast of a birthday party. Mike can.
Do you remember the “Bet you can’t eat just one” Lays Potato Chip commercials in 1967 with Bert Lahr – the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz? The commercial was developed by the Young & Rubicam Advertising Agency. It could be the story of Bruce Kennedy and his giants. Just one? No way.
Paul Bunyan, shown with Big Mike above, is a popular giant. Roadside America estimates that there are about 230 publicly visible Paul Bunyans, plus another 100 in private collections. Kennedy’s came from Paramount, California.
More and then more and then more giants showed up at Bell Plastics, discovered through word of mouth and once in a while online, especially with eBay. Kennedy is blunt and not shy – “I’m really good at collecting them.” And he is willing to get giants that he buys from anywhere to Hayward.
This cowboy was Bruce’s second Muffler Man acquisition.
The Cowboy originally stood in Boonesville, Missouri at a Phillips 66 Gas Station, before he ended up in storage after plans to have him stand outside a children’s museum fell through. Bruce Kennedy acquired him, had him shipped across the country, fixed him up, and repainted him. He is now called Cowboy Don after Bruce’s father.
With Cowboy Don above is a Doggie Diner head. Kennedy has two. He’d buy more. Doggie Diner was a small chain serving hot dogs and hamburgers between 1948 and 1986 in San Francisco and Oakland. The first one was opened on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland. At its height, there were 30 Doggie Diner locations.
The most notable feature of the Doggie Diner chain was a 7-foot tall rotating fiberglass head of a dachshund wearing a bow tie and a chef’s hat. We have seen one in Quirky Berkeley, at Eni Green’s house on Harper Street.
They were designed in 1965 by Bay Area billboard and ad layout designer Harold Bachman.
In early 2015, Kennedy acquired his first Doggie Diner head, which had been in storage south of Sacramento. He also got the rotating mechanism that allowed the head to rotate 360 degrees. A few months later he found and bought a second head that had been sitting in a field near Clear Lake.
Meet Miss Uniroyal, aka the Uniroyal Gal.
She was originally designed wearing just underwear. She came with snap-on outfits.
When Kennedy acquired his Uniroyal Gal, she was wearing a skirt. Of Gas Guy standing next to her, Weirdcalifornia.com tells us: “On December 8th, 2014, a sixteen foot tall fiberglass service station attendant was acquired by Bruce Kennedy. The service station attendant was referred to as Gas Guy. He wears all white. He was not built by International Fiberglass like the four Muffler Men were. He sadly was only on loan and is now no longer available to view. He is now on private property somewhere in the Bay Area.”
Back to Gal – she came all the way from 1213 Broadway, Mount Vernon, Illinois, where she welcomed customers to Stan the Tire Man’s. Kennedy snapped off the skirt and blouse. Her face is said to resemble Jackie Kennedy’s.
When we visited, Kennedy referred to this figure as Mortimer Snerd, a slow-witted member of Edgar Bergen’s cast of dummies.
That is apparently the name given to this figure by Dashew and International Fiberglass.
In the past, Kennedy has called him Happy Half Wit.
Usagiants.com gives us a production photo and explains the terminology:
These International Fiberglass statues were promoted as “Mortimer Snerds.” However, they are more commonly called “Half Wits” since that’s the term RoadsideAmerica.com came up with before the history of these statues was unearthed. It’s not known how many were produced but there are only about 15 left. These statues have the same body as the other Muffler Men but a different style head. These heads were apparently modeled after Alfred E. Neuman, the Mad Magazine character.
So now we know.
Kennedy’s Half Wit started out in Kansas City.
He picked up the Hawaiian shirt and the business changed to Poor Boy’s Pantry.
From Kansas City our friend moved north and stood outside Bargain Hunterz Discount Clothing in the Dort Mall, Flint, Michigan, where he can be seen in the movie Semi-Pro. For this reason, Kennedy sometimes refers to him as “Hollywood.”
Kennedy bought him in 2014, sectioned him, and brought him west.
Kennedy bought this partially restored piece on the left from a bar in Wisconsin. It shows the confusion often associated with the Half Wit. Gap-toothed and jug-eared, he bears a strong resemblance to Alfred E. Newman.
This Wagon Master aka Pioneer Man came from Alabama.
From roadsideamerica.com: “Back in the ’60s he lived at the Eastwood Mall in Birmingham, Alabama (1624 Montclair Road). He was seated on the covered wagon at a Wagon Ho restaurant, a short-lived fast food chain in the mid-1960s. He held a whip in one hand and reins in the other. After Wagon Ho shut down, the business became Kelly’s Hamburgers and he continued at his post until Kelly’s closed down. Sometime after that he was moved to the country outside Moody, where he currently sits at the abandoned Cherry Construction company lot. He is missing his left hand.”
There was more than just a little bit of Gabby Hayes in the Wagon Master / Pioneer Man.
There were – I think – two Bob’s Big Boys there when we visited.
Bad boy! Check out the brass knucks and the earring.
The partially refinished one is obvious. The new arrival in disrepair may or may not be.
Bob’s Big Boy has gone through a series of designs for their signature Big Boy statue.
Kennedy bought the maybe-Bob who is shown on a trailer in Montana.
These octopi were from the Octopus Car Wash in Farmington, New Mexico.
Octopus Car Washes started in Rock Island, Illinois, in 1953 and peaked with 30 locations. The octopus is named “Ozzie.”
Ozzie was developed in about 1965. The Farmington Octopus Car Wash was sold in 2017 and with it the Ozzies. These Ozzies went on display at Bell Plastics in March, 2018.
Kennedy acquired the Sinclair apatosaurus shown with the octopi above from Chicago in July, 2014. Sinclair’s advertising writers first had the idea to use dinosaurs in 1930. Sinclair’s lubricants were refined from crude oil believed to have formed when dinosaurs roamed the earth. The original campaign included a dozen different dinosaurs, but it was the Apatosaurusthat who really caught on. Fiberglass Dinos began appearing at Sinclair stations across the country in the early 1960s. This is a great website about the Sinclair dinosaurs.
The statues came in two sizes, 12 feet and eight feet. Sinclair did not have an exclusive contract with International Fiberglass, meaning that they could be marketed to other businesses, such as miniature golf courses, as long as they were not painted green.
Kennedy picked this dinosaur up from the Museum of Natural History in Houston in May 2015.
There are many other giants at Bell Plastics, ones whose back stories I don’t know. They include this Uncle Sam.
He is a Bell Plastic original, most appropriate for our Fourth of July celebration.
Uncle Sam having his hat cast at Bell Plastics.
Half-Wit loaned his body to Uncle Sam a few summers ago – a most patriotic sacrifice.
The giants are not all that Kennedy collects. He collects glass banks and antique Chinese art. He has an affection for firefighters and firefighting things.
The custom-made firefighter arrived in March of 2016 from Virginia where he was made by Mark Cline. He is only fourteen feet tall, Mark Cline is an artist who works with fiberglass. His website STUNS.
He has dabbled in railroad collecting.
This is a speeder, also remembered as a putt-putt, jigger, trike, or quad – a track maintenance car used by railroad track inspectors and work crews to move quickly along railroad tracks.
Kennedy leaves these tavern puzzles in the reception room for customers waiting around.
They are disentanglement puzzles, originally based on forging exercises that provided good practice for blacksmith apprentices.
There are smaller pieces inside the office.
Kennedy spends time on e-Bay every day and is often at the Alameda Point Antique Fair for its monthly flea parker. The lawn jockey came from Alameda, the hippo and Pep Boys from e-Bay.
This Indian warrior tells you right away that you are not in just any other reception room in any other office.
Bruce Kennedy is quiet, under-stated, and driven by a great obsession and passion. He finds the giants, negotiates for them, shleps them across the country on trailers, and then restores and rebuilds them. And he looks for more. Plus all his other collections.
School field trips come to Bell Plastics. Aficionados of old American roadside weirdness come to Bell Plastics. And Quirky Berkeley came to Bell Plastics.
I had to ask.
“What is your favorite statue?”
As if he had never been asked. He had been asked and was ready – “The last one I bought.”
We walked out the way we had walked in – through the avenue of fiberglass giants.
Kennedy’s passion and determination and restorative skills astound and inspire. It was a great field trip. I respect and admire obsessed collectors, even if what they collect is of no intrinsic interest to me. Here, the giants and their roots in old weird America have great cultural interest to me. Talking with Kennedy wandering around the giants – a really good time was had.
I showed the post to my friend.
“Feature this! Earl and me went to the World’s Fair in New York. Just before things got bad with our dad. I saved it all these years. Now I know why.”
He wasn’t done. He had told his brother Earl that I was working on a post that mentioned the Dort Mall in Flint. Earl mailed him a couple photos.
First, of Walli’s West Restaurant in the mall.
And second, the neon “rotosphere,” originally housed at Walli’s now outside the mall.
Great adds! What does he think of the field trip post?
The cupboard isn’t bare, but it’s pretty empty
This is in my opinion our best:
It is climbing the wall at Katz Modern. I think that there is a story of the cat going back and forth between Mike Katz and the Addison mother-daughter. In any event, it would look boss on a roof or wall, no?