The Lope: He Sees You When You're Sleeping

Friday, December 31, 2010

He Sees You When You're Sleeping

[Updated January 2021]

I didn't mean to frighten the children of Hutchinson, Kansas, with "Scary Santa" - honest, I didn't. Notice how even Ace Jackalope is looking away from the thing I loosed upon the Holiday Parade in 2009.

It started so innocently. You see, I love "roadside vernacular" - creative neon signs, motels shaped like tepees, etc., and giant roadside beings.

Iconic among these are the giant men made first by Prewitt Fiberglass in 1963 and then by by International Fiberglass from 1964 until the early 1970s, colloqually called "muffler men." This one belongs to Lauterbach Tire in Springfield, IL. Cowboy artist Bill Swan sculpted the prototype for the muffler man with a contribution by Richard Ellis on the right hand.

I've photographed these things for years, so when I ran across the head of a muffler man at the Denver Modernism Show, I happily bought it from an architectural salvage deal who was exhibiting there.

The dealer had obtained it from the defunct State Armory bar in Greeley, Colorado, where it had been since 1977, and shot the photo above before the head's removal.

The State Armory was a bar located in the actual State Armory building in Greeley. It was one of at least 34 restaurants opened between 1964 and 1985 by Grand American Fare, a company started by Western Airlines pilot Albert Ehringer who favored a cluttered ceiling of interesting things. (photo from 2014, five years after the State Armory bar closed)

Grand American Fare used many pieces from International Fiberglass in their early restaurants, including other muffler man heads at Minder Binders in Tempe, AZ (defunct), and Dark Horse in Boulder, CO, as well as repainted A&W Burger Dads at Minder Binders, Dark Horse, The State Armory, and Madison Bear Garden in Chico, CA. Sadly, they also had a Uniroyal Gal (giant female statue) that burned with the St. James Infirmary in Mountain View, CA. I have been told that much of Grand American Fare's decor came from prop houses. I'd sure like to know more about that.

While at the show, a few of the guest speakers posed with the head. Here, Charles Phoenix holds Ace Jackalope (left). And artist Josh Agle, AKA SHAG, stopped by as we were preparing to pack.

And here's the head, mummified in bubble wrap and ready to be put in our car. Because of car trouble at home, We went to Denver in a rental passenger sedan, not expecting to buy anything larger than brick-a-brack. Fortunately, our car had a bubble in a tire and Enterprise offered to replace it with their only car available - an SUV. Score!

Once home, I put him immediately to work. He was a pirate for International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

He looked a little too friendly on Halloween. By then he'd earned the local nickname "Big, Giant Head" and I let it stick, no offense to 3rd Rock from the Sun intended.

So, how cool would it be to run him in the Hutchinson Holiday Parade as Santa? Really cool, I thought.

This would require much planning. Co-conspirator Sharon Scott helped me devise the big giant head's parade debut. Christmas maven Patsy Terrell, who had previously worked with Clarence the Dinosaur and I, was recovering from an operation and thus has plausible deniability in any role concerning Scary Santa.

Much measuring was involved. The ladies from Prairie Points Fabric helped tailor and build the giant beard, mustache and hat, with Sharon's refinements. We used 3M adhesive poster strips of several designs to hold the fabric to the the painted fiberglass. These are a design that would let us remove the adhesive tab without paint damage. I do not know if the head's paint is original. He actually looks more detailed then other muffler men I have seen, and his complexion is darker, though some of this is from 32 years of nicotine exposure.

The hat is large enough to be a two person sleeping bag. It wasn't easy to find fabric for this.

Of course we needed a platform of some type and I thought the only logical way to show a Santa head without it looking decapitated was to imply the rest of Santa was in the chimney. Here, two Honduran elves help assemble the plywood and 2x4 chimney. (additional photo: Sharon measures)

While artist Jocelyn Woodson worked on Santa's...whatever the white puffy thing is on the top of the hat. (another photo)

The rest of us tried to figure out how to mount an aging fiberglass relic on top of a wood chimney in such a way that the vibration and g-forces involved in a parade wouldn't damage it. We came up with a tilted base board, custom contoured on top with lathe boards to support the somewhat fragile base of the neck. Eye bolts that were already in the back of the head furnished anchor points for picture wire to guy wire the head onto the base board.

We finished the chimney with fake brick paneling. Garland and some huge shatter-proof ornaments from Target helped break up the space. It is very, very heavy.

The only trailer we had on which to pull the thing has a tall metal mesh gate on it, so we left the main structure of the chimney open in back and covered the gate with wrapping paper and a Jocelyn-made Christmas card from Sharon, Greg and Patsy. Patsy had helped attach tags to candy canes we would give out.

The open back of the chimney will allow an operator inside should we find a way to animate the head in the future. It might at least turn back and forth on a turntable.

Sharon had arranged the beard to curve under the apples of Santa's cheeks, but, as the fabric was cut in a straight line, this created gaps on both sides which I thought would catch the wind and maybe pull the beard away from the face, so I straightened the beard. This covered the roundness of his cheeks and somehow made him look a bit...well...scary, I am told. I was so wrapped up in the logistics of it at the time that this effect escaped me. Ace was watching the crowd and didn't say anything.

At about 10:30 AM on November 21, 2010, we loosed Scary Santa upon our community.

I really don't think he looks that bad, but he has since gained nicknames like "Jihad Santa", "Stern Santa" and "Scary Santa." (other photos: 1, 2, 3, 4)

Santa passes Bob's Trading Post, where he can buy Guns and Ammo. Santa needs ammo. (photo: Santa passes the Flag Theatre)

Mark Reddig came down from Independence, Mo, to help pass out candy canes. Jocelyn and a few others also passed out candy for us. Sharon, the official driver of Scary Santa, waves from her truck. They are passing my favorite neon sign in Hutchinson, that of Johnson Music. (other pictures: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

And here's s video from the end of the parade. By this time, Mark had run out of candy canes and sat on the trailer, occasionally telling children he was Santa's brother, Chuck. If you listen carefully, you can hear a little girl shout "Santa looks mad!":

We didn't have the time or manpower to mobilize Scary Santa since 2009 but he's waiting and watching you. Sweet dreams!

Further Adventures

In July of 2013 I was interviewed by Joel Baker, producer of American Giants, a web series in which Joel and his crew explore the histories of muffler men around the U.S. I shot these bits of video as he wrangled the head from one room to another in a Wichita church in an attempt to minimize the sound of the rain on the roof. Then a crew member asked if he could try actually wearing the head, Of course, I obliged and hilarity resulted. Joel has since become involved in muffler man restoration and the video featuring me is still in the queue.

With Joel's expertise, we determeined th the beard and lack of a hat meant my muffler man head was like that of a Mr. Bendo, a model which held its right arm up and left arm at its side. These are thought to have usually been holding a piece of bent metal, such as a car's tailpipe. This one is in Indianapolis.

In 2014 the Harley Davidson Museum borrowed the head for their "The American Road" exhibit and I got two trips to Milwaukee and back out of the deal. For the trip, the head needed a cheese hat, of course.

I had to take his picture with at least one Wisconsin icon before we reached the museum so I picked Igor the mouse at Carr Valley Cheese Company in Fennimore.

From June 14 to September 1 of 2014 the head kept company with vintage neon signs and tons of travel ephemera.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love it!

I have a "headless" Muffler Man on my site
... I wonder if his head made it the whole way out to Colorado LOL

Wed Dec 07, 03:04:00 PM  

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