Do you know the Muffler Man?
Perhaps you do, but if you haven't been properly acquainted, please, allow us.
During the car-crazy 1960s, an era when roadside advertising involved dinosaurs and various forms of three-dimensional razzle-dazzle, businesses would do pretty much anything to get motorists to pull over and shop, eat, fill up their tanks or spend the night. The competition was particularly fierce on Route 66, where businesses were in constant competition to outdo each other in the rubbernecking department. How else can you explain tipi motor lodges and gas stations that look like they've been transported from Disney's Tomorrowland?
Muffler Men sprung directly from Route 66's deliriously flamboyant brand of roadside advertising. Often resembling hirsute lumberjacks, these fiberglass giants have taken on many other roles, too: cowboys, Indians, farmers, pirates, gas station attendants and on. While primarily used to promote service stations, the Muffler Man has been subjected to so many creative costume changes that the National Trust for Historic Preservation suggests that he be deemed "the patron saint of adaptive reuse." (In addition to offering a handy-dandy tracking map and insight into how the aged titans lining America's highways are silently plotting to take over the world, Roadside America offers a guide to properly identifying a legitimate Muffler Man and his ilk).
While dozens upon dozens of Muffler Men continue to stand strong from coast to coast, there are a few that stand out from the crowd. To learn more about the unique role that these landmark sculptures play in the history of roadside America, we've delved into the unique origins of several of these gargantuan gentleman (and one 17-foot-tall babe from Peoria). Our requests for interviews with the giants themselves garnered no response.
Is there a Muffler Man that lives in your town? Perhaps one that you’ve stumbled across during your travels? Was he holding a muffler? An ax? A hot dog? Was he in tip-top shape or appear to have seen better days? Do tell us about your encounter with him in the comments section.
Chicken Boy in Los Angeles
Chicken Boy no longer hawks fried chicken, but you can still buy plenty of Chicken Boy merchandise in Los Angeles. (Photo: Paul Bailey/flickr)
The most wonderful thing about Muffler Men — originally molded as an ax-wielding Paul Bunyan replica by Venice, California's now-defunct International Fiberglass — is that they're essentially blank slates in the form of a burly, 25-foot–tall man with outstretched arms, sturdy shoes and an unmistakable lantern jaw. That is, business owners could, with just a little imagination and creative assistance, customize and use them to advertise pretty much anything, not just auto parts. And we mean meaning anything.
Chicken Boy, America's kookiest — and most nightmarish, depending on your feelings toward poultry statuary — customized Muffler Man, has been an offbeat L.A. icon since the late 1960s (not counting a 23-year hiatus). The chicken-headed, bucket-clutching statue's first perch was atop a downtown fried chicken joint along Broadway, then a part of historic Route 66. When the Chicken Boy restaurant was shuttered in 1984, its mascot was plucked from potential demise by graphic designer Amy Inouye, who, unsure what to do with a 22-foot-tall fiberglass statue of a man with a chicken head, placed him into storage for over two decades. Following a prolonged permitting struggle, the so-called "Statue of Liberty of Los Angeles" was at long-last awakened from his slumber in 2007 and installed by Inouye and artist Stewart Rappaport atop their design studio on Figueroa Avenue (also part of old Route 66) in Highland Park, not too farm from Chicken Boy’s original downtown digs. Bestowed with a Governor's Historic Preservation Award in 2010, Chicken Boy no longer hawks fried chicken. However, you can pick up Chicken Boy merch and other wacky SoCal souvenirs at Future Studio Gallery — and the enchiladas con pollo served at the Mexican restaurant next door aren't too shabby, either.
Gemini Giant in Wilmington, Illinois
The Gemini Giant is a silent space age sentinel standing guard over a long-shuttered roadside eatery. (Photo: Anne Swoboda/flickr)
It's to little surprise that the mighty Muffler Man made his motorist-snaring debut in the early 1960s along U.S. Route 66 — at the Paul Bunyan Café in Flagstaff, Arizona, to be exact. After all, the fabled eight-state highway — "America's Mother Road," if you will — was a 2,451-mile-long strand of naturally stunning — and mind-numbingly dull — landscapes dotted with cheap motels awash in neon lights, greasy roadside diners, rowdy taverns and pool halls, drive-in theaters, curio shops and wacky diversions galore. Twenty-foot-plus-tall giants advertising sundry attractions and services (often auto-related, thus, the Muffler Men moniker) stood apart...and also blended right in.
The stretch of historic Route 66 bisecting Illinois was once home to a small army of Muffler Men, with only a small handful remaining. Among the survivors is the Gemini Giant, a modified astronaut Muffler Man who cradles a rocket ship in his herculean hands. Clad in a green jumpsuit (like a true Muffler Man, he's wearing short-sleeves that show off his beefy forearms) and a headpiece that looks more like a welding helmet than something one would wear while exploring outer space, the Gemini Giant has towered over the town of Wilmington's family-owned Launching Pad drive-in since 1965. Several years ago, the Launching Pad closed after decades of slinging greasy grub — and top-notch milkshakes, apparently — to both locals and roadside architecture enthusiasts who traveled from near and far to pay their respects to one of old Route 66's last remaining fiberglass behemoths. The Gemini Giant, a silent space age sentinel standing guard over a long-shuttered roadside eatery, has not achieved lift-off to another location. For now, and perhaps forever, tiny Wilmington, also home to a brontosaurus-topped gas station, historic movie theater and annual catfish festival, is this space traveler's earthly home.
The Wilson's Carpet Man in Jersey City, New Jersey
This Muffler Man marks the entrance to 'North New Jersey's premier floor covering retailer.' (Photo: Kai Schreiber/flickr)
Even if you've never actually set foot in the Garden State, there's a good chance you've made the 95-second commute from Manhattan to the northern reaches of suburban Essex County via the New Jersey Turnpike at least once in your life. Traveling in a 1999 Chevrolet Suburban, you emerge from the north tube of the Lincoln Tunnel into a vast industrial wasteland dominated by rail yards, refineries, traffic-choked bridges and jetliners roaring over the Meadowlands. The Statue of Liberty is visible in the distance. You exit the Turnpike. You pass by cemeteries, banks, meat markets, pizza joints and homes with lawns — and property values — that gradually increase in size the further you travel away from the city. The relentless grit soon gives way to a landscape that's more bucolic in nature. You pull into a steep driveway leading up to a five-bedroom brick McMansion — the finest home that a career in solid waste management can buy.
Those who have retraced the journey taken by the world’s most beloved Prozac-popping mob boss during the opening credits of "The Sopranos" would have also passed Wilson's Carpet Warehouse, a Jersey City establishment — "North New Jersey's premier floor covering retailer" — that's home to the Tri-State's most famous Muffler Man. Clutching a massive roll of green carpeting outfitted with an LED sign instead of a muffler, this towering fiberglass fella is almost pure Jersey. He just needs to lose the cap and apply some hair gel. "You could never put something like him up now, with so many rules and regulations about everything," Norm Wilson told the New York Times of the carpet-hawking giant who's lived under the Pulaski Skyway since 1990 (Wilson reportedly purchased the statute in 1974 for $5,000 and used it for roadside advertising purposes at his store’s previous location), only to achieve international stardom nine years later when he first flashed by the window of Tony Soprano's burgundy Suburban.
The Muffler Man of Merced, California
This muffler(less) man in Merced has a mysterious origin but stands watch over his patch of the Central Yosemite Highway. (Photo: jason shultz/flickr)
California is lucky enough to be home to a legion of super-tall fiberglass gents, many of them still promoting a business: There's fair-haired, golf club-clutching Edwin of the El Monte Sign Company; Sergio of East L.A.'s Automobile Alley is so very dashing in his black and white checkerboard shirt; Tony of Tony’s Transmissions in City Terrace is all gussied up in a bow tie; Babe of Babe's Muffler & Lighting in San Jose, gasp, holds a real muffler (and sometimes a hockey stick); and, last but not least, there's a Muffler Man, who, after decades of towering over the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu as a soda jerk, was outfitted with a mustache, sombrero, serape and huarache sandals. Reborn (thanks to the handiwork of Texas kitsch sculptor extraordinaire, Bob Wade) in the late 1980s with the name "El Salasero" to promote the burrito joint that moved into the space previously occupied by a Fosters Freeze outpost, the burger in the modified Muffler Man's outstretched hands was transformed into a platter.
And then there's the mysterious Muffler Man of Merced. Sporting white pants, a pink (it's safe to assume they were once red) short-sleeve button-down and a mustache that falls somewhere between Tom Selleck and John Waters, Merced's Muffler Man doesn't have a name, his origins are murky and his weathered hands are empty. He stands on the edge of town off of Central Yosemite Highway, opposite train tracks and a power substation. Presumably, he belongs to the Merced Agricultural Museum although a 20-foot-tall statue of a mustachioed auto parts salesman seems a touch random for a sleepy agriculture museum in the San Joaquin Valley. But whatever gets motorists to slow down and pull over...and Merced's Muffler Man is a particularly handsome specimen despite looking a little worse for the wear. Adding a scythe and a straw hat would give his life more direction but we dig this unadorned dude's enigmatic appeal.
Rumford's Paul Bunyan in Rumford, Maine
Rumford, Maine is certainly overflowing with Bunyan pride. Not only do they have their own Paul Bunyan Muffler Man, the town held a Paul Bunyan Lumberjack Festival in 2013 and 2014. (Photo: Doug Kerr/flickr)
Given that America's inaugural Muffler Man was a plus-sized lumberjack that towered over Route 66 advertising cheap eats to passing motorists, it's only appropriate that this list includes a classic fiberglass Paul Bunyan statue produced, of course, by International Fiberglass in the 1960s. And while he may not be the first of his kind, Rumford, Maine's beloved Bunyan is a fine-looking fella who certainly seems right at home presiding over a woodsy New England mill town that's home to less than 6,000 residents and the tallest waterfall east of Niagara. Added bonus: in recent years, the pancake-scarfing, topography-altering woodsman has been joined at the Rumford Information Center on Bridge Street by none other than his trusty, unnaturally hued companion, Babe the Blue Ox. Previously, Babe stood several blocks away in front of a Rite-Aid pharmacy.
While Rumford is certainly overflowing with Bunyan pride — the town held a Paul Bunyan Lumberjack Festival, complete with ax-throwing contest and evening hoedown, in 2013 and 2014 — it's worth noting that America's most beloved logging laborer with superhuman strength was "born" over 100 miles away in the city of Bangor. (Oscoda, Michigan, and several towns in Minnesota would very much beg to differ.) And you better believe that Bangor, the 19th century "lumber capital of the world," also has a very large statue in the likeness of Paul Bunyan. While several feet taller than Rumford's Bunyan, Bangor's wide-grinning Bunyan, designed by J. Normand Marin and installed in 1959, isn't a true Muffler Man. And despite recent efforts to reunite him with Babe, Bangor's Bunyan, for now, remains oxen-free.
Tall Paul in Atlanta, Illinois
Tall Paul once stood sentry over a fast-food joint in suburban Chicago. (Photo: Maggie/flickr)
One of America's most iconic Muffler Men isn't even holding a muffler. Or even an ax. So what, you may ask, is being cradled in the massive outstretched palms of Atlanta, Illinois's most photogenic citizen? A hot dog.
An early creation of International Fiberglass, Tall Paul, formerly known as "the Hot Dog Man," is an odd one. Often mistakenly identified as a lumberjack, the clean-shaven and cap-less Tall Paul is actually a Muffler Man hybrid. The experts at American Giants refer to Tall Paul as a "cross breed with a cowboy head but with Bunyan pants." Towering over historic Route 66 since 1966, Tall Paul is a relatively new transplant to the tiny Logan County burg of Atlanta. For the first 38 years of his life, Tall Paul stood sentry over a fast-food joint in suburban Chicago named Bunyons — intentionally misspelled as to avoid any sort of trademark scuffle with the Paul Bunyan Café in Flagstaff, Arizona. In 2003, Bunyons owner H.A. Stephens decided to sell his business — the hot dog-clutching giant out front had to go. While Stephens reportedly received numerous generous offers from interested parties eager to adopt a 20-foot-plus-tall landmark, he opted to bestow the statue, on permanent loan, to the Illinois Route 66 Association's preservation committee, which promised that Tall Paul would be treated to a careful relocation and restoration. Even though Paul wound up over 150 miles away from his original Illinois home, he's looking better than ever and has been embraced by the residents of Atlanta. Today, he's proudly displayed in the middle of town as a Route 66 heritage exhibit.
The Giants of the Magic Forest in Lake George, New York
Serving as a sort of summer colony for Muffler Men and their kin, the first thing you notice when pulling into the gravel parking lot of the Magic Forest amusement park on the outskirts of Lake George, New York, is Uncle Sam. At 38-feet-tall, the top hat-wearing fiberglass behemoth will either make your heart swell with patriotism — or complete terror. It can go either way. Several yards away from Uncle Sam in the Magic Forest parking lot, a very large Santa Claus greets visitors with a frozen wave. But really, who needs a security detail when you have Santa and Uncle Sam watching over things?
While purists might be quick to point out that the Magic Forest's white-bearded parking lot fixtures are not true Muffler Men, you'll find several examples of the real deal lurking deep within the woods of the Magic Forest. There's an Amish gentleman brandishing an ax and bearing a passing resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman. Clad in chaps, red bandana and 10-gallon hat, a swarthy titan resembling folkloric cowboy Pecos Bill presides over another densely wooded corner of the park. There's also Paul Bunyan, sporting a neatly trimmed beard, lace-up boots, checkered flannel and an almost come-hither stare. Visible though a patch of thick foliage from the parking lot, he beckons visitors into the park with an outstretched hand. Come to me. The Magic Forest is also home to a Muffler Man done up like a clown (a pirate in a past life, apparently) but we’d rather not discuss — or think — about him any further. Also home to dozens of other fiberglass statues, many unsettling and/or fairy tale-themed, we'd really hate to be locked in the Magic Forest, land where the giants roam, overnight.
Vannah Whitewall in Peoria, Illinois
Muffler women, a.k.a. Uniroyal Gals, are fairly rare, but some survive, like this one in Peoria, Illinois. (Photo: Chuck Coker/flickr)
And just when you were starting to think that there are no Muffler Women in existence...
A feminine breed of fiberglass statues with a dedicated following all their own, the Uniroyal Gals were produced in the late 1960s by International Fiberglass for the Uniroyal Tire Company. Not too many of these lovely ladies, a couple of feet shorter than their male counterparts, were produced. Even fewer remain. Rumor has it that the Uniroyal Gals — one hand place firmly on the hip and the other outstretched in the air to hold a tire (or serving platter) — were designed to have a passing resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. We don't see it but, then again, we haven't had the opportunity to view these giantesses up close. Uniroyal Girls are perhaps most famous for their attire. Some are clad in blouses and knee-length skirts while others don bikinis. One daring muffler femme in North Carolina is rockin' cut-off jeans and a belly ring. Vanna Whitewall, Peoria, Illinois's resident Uniroyal Gal (measurements: 108-72-108), has switched from swimwear to more conservative garb and back again numerous times. In 2005, Vanna was damaged (broken toes!) during a traffic accident at her longtime home on the corner of SW Washington and Edmunds Street in front of Plaza Tire. Clad in a hot red bikini at the time of impact, the 17-foot-foot-tall quinquagenarian emerged from repairs in a less revealing get-up. Other than this incident, Vanna's frequent costume changes are largely seasonal. Her bob hairstyle has, mercifully, remained the same since 1968.
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