Men at Work 
Giant roadside advertising mascots celebrate their 50th birthday

Mulligan Man (A.K.A. The Guy). Photo: Kevin Knight

Mulligan Man (A.K.A. The Guy)

They’ve labored round-the-clock for the past five decades, never taking a day off, never uttering an unkind word against their bosses, and never complaining, even when mischievous teenagers occasionally riddle them with arrows or splatter them with paintballs.

They’ve worked as cowboys, ranch hands, construction workers, athletes, spacemen, lumberjacks, waiters, and mechanics. With their distinctive chiseled jaws, steely eyes, and outstretched arms, they’re known as the Muffler Men—18- to 25-foot fiberglass statues found along main streets and highways throughout Southern California and the rest of the United States, capturing the attention of motorists and the hearts of the people.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of these strong and silent giants, who, with their behemoth height, are some of the largest examples of American roadside kitsch.

The first Muffler Man was a hulking broad-shouldered 20-foot-tall Paul Bunyan, created by Bob Prewitt in 1962 for the PB Café on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona. Wearing a wool cap and sporting a heavy black beard, the figure had massive hands, one turned up and the other turned down, positioned to hold an ax. The positioning of the hands is one of the key signs to identifying a genuine Muffler Man, says Doug Kirby, cofounder and publisher of RoadsideAmerica.com, a website dedicated to offbeat roadside attractions.

In 1963, Prewitt sold his company, Prewitt Fiberglass, to California businessman Steve Dashew, who owned Inter-national Fiberglass, a company that primarily produced small outboard-powered boats. Soon after, Dashew sold a Paul Bunyan to an American Oil gas station in Las Vegas, whose business doubled overnight as a result. A trade publication picked up the success story, and Dashew’s new business took off from there.

“I never considered for a moment that we were creating something that would become iconic,” Dashew says. “We were just building a business, having fun in the process, and poking fun at the establishment. The figures were controversial in some circles and considered eyesores, but they did their work well because they were different and of a significant scale.”

Dashew churned out about 500 of the towering figures for a variety of businesses, including gas stations, auto repair shops, and many muffler shops, which utilized the hands to hold oversized mufflers—hence the moniker Muffler Men, a nickname coined by Kirby and business partners Ken Smith and Mike Wilkins when they were researching their book Roadside America (Fireside Books, 1986).

Most of the statues were derivatives of the original Paul Bunyan, with different features—such as a new chest for a bare-chested American Indian or the addition of a beard—that fit the customer’s marketing needs. In addition to the Paul Bunyan figures, Dashew produced a clean-shaven, 21- to 22-foot-tall “classic” model that customers fashioned into gas station attendants, golfers, soda-jerk boys, or cowboys. He also made “Alfred E. Neuman” statues, whose goofy gap-toothed comical faces were based on the cover character of Mad magazine, and the only female giants in the bunch, a Jackie Kennedy look-alike called Miss Uniroyal.

“The most amazing thing to me is that they have become objects d’art, since those with finer sensibilities looked askance at their aesthetic value at the time we were producing them,” Dashew says.

“They not only represent the golden age of highway driving,” Kirby says, “but they’re also symbolic of a period in our history when Americans were looking for heroic-type figures that exemplified the strength of our country.”

Kirby’s website features a Muffler Men tracking chart to encourage readers to post current locations of these often-nomadic creatures, which are frequently resold after the demise of a business and moved to new locations, sometimes thousands of miles away. Here are five iconic Muffler Men in the Southland.

Mulligan Man (A.K.A. The Guy)
Dominguez Hills Golf Course; 19800 Main Street, Carson
Perched on the outskirts of the Dominguez Hills Golf Course in Carson, a 20-foot-tall oddity has been a fixture along Interstate 405 for decades. The golf course owner, Watson Land Company, purchased the Muffler Man directly from the manufacturer in the early 1960s. The statue, which holds a colossal fairway wood, is known as The Guy or the Mulligan Man by golf course employees. He’s been spotted in a variety of outfits, including a Dodger uniform, military fatigues, and swim trunks (Quicksilver produced these trunks for its summer marketing campaign two years ago). Ten years ago, the Mulligan Man briefly took on the identity of a new young golf star named Tiger Woods.

Joor Muffler Man
Joor Muffler and Complete Auto Service Center; 302 E. Valley Parkway, Escondido
He’s been shot by arrows, sprayed with paint, and set on fire. But for the past 50 years, the Escondido Muffler Man has remained steadfast outside Joor Muffler Service at the busy corner of Juniper Street and Valley Parkway in Escondido. In the 1960s, owner Don Joor purchased the Muffler Man at a trade show and painted on a pencil-thin mustache. In the past, the Joor Muffler Man has worn a jack-o’-lantern costume for Halloween and a Santa Claus suit for Christmas. Unfortunately, dressing the oversized worker became too expensive—the outfits, sewn by local seamstresses, ranged from $2,000 to $5,000—so he now sports a more modest white shirt and blue jeans uniform.

El Salsero
La Salsa restaurant, 22800 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu
With his warm brown complexion, handlebar mustache, and piercing brown eyes, El Salsero has more than good looks going for him. The 22-foot-tall fiberglass giant has managed to survive mudslides, fires, and a couple of career changes. More than 20 years ago, he was transformed from a 1960s Frosty Freeze soda jerk holding a hamburger to a sombrero-wearing Latino holding a plateful of chips and salsa outside the current La Salsa Mexican food restaurant. “We used the top of his head for the bowl holding the tortilla chips, and the top of the old hamburger bun became his sombrero,” says artist Bob “Daddy-O” Wade of Austin, Texas, who designed and completed the renovation of the Malibu Muffler Man in 1988 after the burger joint became a Mexican eatery.

Chicken Boy. Photo: Kevin Knight

Chicken Boy

Chicken Boy
Future Studio Design & Gallery, 5558 N. Figueroa Street, Los Angeles
The owner of Chicken Boy Restaurant on Historic Route 66 in downtown Los Angeles purchased a Paul Bunyan–style Muffler Man from International Fiberglass in the late ’60s. He then hired a guy to make and install a fiberglass chicken head. After the eatery closed in 1984, Chicken Boy lived dismantled (with his head placed between his legs) in an outdoor parking space that book designer Amy Inouye rented in Monterey Park. Inouye spent the next two decades raising funds, gathering city permits, and safeguarding the chicken-headed Muffler Man in her backyard. In 2007, Inouye was finally able to install Chicken Boy atop her Highland Park art studio on North Figueroa Street, from where he once again looks down on Historic Route 66. “I am resigned to the fact that my obituary will read ‘Chicken Boy’s mom,’ no matter what else I may manage to accomplish,” Inouye says. “Not that I’m complaining. Saving Chicken Boy was a pretty interesting thing to have done.”

Tony (A.K.A. The Big Man)
Tony’s Transmission Center; 3900 City Terrace Drive, Los Angeles
Tony’s Transmission purchased the Muffler Man 20 years ago from a nearby auto repair shop. With a distinguished mustache and chocolate- brown eyes, the Big Man is the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome. He wears a baseball cap, black bowtie, pressed white shirt, and blue jeans, and holds a red sports car in his hands. Enrique Calvo has many stories to tell about the massive mascot in front of the transmission center that he’s managed for the past 10 years. A few years back, a company filming a Dodge commercial rented the Big Man and hauled him away for about a month so they could film him in one of their TV ads. Then there was the time that Calvo got a call from a guy willing to pay $5,000 for Tony. (Calvo’s response was a resounding “no.”) But it’s the story of the little boy who had his photo taken beside the Muffler Man recently that tugged at Calvo’s heartstrings. “He was about 10 years old, and he was autistic,” says Calvo. “All he wanted was to touch the Muffler Man, and when he did, his smile was so big and really genuine. Seeing the delight that our guy gave this little kid really touched my heart.”

Kim Kabar is a freelance writer in Long Beach.

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