Street Smart Chicago

Fiberglass Giants: The last bastions of marketing kitsch

Chicago History, City Life Add comments

By David Witter

You are driving along Ashland Avenue near 63rd Street and there he is. Geronimo, standing forty-five feet high on the roof of Midwest Eye Clinic, holding up his arm to say “how!” to the people below, wearing glasses and holding up a massive optometrist’s eye chart. But Geronimo is not alone. Near the corner of Grand and Pulaski is another legendary figure, Paul Bunyan. Towering some forty feet over Ceds Auto Service, the dark, bearded giant extends what looks like a tire iron to beckon customers below. On the far Northwest Side, Maurie, a twenty-foot hotdog dressed in a Tarzan tunic flexes his muscles as Flourie, a female version of the popular American sausage, gazes at him admirably from the roof of Superdawg.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the sight of massive pop-art fiberglass figures greeted drivers on streets and smaller highways across the country. From California to Maine, drivers and their families were alerted by figures in the forms of hotdogs, hamburgers, cowboys, clowns, alligators and oranges, lobsters and loons. Sinclair Service Stations had a dino-sized green Brontosaurus, munching on imaginary ferns from the roof. Bob’s Big Boy had its trademark freckle-faced farm boy with his overalls and slicked-back cowlick. In Northwest Indiana, the intersection of Highways 12 and 20 boasted a fifty-foot black-and-green fiberglass rendering of Frankenstein’s monster. Complete with short-cropped black hair and two bolts protruding from its neck, the figure held a stein of frothy beer and a hotdog. Sporting a laughing grin, the figure extolled the virtues of a drive-in named Frank & Stein.
“The figures are a sight of not only entrepreneurship, but individuality,” Don Lorincz, creator of the 1987 film, “Landmark,” which highlighted greater Chicago’s giant fiberglass figures, says. “They say, ‘I am me’ and shout it as loud as they can.”

In no place is this metaphor more evident than the tie between Maurie Berman, the owner of Superdawg at the corners of Milwaukee and Devon Avenues, and the figures of “Maurie” and “Flourie” perched above it. Opened in 1948, Berman wanted to offer customers something more than the traditional drive-in.

“My original concept was to have the entire restaurant cast in the shape of a hotdog and bun,” Berman says. “But the contractors told me that it would cost too much.”

So Berman settled for the cartoon-like figures of he and his wife. Perched atop the roof of Superdawg, the statues, as well as touches like neon-green relish and cartoon-like packaging, have allowed Superdawg to stand out from the crowd; enough so that the drive-in has been featured on Nightline, in the New York Times and the book “1000 Places to See Before You Die.”

“Originally Maurie and Flourie were made out of papier-mâché, but that only lasted two years,” Berman says of the figures, which were recast in 2003. “Then we made new ones out of Silastic plastic strips, but like the paper, it did not do well in Chicago’s harsh weather. The third version, made of hard plastic, fared a little better, but the fiberglass seems to have worked the best.”

While “Maurie and Flourie” may be the best known of Chicago’s giant, fiberglass figures, the Midwest Eye Clinic’s Geronimo, located at 6254 South Pulaski, runs a close second. Featured in the film “Wayne’s World” and photographed as a phallic symbol in Playboy magazine, it has long been the source of local lore.

“Apparently the owner collected Indian paraphernalia and saw this giant figure of Geronimo on a reservation in Arizona, ” Lorincz, whose film was made as a project for the Art Institute film school, says. “In about 1966 he had to bring the statue back on a flatbed truck but that was only the beginning of the huge problems he faced in putting it up. Because it was near Midway Airport, the owner had to get a variance, and the wind and weather in Chicago made it necessary for him to reinforce the building’s roof and put in all kinds of cables and wires.”

Once Geronimo got there, the owners had to put up with another hazard—practical jokers who continually shot arrows into the statute. At first the owner would pull out the arrows but then he realized that they attracted even more attention, and so he would leave one or two in. Then there was the phallic controversy, which began in neighborhood-association meetings and made it into the national media.

“If you were in the local library and looked out the window at a certain angle toward his crotch, Geronimo’s thumb stuck up and out like a giant, flesh-colored penis,” Lorincz, who also lived near 63rd and Ashland, says. “It caused such a stir that Playboy came out and took a photograph of it.”

About eight miles North on Ashland, in what is now an industrial, blue-collar area near Pulaski and Grand, a giant bearded figure stands atop Ceds Auto Service at 3940 West Grand. The shop has been in the same location for more than forty years. But unlike the one-of-a-kind Geronimo or Maurie and Flourie, the giant figure on top of Ceds is actually one of about 150 across the nation. Because of their large size and their dark beards, the figures have been nicknamed “Paul Bunyans.” During the 1960s, approximately 150 of these figures were built by International Fiberglass of Venice, California. Designed to hold automobile mufflers, they were the “Muffler Men.” Ceds’ is one of the last of the “Muffler Men” used for their original purpose as an auto-repair attraction. As more and more of the original muffler shops closed, these statutes began to turn up in various forms. Until recently, a statute stood in front of Bunyon’s (the name was altered for copyright purposes) Restaurant on Route 66 in Cicero. According to RoadsideAmerica.com, Paul Bunyans/Muffler Men can be seen throughout the United States plugging everything from auto parts to pancakes. Perhaps the most interesting use may be the “Hippie Muffler Man” who has been given a headband, flowered shirt and patchy jeans. He is located just outside of Bethel, New York, near Woodstock.

Other giant fiberglass figures across Chicago include a super-sized red creature complete with claws, tentacles and a shellfish “perched” on top of Las Islas Marias Restaurant at the corner of Grand and Cicero. Local residents are continually debating whether it is a lobster, crayfish or giant prawn. The suburbs boast a massive cow that is set on the top of the roof of Papa Vini Restaurant, at 8900 Ogden Avenue in Brookfield. There is also one remaining Sinclair dinosaur at G&D Tire in Wilmington, near Channahon, Illinois.

But time and expense have taken away many of Chicago’s giant fiberglass figures. A giant farmer used to greet customers at the Farmer’s Market, on Elston Avenue near Irving. There was also a giant fisherman and trout, which was featured in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” just off of the Edens Expressway in Des Plaines.

There are many reasons for the demise of the giant fiberglass figure. Today, much of our creative marketing is done not in front of the store, but on the Internet. Also, the giant inflatable figure, like the doughnuts or coffee cups from chains like Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, is a more portable and less expensive way to get the “big sign.”

“I think that, in the old days, a giant fiberglass figure was a way to make your business a landmark,” Lorincz, who currently runs his own advertising company, Itchy-Brain Creative, says. “You could tell customers, ‘Drive down the highway till you see the big Indian.’ Now we have cell phones to call for directions or GPS to tell you exactly where to go. But most of all these figures were silly, and a lot of fun, which is something that I think we are losing as a society.”

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