As urban icons go, Muffler Man isn’t quite up there with Preservation Hall or the Cabildo.
He presides majestically – almost menacingly – over the intersection of Clearview Parkway and West Napoleon Avenue in Metairie. Two stories tall, muscular outstretched forearms, dressed in Saints black and gold and adorned with a golden crown. He just dares you to mess with him.
Et tu, Big Man?
Metairie’s massive Muffler Man monument is the mascot of Clearview Auto Title and Notary at 2122 Clearview Parkway. Owner Sal Mortillaro bought him in 1975 for $400 from a local Midas Muffler Shop.
“Best investment I ever made, other than my wife!” Sal jokes. “Brought business in without costing me a nickel more than I paid for him. He brings as much traffic as the yellow pages would.”
Mortillaro calls the statue “Big Man,” and its image is featured prominently in his advertising. His business cards note, “By the ‘Big Man’ statue since 1975.”
I’m a real sucker for roadside kitsch, if you haven’t guessed. While some travelers may consult Zagat’s or Frommer’s, my travel bible is the website www.roadsideamerica.com, a veritable cornucopia of tacky roadside attractions.
Maybe you’ll cruelly mock and ridicule me for waxing poetic about these gaudy roadside relics; perhaps you choose to regard such monstrosities as a blight upon the landscape of a civilized society. I, however, see them as important cultural signposts, ties to a bygone era in American motoring – a time when automobiles sported massive tailfins, gas was cheap, and there was nothing better than seeing the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.
Back then, in the golden age of motoring, the idea seemed to be that the bigger, the tackier, or the gaudier the icon, the greater the appeal. Surely anyone who’s ever driven up or down the East Coast and encountered South of the Border knows what I’m talking about.
Mortillaro’s Big Man is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such figures manufactured by International Fiberglass Company of Venice, California from the early 1960s through the mid-’70s. The first Big Man was a 20-foot-tall Paul Bunyan figure made for a café on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Az. The character’s outstretched forearms, with the left hand facing down and the right hand facing up, held Bunyan’s axe.
After that, International Fiberglass developed a booming business selling the figures, with only slight variations, to oil and gas stations, golf courses, restaurants, and muffler shops.
Big Man usually held a prop tailored to suit the individual client. Those items included mufflers, spaceships, axes, and various food items including hot dogs and tacos.
When new, the statues cost between $1,000 and $2,800, depending upon the quantity ordered and optional features (naturally, one would expect a spaceship-laden astronaut to sell at the top end of the scale).
It’s unknown how many are left today. Most seem to have gone the way of Burma-Shave signs or barns painted with Mail Pouch Tobacco advertisements – lost to the ravages of time and progress.
Mortillaro wouldn’t sell his for any price. “He’s just my advertising good luck charm. He brings the people in.”
To Big Man and all your brethren still standing – the Sinclair Dinosaurs, Bob’s Big Boy statues, A&W Burger Family figures, and countless other anonymous roadside heroes – I salute you.
What is your favorite roadside kitsch? Please tell us in comments below.
Where to see Big Man:
Clearview Auto Title & Notary
2122 Clearview Parkway
Metairie, LA 70001
Want more? Of course you do. Check out the Big Man photo gallery:
Glen Abbott, who writes about New Orleans icons for NolaVie, is a New Orleans-based freelance travel writer/photographer, with a longtime deep affinity for tacky roadside attractions. Visit his blog at www.TravelinGringo.com.