“No one gets out of here alive…”
Sixties poet Jim Morrison’s morose musings volley around in my head as I wait outside George Barris Enterprises’ storefront, straddling the difference between North Hollywood and Toluca Lake, in what’s left of Los Angeles.
Today is the “Garage Sale” at the brick and mortar store and who knows what treasures are hidden inside.
Not only were Barris and his brother Sam responsible for some of the most memorable kustom kars during the golden age of the automobile, George was the P.T. Barnum of the industry, creating a brand and legacy of coolness that’s still known around the world.
It’s been said that icons mirror the time in which they lived.
A good case study would be the Beatles. Through the years, they exactly reflected the transformation of America in the Sixties, morphing from mop-top lads to world-weary men with their innocence stripped away.
Same thing can be said for Barris. His early work mirrors the post-war optimism of the day and his later work, especially the ’60s and ’70s kustoms, document an iteration of American pop culture and an entertainment industry in Los Angeles that has long since faded away.
The days of stars and TV cars are long gone, but I can see a Batmobile replica inside the storefront window as I wait. Then I look at the lozenge shaped cars parked up and down the street and wonder how we got to where we are today. What the hell happened?
I’m in line with mostly 50-something folks that were kids when Barris was at his peak. Gray hair is the order of the day and like me, I suspect most are grown-up car guys that built the models and collected the cavalcade of products Barris schlepped way back when. We are the kids–who’s parent’s purchases–paid for the building we stand in front of today.
With the internet still decades away, Barris employed every trick in the book with his quiver of old school media tools. Television, movies, magazines, comics, model car franchising (AMT and Revell come to mind,) as well as almost every other medium you can think of.
With his passing, this store full of the flotsam and jetsum of his life, is all the more fascinating. Most of the sale items look to be overstock of models, toy cars and other merchandise he designed and licensed over the years, although there were treasures to be found.
Any really famous stuff (Hirohata Merc, A la Kart, Batmobile etc,) was snatched up fast. I was more interested in the “deep cut” ’70s stuff laying around. The still innocent era of “Farrah’s Foxy Vette” and “Donnie and Marie’s Custom Van.” Rumor has it that all the really cool stuff was claimed long ago by family members and this was the “best of the rest,” as they say.
Motorheads, pickers, faded starlets and Hollywood sycophants rush the gate at 8:00 am and flood the building in staggered shifts. A lady easily old enough to be a grandmother squeals in delight when she sees a late-era poster of “The Monkees” in a bin.
Armchair experts rattle off historical stats and refer to Barris as a mythical “He…”
“He really had a thing for model cars” or “He really must have made a lot of money on the TV cars…”
A bittersweet feeling swept over me as I realized that George Barris’ entire life was documented in a thousand different ways. In ways that most mere mortals could only dream of. Barris left a legacy that will live on forever but today, just like an average schmoe, the accumulation of his life’s toil is disbursed, released back into the world, like ashes carried away in the wind…
They say you live as long as someone remembers you. George Barris and his work will live on through fans and the preservation of his legacy via his family.
As I walk down the street back to my car with a batch of mementos, I realize an important task has been assigned to me and ultimately, to all of us surviving car guys.
In our nutty modern times, keeping “cool” alive, is something I’m more than happy to take on. How ’bout you?
Thanks for the memories, George, RIP.