The Counterculture Rat Pack

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"It didn't matter what guys collected--comic books, pinup photos, stamps, Zippo lighters. They all had that same look, as if they couldn't fit into the real world, so they had to find some acceptable subculture where they could fit in."

Stephen Randall, "The Other Side of Mulholland"

You could spot the cars from blocks away, and the people, too. The cars were loud, low-slung and lean. The drivers had big bellies and big beards. Or elaborate tattoos of flaming and pinstriping that echoed the designs on the hoods of their old cars, etched into their biceps, shoulders, forearms and backs. Some were second-generation greasers, hair pouffed into pompadours, sideburns widening at the ears, Levi's rolled up wide at the ankles like their daddies must've done when they cruised these wide-open Southern California boulevards back in the '50s.

It was a sweltering Saturday afternoon in the middle of flat Valley suburbia at the Woodland Hills Disabled Veteran's Park, and hobbyists had flocked from all over, from as far away as Japan (ground zero for obsessive people with bizarre hobbies), for Moldy Marvin's second annual Rat Fink Party and Kustom Kulture Extravaganza, a tribute to the life and inspiration of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.

Say what?

Listen, you might not know who Ed "Big Daddy" Roth was, what Kustom Kulture is, what flaming, pearling, scalloping or pinstriping are (no, they aren't a kind of menswear!) or how to tell the difference between a '57 Chevy and a '62 Impala. But to these gear heads, mad scientists, hobbyists and connoisseurs of Kustom Kulture, cars are religion, and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth is a GOD!

Dig it?

Roth, who died last spring at 69, was a car builder, designer and artist. He used junkyard parts and a new product called fiberglass to create automobiles in his garage. Revell American licensed his characters and his cars to make models.

But most of all he was the creator of Kustom Kulture icon Rat Fink, a scary-looking green vermin of a cartoon with bloodshot eyes, jagged teeth and long toenails, developed in the '50s as a counterculture response to Mickey Mouse. At an event like this, Rat Fink seemed to have been cloned ad infinitum. (From tiny Tokyo-made key rings to 6-foot-high statues, Rat Fink's likeness graced T-shirts, artwork and stickers.)

By 1963, teenagers across the country were buying Rat Fink model kits and mass-produced Rat Fink T-shirts, according to the rat fink Web site. After a couple of decades in hibernation, the rat resurged in the 1990s.

"A lot of people who were around in the '60s--baby boomers--say, 'My mom wouldn't let me buy these T-shirts," said Rebecca Marvel, who works with Moldy Marvin at the Kulture Shoq gallery in North Hollywood. "Now they can. And they are old enough to have cars of their own, too."

So what is Kustom Kulture, and are these people just poor spellers?

Jeffrey Hillinger, 44, a.k.a. Moldy Marvin, a special effects artist who runs http://www.ratfink.org, worked with Roth and runs a Kustom Kulture gallery in North Hollywood, organized Saturday's event. He said Kustom Kulture "has a lot to do with hot rodding, art and music."

"It's really about American culture," he explained, taking a break under a sprinkler after handing out 43 gold-plated Rat Fink trophies to winners in the car show. "There's surfing, rock 'n' roll and cars."

Saturday's event was about cars. Hot rodding was about average Joes with no other creative outlet finding old pieces of junk and melding them onto cars like sculptors, chopping, frenching, channeling, decking, nosing and shaving those babies for speed and style, to express themselves. They were the Picassos, Rembrandts and Brancusis of the blue-collar world, working in the medium available to them in 1950s America, the automobile.

From cars the flames and pinstripes moved to trash cans, mailboxes, toilet seat covers and oil cans. (Moldy Marvin has pinstriping on his cell-phone case.) There was no real name for the phenomenon of car art, until the Laguna Art Museum dubbed it "Kustom Kulture" in a 1993 show that featured the work of Roth, artist Robert Williams and some others. Today, judging by the Kustom Kulture Extravaganza, the movement seems to have evolved into nostalgia for a time when cars first reigned supreme.

But like any recycling of history, the second time around it has resurfaced in a form far different from the original.

Girls dressed in cherry-printed halters, bright red lipstick and vintage clothes carefully harvested from thrift shops swayed through the crowd. But they had something no '50s girls would have had: tattoos. Lots of them.

Four girls competed in a vintage swimwear contest, teetering out in high heels, wearing no-stretch, pre-Lycra thigh-length suits. The crowd chose Nancy Valentine as winner. The 20-year-old with the dyed-black hair, Betty Page bangs and cat's-eye sunglasses drove from New Mexico with her boyfriend, a car enthusiast, to win this contest, she said. She made her suit herself, taking a 21st century maternity suit and cutting it into a style she saw on Marilyn Monroe.

Why is she so into the vintage swimwear thing?

"I was born to be a stripper," she said with a smile. So demure. Sooooo '50s.

She covered the ears of her fellow contestant, a 13-year-old blond with braces from Palmdale, who wore her mother's "vintage" swimsuit. (From what year? That would be 1986.)

In this crowd, though, no bathing suit could compete with the cars.

All pre-1973, they were lined up on the dry grass--more than 200 of them--gleaming in the sun. Their hoods were propped open, engines polished to perfection. Owners hovered, touting the genius of their gadgetry.

Mark Parrish (a.k.a. "Cornbread"--because he tells corny jokes) initiated a visitor to Kustom Kulture. The construction worker, who comes from a family of mechanics and car lovers, walked up and down the rows. He can name a car's year and make from a hundred yards away. And he described the gizmos with outlandish words his visitor has never heard in this, her native country. His explanations were all delivered in a mishmash of '50s phrases and 21st century lingo, punctuated often by "Dig it?"

With his explanations, the cars came alive. He strolled by modified cars and stock cars. Past pinstriping, scalloping, shaving and chop-tops. He pointed out eyebrows (visors) and flame throwers. (They shoot out flames like a rocket. He's not sure if they're legal.) He showed off an accelerator shaped like a huge metal footprint and a brody knob (or knuckle buster), so a guy can spin his steering wheel around and around all cool with one hand, and keep his arm around his girl. (Some guys get their sleeves stuck in them and almost crash.)

He walked past tires with skirts, and long, sleek low-riders resting so close to the ground you can't see the wheels.

Finally Cornbread arrived at his own truck, a '62 Ford F-100 pickup that has been polished, painted and restored. No detail has been overlooked. There are red dice for the tire valves, and marbles embedded in the dashboard. Rat Fink stickers adorn various windshields. He jumped into the cab to demonstrate some hidden features. Like the "ooogha" horn. And the "wolf whistle"--a pedal-operated second horn that sounds a lot like a guy whistling at a pretty girl.

"Look, I can put my hands up on the steering wheel like this," he said mischievously, operating the "wolf whistle" with his feet. "So she never knows ...."

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