Saturday, October 3, 2009

Ten Minutes with George Barris: King of Kustomizers

I remember the first car show I went to here in Duluth back in the 80's. One of the featured specialty cars was the Batmobile. Last year, at the 2008 SEMA Show I got to spend a little time with the creator of that car, George Barris, a guy who has lived his dream, building custom cars and making them stars for six decades.

What I mean here by making stars is this: Barris didn’t approach his job of creating a vehicle as just making a vehicle. He imagined and saw it as an actual character in the TV show or film for which it was designed. His work to this day is intended to make whatever he is working on have a life and personality of its own.

The annual SEMA Show has become the mecca of car shows, with nearly ten miles of aisles and the ultimate show cars of every stripe imaginable, with companies showcasing anything and everything car related. More than 130,000 people from all over the world fly in to drink it in.

I met Mr. Barris at a ceremony where a painting commemorating the passing of celebrated builder Boyd Coddington was being given to Jo, Mr. Coddington's wife and business partner of many years and co-star of the cable show American Hot Rod. Jo introduced me to George, who graciously accepted when I asked if he could find time to be interviewed for this blog.

The interview was conducted 25 February 2009. He generously gave me more material than I have room for here... and he loved talking about that Batmobile.

Ennyman: In what ways has Hollywood changed since you were first breaking in?
GB: When I first started in the film industry in the Fifties it was a very creative period. They allowed us to do the street racing, Hot Rod Gang, Hot Rod Hullabaloo, all those kinds of exciting things that brought the young into the film industry and the big screen.

In the Sixties came TV. From being in the big screen in the theaters, it’s the little screen… all over the world. Now we’ve got a bigger audience and a bigger volume of people. It started out with the Beverly Hillbillies, the Munsters, then Batman, the Monkees, the Green Hornet, Flintstones, Dukes of Hazzard… I found out we were pioneering from the film industry into TV… creativity and fun and enjoyment in the TV shows. There were no gory things. A show like the Munsters was entertaining and funny, and the car was part of it. That was a major thing we contributed where they allowed us to put what we wanted to put into the film. As opposed to the producer and director, what they wanted. Good example: when I went in to do the Batman with [William] Dozier, Dozier said, “I want a 20th century Batmobile crime fighter in 1966. So I went in to look at the script. And what was the script? It was “Pow! Bang! Wow!” so immediately I said I’ll make the car become an actor like you are. When it went “Pow!” out came a chain slider; when it went "Bang" up went the rocket tubes. I made the car become an actor. The people loved it.

This went right on into when we did the Munsters. I looked at the script and they had the funniest guys in the world… They took a Frankenstein and a vampire and made them a wonderful funny family. Everybody loved it.

I immediately got rid of the hearse and drew up a design with three Model T’s in one…. and put coffin handles, and spider webs on it and all kinds of ghoulish touches on it that were funny. And put a little kick up thing on the back for Butch Patrick to sit in, and then also Pat Priest sat in the back by herself because they thought something was wrong with her. So we followed the script on what they were creating, but making the car become a star.

Of course, right from there on the Green Hornet and the Monkees and every one of those shows all fell right there into the trim. So that’s what made the pioneering of Hollywood at that period of time.

Ennyman: How have things changed since those early days?
GB: They totally went away from putting the character together with the car, it’s now product placement…. Instead of making the car become a star like we did in the 60s, they’ve now taken it and done product placement and done whatever other ways they had to do things to follow up on it. So that was not a good thing, because even to the point where they did Fast and Furious, it was something that was supposed to relate to the young 18-35, but it was whoever brought what car for what kind of money. It wasn’t what can we do to meet that creative edge, and that was what we called product placement. So that made a lot of difference because we lost a lot of that creativity that you want,

Ennyman: You’ve been part of the scene for a long time. Who would you say are some of the nicest people in Hollywood?
GB: There was a young man that I was doing a car for, and he came in here and he’d walk to my paint man, Mr. Tubbs, who has been with me for 35 years and he said, “Mr. Tubbs, how you feeling today? I heard you were sick last week?” Then he’d go to my metal man, “Mr. Tony, your 14 year old boy is really growing now isn’t he?” He went to every man that worked on his car, called him Mr. and extended his courtesy. And that young man was Elvis Presley. He was a kind of a man, a young person that respected people and would meet and greet people. And today, that world is with guys like Jay Leno, John Schneider, Bo Derek, Nancy Sinatra. They come to all our functions and meet and greet people, and that’s what’s good about it. They are the kind of people that everyone respects and loves to come and see them.

Ennyman: What are some of the projects you worked on that became household names?
GB: Of course the most popular one was the Batmobile. That one seems to live and be forever as well as the Munsters Koach, and the rest of them all fell in line pretty much with what we did. There’s so many great shows, My Mother the Car, and Magnum and all those shows.

Ennyman: What matters to George Barris?
GB: The thing that I really think the most of is to meet and greet people. Our family and staff thanks them for coming and communicating with us and being a part of our car culture world.

Ennyman: How did you get started in the car customizing?
GB: When I was a 13-year-old boy, my parents had a hotel and a restaurant. I didn’t like dishes. I said if it was gonna be round, they have to be wheels. And they were very nice to me. They supported me. They gave my brother and I their 1925 Buick. I proceeded to go to the hardware store and get some house paint and painted scallops on the fenders. Then I went to Woolworths five-and-dime store and got some foxtail antennas. Then I went to the kitchen store and got some pots and pans and made some hubcaps. From there, I went to my mother’s cabinets and I took the gold knobs out of the door knobs that open the cabinet doors and I put them in my grill. Which made the car look great, and immediately everyone called me the King of the Customizers and because I’m Greek, I changed the name from a C to a K. But the finale of the whole thing, here was a 13-year-old kid starting a craft, and a business, that nobody did, or that ever was done. And I was able to make it successful. You can only do that in America. That’s what I have to say. I contributed to our USA and what we’ve done in our country that made a 13-year-old boy become successful enough to where the world may know him.

Photos of George Barris, with Jo Coddington (left) and Ennyman (top right) courtesy Christina Bergstrom, Bergstrom's Photography. The Munster Koach was shot by yours truly in broad daylight at SEMA 2008. Klick on images to enlarge.


Bergstroms Photography said...

Hi Ennyman,

Great piece on George Barris!
We thoroughly enjoy your blog and look forward to reading who is next in line.
SEMA was, as you stated in your article "the mecca of car shows" indeed!
Aways a delightful show, it was our pleasure hanging out with you and AMSOIL, We had a blast.. who new you were so funny haha.
We will see you in Las Vegas
Thank's for the plug.

Bergstroms Photography

Ed Newman said...

Thanks! SEMA is just around the corner....
Be well.