What happened to the Burgie Beer UFO of Melrose Avenue?

Over the years, I occasionally wondered what had happened to the Burgie UFO. I figured it was sitting in the living room of some middle-aged LA celebrity. But I was wrong. I stumbled upon it last week in the town of Takayama, Japan.

By Mark Frauenfelder at 2:42 pm Wed, Jul 21, 2010

In the 1980s, my favorite part of Los Angeles was Melrose Avenue, between Fairfax and La Brea. The stores were like mini pop culture museums: Wacko sold dime-store curiosities and terrific art books, La Luz de Jesus gallery was one of the first lowbrow art galleries, The Last Wound Up sold wind-up toys, Wanna Buy A Watch had cool old wristwatches, Golden Apple Comics was in its prime, Maya had cool Asian jewelry, Flip and Aardvark were crowded with racks of vintage clothes.

On Saturdays and Sundays, Melrose was thronged with pedestrians, and it was great fun to meet and greet people. Melrose was a rare public social scene for Los Angeles.

One of my favorite stores was Off The Wall, which sold amazing commercial display items. The Burgie Beer UFO in front of the store was a welcoming sight, and I thought of the little guy inside the flying saucer as the mascot of Melrose.

Like all cool scenes, Melrose Avenue eventually started to suck. As crass stores selling junky clothes and chain outlets started moving in, the orginal stores like Wacko, Soap Plant, and La Luz de Jesus moved out. By the early 1990s, Melrose was nearly unrecognizable. I stopped going. There's never been a place in LA as good as Melrose Avenue.

Over the years, I occasionally wondered what had happened to the Burgie UFO. I figured it was sitting in the living room of some middle-aged LA celebrity. But I was wrong. I stumbled upon it last week in the town of Takayama, Japan (population 94,000).

I almost missed it. My family and I were walking back to our ryokan after getting caught in a torrential downpour while hiking in the hills. We were all soaking wet, and we were tired and hungry for dinner. I saw an illuminated Reddy Kilowatt mascot in a storefront window across the street and snapped a photo. Carla said the place looked interesting, but I told her it was probably just a light bulb store. She said we should at least peek in the window.

Carla was right. It was a pop art store. It was dark inside. We peered through the glass and saw lots of movie robots, vinyl figurines, vintage toys, and framed artworks. It was kind of like a mini Melrose. We were leaving the following morning for Kyoto and I was sad that I wasn't going to be able to check it out.

I took a couple of photos through the window.

We were about to leave, but I tried the door and was surprised to discover it was unlocked. A young man popped out of another room and introduced himself as Tatsuhiko Enomoto ("Eno"), the manager of Tomenosuke Syoten. He explained that it was an art store / gallery started by a Japanese writer and collector named Shinji Nakako. He was very friendly and spoke English, so we had a nice talk about the gallery and he invited me to take photos.

In the back, I saw a Burgie UFO. "That looks just like the one I used to see on Melrose in Los Angeles!" I said. Eno said, "The owner got it from a place called Off The Wall." I was stunned to see it 6,000 miles from Los Angeles, looking exactly like I remembered it 25 years ago when it twirled around on the sidewalk.

It's great to know that my mascot of the Golden Age of Melrose Avenue found a happy home in one of the most beautiful towns I've ever visited. My curiosity has been satisfied and my heart is lighter with the thought that a piece of Melrose is still alive.

Here's a video that shows Tomenosuke toys going for a ride around Takayama, followed by some photos I took.

Published 2:42 pm Wed, Jul 21, 2010

About the Author

Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the founding editor-in-chief of MAKE. He is editor-in-chief of Cool Tools and co-founder of Wink Books. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects


52 Responses to “What happened to the Burgie Beer UFO of Melrose Avenue?”

  1. Sputnik says:

    There indeed WAS a travelling Sinclair exhibit going around in the mid sixties. My brother and I saw it when it was at the King of Prussia Mall (“The LARGEST MALL IN THE WORLD!”, at least in 1966) and each got a new, still warm, plastic injection molded Sinclair dinosaur. Later, in the mid ninties, I was pleased to see those injection molded dinosaur machines in the basement of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where I immediately bought two. And they immediately broke and crumbled into dust, just like the ones we got in the sixties!
    Ah, injection molded memories.

  2. Anonymous says:

    FAN-FREAKIN-TASTIC!

  3. etmthree says:

    Those plastic dinosaurs!

    I think those were souvenir items from the 1964/5 World’s Fair in NYC. I had one — not a great toy, but the experience of buying it from a machine that manufactured it on demand AS YOU WATCHED! made it memorable.

    It eventually got brittle and was gradually destroyed in combat with other, more cross-linked dinos.

    • Anonymous says:

      I was thinking the same thing. My grandfather worked for Sinclair Oil and they had a great dino exhibit.

    • catsford says:

      I also got these dinosaurs from the 64-65 World’s Fair. What a great memory…I was seven, just before my dad left for Vietnam. I think you could get them at some Sinclair stations too because I remember seeing them made more than once (in those hot injection machines) but then again, maybe my brother and I just liked them so much we had them made more than once while we were at the fair. I rode the “Small World” ride about a hundred times I think.

  4. phlogiston says:

    oh, those dinosaurs and the memories they dredged up. I recognized them immediately and was taken back to the late 60s. The smell was unique when they came out of the machines. must search eBay…

  5. alfredalexander says:

    was slightly disappointed that you didn’t mention Bleeker Bob’s record store, but great article!

    • Andy Social says:

      Oh, wow. My friends and I would spend so much time at Bleeker Bob’s twenty-five years ago. Ah, vinyl…

  6. Rudy Coby says:

    AWESOME Article! I was wondering where that little UFO ended up!

    Melrose Avenue at that time was the coolest place on Earth – it was never the same after the unofficial Mayor of Melrose Bill Liebowitz and the Golden Apple moved on.

  7. Jack says:

    Awesome find! But you know what I continually find amazing? Even in 2010 non-U.S. cultures care more and know more about U.S. culture than we here in the U.S. do.

    Don’t know if it’s bad or good, but at least someone cares and these artifacts that be preserved.

    • Talia says:

      IMHO, a lot of what’s considered “U.S. culture” is U.S. REGIONALIZED culture. IE, its only of note to a certain segment of the population.

      The country’s so big, so diverse, and so regionally different, we spawn all sorts of interesting things. :) This means some cultural aspects will go largely unrecognized. But that’s part of the beauty of who we are as a country. Gotta love it, all the diversity.

      And its fascinating to me when these regional aspects of culture wind up with international recognition. I guess that’s just another byproduct of people traveling, interacting, sharing their experiences with one another.

    • JSLindberg says:

      I’ve read commentators on Japanese culture who say the same thing. My family and I have both made the same observation of other countries that we have visited including England (despite the well-preserved ruins all over the place) and Sweden. I don’t think that any society places a high value on recent cultural artifacts. Some distance in time, space or culture is needed to appreciate what you had.

  8. jungletek says:

    Some really cool stuff in there, that sort of thing is right up my alley.
    I’d have definitely gone and checked it out, were I in the area.

  9. clea says:

    What a wonderful gallery – and story! It’s great to see the Big Loo! Also, about those plastic dinos… they might very well be from one of those 60’s molding machines. We had one in Detroit back then, i think at the Rotunda, and holding your own smelly and still warm dinosaur was unforgettable.

  10. Antinous / Moderator says:

    I was terrified of my Garloo when I was a toddler.

  11. Raum187 says:

    I love this store!!

    Stayed in Takayama in 2008 and was shocked to discover such a place in a little town in the mountains.

    Spent ages there. The young guy (most likely ‘Eno’) knew the back story behind each item – really interesting.

    Bought a couple of Fafi figurines. Kind of weird to buy Fafi stuff in the mountains in Japan.

  12. cinemajay says:

    Thanks for sharing Mark, so cool!

  13. Joel Fletcher says:

    How cool to see American sixties robots like Big Loo and Robot Commando in a Japanese store! As for Melrose Avenue, it was indeed great in the eighties. I have a few vintage photos of classic Melrose stores for viewing here:
    http://www.joelfletcher.com/weird-los-angeles.html

  14. Halloween Jack says:

    That’s a really excellent collection of stuff that they have for a shop in a relatively small city.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Titmouse Animation studios in Hollywood has one of the Burgie UFOs on the front desk in their reception area.

    Me, I just have a couple of Kamen Rider figures and a Cyberman head.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I may be conflating two promotions, but Sinclair Oil Company (I believe) in the 1960’s in the US had a mascot dinosaur.
    http://www.sinclairoil.com/history/historys_p1.htm

    I remember a traveling exhibit, maybe sponsored by Sinclair, maybe on truck trailers, pulled up in a shopping center parking lot in some Atlanta suburb.

    It had large (well, they towered above me) model dinosaurs and an injection molding machine (or machines) that would create souvenir dinos on the spot. My younger brother and I had several identical to some shown on the glass shelf.

    They came out of the machine all warm and colorful and we played with them for years, until they went the way of most kids toys.

    • Anonymous says:

      Yep, that was Sinclair Dinoland, and it visited Belmont Hills Shopping Center in Smyrna, just outside of Atlanta. I still have my dinosaurs too.

    • bwcbwc says:

      I think the Sinclair company took their show on the road after the NY World’s Fair. I’m pretty sure they were the sponsors of the exhibit there.

  17. Donald Petersen says:

    Now there’s an earnest toy company motto from an innocent, bygone age: “It’s a Wonderful Toy! It’s Ideal!”

  18. franko says:

    i’m not familiar with LA or even this section of melrose avenue, but i believe that this same section is the one where larry’s leather shop in tim barela’s fictional “leonard & larry” comic strip was located, too. i’m certain the address was on melrose, and much of the comic strip took place in the 80s & early 90s. if this was a happening area at the time, i’m willing to bet it’s the same.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Great story and lovely photos!

  20. fricative says:

    Yep, the dinos are World’s Fair souvenirs from a Mold-A-Rama machine.

    I’d give my right arm for that wallpaper behind them!

  21. Anonymous says:

    So happy to see everyone so excited about the plastic dinosaurs! The Milwaukee County Zoo still has a whole bunch of the machines scattered throughout the grounds. You can go to the gorilla section and get a gorilla, a bat one in the small mammal section, etc.

    I had a whole shelf full while growing up.

  22. free101girl says:

    Ah, those were the days. I lived a few blocks off Melrose in the mid-80s and it was exactly as you say. How cool, and somehow appropriate, that Burgie ended up in Japan.

  23. Roger Wilco says:

    Man, I spent a lot of time hangin’ out on Melrose in those days. On one end there was a local hair salon where you could buy lose joints for 10 bucks and on the other was Pink’s chili dogs. Everything in between was a hell of a show. Great find!

  24. Anonymous says:

    Hi how much is the burgie beer flying saucer….??

  25. Nadreck says:

    Reminds me of the time I got dumped into Azio-Wakamatsu, Japan and the local Americana store had a couple of University of Waterloo Computer Science leather jackets that were a couple of years old and being sold for five times what they cost from the University Tuck Shop.

  26. faithmanon says:

    I used to get my Manic Panic from someplace down there (can’t remember where, I was way too high – Wacko?) but I shopped at Retail Slut and hung out and bought comics at La Luz. Those were the days my friend.

  27. i_prefer_yeti says:

    Loads of love for Mssrs. Biskup, Baseman, and Ledbetter in that joint.

    What a great place, gotta put it on my must-visit map. Thanks, Mark!

  28. drkptt says:

    I remember the Mold-A-Rama machines at the service plazas on the Florida Turnpike as a kid in the ’70s. Here’s a great story about their history and the last Mold-A-Rama service/sales man keeping his grandfather’s business alive in Florida.
    http://www.tampabay.com/features/humaninterest/article1015315.ece

  29. Anonymous says:

    I love stores like that but I wonder how they survive. I never see anyone buying those collector kitsch items. What and where would you put them anyway?

  30. themark says:

    I visited Takayama and the Wajima penninsula about 4 years ago but missed that little gem. I guess you guys were hiking the temple path when you got soaked. We went in summer when it was agonizingly humid. Did you also visit Shirakawa-go? What an awesome sight from the surrounding hills.

  31. bobhughes says:

    I want that neon reddy kilowatt so bad. So. Bad.

  32. FreakCitySF says:

    I had just discovered them last week. A friend told me the Terminator is a Stan Winston original. Stan Winston loaned the Terminator for a sci fi exhibit a number of years back. The owner decided to keep the statue and tell Winston it was stolen.

    I don’t know if it was rumor or not but a similar statue sold for over 100K last year.

  33. sla29970 says:

    Whoa, Big Loo! He’s how I learned Morse code. But here he’s missing his nipple darts.

  34. dhalgren says:

    Melrose & the 80’s was the place to roam on Saturday’s. What a place lost to Time. I never left Melrose until I stuffed my face at Pink’s.

    Dude I want that red bike! Whatever it is called, it is sweet!

    Thank you Mark. This store was an awesome find.

  35. foobar says:

    This is a wonderful story. Thank you for brightening my evening.

  36. Ryan says:

    You can still buy those dinosaurs out of a machine at the Chicago Museum of Natural History. I have a T-Rex on my desk from there.

    • Jack says:

      I think you mean the Museum of Science and Industry. They still have those Mold-A-Rama machines and they are amazing!

  37. AdamButcher says:

    Why is there little-to-no record of the Burgie Beer Man on the internet?

    Google and Google Image search bring up a few tiny jpegs, Wiki makes no mention…I’m wondering where he came from and where did he go?

    The reason I’m so curious is that Melrose and the Burgie Man remind me so much of the Mr Jones curiosity in Daniel Clowes’ “Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron”. It’s eerie.

    Can anyone shed any light on this?

  38. Andy Social says:

    I loved Melrose in the 80s, but I’ve been too disheartened to return ever since they replaced the Burger That Ate LA with a Starbucks. Starbucks on Melrose. *sigh*

    On the other hand, my son is now a fan of Wacko, even if they don’t have their old floor from their days in the alley. Love that the UFO is still on display somewhere.

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