By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Drunkenly scrutinizing the advertising come-on plastered across the front of the side-show attraction, the wino bellows to all within earshot.
"Isha fake!" he says, unable to believe that the 40-foot trailer parked outside the shopping center actually contains a giant 20-ton whale captured in the Pacific. "Isha goddamn fake, I tell ya! Fake! Fake! Fake!" Staggering away from the gleaming, chrome-and-blue tractor-trailer allegedly housing the object of his disbelief--a 20-ton sperm whale named Little Irvy--the snockered consumer reporter is unable to resist offering one last warning to the handful of curiosity seekers about to shell out a dollar apiece for the privilege of viewing the beached behemoth.
"Shee-it!" hollers the besotted derelict. "Ain't no way there's a goddamn whale in that trailer!"
Inside the refrigerated trailer that's been its home for 28 years, the 20-ton, 38-foot-long star of the show remains blissfully unaware that he's the victim of the character assassination transpiring in the parking lot of the West Van Buren shopping center. But that's to be expected. Little Irvy has been oblivious to absolutely everything since the Johnson administration, when a whaler working the coast off Santa Barbara ended the 6-year-old animal's life with a well-placed harpoon.
Yet even in death, Little Irvy remains the hardest-working frozen whale in the business. A veteran of more than 25 years in the limelight--the fledgling corpse was hardly cold when he debuted at the Arizona State Fair back in the late 1960s--the torpid trouper recently returned to the Valley for a series of limited engagements in shopping center parking lots around the city. And if business wasn't exactly what it once was, the drunken tirade in the parking lot of the Westdale Shopping Center proved that Little Irvy is still a force to be reckoned with.
"That's about the third time that guy's been by here today," beams Irvy's manager from his vantage point near the small ticket booth adjoining the whale's trailer. "Of course, the guy's never actually gone in to see it. You watch, though. He'll come back again--or, at least, I hope he does. When you're operating an attraction like this, that's the best advertising in the world." After nearly three decades of touring the country with the star attraction whose veracity is currently in question, traveling showman Jerry "Tyrone" Malone has not only grown accustomed to such outbursts, but actually welcomes them. Grinning, the 65-year-old Malone reveals a not-so-secret nugget of carny wisdom. "Any publicity is good publicity," he explains. "It's always great for business when these hecklers or so-called 'do-gooders' bad-mouth Little Irvy." One man's dead whale is another man's cash cow, an inexplicable fact of life that Jerry Malone has probably exploited more successfully than anyone in history. A garrulous go-getter who seems incapable of making any remark without tossing an arm around his listener's shoulder or jabbing an elbow into a bystander's ribs, Malone has spent nearly three decades playing Colonel Parker to Little Irvy's Dead Elvis. Certainly one of the strangest partnerships in show business (the relationship has outlasted all three of Malone's marriages), the teaming of man and dead whale was forged in 1967 when Malone paid $6,000 for a whale corpse destined for a dog-food factory. Since then, the unlikely duo (accompanied by various crew members) has booked its weird walk-through exhibit in 7,000 situations in both the United States and Canada. A self-made man whose formal education ended in the eighth grade, Malone claims he's been able to purchase a home on a California golf course, largely with box-office proceeds from his postmortem Pacific Popsicle.
Modest in his own bombastic fashion, Malone refuses to take sole credit for his iconoclastic brand of showmanship. Sipping coffee in the mobile home that accompanies Little Irvy on the road, the balding dynamo traces the proud heritage of dead-whale exhibition back to the 1850s, when showman extraordinaire P.T. Barnum raked in a bundle displaying the iced corpse of a 12-foot black whale at his American Museum in New York City. "Years ago, there were guys who'd load a dead whale--unrefrigerated, mind you--onto a railroad flatcar," continues Malone. "Then they'd haul the thing around the country until the flies outnumbered the paying customers. When the whale started decomposing too badly, they'd just dump the thing along the side of the tracks and disappear in the night." Although it is difficult to imagine such a scenario, Malone insists that reeking whale carcasses became such a prevalent problem during the early part of the century that several states passed laws forbidding the importation of dead whales. As recently as the 1950s, several promoters tried to prolong the inevitable decomposition problem by floating their dead trophies in tanks of yellowing formaldehyde. One of these latter-day hucksters even earned a dubious spot in pop-culture history when the producer of What's My Line? publicly dubbed the occupation (MANAGES PRESERVED WHALE ON TOUR) the most baffling in the show's history. "You'll notice that none of these guys are still around, either," Malone announces. "Everyone knows me because Irvy and I are still out there hustling. Me, I'm the guy who figured out how to freeze a whale."