By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
During the early 1960s, when "Little Irvy" was nothing but a family nickname for Malone's Uncle Irvin, the future frozen-whale magnate was a used-car salesman who successfully hyped his M&M Auto Sales with the rather mystifying motto "Our cars melt in your heart, not in your hands." But by 1963, that baffling takeoff on the famous candy slogan came home to haunt him when a freeway bypassed his Visalia, California, car lot--leaving Malone with a real mess on his hands.
"I was flat broke," remembers Malone. "I owed all sorts of money--course, everyone knew I was good for it, 'cause that's the kind of guy I am--but at that time, I didn't know where my next dime was coming from. I was destitute. I didn't know what I was going to do."
The intrepid huckster was down--but not for long. Framing his hands as if looking through the view finder of a camera, Malone gazes into the near distance as he enthusiastically replays an imaginary flashback from a movie which, were it made today, would no doubt be titled Freeze Willy. "They'd just built a new shopping center in town, and in one store window was a sign, 'A WHALE OF A SALE,'" recalls Malone. "For some reason, that phrase just stuck in my mind. 'Whale' is probably the most magic word in the English language--it was a hell of a slogan."
Later that night, when a local newscast aired an announcement that the government would outlaw all whaling operations in this country three years down the line, the opportunistic supersalesman came up with the legendary "whale of an idea" that will undoubtedly provide the lead sentence in Malone's obit. "I thought to myself, 'Jesus Christ, in 1967, they'll be catching the last 200 whales. They're all gonna wind up as dog food!'" Malone muses. "Then I got to wondering. If a guy somehow got one of those whales, what in the hell would he do with it?" he wondered. "Suddenly, it came to me--freeze it!"
Not surprisingly, Malone's cockamamie scheme to cryogenically freeze a whale as a traveling side-show exhibition initially met with a reception every bit as chilly as the arctic temperatures in Little Irvy's holding tank.
Malone grins. "From the truckers to the whaler to the scientists at the University of California, everyone I talked to thought I was a kook. Nobody thought I could pull it off. But I'll tell you something, my friend. 'Can't' and 'won't' are seldom written about and never remembered. This was something I knew I had to do."
By the spring of 1967, the enterprising Malone had somehow convinced a variety of skeptical investors (including his Uncle Irvin, Little Irvy's namesake) to lend him the $80,000 to buy Old Blue, the snazzy, refrigerated tractor-trailer that would house his briny brain child. Somehow, he also convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to write a letter not only authorizing him to buy a whale from the Del Monte Fishing Company, but wishing him well on the future of his forthcoming venture, as well.
Now all he needed was a whale. And not just any whale, either. Because of the dimensions of the truck, the whale in question had to be between 36 and 38 feet long and weigh no more than 20 tons. "Everyone thought I was crazy buying a truck before I even had the whale," says Malone. "But I had no choice--when and if they got me a whale, I had to be ready to load that sucker immediately. But by then, I owed so much money, it was a risk I had to take."
That gamble almost cost him his shirt. Malone spent four months living in a motor home at the Point Richmond whaling station before fishermen finally harpooned a 6-year-old sperm whale that met Malone's specifications. That Little Irvy--whose name had already been painted on the trailer--was actually a female was the least of Malone's problems. For the better part of a week, he and his crew worked around the clock pumping 80,000 gallons of liquid nitrogen in and around the beast in an attempt to lower the whale's body temperature to the maximum of ten degrees above zero needed to prevent spoilage.
"At the end of the fifth day, he was still 22 above," says Malone. "A couple of the scientists told me that was probably as low as we'd ever get him. I told 'em we had to get Irvy's temperature lower than that or they might as well go ahead and freeze me, too."
At 3 o'clock on the afternoon of July 9, Irvy's temperature finally dropped to the optimum level. By 7 that night, the frozen whale made its debut at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. Charging 35 cents a head, Malone raked in more than $500 his first week alone. During Little Irvy's fresh-frozen salad days, it looked as if Malone's salty gravy train would never end. A novelty on the state-fair circuit, the whale was reportedly a big draw for curious carnivalgoers. During off-season, car dealerships and shopping centers paid $1,000 a week to lease the attraction for grand openings and special promotions.
"He was always a good operator," recalls the Arizona State Fair's Gary Montgomery, who remembers dealing with Malone during Little Irvy's early-1970s heyday. "He always kept his rig up and--for obvious reasons--he always kept the refrigeration going. He was what we'd call a 'clean operator'--we never had any complaints about what he was doing."