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."
Perhaps even more remarkably, he's also the guy who figured out a way to market a dead whale. "To me, Little Irvy is more than a whale," insists Malone, an indefatigable salesman who could probably sell fish sticks to Mrs. Paul. "We've been all over the country and to Canada more times than I can count. Little Irvy is more than a friend. Hell, he's my partner."
Make that a "silent" partner--a fact that Malone readily admits, even though advertising plastered across Irvy's trailer cleverly fudges the point by implying the beast is still alive. (A sign outside the truck euphemistically announces that the U.S. government authorized the "catching" of the whale--certainly a curious synonym for "slaughter.")
All the hype, semantics and cryogenic freezing aside, few who peer through the frosty double-paned glass in Little Irvy's trailer are unlikely to mistake the eternally slumbering hulk for a Sea World whale catching a little shuteye between shows.
In spite of placards identifying the location of Irvy's blowhole, mouth, glass eye and other points of anatomical interest, the creature is not even immediately recognizable as a whale. His skin severely peeling (freezer burn set in less than six months after Malone entombed him in the refrigerated case), the aquatic mammal looks less like a whale than it does a gigantic semideflated tire that's lost its tread. Gussying up the display are the frozen remains of an octopus, a squid, a 540-pound sea bass and several other dead denizens of the deep. Additional ghoul garnish is furnished by a photo montage documenting Irvy's oceanic demise, as well as by the actual harpoon that cost Irvy his life.
And just in case anyone doesn't quite grasp the point of this nautical necropolis, an explanatory sign resting against the whale's flaking corpse attests to the display's educational value. "THIS EXHIBIT IS DEDICATED TO THE PRESERVATION OF WHALES."
If there is any real lesson to be learned from Little Irvy, it's probably the one about how no one ever lost a dime underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Malone smacks his forehead with the palm of his hand. "You would not believe some of the things I have heard," he says. "One guy wanted to know if he could buy a bag of minnows so he could feed the whale--I told him Irvy wasn't hungry. I've had several people ask me if I ever take Irvy out to an aquarium to let him exercise. One of the 'garden club' ladies in Lexington called the Fish and Game out on me because she claimed I had a drugged whale on ice. And I actually heard a schoolteacher explain to a group of students that Irvy was frozen but he'd somehow come back to life when I put him back in the water. I took her aside and said, 'Ma'am, that whale is dead. Do you truly believe that putting him in water is going to bring him back to life?' And she did. Christ, is it any wonder this country's in trouble?"
Shaking his head, Malone tells of the angry customer who stormed out of the trailer, demanding to know why the word "FROZEN" didn't appear on Irvy's truck. Malone snorts derisively. "Well, for the same reason banks don't paint '21 PERCENT' on the front of their windows. Grow up! A guy gets a bad hamburger and he doesn't complain, but sell him a ticket to see a dead whale and he's got to tell the world.
"We figured it out once. If we had seven trucks and trailers filled with water, a live whale would still only last in there about three minutes. Plus, he'd eat 700 pounds of food a day--you realize how many tickets I'd need to sell to feed him?" Laughing, Malone adds, "I don't even want to think about what you'd do with all the waste a thing that size could put out. Let me tell you, it wouldn't be a pretty sight, though.
"Is anyone really dumb enough to believe that a live whale is riding around in the back of that rig?" asks Malone, a man who's cashed in on the answer to that question a thousand times over. Contrary to what millions who've strolled past Little Irvy's glass enclosure apparently believe, Malone insists that freezing a whale was no willy-nilly operation, either. "People think I went out in a dinghy boat one Saturday morning, took a hook and just harpooned that sucker," he says, shaking his head. "Or that I found a whale on the beach one day and went into business the next.
"Just think about that for a minute, will you," he commands. "Hell, if you've got any brains, you only have to think about it for a second. Now what would you do if I gave you a whale tomorrow? I'll tell you what you'd do--nothing! The thing would spoil before you could do a damn thing."
Smiling smugly, Malone cocks his head toward the frigid mass of blubber under glass that's been his bread and butter for nearly three decades. "That, my friend, is the result of planning--and lots of it. You don't pull off a class act like this overnight."
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."
But Little Irvy hasn't played the Arizona State Fair for a while--or very many other big venues, either. "That whale has been around forever," says Jim Simpson of the Michigan State Fair. "To get any longevity out of that kind of attraction, you can't bring it in year after year. How many times can you look at a dead whale? It just doesn't have the staying power that's going to draw people back time after time."
State-fair observers suggest an additional reason for Irvy's slide in popularity--changing times and tastes. Noting the disappearance of other midway staples like freak shows and illusion attractions ("See a woman turn into an ape before your very eyes!"), Montgomery points out that the public may simply have grown too sophisticated to get excited over a flaking whale corpse. "Twenty-five years ago, a lot of people may not have seen a whale up close," he says. "That's changed since then. We're living in a world of virtual reality."
"The business has changed," agrees Malone, who eventually branched out into diesel drag racing and traveling monster truck shows. "The whale just doesn't do as well as it once did."
Theorizing that Little Irvy might simply be overexposed, Malone even put his star into dry dock for six years, an expensive semiretirement that set him back $600 a month in refrigeration bills. "Everybody said, 'If I were you, I'd turn that damn thing off and save the money.' I said, 'Uh-uh--Irvy eats before I eat. Little Irvy put me where I am today.'"
Because of rising fuel costs and apathy, Little Irvy's comeback never really materialized. Today the onetime midway sensation is reduced to playing shopping centers in low-income neighborhoods, and, in order to carry his weight, now shares a bill with a trailer containing a trio of sad-looking frozen killer sharks. But don't look for Little Irvy to sleep with the fishes just yet. Every bit as optimistic as he was when he hatched his weird "fish out of water" operation back in 1967, Jerry "Tyrone" Malone enthusiastically outlines his latest plans for Little Irvy. If all goes according to plan, Irvy will join Malone's truck collection in Trucker Town U.S.A., a multimillion-dollar trucker hall of fame he hopes to build in Winslow, Arizona.
Why Winslow? "I don't want to be near a Disneyland or a Magic Mountain," he explains. "I want to be out there where a person has to drive an hour or two and there's nothing else to do. We'll have Little Irvy, my trucks, the Junior Trucker Hall of Fame, Camperland and an exhibit for the kids, showing why it's so dangerous to tailgate a semi.
"It's going to be great," he continues, explaining that he hopes to finance the $150 million venture by selling shares to truckers. "It'll be a first-rate operation, not one of these Jim and Tammy Faye deals."
A consummate huckster, Malone has already sold Winslow on his dream. "We're very excited about this," says chamber of commerce head Tommy T. Thompson, who comes from a carnival background not unlike Malone's. "Tyrone is by nature an Evel Knievel-type person. He's very full of himself, and that's good." Praising Malone's confidence, Thompson adds, "You know, this idea of his is just hokey enough to work. And short of Little Irvy thawing out, I think he just might get this done.