UPDATE 3/6/12: The Fresno Autorama has officially been laid to rest. My former Fresno Bee colleague (and former neighbor) Paula Lloyd — who herself retired this past Friday — interviewed Blackie Gejeian the week before; he was letting everyone know of his decision to shut the show down permanently. And thus ends one of the coolest things about Fresno. As I said a year ago, I miss it already.
I moved to Fresno seven years ago March 23 from the other side of the country — and just missed, by a couple days, one of the coolest events in this cowtown of a half-million, or any other town, for that matter: the annual Fresno Autorama.
It was the brainchild and the baby of Blackie Gejeian, a legendary local motorhead, from a family of Armenian genocide-surviving raisin farmers in Easton, who wasn’t old-school; he was pre-school. (And until the plaque honoring him was unveiled outside the Fresno Convention Center last March, I never knew his name was Mike.)
He returned from the Navy after World War II and started building hot rods to race. Then, after an illegal race nearly killed him, he started customizing them — and chroming the undercarriage, things we take for granted now. And placing mirrors beneath the cars so people could see the handiwork, another car show staple we take for granted. That was Blackie’s doing, too.
And his work became renowned among the auto crowd. Such as the Ala Kart — which he, along with a Fresno pal, the ’29 Ford truck’s original owner, Richard Peters, and legendary customizer George Barris conjured at an L.A. coffee shop in 1957. (Two years later, AMT made it the first show car model. And I have a Hot Wheels version somewhere, in a four-car Barris collection.)
And then he started the Autorama. And it became an event of international renown, one of the biggest custom car shows in North America.
Blackie ran the show top to bottom. He went to car shows all over the country and chose all the vehicles (including custom motorcycles and sometimes even bicycles) that appeared at the Autoramas, as well as their placement on the floor. While there was an occasional driver, most of the vehicles were trailer queens — either loving restorations and customizations of oldies or one-off models, like the Blastolene monstrosities.
My favorite was a hybrid of customized vintage and absolute uniqueness that appeared in the 2006 show: the Beatnik Bubbletop — New Yorker Gary “Chopit” Fioto’s far, far far-out vision of a 1955 Ford. This purple people eater has a handmade bubble top, slanted ’60 Chrysler headlights up front, a ’59 Caddy front end in the rear, a Studebaker nose cone in the middle of the dash, a white interior with purple trim and TV screens built into the seat backs, a white-and-purple butterfly wheel, and, welded onto the rear bumper, are chromed mini-spikes with rings around them for that Jetsons flying saucer effect. And if it sits more than an inch off the ground, that’s being generous. It has since gone for six figures at least twice at RM auctions.
Barris was a steady presence at the shows; in the time I attended, he brought some of my favorite works of his: his 1966 and 1989 Batmobiles, one of the two Munsters Koaches he built, and the Monkeemobile. He was kind enough to autograph several of my Hot Wheels and Johnny Lightning versions of his works one year as well. Chip Foose was a regular in the later years as well. (I could swear I had a photo of me with him from ’07 somewhere; just can’t find it.) A couple of cars commissioned and owned by James Hetfield of Metallica made it to the show in the later years as well.
Anyway, you know the cliche about all good things. Blackie lost his son, Charlie, his best friend, in February 2008, but with a heavy heart (and after nearly canceling the event), he managed to make it through that show, and then the 50th annual Autorama in ’09. There had been talk about that show being the last, but there he was, and there it was, back at the convention center last March for the 51st. But it was half its normal size (one hall instead of two) and many of the heavy hitters, such as Barris and Foose, weren’t there. I just knew it was time.
Anyway, I went to the Autorama website earlier this week, and buried midway down in smallish type was the following, obviously posted sometime last year: “Blackie has confirmed that he will be taking some well deserved time off next year and consequently the 2011 Fresno Autorama has been postponed. There will be NO Fresno Autorama in 2011.” After all, he’s 85, if my math is right, and it takes a lot to put on this show, a lot to travel from place to place and find cars for the event. And there’s no Autorama without the man who has chosen every car from day one.
Blackie, his hair turned white, but still with a thick build, could often be found gandering around the Convention Center on his electric scooter, making sure everything was OK and chatting with old friends. There were several times I happened to be right next to him over the years, and I wanted to thank him for putting on the show. As an East Coaster, from the Land of Road Salt, we don’t get to see many vintage cars, let alone gems such as these or a show of this magnitude (unless we go to Lead East in New Jersey in September). But I couldn’t bring myself to it. I mean, who was I, after all, a mere alien who isn’t old-school Fresno, to bother him? But I never took this show for granted, and I miss it already.
There will be more of these babies up on my Facebook page eventually — and if I ever find any pre-2008 shots, I’ll tack them on here and there at a later date — but I wanted to share some shots from the last three Autoramas — a glimpse of what you might have missed, will miss and don’t realize you’ll miss:
Tags: Ala Kart, Batmobile, Beatnik Bubbletop, Blackie Gejeian, Blastolene, Chip Foose, custom cars, Fran Fried, Franorama World, Fresno, Fresno Autorama, George Barris, hot riods, James Hetfield, Lead East, Monkeemobile, Munsters Koach