It was 1993 and I really don’t recall which came first, Revell Model Kits calling me up to photograph Ed “Big Daddy” Roth with his latest creation “Beatnik Bandit II”, and subsequently selling the photos to Hot Rod Magazine, or visa-versa. I do recall just how jazzed I was though. First because “Big Daddy” had been a hero and icon since I was just a kid in the 60’s, and also because I’d spent every dime of my allowance during those same years on model car kits and slot cars. Hell, my Dad had even purchased Ed Roth airbrushed shirts for the both of us at car shows back in the day. So getting to photograph him all these years later AND doing my first model car kit box, well that was like the song says, “The Circle of Life”! I’d come full circle, at least it seemed that way.
I scheduled the shoot at a location about 50 miles east of Los Angeles at a police / emergency responder drivers training facility. I’d been there many times before and the place had this great wet skid control area, polished concrete about the size of a football field that you could flood with an inch or two of water so not only was it a hoot to watch guys sliding around trying to learn to drive though it, but more importantly for me, at sunset it’s a great big beautiful mirror reflecting the colors of the sunset sky. And so on I went to meet one of my childhood heroes, Hasselblads and film in hand.
Ed brought along two of his sons, Dennis and Reno, and I think they were all on their way into LA from somewhere else, Utah I believe, with Beatnik Bandit II in a trailer. It didn’t take long to realize that Ed didn’t want to be there. “Why are we all of the way out here in San Bernadino, why does have to take all day, why this, and why that,” he just wasn’t a happy camper, and he didn’t want to hear the answers either. He got into it with Reno for a while, about some pieces he’d painted and striped. Then he got into something with Dennis for a while as well, I don’t remember why. I just tried to stay away and shoot the details on the car. Dennis and I became friends that day, and he told me to just ignore Ed and his mood, and to just carry on. At least it was still winter, and the day would be short. Even if it didn’t seem that way.
I asked Ed why the “Rat Fink” on the side of the car was so different than the traditional Rat. He didn’t seem to like that and explained to me that he longer had the copyrights to Rat Fink, he’d sold them, in his words, “to Japan," and couldn’t paint it anymore. He also added that Japan was where “real” hot rodding was happening, unlike here in the US, it was all over here. I asked why he felt that way, and then it was my turn to be his target. “IT’S BECAUSE OF YUPPIE CRAFTSMAN LIKE YOU, GUYS LIKE YOU AND BOYD CODDINGTON, YOU’VE RUINED HOT RODDING”! Yessssshh, I didn’t expect that. With hair past my shoulders and always in shorts, I took offense to being called a Yuppie. But Boyd was The Man at the time, so I thought I kinda’ liked being thrown into that group. He went on, “Everything has to be perfect on his cars, and you taking all day just to do this shoot, trying to make everything perfect, it’s ridiculous”. I told him “that I thought everything progresses, everything changes, things can’t just be stuck doing them the same way they did it 30 years ago”. “That’s why," he said, “I don’t do anything for Hot Rod (magazine) anymore, Japan is where it’s at and so is Drive magazine," (then and now a free newspaper style magazine at speed shops, etc)’. That’s when I found out that Ed was doing a regular column in Drive. Shooting the car I saw the reason for his knocking Boyd “making everything perfect” remark. But this is a “Roth” car, so in my mind it’s perfect for that reason alone!
As sunset’s magic hour light approached Ed went into the car trailer and put on his signature top hat and tux. When he came out, as tough as the day had been, I felt like an 8 year old kid again!
Now for those of you who grew up in a world of digital cameras and phones, this makes no sense. But with a Hasselblad film camera you can attach different types of “backs” for different rolls and types of film. One of these is a polaroid back. Photographers shot polaroids back then to check everything, our set up, lighting, exposure, everything. Shooting from the rooftop platform of my photo van I clicked off a couple of polaroids and as usual, stuck them in my arm pit to keep them warm and make them develop faster. I got the exposure and told Ed to step on into the shot, and clicked off a couple more with him. I handed down the final polaroids to show Ed, and everything changed! “This is the way it’s going to look”? He loved it! “I had no idea," he said and suddenly the grumpy guy from the rest of the day was gone. He truly seemed to enjoy the hell out of the rest of the shoot.
Later, after the film had been sent to the magazine or Revell or both, he called me and asked if he could have the photos. I thought, “uh-oh, this isn’t going to be good.” I said “Ed, this is the way I make my living, I don’t give away photos, I sell them”. So “I’ll make you a deal” I told him. “I’ll trade you some photos”. I knew there was an open house event coming up at Moon Eyes, and Ed was to be there painting and autographing stuff. My son was just a few months old at the time and I’d begun restoring / customizing an old peddle car for him. “I’ll trade you some of the photos and you can do some pinstriping and other madness on this peddle car for me”. “Gladly, you’ve got a deal” he said. And so we did. It was great watching him paint all over the little car, even including a Rat Fink on the hood. The crowd loved it as did I, and we became friends. I’ve still got pictures of that day somewhere, and more importantly we still have my son’s first peddle car, signed and painted by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth hanging in the garage.
Later, Ed wrote a story in his column about the photo shoot in “Drive” magazine. He couldn’t have been kinder or more complimentary. And that’s the way I think of him every time I look at that peddle car still hanging in our garage, 25 years later!
Maybe meeting your heroes isn’t so bad after all…..