Published stories from George Miller, a journalist, photographer, educator, carpenter, world traveler, dog-lover and home owner. You can reach him at

Friday, September 09, 2005

The fun-loving '50s are back, at the Hot-rod Hoedown

From the 9.9.05 Daily News:

SOME PEOPLE have the slicked-back pompadours, rolled-up jeans, hula girl tattoos and a pack of smokes tucked in their shirt sleeves.

Others have grease under their fingernails and souped-up vintage hot-rods with novelty dice hanging from the rearview mirror.

And yet others just like to tap their feet and bob their heads to hard-thumping, danceable sounds of blues-based, rockabilly music.

Joe Shipley, aka Professor Ouch, wants to bring them all together.

And he will, starting tonight, at the Hot-rod Hoedown and Rock & Roll Rumble, a weekend celebration of 1950s culture - pin-striped cars, porkpie hats, pinup girls and bass-backed, three-chord rock 'n' roll tunes.

The seventh annual event brings together all the elements - music, fashion and cars - of the "Kustom Kulture" scene, an homage to yesteryear, when cars were made of metal, music was played with instruments and rebels were rebels for no apparent reason.

"That's why I do the show," said Shipley. "To get the scene going in this area."

Shipley, a tattoo artist, radio DJ and pop culture kitsch collector, started the show in 1999 after he realized he and all of his '50s-loving friends were driving late-model, home-modified, self-stylized jalopies.

"We wanted to put on a show for people who drove weird cars," he said. "A lot of car shows are just a bunch of guys watching their bumpers shine. Ours isn't."

The first Hoedown, held near the Silk City Lounge in Northern Liberties, featured road-ready classic cars with dings and dents - cars that people drove every day, not fancy rides that spent more time under tarps than on asphalt.

About 150 cars were displayed, including Shipley's 1959 Ford Galaxy.

At last year's event, about 3,000 cool cats and baby dolls checked out more than 850 pre-1975 gas guzzlers.

This year's show at the Kahunaville complex in Wilmington, Del., is expected to be even bigger.

Besides the cherry coupes, highboys, chopped tops, lead sleds, rat rods and daily-drive beaters being showcased, visitors to the Hoedown can see burlesque shows, tattoo contests, a ladies-only roller derby exhibition and lots of loud rockin' honky-tonk hipsters, including South Jersey's own Full Blown Cherry.

For three days, the little pocket of Delaware will look like "American Graffiti" come to life or "Grease" without the choreography.

Kustom Kulture - the name that loosely applies to the throwback scene - evolved out of auto-obsessed Southern California.

While car lovers have been around since the automobile was invented, the rebellious '50s culture movement was bolstered by the Stray Cats in the early '80s and then catapulted by the movie "Swingers" in 1996.

The scene hit the mainstream in the late '90s when swing dancing made a comeback and Von Dutch, a renowned pin-striper and legend among hot-rodders, became the "it" label with the young and trendy.

The scene had an underground following in Philly for years but it was the Hot-rod Hoedown that connected the gearheads with the greasers, and the old guys driving the classic cars with the young kids rolling in their pimped-out rides.

The Hoedown attracts hipsters at every level of dedication.

"You'll see a ton of kids with greasy hair and rolled-up jeans but they're driving Neons," Shipley said. "You'll find people into cars - they'll spend $5,000 on a new grill - but they won't pay to get their teeth fixed."

Of course, some people have the whole package.

Vicki Long, 21, was into the punk-rock scene before she discovered Kustom Kulture about five years ago.

"Punk girls are all about being ugly," said Long, a tall, thin redhead with matching lipstick. "I'm not about being ugly."

On a recent Sunday afternoon, she sported jeans rolled up like capri pants, a sleeveless red shirt, dice earrings, her hair properly curled back in the front and the remainder in a ponytail.

She looked as if she could have been an extra in an Elia Kazan movie.

The Fishtown native said, "This is the way I dress all the time."

And so does her boyfriend, a slick-looking hep cat who goes by the name Lucky, and all of his friends in the South Jersey-based car club The Deadbeaters.

"I was a born greaser," said club member Brian Smith, 24. "I pretty much live the lifestyle."

Smith and seven friends hang out together all the time, working on cars heavy on chrome and low on gas mileage (nothing they drive gets more than 20 miles per gallon and most get far less).

The crew tends to dress in black, listen to upbeat, twangy music, sport Vargas girl tattoos and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

"It's kind of the official beer for the scene," said Deadbeater Scott Binder, 42.

Binder, a landscape designer and proud driver of an immaculate '62 Chevy Impala station wagon, said that the movement is more Brando and Dean than Richie, Potsie and Ralph Malph. But it is all rooted in the feel-good '50s.

"The '50s have always been glorified by the media," Binder said. "That was the best time in America: World War II was over, the Vietnam War hadn't started - it was a time of peace and the music was good."

Another former Philly punk rocker, Binder bought his hot-rod after attending the Hoedown in 2000. Now he co-hosts a rockabilly radio show with Professor Ouch.

Shipley emphasized that the movement, however, is not simply about nostalgia, or as he calls it, the "Happy Days Complex."

"It's about keeping stuff that's good alive," he said.

In Shipley's cluttered South Philadelphia apartment, he has a huge collection of '50s paraphernalia: tiki dolls, tin robots, old wrestling masks, vintage movie posters and velvet paintings of dogs playing poker.

In the driveway, he has, among other vehicles, a 1951 Chevy Fastback, a 1954 Hudson Jet and a custom-made, stainless-steel camper built in 1956.

He has dreams of opening a "Ripley's Believe It or Not"-style museum and he's collected hundreds of sideshow artifacts like shrunken heads under glass, a two-headed calf, an albino squirrel and the remains of a baby alien.

"That's our culture," Shipley said. "America has become a lowbrow society."

And he revels in that.

"If you only live in a top 40 mentality, you are shortchanging yourself," Shipley said.

"Why live a boring life?"


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