I was looking at the Batmobile. It was at rest in broad daylight in a showroom in the San Fernando Valley, as if one might wander in, kick the tires and sign the papers to take it home.
George Barris, car customizer supreme, designed the Batmobile for the 1960s TV show. He had about three weeks to modify a Futura concept car with its bubble-like cockpits into the finned car that ferried Adam West and Burt Ward around Gotham City.
The replica version is on display at Barris Kustom Industries in North Hollywood, but not for much longer.
The Barris operation plans to move west to Ventura in 2022. Its six-decade home at 10811 Riverside Drive is for sale, news that rocked the hot rod world. The 18,000-square-foot corner lot is listed at just under $4 million.
“We’re already in escrow with two backup offers,” daughter Joji Barris-Paster tells me when I visit Sept. 4. “It happened so fast. Almost too fast.”
The process has been emotional for the family, akin to cleaning out a parent’s house after their passing. George died in 2015 at age 89. He’d been semi-retired for years but kept the property as a headquarters, office and storage space.
And he had a lot to store. He delighted in buying toys, thousands of them, based on his creations, not just the Batmobile but the Munsters Koach and the Clampetts’ truck on “Beverly Hillbillies,” among others. And he saved multiple copies of any magazine featuring him.
Much of that has been sold off. Barris Kustom is involved with car shows and youth educational programs but no longer takes on new projects, meaning a full custom shop is no longer needed. Which doesn’t mean walking away is simple.
“It is not easy for us,” Barris-Paster says. “It’s bittersweet. Days we break down and cry. This has been a big part of our lives.”
During the early part of the coronavirus, the family left Encino for a second home in Oxnard. As the year progressed, they decided to stay by the coast, especially as they began making friends in the car-show community there. So they bought a larger home for a permanent residence and decided to move Barris Kustom rather than commute in. A site must still be found.
“It’s not that we’re closing. We’re relocating,” Barris-Paster emphasizes.
I got interested in my usual roundabout way. The anthology “Writing Los Angeles” gave me a chance to read Tom Wolfe’s famous Esquire article from 1965, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” about L.A.’s custom-car phenomenon.
Barris was a big part of the article, alongside Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, both of them rebuilding boxy automobiles with wilder paint, a streamlined shape or other modifications that Wolfe argued constituted a valid art form.
“He’s not building cars, he’s creating forms….In effect, they’re sculpture,” Wolfe wrote of Barris.
Having spent a weekend in North Hollywood recently, I perked up when Wolfe gave the 10811 Riverside Drive address. Less than a week after reading that essay, news broke that the Barris family would be selling.
And as I was preparing to return to NoHo for Labor Day weekend, I checked Barris’ Facebook page and learned they are offering free tours every Saturday in September. Perfect.
On Saturday, I show up before the 9 a.m. opening, worrying there will be a line. There isn’t. I’m the first one there.
Jared Barris, 32, greets me. A few other car lovers straggle in over the next few minutes.
Barris shows us the Batmobile and points to the empty spot where the Munster Koach — the hearse-like car for TV’s “Munsters” family — would be if it weren’t away at a show. We see his grandfather’s old office with toy cars everywhere, the garage and the archives.
George came to NoHo in 1961 after renown in South L.A.
“Grandma came over here and found this place,” Jared tells me. “Studios were coming. Universal was here, Disney was down the street, Warner Brothers was nearby.” Barris, who had already done some film work, bought the property, a former auto dealership, and set up shop.
Photos line the walls of celebrities standing with Barris, usually with the garage doors behind them: Steve McQueen, James Caan, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Elvis and Priscilla Presley, Clint Eastwood, dozens more. Framed posters of car movies hang near the ceiling.
By the early 1980s, Barris semi-retired at the urging of his wife, Shirley, to consult on designs and make personal appearances. The street corner by his shop was designated George Barris Place in a 2007 city ceremony.
“He was a self-promoter. He was bigger than life,” Joji says fondly.
Jared, who works in advertising, adored his grandfather and spent as much free time with him as he could. He tells stories during the informal tours about Barris’ famous clients, his willingness to try and fail, his ability to see how a car’s shape or color could be modified to reflect its owner’s personality.
The company, which includes Joji’s husband, Barry, and her brother, Brett, will continue after the property’s sale.
“COVID made us reflect on our legacy,” Jared explains. “It’s a chance for a fresh start.”
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Tours take place from 9 a.m. to noon Sept. 11, 18 and 25 at 10811 Riverside Drive, masks required. Sometime after that will come a car show to say goodbye in a big way.
And later, the Batmobile will roar off to Ventura.
In writing about visiting the San Fernando Valley in July, I mentioned my deli breakfast of lox, eggs and onions. That’s known as a LEO, as reader Diane Pfahler points out. When she first saw it on a chalkboard menu, she assumed it was the cook’s name. When she saw it on a second menu, she thought the cook was moonlighting. But no, LEO is an acronym for the ingredients. She adds a pro tip: “Instead of fried onions mixed in with the lox and eggs, I prefer raw red onions to sprinkle over the eggs and lox.”
David Allen writes Friday, Sunday and Wednesday, columns that could be improved by onions. Email [email protected], phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.