Steph Mineart Tracks Down BIG Advertising

Photos by Steph Mineart The giant leg rises to the sky, impossibly slender and sleek, its feminine toes pointing to the sun. For years it was considered an urban legend, talked about but rarely seen. Not surprising, considering that this giant lady’s leg — which is actually a working sundial — flexes its oversized calf muscles inside the grounds of a nudist colony in Northwest Indiana. On the Hunt: Steph Mineart loves Mr.Bendo. But at least one Indiana resident wanted to prove definitely that the sundial did exist.

Steph Mineart, a Web site designer from Indianapolis, took up the challenge.

Since 1998, Mineart has traveled across Indianapolis and the rest of the state snapping photos of any big, unusual advertising she can find:

• a giant chicken outside an antique store in Noblesville

• towering bowling pins advertising bowling alleys across Indianapolis

• oversized gardening spades promoting two local gardening centers

Mineart has captured them all on her Web site, www.commonplacebook.com.

That giant leg/sundial, though, was a particularly knotty challenge. The leg didn’t sit outside the entrance to the Sun Aura nudist resort in Roselawn, a small town of about 4,000 people located in Northern Indiana about 70 miles from Indianapolis. That would have been too easy. Instead, it sat inside the facility.

“Most people had been too afraid to go inside to take any photos,” Mineart says. “I decided to give it a try. I didn’t really want to see any nudists, but I couldn’t think of any other way to get that shot.”

So back in 2001, Mineart, after making a wrong turn and ending up at the Ponderosa Sun Club — another nudist resort in Roselawn — knocked on the Sun Aura’s front door and was pleasantly surprised at how accommodating nudists can be. Staffers at the resort happily escorted her into their kingdom, taking care that Mineart didn’t stumble across any nude body parts along the way, and led her to the sundial, which was, thankfully, as magnificent as Mineart had hoped it would be.

“It was quite a piece,” Mineart says. “It was perfect for my site.”

Uncle Sam on Shadeland near U.S. 40/Eastgate Mall Big things in Indianapolis Mineart has an eye for the quirky advertising that dots Indiana. Part of her fascination with the leg lies in its innate weirdness. How many working sundials are actually giant, artificial legs? But the sundial also fascinated Mineart because of its history. And this combination — interesting history and quirky art — is what guarantees inclusion on her Web site.

The sundial first captured the eyes of big-advertising aficionados back in the late 1960s after appearing in a documentary about the nudist resort, then known as Naked City. The documentary focused on the resort’s annual Miss Nude Universe Pageant.

Visitors to Mineart’s Web site can find this out for themselves. Shots of the leg are featured in its “Big Things in Indianapolis” section. Be warned, though: Once you log on, it’s hard to leave.

Commonplacebook.com contains page after page of surprises, most of them located in the Indianapolis area. There are proud muffler men, legs spread atop mechanics’ shops and beefy arms holding wrenches and pipes. There are giant mermaids luring shoppers and herds of giant cows. Visitors can find huge pink elephants and towering grim-faced Native Americans.

Of course, visitors to Mineart’s site can be excused for asking one question: Why does Mineart devote so much time and energy to chronicling oddball advertising?

“I guess it’s the unexpected nature of these things,” she says. “Most of them are completely out of proportion to whatever landscape they are in the middle of. They just pop up where you don’t expect them to be.”

A love affair with Mr. Bendo No matter how many pieces of big advertising Mineart captures, one will always come first in her heart: Mr. Bendo.

Who is Mr. Bendo? That depends on where you live. In Chicago, he’s the towering muffler man standing atop a muffler shop and clutching an iron bar. In Sioux Falls, S.D., he’s the giant outside Buck’s Muffler Shop who occasionally dresses in a white Elvis jumpsuit and dons a pair of giant black glasses.

In Indianapolis, he stands proudly outside Ralph’s Muffler Shop near the Speedway, looking stoically down on passing traffic. Once, the local Mr. Bendo held an exhaust pipe, muffler and tail pipe. Today, his hands are empty, his right one pointing to the sky.

“Mr. Bendo is my very favorite. I think it’s because he’s such a classic example of what a muffler man is,” Mineart says.

And what is a muffler man? The best place to find the answer to that is at www.roadsideamerica.com, a Web site run by authors Doug Kirby, Ken Smith and Mike Wilkins that chronicles roadside oddities across the United States. A large chunk of the site is devoted to tracking down muffler men statues that advertise everything from muffler shops, of course, to miniature golf courses and amusement parks.

Kirby, Smith and Wilkins, thanks to a legion of volunteers, including Mineart, have tracked down muffler men in every state save for Delaware, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Vermont. Indiana is home to five muffler men, according to Roadside America, placing it pretty much in the middle as far as state rankings go.

But back to the question of what a muffler man is. Roadside America sums it up this way: They are fiberglass statues standing 18 to 25 feet tall. They usually boast well-chiseled features, including the traditional lantern-shaped jaw. They come in different types: The Classic variety sports jet black hair and a steely gaze. The “Bunyan” version is similar but also includes a dark beard and a molded wool cap. There is the “Indian,” of course, and even the “Happy Halfwit.” With their gap-teeth, oversized ears and straw hats, the Halfwits, according to Roadside America, are sort of the comic-relief version of the usually stern muffler man species.

Mineart’s Mr. Bendo is not particularly unique. Similar Mr. Bendos exist across the country and the owner of Ralph’s Muffler Shop told Mineart that he has three more Mr. Bendo statues in his business’ basement. Zoning difficulties have prevented this entrepreneur from displaying all four of his Bendos at once.

Bendo fans can take heart, though, in the fact that zoning difficulties aside, the muffler man has a lot of fans. The business owner told Mineart that he once had a fire at his muffler shop. The firefighters trying to save the building continually watered down Mr. Bendo to stop him from igniting. Their work paid off, and motorists can still stare at Mr. Bendo in all his glory.

Wagon Wheel Liquors in Fortville,Ind Headless chickens and other oddities Since creating commonplacebook.com, Mineart has received a steady stream of fan mail, much of it alerting her to giant cows, oversized ears of corn or other muffler men.

Mineart responds to these tips as often as she can, frequently planning weekend trips to capture pieces missing from her online portfolio. Some of her finds, though, will always remain a mystery. Mineart finds that owners frequently have no notion of their sign’s history.

“Of course, the owners are more concerned with how well the signs get people to remember their businesses,” Mineart says. “I don’t always remember the name, but I usually do remember what the business sells or does. You have to admit that these signs do attract attention. They are entertaining enough so that people enjoy them. Often they’ll cause people to stop and visit just so they can ask about the weird figure out front.”

Mineart first started photographing odd advertising while taking a trip to Arizona in 1998. As she and her friends motored down old Route 66, Mineart snapped shots of such notable figures as a towering Indian standing just outside of Oklahoma City and the largest cross in the country.

Mineart tries to capture about 10 new pieces of big advertising every year. And though Mineart admits that her family thinks her quest is a little nuts, her siblings and parents do pass along the occasional tip. Her father, for example, once stopped and took pictures of a giant Native American for Mineart. Her younger brother spotted a giant chicken on the Southside of Indianapolis, one that stood outside a barbecue restaurant on South Madison Avenue. The chicken lacked a head, lost during a tornado. Mineart managed to snap some shots of the fouled fowl before its owners took the big bird away.

Mineart is a fan of giant animals. Her site features a number of giant cows. Two cows stand on Pendleton Pike, one outside a shop that sells lawn ornaments, the other at a business selling trailer homes. The cows’ owners have occasionally painted them in different shades. When this happens, Mineart tries to get new shots.

Then there’s the giant cougar outside Ford Lincoln Mercury Cougar on South Madison Avenue. This cat is a favorite of Mineart’s because during the holiday season he wears a large green wreath around his neck. Mineart’s site is continually growing. In April of 2004, Mineart and her dog Spike took a short road trip through Eastern Indiana to hunt for more big things. Mineart uncovered a giant pink elephant wearing glasses and holding a wine glass in its trunk outside a liquor store in Fortville. She also found a giant man in Connersville and two different giant shoes in New Castle.

Mineart’s site contains a list of big advertising she continues to seek: a giant egg in Mentone, a giant peach near Vincennes, a giant clock in Jeffersonville and a huge chicken in Spencer. Mineart recently took a trip to Muncie and spent several fruitless hours searching the city for a reported giant tin man. But she has hope: A fan sent her an e-mail saying the tin man stands outside a junkyard.

“I’ll have to give it another try,” Mineart says. “I think I can find him.”

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