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Tucson artist honored for saving tiki head and friends
Tucson's Charlie Spillar may not have parted the Red Sea, but he has moved mountainous structures. Spillar found new homes for a gaggle of giant golf course statues that were destined for the dump. Spillar's efforts have been noticed, now very publicly with a certificate awarded to him by the Tucson Mayor and City Council at Tuesday's Council meeting. The structures included a 50,000-pound tiki head, a 17-foot monkey, a 15,000-pound T-Rex, a sizable skull and a behemoth bull. Many went to private homes, others to area businesses.
Artist Lee Koplin created the cement statues more than 30 years ago and they were part of Magic Carpet Golf, 6125 E. Speedway Blvd., which is now slated to become a car lot. "I did a sculpture that took more than 1,000 hours and it ended up in a landfill," said artist Spillar, who doubles as the spokesman for the 1920s-era fantasyland Valley of the Moon. "That's the main reason I have been trying to save these Magic Carpet Golf gentle creatures from a similar fate."
Magic Carpet Statues Finding Homes
Tucson artist Charlie Spillar has finally got a monkey off his back. It's a 17-foot-tall monkey, to boot. Spillar also has managed to alleviate the weight of a massive ostrich, a giant ant, a colossal chicken, a behemoth Buddha and menagerie of other concrete statutes from Magic Carpet Golf. The now-defunct miniature golf course, 6125 E. Speedway Blvd., was home to an array of statues created by artist Lee Koplin in the 1970s. Spillar had been trying to find new homes for the statues since the parcel was purchased by Phoenix-based Chapman Automotive more than a year ago. The past weekend saw progress with a host of adoptions, many of them to private residences. "As an artist, I know how important it is to save these statues," he said. "Our work is our legacy. It's part of us that lives on." While Spillar did not disclose the names or locations of all the adoptions, he was able to fill in a few. The monkey has gone to the Dunbar Springs area; the ant will be skittering about in the Sam Hughes neighborhood and the bull will eventually end up at O'Shaughnessy's Steakhouse, 2200 N. Camino Principal. The 50,000-pound tiki head was moved in December to The Hut, a nightclub at 305 N. Fourth Ave. Other sites around town will be graced by the Buddha; the ostrich; the skull; the sun; the kachina; the alligator and the ghosts. Valley of the Moon, for which Spillar is a spokesman, will house several at its 1920s-era fantasy land at 2544 E. Allen Road. The spider, the castle, "Goop" the alien, "Old Stump" the tree and pygmy hut will be joining Valley of the Moon's existing troll bridge, gnomes, fairies and wizard tower. "I am happy that I have been able to save so many of these unique works of art and gain some donations to help the Valley of the Moon in its restoration efforts," Spillar said. "Chapman Automotive has been exceptional in their help to us." The statues were gathering dust, becoming the target of vandals and temporary housing for the homeless. Spillar said more than once he had to chase homeless people out of the camp they set up in "Old Stump." The spurt of statue adoptions came after Spillar exhausted all public options for placing the works and sent out notices to the more than 100 folks who had expressed interest. Still up for grabs are the sphinx, the dinosaur, the octopus and a few others. For more information or to adopt a remaining statue, e-mail Spillar at firstname.lastname@example.org
'Poo Monkey' To Swing Into Neighborhood
In some parts of Tucson, the locals' neighborhood associations would have already passed out lit torches and been marching on the offending homeowner's property. But in Dunbar/Spring, it would seem, the coming of a 17–foot–tall monkey is no big thing. "It's a unique place," says Brenda Huettner, new adoptive owner of the famed "Poo Monkey" from the now-closed Magic Carpet Golf miniature golf course at 6125 E. Speedway. The red-eyed giant monkey, whose swinging tail was the hazard on one of the Magic Carpet's two courses, was scheduled to make its move today to Huettner's home in the quirky little neighborhood west of North Stone Avenue near West University Boulevard. Dunbar/Spring – a mix of little adobe houses and row apartments, Craftsman homes and assorted other styles named and not – is already home to many artists, and art fans. There's a vivid half-block-long mural with marching skeletons, musicians and giant birds on the old auto-parts warehouse across the street from Huettner's home. Huettner said another neighbor is using the Ye Olde Lantern (originally the Green Lantern) restaurant's old sign as a fence. And that's just the beginning of the non-conventional kind of folksy art that would throw residents of many neighborhoods into a cease-and-desist fit. Still, even in Dunbar/Spring, you'd think the prospect of waking up to a monkey two stories tall peering over the neighbor's roof might get some attention. But Huettner says she's heard not a word, and doesn't expect any trouble. Poo Monkey – with skin of concrete and bones of steel – was unofficially named by generations of giggling adolescent mini–golfers who noticed that, from the right angle, that the monkey's swinging tail ... looked, well, like something else. The miniature–golf course, which closed last year, was purchased by the Chapman Automotive Group. Chapman is allowing a Tucson group of art fans bent on preserving the course's giant figures to relocate them. Huettner bid a few hundred dollars for Poo Monkey, but she says the real cost will be the $100–an–hour charges for expert crews that this morning are lined up to cut the monkey from its concrete base, lift it with a giant crane and move it to her home on a big truck. She hopes to eventually make the monkey at home by building a single mini–golf hole in her yard. Adoption program coordinator Charles Spillar, a Tucson artist and Dunbar/Spring resident, says he has commitments for most of the outsized and garish Magic Carpet characters of artist/builder Lee Koplin. But it's not always possible, never easy and usually expensive, says Spillar. "You never know until you pick one up," Spillar says of the breath-holding moments when a giant boom crane first lifts one of the old concrete and steel objects. "They're all heavy as hell." Spillar is working on a restoration project at Valley of the Moon, probably Tucson's weirdest acreage, a place – maybe the only place – where the displaced miniature-golf pieces won't look a bit out of place. Five of the pieces are destined for the Valley of the Moon: Spider, Castle, Old Stump, the Pygmy Hut and Goop (an alien with huge antennae and a big tongue, the goal of the hole being to putt your golf ball in one end of Goop and have it come out the other and straight into the cup). Spillar says proceeds from the donations made by the other creatures' adopters will go to the restoration fund for Valley of the Moon, a private fantasy park that was the dream of a kindly Tucson eccentric. The old golf course's Easter Island-style "Tiki" head already lives outside The Hut, a North Fourth Avenue bar. It's lying outside, awaiting some fundraising for an expensive new base, which must be up to building codes before the Tiki head can take its rightful place there again, Spillar says. The huge longhorn bull on the east course is destined for O'Shaughnessy's Steakhouse, 2200 N. Camino Principal Spillar's own sculptures go a long way toward explaining his involvement in rescuing the Magic Carpet menagerie from trespassing vandals and a future wrecking ball. They are mostly large cartoonish birds, characters that might pass for residents of Wallace & Gromit's neighborhood. But what moved Huettner – a technical writer – to spring for the cost of buying and moving Poo Monkey? "A tough question," says Huettner. "When the opportunity to save the monkey came along, it seemed the right thing for us to have in this house in Dunbar/Spring. "Before that opportunity came along, I can't say I ever dreamed of concrete monkeys – or 17–foot–tall anything, come to think of it. "It's clearly a Tucson classic. I understand it's a public thing and part of the fabric of Tucson."
One Last Round - It's your last chance to play at Magic Carpet Golf – and you can help the Valley of the Moon while doing it
Charlie Spillar was unimpressed when he stopped by a newfangled miniature golf course here in Tucson. "It was kind of boring," says Spillar. "You've got these little squares and triangles blocking the hole, and you have to go around it. It's not like Magic Carpet, where you've got a dinosaur." Unfortunately, you've only got one chance to play golf alongside the dinosaur, monkey, tiki head and other statues at Magic Carpet. This Saturday, April 26, the course will reopen for One Last Round, a party to raise money to renovate the Valley of the Moon--which may become home to four or five of Magic Carpet's concrete sculptures. Magic Carpet Golf--the last such handmade course in Arizona--shut down months ago, and the property has been purchased by Chapman Automotive, a neighboring car dealership that has been kind enough to allow nostalgic Tucsonans to find a new home for the concrete creatures that call the course home. Plans are already afoot to move the three-story tiki head to Fourth Avenue, where it will sit outside The Hut.
A whole crew of Tucsonans came out last weekend for a cleanup blitz at the course. They splashed new paint on the concrete creatures, swept up the broken beer bottles and trimmed the grounds to prepare for the bands and other entertainment at the one-day festival, which is drawing attention beyond Tucson's borders. Spillar expects midcentury modern-design fans from Phoenix and even California to come to town for the day to enjoy a game of golf, music, food, raffles and other entertainment. After Saturday's extravaganza, Spillar hopes to find homes for all of the statues. A sculptor himself, he's been fascinated by what he's been able to learn about Lee Koplin, the artist who created the course back in the early '70s while visiting Tucson. Koplin got his start in the goofy-golf biz when he built a bunch of concrete creatures for a course in Guerneville, Calif., in 1948, according Tim Hollis, author of Florida's Miracle Strip: From Redneck Riviera to Emerald Coast. The course enjoyed such success that Koplin began traveling the United States, building increasingly elaborate creatures. In the late '50s, he began building courses along the Florida coast, including one that included a life-size brontosaurus that would stand in front of his own home. State Rep. Steve Farley, who makes a living as a public artist, says Koplin's work deserves to be preserved. "Magic Carpet Golf was never a very good golfing experience, but it was always a great artistic experience," Farley says. "For that reason alone, those sculptures need to be preserved, because there's something so unique and eccentric about them." Farley came up with the idea of using Magic Carpet to raise money for the Valley of the Moon in January, when the morning daily first reported that the golf course was slated for demolition. "This really captured one of those things that made Tucson so unique and might be lost if we don't do something now," Farley says. "It's something that for decades, people have treasured in different ways, whether they first made out on top of the tiki head or had a birthday party in the first-grade."
The freshman lawmaker has been amazed by the outpouring of support since he first pitched the idea of using a final round of golf at Magic Carpet as a fundraiser for the Valley of the Moon. "To see how many people came out of the woodwork all over Tucson--just dedicated, smart people who have been coming together every week--it's been an incredible honor to have been involved," he says. Spillar echoes that sentiment. "There's been an outpouring of support from the community," he says. Spillar has been talking to dozens of people who have expressed interest in taking home one of the attractions, although he says some of them underestimate how heavy the concrete statues really are. He estimates the tiki head weighs 17,000 pounds. "They ask if they can just put one in the back of their pickup," Spillar says. "A pickup isn't going to carry one of these things." Spillar says that after Saturday's festival, he'll start sorting through the requests for the statues. In the meantime, he's just excited by the chance to fix 'em up and save 'em. "I live in never-never land," says the 65-year-old Spillar as he looks over a replica of the Sphinx. "I don't think I'll ever grow up."
|Magic Carpet||One Last Round|
Hundreds turn out to help Valley of the Moon
Click On The Image To View Full Size
Aaron Moyes, dressed as Zoggog, the
wizard, keeps watch of his tower at the Valley of the Moon, 2544 E. Allen Road.
VAL CANEZ/Tucson Citizen
Visitors get a tour of the Valley of the Moon, 2544 E. Allen Road. About 500 people turned out Saturday to raise awareness and funds for the landmark, which is in need of repairs.VAL CANEZ/Tucson Citizen
Dr. Christine Legler holds her son, Zachary
Boyan, 2, at the Valley of the Moon, 2544 E. Allen Road. This was Zachary's
first time at the landmark. Christine is the great-granddaughter of George Legler,
who built the place in the 1920s and 1930s.
VAL CANEZ/Tucson Citizen
Tucsonan Kenneth Bain, 51, will never forget his many visits to Valley of the Moon.
Especially the one in the early 1970s when he and other Catalina High School students found George Phar Legler, the man who built the park in the 1920s, living in one of the stone huts subsisting only on vitamins and canned milk.
"I remember a mountain of evaporative milk cans," Bain said. "That, and working to fix up the place. It was overgrown with weeds. We'd spend hours digging out those darn caves. We'd be covered in dirt, coughing dirt." None of the about 500 folks who showed for Saturday's "Save the Moon" event were coughing dirt, but they were there for the same purpose as Bain and his fellow students in 1973: to ensure Valley of the Moon won't shut its doors forever. The 500 were there to share memories and ideas and volunteer on how to save the unique park.
Legler was definitely there in spirit, folks said, while his great-great-grandson, 2-year-old Zachary Boyan, was there in person. Throngs of past and current witches, gnomes, fairy princesses, folks dressed in bloody zombie gowns or flowing hippie garb also packed the park at 2544 E. Allen Road, northeast of Prince and Country Club roads, where they took a final tour of the Enchanted Garden, next to the room where Legler had been found. With the help of the teens, Legler had been moved into an apartment, Bain said, and eventually a nursing home. Valley of the Moon, known familiarly as "the Moon," will be closing for renovations but hopefully not forever, said spokesman Charlie Spillar. The length of the closing depends on how many volunteers and how much in funds come forward. He estimated the George Phar Legler Society needed about $500,000 to restore the Moon's rabbit hole, troll bridge, wizard tower and dozens of other 85-year-old crumbling structures.
Development chairman Don Kolowski, who got "sucked in" to the magic of the Moon two years ago, said the fate of the fairlyland has been meandering back and forth for some time. "We're hoping tonight's going to be a right angle for us," he said on Saturday. When Leann Olson, 16, heard the Moon was in jeopardy, she wanted to cry. On Saturday she still wanted to cry, because she could not imagine life without the sanctuary.
"I love, love the Moon," said the teen, who used to count the fairies in the trees and still spots a few. She may also have the distinction of being the youngest person to visit the Moon. She went there before she was born.
Her mom was playing the part of the fairy princess in one of the shows while seven months pregnant. "We have three generations who have enjoyed this place," said Olson's grandmother Becky Dodson, 57. The family of James Michael Brin III is another with deep ties to the Moon. His dad was a troll. His mother was a witch. He was in the kids' acting troupe. His uncle, who recently died, was on the Legler Society board for many years. "Coming here today is a tribute to him," said Brin, 26. He also wanted to introduce his 15-month-old son, James Michael Brin IV, to the Moon"s magic.
Black Man Clay, a local musician whose band is a regular performer on the ancient
stage, said the Moon has helped his creativity. "I'd walk through the pathways
and see all different instruments," he said of the dangling metal that can serve
as chimes when hit with a stick. "What a mind," he said of Legler. "It's inspired
me." Athena Sosa-Quintana, 17, said the Moon may have saved her life. She said
she first went to the Moon about two years ago to escape from a home filled
with drugs. She said she fell into the drug trap herself, but has clawed her
way out and has been sober for three months. She credits the Moon for aiding
"It's a second home," she said, "a safe haven from everything."
Trouble in Wonderland ~ The quest to save the Valley of the Moon continues
George Phar Legler and his friends built the Valley of the Moon, but the imaginary kingdom needs a trove of treasure so it can be restored to its former glory. Once upon a time, in a land near the river, a kindly old mountain gnome built a magic kingdom he named the Valley of the Moon. Over the decades, as a metropolis sprung up around its borders, many, many creatures would cross the threshold into the Valley of the Moon.
George Phar Legler and his friends built the
Valley of the Moon, but the imaginary kingdom needs a trove of treasure so it
can be restored to its former glory.
Laura Hassett/Tucson Weekly
There were sprites and elves and princesses. There were dragons and goblins and trolls. There were witches and mad scientists and even performing bunnies. And there were children, thousands of children, and those who were still young at heart. If you have visited the Valley of the Moon, you've learned about the power of fairies and the dangers of greed. In the springtime, you might have met a little lost girl named Alice and the curious crew she came across when she tumbled through a certain looking glass. And if you were lucky enough to stop by near the time of All Hallow's Eve, you may have met an avaricious alchemist, an evil wizard and a doctor who pulled something very, very nasty out of a little boy's nose. But all these residents of the Valley of the Moon face a very grave danger, for the kingdom is falling into ruin, and its gates are shut until its champions can find a way to restore its vanishing glory. Legend has it that four score and a couple of years ago (give or take), George Phar Legler set out to build a fantasyland on the edge of town--which today has a most mundane address of 2544 E. Allen Road. Charlie Spillar, who is one of the stewards of the Valley of the Moon, spins quite a tale about George as he makes his way through the dusty pathways to the Enchanted Garden.
As Charlie tells the story, George was a spiritualist who believed that fairies and spirits were all around us, invisible to most eyes but doing very important work. "He believed that right up until the day he died," says Charlie. "I'll tell you what: If fairies existed, they were here." Sometime around 1920, George made the acquaintance of a young girl who was dying from consumption. He built her a replica of a tiny mountain with a lake and waterfall outside her bedroom window, telling her she could transport herself to that magical land whenever she was feeling down. When he learned how the diorama cheered the spirit of the sickly girl, George went to work on his little two-acre patch of desert with the help of friends and hobos who needed a decent meal and a place to sleep. Together, they hauled rocks up from the riverbed and mixed concrete to build small castles and towers. They dug grottos and created hills. They filled small pools with water and assembled a stage and amphitheater. When George was finally ready to receive visitors at his private park, he put a sign out front welcoming people to the "Valley of the Moon, Tucson's Picture in the Third Dimension and Mental Health Center." In the early 1930s, George--who would come to call himself the Old Mountain Gnome--began giving guided tours of the Valley of the Moon on Friday nights, igniting the imagination of children with stories of fairies and magic. Dressed in black from head to toe, including a veil that covered his face, he led them past the Wizard's Tower, through Pennyland and into the Caves of Terror. Then they'd make a thrilling escape into the safety of the Enchanted Garden before the tour concluded with an exit through the Rabbit Hole. His granddaughter occasionally wore fairy wings and popped up in the show, as did other neighborhood kids as the Friday-night show became more elaborate. His message to the children who entered the Valley of the Moon: "Kindness to all is the golden key to happiness."
George fancied himself as something of an entrepreneur as well. During the meat shortage of World War II, he came up with the idea of ranching frogs. When that plan went awry--"it was kind of a folly," notes Charlie--George turned to ranching rabbits instead. That didn't work quite as he planned, either, although it led to a new performance at the Valley of the Moon: Bunnyland Theatre, in which rabbits performed a variety of tricks, such as climbing ladders and hopping through bunny-sized castles. The Old Mountain Gnome kept greeting visitors for more than three decades. A reporter from Life magazine stopped by in 1953, noting that George "tells the children fairy tales in which good deeds always bring rewards, and bad deeds are punished. He turns water into candy and makes a green feather become a snake. The children follow him, shivering at suggestions of danger but reassured by the magic pebbles and trinkets which Legler gives out as keepsakes and by their mothers following close behind." But George, who was never in the best of health--he suffered from terrible ulcers--grew older, and vandals began causing trouble at the Valley of the Moon. Sometime in the mid-'60s, he gave his last tour and retreated to a small concrete room that looked out onto his enchanted garden. George's decision to embrace the life of a hermit might have been the end of the story had it not been for a group of students at Catalina High School who remembered their visits to the Valley of the Moon as children. In 1971, they set out on a quest to find the lost fantasy land and discovered the Old Mountain Gnome, living in his tiny room and surviving on a diet of vitamin pills and condensed milk. Together, George and the kids got to work fixing up the Valley of Moon. They repaired the castles, dug new tunnels and formed the Valley of the Moon Restoration Association. In 1975, the Valley of the Moon was listed on the Arizona Historic Places Register. The Old Mountain Gnome struggled with his various ailments, but he would live long enough to see the Valley of the Moon restored to life before passing away in 1982 at the ripe old age of 97. His spirit would live on at the Valley of the Moon, which now belongs to the George Phar Legler Society. In the years since George shuffled off this mortal coil, the members of the George Phar Legler Society have been true to his legacy, opening the Valley of the Moon to evening shows now and again, including a fright-filled Halloween show that runs through most of October. But all the magic in the Valley of the Moon hasn't been able to stop time from taking its toll. Today's stewards are worried that the aging structures need repairs before children can safely return. In January, they gave their last tour and set about raising money for renovations. Charlie guesses, based on no particular figures, that the Valley of the Moon needs about a half-million dollars. He's a sculptor himself--one of his finest works was destroyed by a particularly heartless ogre in California--and has come to feel a kinship with old George, even though he never met the man.
Charlie and the other members of the George Phar Legler Society have been working with PRO Neighborhoods, a local organization that helps Tucson neighborhoods with planning issues. He's been meeting with engineers and historic preservation officials. And he's spent time with architect David Wald-Hopkins, whose firm is drawing up some plans for a renovated Valley of the Moon. One very difficult labor: making the enchanted park, with its narrow passageways, compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. But Charlie remains certain in his heart that a happy ending is in store for this Tucson treasure. "We'll get it done," he says. "There's still a lot of magic in this place."