Reviews of Skinny and Fatty: the Story of Yard Birds

From the Oly Blog –

“Once a bird, always a bird.”

You don’t have to be an old Mossback to enjoy this feature-length film biography of the rise and fall of the Yard Birds empire. Former employees and customers tell the story of one of the most unique surplus/retail outlets in Washington State. I should think this documentary would be good viewing for any business class as an interesting case study. Also, it’ll make you laugh out loud in many places.

The movie had it’s premier showings at the Olympic Club July 18 to two full houses. As I headed down there I passed a person on the intersection of Black Lake Blvd. and Cooper Pt. Rd. dressed up as a giant lamb waving around a sign for a mattress sale in the hot sun. It was bizarre, but a very fitting preparation for the motion picture I was about to view. Yard Birds, both in Olympia and Chehalis, was all about showmanship and making shopping an entertaining experience. I took the back road down there, reminding me more of the Washington that existed when that store was thriving. I even paid a visit to the old Tenino quarry where it looked like half the town was swimming.

In a nutshell, Rich Gillingham (Skinny) and Bill Jones (Fatty), two Centralia area men who had been pals since childhood, started a military surplus store in Centralia in 1947. Out of this grew a zany and fascinating monster complex north of Chehalis, with another branch in Olympia. Their mascot, the Yard Bird, became an icon instantly recognizable by any local shopper during the 1950s-1980s.

Impressive for a local history production, the filmmakers did an excellent job of editing and providing the right soundtrack for the right moment. They really captured the sense of cluttered fun we consumers felt when visiting a Yard Birds.

My memories of this enterprise begin with their entry into Olympia in 1959. But I still learned a few things from this film. “Yard Birds” was slang during WWII for soldiers who were sort of slackers, just hanging around, or for low status guys. I didn’t know Harvey’s Pet Store, which was next to Olympia’s Sea Mart/Yard Birds, was also part of the same organization. And finally, I never knew the identity of the man who designed the big birds and painted those weird murals on the side of the Olympia store, but now he has a name– Bing Orr.

Those drawings fascinated me, and since I grew up to be a “so-called artist,” I think Mr. Orr’s work had an influence on my work. In turn, Bing appeared to be inspired by Big Daddy Roth (Roth, by the way, refused to allow his children to read my Morty the Dog comix. What an ironic twist of fate!). Prior to the Bird, Gillingham and Jones basically lifted George Baker’s Sad Sack as an icon, but that was right after the War. The Bird was more fitting. As former employee “Richart” Tracy, says, “The Bird is beautiful. It’s a hunk of art.”

There are some great storytellers among the interviewees, and I never lost interest or felt like the pace was lagging. The audience was diverse, but when J.P. Patches was briefly shown on the screen the crowd broke out in spontaneous applause. I love Washington State! The projector kept overheating so the film was stopped for a minute or so about ten times. But far from being annoyed, I could hear people happily sharing Yard Birds memories during the unplanned mini-intermissions.

A fun documentary well worth tracking down.

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From the Daily Chronicle –

Once upon a time, there was a big store with a huge bird in front of it that had everything. It had Boy Scout uniforms, a big toy section with a life-sized LEGO Pirate man, and a pet section with birds, turtles, and best of all, this huge lizard called a Gila monster! Through the eyes of a six year old boy, wonders such as these made Yard Birds the best store in all the world. Little did I know just how much these fond childhood memories of mine paled in comparison to the true grandeur that was once the Yard Birds Family Shopping Center.

In “Skinny and Fatty: the story of Yard Birds,” producers Rob and Karma Hugo piece together the life story of the family-friendly business brought into the world by co-owners Rich Gillingham and Bill Jones; and illustrate how the two friends raised and nurtured their store from little army surplus tent to a big shopping center franchise recognized all across western Washington and beyond.

To be honest, “Skinny and Fatty” actually made me envious of the last two generations, because they got to experience Yard Birds first-hand. I mean, who wouldn’t enjoy a store where the newspaper ads were as funny as the funnies, whose owner would ride his unicycle through the hallways and serenade his employees with saxophone music, a store which, for Christmas, would deliver Santa Claus with a helicopter; a store whose pet section once actually sported live monkeys and alligators!

Running at 88 minutes total, and sadly lacking any of the “special features” which made DVDs so popular, “Fatty and Skinny” makes for a nice relaxing evening at home, and still leaves time for dessert afterward. Keep in mind, the film is still a documentary, so if you’re easily distracted from anything devoid of heart-pounding drama and/or explosions, this may not be for you.

However, if you have an interest in local history, have ever actually shopped at Yard Birds, or just want to keep your students quiet for an hour and a half, then this is definitely the film for you.

Four nostalgic sighs out of five.

Ethan Fic

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