by Dewey Webb
Published on April 20, 1995
Drunkenly scrutinizing the advertising come-on plastered
across the front of the sideshow attraction, the wino
bellows to all within earshot.
fake!" he says, unable to believe that the 40-foot trailer
parked outside the shopping center actually contains a giant
20-ton whale captured in the Pacific. "Isha goddamn fake, I
tell ya! Fake! Fake! Fake!" Staggering away from the
gleaming, chrome-and-blue tractor-trailer allegedly housing
the object of his disbelief--a 20-ton sperm whale named
Little Irvy--the snockered consumer reporter is unable to
resist offering one last warning to the handful of curiosity
seekers about to shell out a dollar apiece for the privilege
of viewing the beached behemoth.
"Shee-it!" hollers the besotted derelict. "Ain't no way
there's a goddamn whale in that trailer!"
Inside the refrigerated trailer that's been its home for 28
years, the 20-ton, 38-foot-long star of the show remains
blissfully unaware that he's the victim of the character
assassination transpiring in the parking lot of the West Van
Buren shopping center. But that's to be expected. Little
Irvy has been oblivious to absolutely everything since the
Johnson administration, when a whaler working the coast off
ended the 6-year-old animal's life with a
Yet even in death, Little Irvy remains the hardest-working
frozen whale in the business. A veteran of more than 25
years in the limelight--the fledgling
corpse was hardly cold
when he debuted at the Arizona State Fair back in the late
1960s--the torpid trouper recently returned to the Valley
for a series of limited engagements in shopping center
parking lots around the city. And if business wasn't exactly
what it once was, the drunken tirade in the parking lot of
the Westdale Shopping Center proved that Little Irvy is
still a force to be reckoned with.
"That's about the third time that guy's been by here today,"
beams Irvy's manager from his vantage point near the small
ticket booth adjoining the whale's trailer. "Of course, the
guy's never actually gone in to see it. You watch, though.
He'll come back again--or, at least, I hope he does. When
you're operating an attraction like this, that's the best
advertising in the world." After nearly three decades of
touring the country with the star attraction whose veracity
is currently in question, traveling showman Jerry
"Tyrone" Malone has not only grown accustomed to such
outbursts, but actually welcomes them. Grinning, the
65-year-old Malone reveals a not-so-secret nugget of carny
wisdom. "Any publicity is good publicity," he explains.
"It's always great for business when these hecklers or
so-called 'do-gooders' bad-mouth Little Irvy." One man's
dead whale is another man's cash cow, an inexplicable fact
of life that Jerry Malone
has probably exploited more successfully
than anyone in history. A garrulous go-getter who seems
incapable of making any remark without tossing an arm around
his listener's shoulder or jabbing an elbow into a
bystander's ribs, Malone has spent nearly three decades
playing Colonel Parker to Little Irvy's Dead Elvis. Certainly one of the strangest partnerships in
show business (the relationship has outlasted all three of
Malone's marriages), the teaming of man and dead whale was
forged in 1967 when Malone paid $6,000 for a whale corpse
destined for a dog-food factory. Since then, the unlikely
duo (accompanied by various crew members) has booked its
weird walk-through exhibit in 7,000 situations in both the
United States and Canada. A self-made man whose formal
education ended in the eighth grade, Malone claims he's been
able to purchase a home on a California golf course, largely
with box-office proceeds from his postmortem Pacific
Modest in his own bombastic fashion, Malone refuses to take
sole credit for his iconoclastic brand of showmanship.
Sipping coffee in the mobile home that accompanies Little
Irvy on the road, the balding dynamo traces the proud
heritage of dead-whale exhibition back to the 1850s, when
showman extraordinaire P.T. Barnum raked in a bundle displaying the iced corpse
of a 12-foot black whale at his American Museum in New York
City. "Years ago, there were guys who'd load a dead
whale--unrefrigerated, mind you--onto a railroad flatcar,"
continues Malone. "Then they'd haul the thing around the
country until the flies outnumbered the paying customers.
When the whale started decomposing too badly, they'd just
dump the thing along the side of the tracks and disappear in
the night." Although it is difficult to imagine such a
scenario, Malone insists that reeking whale carcasses became
such a prevalent problem during the early part of the
century that several states passed laws forbidding the
importation of dead whales. As recently as the 1950s,
several promoters tried to prolong the inevitable
decomposition problem by floating their dead trophies in
tanks of yellowing formaldehyde. One of these latter-day
hucksters even earned a dubious spot in pop-culture history
when the producer of What's My Line? publicly dubbed the
occupation (MANAGES PRESERVED WHALE ON TOUR) the most
baffling in the show's history. "You'll notice that none of
these guys are still around, either," Malone announces.
"Everyone knows me because Irvy and I are still out there
hustling. Me, I'm the guy who figured out how to freeze a
Perhaps even more remarkably, he's also the guy who figured
out a way to market a dead whale. "To me, Little Irvy is
more than a whale," insists Malone, an indefatigable
salesman who could probably sell fish sticks to Mrs. Paul.
"We've been all over the country and to Canada more times
than I can count. Little Irvy is more than a friend. Hell,
he's my partner."
Make that a "silent" partner--a fact that Malone readily
admits, even though advertising plastered across Irvy's
trailer cleverly fudges the point by implying the beast is
still alive. (A sign outside the truck euphemistically
announces that the U.S. government authorized the "catching"
of the whale--certainly a curious synonym for "slaughter.")
All the hype, semantics and cryogenic freezing aside, few
who peer through the frosty double-paned glass in Little
Irvy's trailer are unlikely to mistake the eternally
slumbering hulk for a Sea World whale catching a little
shuteye between shows.
In spite of placards identifying the location of Irvy's
blowhole, mouth, glass eye and other points of anatomical
interest, the creature is not even immediately recognizable
as a whale. His skin severely peeling (freezer burn set in
less than six months after Malone entombed him in the
refrigerated case), the aquatic mammal looks less like a
whale than it does a gigantic semideflated tire that's lost
its tread. Gussying up the display are the frozen remains of
an octopus, a squid, a 540-pound sea bass and several other
dead denizens of the deep. Additional ghoul garnish is
furnished by a photo montage documenting Irvy's oceanic
demise, as well as by the actual harpoon that cost Irvy his
And just in case anyone doesn't quite grasp the point of
this nautical necropolis, an explanatory sign resting
against the whale's flaking corpse attests to the display's
educational value. "THIS EXHIBIT IS DEDICATED TO THE
PRESERVATION OF WHALES."
If there is any real lesson to be learned from Little Irvy,
it's probably the one about how no one ever lost a dime
underestimating the intelligence of the American public.
Malone smacks his forehead with the palm of his hand. "You
would not believe some of the things I have heard," he says.
"One guy wanted to know if he could buy a bag of minnows so
he could feed the whale--I told him Irvy wasn't hungry. I've
had several people ask me if I ever take Irvy out to an
aquarium to let him exercise. One of the 'garden club'
ladies in Lexington called the Fish and Game out on me because she
claimed I had a drugged whale on ice. And I actually heard a
schoolteacher explain to a group of students that Irvy was
frozen but he'd somehow come back to life when I put him
back in the water. I took her aside and said, 'Ma'am, that
whale is dead. Do you truly believe that putting him in
water is going to bring him back to life?' And she did.
Christ, is it any wonder this country's in trouble?"
Shaking his head, Malone tells of the angry customer who
stormed out of the trailer, demanding to know why the word
"FROZEN" didn't appear on Irvy's truck. Malone snorts
derisively. "Well, for the same reason banks don't paint '21
PERCENT' on the front of their windows. Grow up! A guy gets
a bad hamburger and he doesn't complain, but sell him a
ticket to see a dead whale and he's got to tell the world.
"We figured it out once. If we had seven trucks and trailers
filled with water, a live whale would still only last in
there about three minutes. Plus, he'd eat 700 pounds of food
a day--you realize how many tickets I'd need to sell to feed
him?" Laughing, Malone adds, "I don't even want to think
about what you'd do with all the waste a thing that size
could put out. Let me tell you, it wouldn't be a pretty
"Is anyone really dumb enough to believe that a live whale
is riding around in the back of that rig?" asks Malone, a
man who's cashed in on the answer to that question a
thousand times over. Contrary to what millions who've
strolled past Little Irvy's glass enclosure apparently
believe, Malone insists that freezing a whale was no
willy-nilly operation, either. "People think I went out in a
dinghy boat one Saturday morning, took a hook and just
harpooned that sucker," he says, shaking his head. "Or that
I found a whale on the beach one day and went into business
"Just think about that for a minute, will you," he commands.
"Hell, if you've got any brains, you only have to think
about it for a second. Now what would you do if I gave you a
whale tomorrow? I'll tell you what you'd do--nothing! The
thing would spoil before you could do a damn thing."
Smiling smugly, Malone cocks his head toward the frigid mass
of blubber under glass that's been his bread and butter for
nearly three decades. "That, my friend, is the result of
planning--and lots of it. You don't pull off a class act
like this overnight."
During the early 1960s, when "Little Irvy" was nothing but a
family nickname for Malone's Uncle Irvin, the future
frozen-whale magnate was a used-car salesman who
successfully hyped his M&M Auto Sales with the rather
mystifying motto "Our cars melt in your heart, not in your
hands." But by 1963, that baffling takeoff on the famous
candy slogan came home to haunt him when a freeway bypassed
his Visalia, California, car lot--leaving Malone with a real
mess on his hands.
"I was flat broke," remembers Malone. "I owed all sorts of
money--course, everyone knew I was good for it, 'cause
that's the kind of guy I am--but at that time, I didn't know
where my next dime was coming from. I was destitute. I
didn't know what I was going to do."
The intrepid huckster was down--but not for long. Framing
his hands as if looking through the view finder of a camera,
Malone gazes into the near distance as he enthusiastically
replays an imaginary flashback from a movie which, were it
made today, would no doubt be titled Freeze Willy. "They'd
just built a new shopping center in town, and in one store
window was a sign, 'A WHALE OF A SALE,'" recalls Malone.
"For some reason, that phrase just stuck in my mind. 'Whale'
is probably the most magic word in the English language--it
was a hell of a slogan."
Later that night, when a local newscast aired an
announcement that the government would outlaw all whaling
operations in this country three years down the line, the
opportunistic supersalesman came up with the legendary
"whale of an idea" that will undoubtedly provide the lead
sentence in Malone's obit. "I thought to myself, 'in 1967, they'll be catching the last 200
whales. They're all gonna wind up as dog food!'" Malone
muses. "Then I got to wondering. If a guy somehow got one of
those whales, what in the hell would he do with it?" he
wondered. "Suddenly, it came to me--freeze it!"
Not surprisingly, Malone's cockamamie scheme to
cryogenically freeze a whale as a traveling side-show
exhibition initially met with a reception every bit as
chilly as the arctic temperatures in Little Irvy's holding
Malone grins. "From the truckers to the whaler to the
scientists at the University of California, everyone I
talked to thought I was a kook. Nobody thought I could pull
it off. But I'll tell you something, my friend. 'Can't' and
'won't' are seldom written about and never remembered. This
was something I knew I had to do."
By the spring of 1967, the enterprising Malone had somehow
convinced a variety of skeptical investors (including his
Uncle Irvin, Little Irvy's namesake) to lend him the $80,000
to buy Old Blue, the snazzy, refrigerated tractor-trailer
that would house his briny brain child. Somehow, he also
convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to write a letter not
only authorizing him to buy a whale from the
Del Monte Fishing Company but wishing him well on the
future of his forthcoming venture, as well.
Now all he needed was a whale. And not just any whale,
either. Because of the dimensions of the truck, the whale in
question had to be between 36 and 38 feet long and weigh no
more than 20 tons. "Everyone thought I was crazy buying a
truck before I even had the whale," says Malone. "But I had
no choice--when and if they got me a whale, I had to be
ready to load that sucker immediately. But by then, I owed
so much money, it was a risk I had to take."
That gamble almost cost him his shirt. Malone spent four
months living in a motor home at the
whaling station before fishermen finally
harpooned a 6-year-old sperm whale that met Malone's
specifications. That Little Irvy--whose name had already
been painted on the trailer--was actually a female was the
least of Malone's problems. For the better part of a week,
he and his crew worked around the clock pumping 80,000
gallons of liquid nitrogen in and around the beast in an
attempt to lower the whale's body temperature to the maximum
of ten degrees above zero needed to prevent spoilage.
"At the end of the fifth day, he was still 22 above," says
Malone. "A couple of the scientists told me that was
probably as low as we'd ever get him. I told 'em we had to
get Irvy's temperature lower than that or they might as well
go ahead and freeze me, too."
At 3 o'clock on the afternoon of July 9, Irvy's temperature
finally dropped to the optimum level. By 7 that night, the
frozen whale made its debut at San Francisco's
Fisherman's Wharf Charging 35 cents a head, Malone
raked in more than $500 his first week alone. During Little Irvy's fresh-frozen salad days, it looked as if Malone's
salty gravy train would never end. A novelty on the
state-fair circuit, the whale was reportedly a big draw for
curious carnivalgoers. During off-season, car dealerships
and shopping centers paid $1,000 a week to lease the
attraction for grand openings and special promotions.
"He was always a good operator," recalls the Arizona State
Gary Montgomery who remembers dealing with Malone
during Little Irvy's early-1970s heyday. "He always kept his
rig up and--for obvious reasons--he always kept the
refrigeration going. He was what we'd call a 'clean
operator'--we never had any complaints about what he was
But Little Irvy hasn't played the Arizona State Fair for a
while--or very many other big venues, either. "That whale
has been around forever," says Jim Simpson of the Michigan State Fair. "To get any
longevity out of that kind of attraction, you can't bring it
in year after year. How many times can you look at a dead
whale? It just doesn't have the staying power that's going
to draw people back time after time."
State-fair observers suggest an additional reason for Irvy's
slide in popularity--changing times and tastes. Noting the
disappearance of other midway staples like freak shows and
illusion attractions ("See a woman turn into an ape before
your very eyes!"), Montgomery points out that the public may
simply have grown too sophisticated to get excited over a
flaking whale corpse. "Twenty-five years ago, a lot of
people may not have seen a whale up close," he says. "That's
changed since then. We're living in a world of virtual
"The business has changed," agrees Malone, who eventually
branched out into diesel drag racing and traveling monster
truck shows. "The whale just doesn't do as well as it once
Theorizing that Little Irvy might simply be overexposed,
Malone even put his star into dry dock for six years, an
expensive semiretirement that set him back $600 a month in
refrigeration bills. "Everybody said, 'If I were you, I'd
turn that damn thing off and save the money.' I said,
'Uh-uh--Irvy eats before I eat. Little Irvy put me where I
Because of rising fuel costs and apathy, Little Irvy's
comeback never really materialized. Today the onetime midway
sensation is reduced to playing shopping centers in
low-income neighborhoods, and, in order to carry his weight,
now shares a bill with a trailer containing a trio of
sad-looking frozen killer sharks. But don't look for Little
Irvy to sleep with the fishes just yet. Every bit as
optimistic as he was when he hatched his weird "fish out of
water" operation back in 1967, Jerry "Tyrone" Malone
enthusiastically outlines his latest plans for Little Irvy.
If all goes according to plan, Irvy will join Malone's truck
collection in Trucker Town U.S.A., a multimillion-dollar
trucker hall of fame he hopes to build in Winslow, Arizona.
Why Winslow? "I don't want to be near a
Disneyland or a Magic Mountain," he explains. "I want to
be out there where a person has to drive an hour or two and
there's nothing else to do. We'll have Little Irvy, my
trucks, the Junior Trucker Hall of Fame, Camperland and an
exhibit for the kids, showing why it's so dangerous to
tailgate a semi.
"It's going to be great," he continues, explaining that he
hopes to finance the $150 million venture by selling shares
to truckers. "It'll be a first-rate operation, not one of
these Jim and
Tammy Faye deals."
A consummate huckster, Malone has already sold Winslow on
his dream. "We're very excited about this," says chamber of
Tommy T. Thompson who comes from a carnival background
not unlike Malone's. "Tyrone is by nature an Evel
Knievel-type person. He's very full of himself, and
that's good." Praising Malone's confidence, Thompson adds,
"You know, this idea of his is just hokey enough to work.
And short of Little Irvy thawing out, I think he just might
get this done.
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