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Media Article # 8

Monday, August 7, 2000

Sasquatch: Kitsch of death

By Peter Hartlaub
San Francisco Examiner

From comics to action dolls, '70s made a caricature of hairy legend

Researchers trying to legitimize the search for Bigfoot have a mortal enemy, more fearsome than any grizzly bear or armed wilderness hermit.

The 1970s.

Think back to comic books. Monster trucks. Lee Majors in a polyester suit.

Reports of giant hairy bipeds walking across the Pacific Northwest and parts of Canada go back nearly 200 years. Native Americans in the area have passed on stories about the man-ape creature for generations.

But the enigmatic creature's celebrity status is relatively new.

That fame peaked during five tacky years from 1975 to 1980, when Bigfoot was as A-list as Burt Reynolds and Sally Field.

"It was a cartoon," says Matt Moneymaker, president of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization. "People used to say, 'I saw Bigfoot' like they would say, 'I saw Batman.' "

BFRO members, like others trying to collect evidence of Bigfoot, feel their jobs would be easier if history were a little nicer to the creature.

The interest in Bigfoot grew again when Oregon psychologist Matthew Johnson said he saw it in early July during a hike with his family. Since then, the BFRO and Johnson say, a lot of people have come forward who had been holding back their stories because they feared ridicule.

The name "Bigfoot" was first used by journalists in 1958, after taxidermist Bob Titmus made plaster cast footprints of creatures rumored to be wandering deep in the Six Rivers National Forest in Northern California.

The most famous sighting came in 1967, when Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin filmed 24 feet of who-knows-what walking near Bluff Creek in Six Rivers.

While it was debated at the time - and still is today - whether that film is a hoax, Del Norte County newspaper archives show that journalists took a scientific approach to the claims of Titmus and Patterson and Gimlin.

The change occurred in the mid-1970s, when Moneymaker says supermarket tabloids made the creature their poster boy, coming out with "I Had Bigfoot's Son!" type stories.

"They adopted Bigfoot as a single monster and made him a reoccuring character," Moneymaker says. "Almost all these stories were on the front page."

The kitsch chronicles

The Hollywood marketing machine took over after that, and Bigfoot could be found everywhere.

Bigfoot fought Majors on TV's "Six Million Dollar Man" during five popular episodes in 1976 and 1977. Wrestler Andre the Giant filled the hairy costume.

Bigfoot and the orphaned "Wildboy" teamed up in a live action show for kids that played during Saturday morning cartoons in 1978 and 1979.

Bigfoot faced off against "The Incredible Hulk" in '79, although the end of the show revealed that Bigfoot was a hoax.

Disneyland added Bigfoot's cousin, the Abominable Snowman, to the Matterhorn in 1978, nearly 20 years after the bobsled ride opened. The snowman was the only new attraction at the park that year.

In April 1978, the Marvel Comics "X-Men" introduced a Bigfoot-like character called "Sasquatch." He later became a good guy, joining a Canada-based group of super-heroes called "Alpha Flight."

And in 1979, at a car show in Denver, construction contractor Bob Chandler put Bigfoot's name on the side of a jacked-up pickup, creating the first "monster truck" show in history.

Bionic Bigfoot

The kitschy residue of the 1970s can be seen on eBay, where a 12-inch Bionic Bigfoot action figure starts bidding at $60.

Moneymaker says all the campy treatment of Bigfoot in the 1970s made it harder for people to come forward with sightings. The BFRO often hears from people who think they saw a Bigfoot in the 1970s, and didn't tell a soul for 20 years.

"To be branded crazy and a liar - that's something really hard to live with in a small town," Moneymaker says. "So they keep it secret."

Over the past two decades, Bigfoot believers with theories grounded in science have been getting air time.

Leonard Nimoy went "In Search Of . . ." Bigfoot in one of the most popular episodes of that 1980s TV series, taking an objective look at the evidence.

An A&E cable network documentary came out in 1994, also taking a serious look into the myth from a mostly pro-Bigfoot point of view.

The documentary looked at Peter Byrne, a swashbuckling Indiana Jones type who was sort of a one-man BFRO long before that organization formed.

Byrne's Bigfoot Research Project was actually financed for a while by a group that supports scientific study outside of the mainstream.

Webbed Bigfoot

More than anything in recent history, the Internet has made it easy for Bigfoot believers to share stories.

On dozens of sites, sightings and theories are exchanged in complete anonymity.

There are some far-out merchandise-oriented groups, but most seem at least partly grounded in research.

Bigfoot clubs in states such as Kansas and Ohio post regional sightings, while the largest group appears to be the BFRO, which has an online list of reports from every state except Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island and Hawaii.

Nowadays, the Bigfoot-as-cartoon lives on in a string of souvenir shops on the drive up Highway 101 near Eureka, each with a tourist-luring gimmick involving a hacked-apart redwood tree.

Among the largest stores is The Legend of Bigfoot, where a redwood chain-saw sculpture of a sasquatch big enough to straddle a Volkswagen bus hails visitors.

"Just the name alone brings us in business," says Tanya Harty, who runs the place. "Legend of Bigfoot - 'Whoa, stop, let's check it out!' "

Harty admits some are disappointed to find a small selection of Bigfoot refrigerator magnets, books and T-shirts, vastly outnumbered by the same redwoods-related carvings and clothing that are sold at the other places.

"We're mostly an ancient redwoods store," she says. "It totally bums them out."

The eternal tabloids

And it should also be noted that after all these years, the tabloids have slowed down only a little.

In a September 1999 article headlined "Idaho Family Eats 600-pound Bigfoot!" the Weekly World News tells about a father and two sons who claim they're dining on sasquatch road kill.

"We had no idea when we saw it that it was some sort of rare find," the father, Wallie Handower, told the Weekly World News. "We figured we could eat off it for a good four months."

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