Where Those Big-Headed Statues in Smoky ‘80s Bars Came From - Atlas Obscura
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Where Those Big-Headed Statues in Smoky ‘80s Bars Came From

Where did these vintage big head statues come from? (Photo Courtesy of Esco Statue Repair & Restoration)

Cartoonish, big-headed statues of celebrities and famous characters were a staple of every self-respecting American steakhouse and smoky pub from the 1970s and ’80s. Lining the upper shelves behind the bar with their goofy smiles and outsized features, these tchotchkes seemed like they must have come with the place. But where do they actually originate?

The big-headed statuette is generally known as an ESCO, after Entertainment Statue Company, the name of the major manufacturer of this specific style of figure. Hunting down the history of ESCO and their whimsical statuettes is a bit of a challenge, as information about them is scarce aside from resale listings on sites like eBay. (The company didn’t respond to our emails.) But the general history can be pieced together from various forum posts and repair sites.

ESCO seems to have started somewhere on the East Coast of the United States in the 1970s. Most anecdotes about ESCO say it was a New Jersey-based company, but one poster on a collector’s forum who claimed to have known the company owner said that it was based out of a location on 59th Street in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood.

The Entertainment Statue Company specialized in creating unauthorized caricature statues of all sorts of celebrities and notable cultural figures. Their signature style was to sculpt the head much larger than the rest of the body, sort of like a bobblehead without the bobble. What made their statues so iconic and beloved were the impressive likenesses of the celebrities, which were shockingly accurate while still being goofily exaggerated.

The figures were made of inexpensive plaster of Paris, sometimes known as “carnival chalk” thanks to the fun fair prizes that were also commonly made of the material. The chalkware was built around a wire skeleton, making them heavy (around eight pounds) and fairly durable, but prone to chipping. Once they were molded, the figures were painted, again with a surprising amount of care and skill given the somewhat chintzy nature of the statues.

One fine looking Stooge. (Photo Courtesy of Esco Statue Repair & Restoration)

There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that ESCO sought out the rights to any of the celebrity likenesses that they produced, although many of them were deceased or historic figures like W.C. Fields or Humphrey Bogart. Each run of a statue was only produced in limited quantity, and one of the ESCO repair sites claims that these small batches were not only cost effective, but was also an effort to skirt any copyright issues. During the heyday of the statues in the 1970s and 1980s, such litigation was also not as prevalent as it is today.

According to one forum post, ESCO produced as many as 86 different celebrity statues. The subjects ranged from musicians like Frank Sinatra and the Beatles to sports figures like Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali. ESCO also produced figures of classic movie figures like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein. However, the most popular figures proved to be the television stars and comedians, like Groucho and Harpo Marx, Bob Hope, Laurel and Hardy, and the Three Stooges. 

ESCO statues were primarily sold in places like tobacco shops as the sort of curio that one might put in their den (the proto man cave). The figures became fixtures in dark bars and steakhouses, much in the same way that the caricaturish wooden Indian became an icon of the cigar store. For a moment it seemed like your smoky bar wasn’t complete without a few ESCOs. Ella Fitzgerald was even given a Louis Armstrong ESCO that is now held in the National Museum of American History.

As trends changed, ESCOs appeared less and less, found only in aging dives that refused to update their decor. But while their popularity dipped, ESCO continued to produce figures into the 1990s and 2000s. More modern figures like a sax-toting Bill Clinton and conversely, older figures like Al Capone were created, while other companies tried to bite ESCOs style and produce cartoony big-head figures of their own. 

These guys will run you over $200 today. (Photo Courtesy of Esco Statue Repair & Restoration)

Today the ESCO website says the company is now based out of Canton, Ohio, a division of Ohio Discount Merchandise. They are still producing small batches of their big-head statues, in addition to a few other less distinctive statuettes like little flamenco dancers. They also advertise that they will now create custom ESCO-style figures so that you can have any big head you’d like up on your mantlepiece. The current big-head figures on sale are an odd mix, including George Washington, George W. Bush, and Sammy Davis Jr. The sculpts are not as detailed as they were in the company’s height, but the giant head and skinny little body are unmistakable.

As for the older statues, they can now be found on eBay going for anywhere from $65 to over a thousand for the rarer figures. Collectors also buy and trade on independent sites. But the easiest way to find an old ESCO is simply to visit your nearest dive bar.