Who knows that evil lurks in the hearts of men?
The Shadow knows!
By Larry Pointer
With these words, delivered in a “hauntingly sibilant quality voice that thrilled,” would begin each episode of The Shadow radio drama. An ominous laugh would follow. Then familiar and equally haunting strains of music would waft over the airwaves. The Shadow debuted in 1930, first with Orson Welles as the crime fighting superhero. Through 1954, each week the youth of America would gather around their radios to catch the serial adventures of this mysterious man of mystical psychic powers. We all could envision him clothed in black, with a cloak and a black hat masking his true identity. To this image were added quickening accents of flame: a coat lining; a scarf to hide his lower face from view. It was a palpably ominous presence. Yet he had, you know, “the power to cloud men’s minds so they cannot see him.” Oh, the imagination that radio could stimulate in the mind!
Here was the film noir antihero, a spymaster omnipresent in the dark world. None of the evil realm were safe. Nor were the youthful minions gathered around their radio sets, transfixed under the hypnotic powers of The Shadow.
But The Shadow’s alter ego was just an ordinary Lamont Cranston; Batman really was just Bruce Wayne; Superman, the hapless Clark Kent. Perhaps dreams could come true for a boy in Wyoming…a fellow from among the immigrant families struggling to realize their American dream, a kid like Gerald Brantz. Only the imagination could limit what super powers a fellow could seize for his own. Lamont Cranston, that “wealthy young man about town”, could be a role model to follow. And then there always was the thought that The Shadow might be lurking not so very far from view.
Didn’t frail little Billy Batson transform into Captain Marvel in a single magical word?…
Well, perhaps there was a way for a fellow to have that Shazam moment in his life. Not every guy could step into a corner phone booth to become his own superdude; couldn’t fly through the sky like a bird or a plane. But he could style a kemp in his own image. Batman had his Batmobile, didn’t he?
George Lucas caught the magic of the righteous ride best. With bittersweet memories of cruising the streets of Modesto, Lucas sent out the rallying call across this vast land of American Graffiti dreams. Where were you in ’62?
Spiderman debuted in ’62…just plain ol’ Pete Parker in daily life…a superhero reincarnate of radio days, arriving to avenge the forces of evil. We don’t fall far from our fantasies, do we. This, too, The Shadow knows.
In ’62, Gerald Brantz was a cruising Conquistador in Sheridan, Wyoming. And musing, what kind of ride would carry The Shadow on missions against mayhem, a Mercury mayhaps? A long, low, chopped Mercury. Chopped, yeah, definitely chopped. And black. Black, with an electrodynamic flare down the sides.
Life goes on. Gerald Brantz sold his ride, a sweet 1938 Ford Standard coupe resto-rod with a 312 c.i. Y-block and 3 2’s, to finance his schooling. He served his country. Returned to a career as a highway engineer. Raised a family, saw two sons serve their country with distinction.
But those childhood impressions remain; dreams don’t die easily. As I write this, we gather faithfully to catch our serial episodes of The Big Bang Theory. “Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj” are insufferable nerds, yes. But BAZINGA! They escape to comic book fantasies. The funny thing is this outrageous sitcom is a favorite of young and old. Baby boomers and beyond identify! Just like we did as kids, huddled against the radio, listening to The Shadow.
The Shadow. Gerald Brantz never did lose HIS vision of The Shadow, gliding through the night in his stealth black chopped Mercury. This was his dream. Finally, he could gather it up and make it materialize.
In 1976, Gerald bought a ’50 Mercury two-door from Conquistador Tommy Lopez. Step-by-step, the Mercury first was restored. Next the side trim was removed, and local policeman Floyd Olson painted the car in a striking metallic Jade Green in Imron. The car was a driver, regularly seen cruising about Sheridan.
Then, in 1987, it was time to fulfill his dream. In Ron Tesinsky at West Side Kustoms, Brantz found just the medium to channel his dreams into reality. The Billings, Montana customizer soon began the Mercury’s transformation into that full custom Gerald had always dreamed of: The Shadow.
In researching this unique 50 Mercury custom, I found a treasure trove of photographs. Gerald Brantz has full albums of his cars, the cruises, and the shows he attended. Ron Tesinsky also has kept albums, one for each custom that has come through his shop. His detailed images of the chop he performed on The Shadow are a virtual clinic on the traditional approach to chopping the ’49-’50 Mercury top.
At the time of the top chop, Ron also nosed and decked the Mercury coupe. Black epoxy primer completed this phase of the evolution of The Shadow.
In its flat primer form, the car was ready for some serious cruising, except for one very important touch. Gerald Brantz is an avid collector of old-time radio programs, including all of The Shadow episodes he could locate, for those long distance cruises, you know. The packaging cover of one set of these programs had a graphic representation of the mysterious man of mystical powers. Gerald loved it, thought it a perfect graphic for his Mercury, and contacted Sheridan, Wyoming graphic artist and pinstriper, Steve “Shooter” Benth to do the honors.
The graphic turned out beautifully, low along the left quarter panel behind the rear tire. What better way to set off this custom’s unique identity! I almost can hear that eerie laughter from The Shadow as I write.
Changes continued to be made to The Shadow as Gerald Brantz could afford, or make time between long-range cruising. Again, Ron Tesinsky was called upon to shave the door handles and french the headlights. In mating the traditional ’52-’54 Ford/Mercury headlight rims to the ’50 Merc, Ron again relied on templates to form smooth curvatures via patch panels. The original center grille of the car was retained, but the awkward square parking light bezels were discarded. Gerald opted for a simple form consistent with the headlights, in his choice of round ’48 Ford park lights, frenched beneath the headlights. Around back, the stock taillights also were frenched by Ron Tesinsky with hand-made surrounds blended into the rear fenders. Three-bar ’56 Olds flipper wheel covers all around completed the traditional period custom look.
Mechanically, Brantz updated the running gear. His old friend Floyd Olson had located a warmed over 68 Monte Carlo 327 c.i. engine in St. Paul, Minnesota for the cruiser. In addition, Gerald redid front suspension with Fatman fabrications, and the rear…a 9-inch Ford…with a Posies set of springs. The result was a ride with that California rake attitude, and secreted responsive power only befitting The Shadow.
And cruise Gerald and Sharon Brantz did. The Shadow carried them to Minneapolis and Back to the Fifties. To Billings to meet the inimitable disc jockey Wolfman Jack. On to Deadwood’s Cool August Nights and annual concerts that included Jan and Dean, and Chubby Checker. Most importantly, though, they cruised to Casper, Wyoming where Sharon enjoyed an up close and personal sit down with the large father himself, Big Daddy Ed Roth.
By 1994, it was time to freshen the car. Gerald Brantz returned to Ron Tesinsky with a request to add a side-trim treatment. Several ideas were sketched out in cartoon fashion (Ron’s resume also includes sign painter.) Always they kept coming back to the traditional sweep spear of the 50-53 Buicks, such as appeared on the Bob Hirohata 51 Mercury. Gerald Brantz is a traditional kind of guy and, out of high school, he had a 49 Merc with the thin 56 Buick spear to separate a two-tone paint scheme of cream and 56 Packard lilac.
At this point, Ron Tesinsky brought to play a subtle appearing, technically tricky, bit of mastery. Instead of scrounging up worn Buick stainless, Ron sculpted the entire sweep out of a pair of welded-in lines of cold-rolled rod! The upper spear line was done in 3/8 inch rod, the lower line in ¼ inch. Very labor intensive and, I can tell you from personal experience, extremely risky in panel warpage for craftsmen of lesser lights. But Ron formed those sculpted lines to flow flawlessly.
Within the cabin, front seats were taken from an ’83 Thunderbird, and rear seats from a ’65 model. These, the headliner, and all other panels were clothed in two shades of grey cloth, and trimmed out in a pair of lavender tones of leatherette. Brantz marvels that the Thunderbird front seats sit exactly 3 ½ inches lower than stock. Exactly the extent of the chop in height of the top.
Then, it was time for the final paint. Nothing less than gloss black would do for The Shadow ride. The graphic Shooter had done earlier on the lower left quarter was sacrificed at this stage. Instead, that electrodynamic sweep that had burned into Gerald’s mind now was born under the skilled airbrush artistry of Steve “Shooter” Benth. A silver basecoat was sprayed over the “Buick spear” sculptures down the sides of the Mercury. Then a fade purple was laid down, beginning in light tones at the front and slowly deepening into a rich, dark purple toward the rear. The result is an absolutely stunning accent to an inspired work of art. Finally, the car returned to Shooter for another Shadow graphic, laid down this time on the black coupe’s deck lid.
One happenstance that still has Brantz smiling is having The Shadow serve as an impromptu prop for “Miss Harley Davidson” when a promotional tour for the motorcycle company came through town in 2000.
An outdoor car show was held on the grounds of Trails End, the historic Kendrick mansion on the hill behind the high school in Sheridan, Wyoming. There, Gerald was able to show The Shadow in a head-to-head photo opportunity with another full custom Merc. This car, owned by Ray Mead of Billings, was a four-door converted to a custom with a Hirohata-style roofline, and that ’50-53 Buick stainless sidetrim which had inspired the sweep spear on The Shadow. The comparisons and contrasts are striking. Gerald Brantz most definitely achieved his dream ride in The Shadow.
Don’t let go of your dream. Where were you in 62?
(The Shadow knows.)
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