Zippy marvels at the road

He has collected enough string for a travel diary

By Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondent / March 20, 2011

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Are we having fun yet? In 1979 Zippy the Pinhead, the brainchild of cartoon artist Bill Griffith, first uttered that expression. If more people knew that, Zippy might be famous beyond the members of an international cult who possess a rare penchant for his nonlinear humor. For those who have yet to make his acquaintance in the comic pages, Zippy is very much a creature of places defined by the time-worn icons of roadside America, hence his guest appearance here.

Between road trips, Zippy resides in Dingburg, home to a riboflavin factory and similar industries, countless doughnut shops, and thousands of other pinheads, all identically dressed in yellow muumuus with red polkadots. Regardless of gender, all shave their conical domes, save for a tuft of hair at the top, which they pull into a tidy topknot and tie with a bow.

Despite bouts of wide-eyed mania, Zippy and his fellow pinheads have sunny dispositions and break into joyful free association — “Idaho! Idaho! Idaho!’’ — often touched off by real industrial-age artifacts that appear in Griffith’s strips: mom-and-pop shops, old amusement parks, outsized roadside statues built to advertise mufflers or sandwiches or ducks. And diners — especially diners.

“There is an almost museum-like quality to diners,’’ mused Griffith in a phone interview. He often enters the strip as the character Griffy, Zippy’s friend and alter ego, clad in a vest and brooding about the meaning of life. “In the end it’s a paradox, because diners were mass-produced, yet they now have such a strong quality of being real places, where people talk to each other.’’

The following travel diary charts a route linking selected Massachusetts locations that have appeared in Zippy strips over the years. More than a dozen other places, including several in greater Boston, appear on Griffith’s website (

1. WILSON’S DINER, 507 Main St., Waltham (“Food Chain,’’ Feb. 16, 2001)

Next door at the KFC, a customer gets a disappointment: “I’m sorry, sir, we don’t offer ‘honey-glazed liver & onions.’ ’’ Wilson’s doesn’t serve this either, but try feta cheese and Greek sausage with your over-easies.

2. BIG CHAIR, 130 Elm St., Gardner (“Well-Endowed,’’ July 5, 2001) lists this 20-foot-high, one-and-a-half-ton tribute to a chair-making capital from the past as the “World’s Largest Chair — Former.’’ Zippy doesn’t care. He just wants to sit a spell after “a long, tiring journey along America’s hiways & byways.’’

3. THE FILLIN’ STATION, 372 State Road, Whately (“Special Dispensation,’’ June 17, 2002)

Inside this diner, Zippy spotted “the perfect outline of Bob Hope’s nose’’ in the bubbles of his rootbeer float. Today it is snowing, veiling not noses, but the mud-streaked posteriors of cars parked in front of the fake gas pumps near the diner entrance.

4. TIN MAN, 188A Cape St. (Route 112), Goshen (“Heavy Metal,’’ June 3, 2002)

The Tin Man with a glowing red heart stands over the Good Time Stove Co., the enchanted realm of “Stove Black Richardson and his beautiful daughter Sara, the Stove Princess.’’ This place is to Zippy what black velvet is to Elvis. The Tin Man argues that he is a “real person.’’ “Only in Hollywood, where dreams come true!’’ counters Zippy.

5. MISS FLORENCE DINER, 99 Main St., Florence (“Up Denial,’’ Sept. 10, 2001)

Check out the date: The Day Before Sept. 11. When Zippy and his wife, Zerbina, could sip out of a single branching straw in a booth built for smaller bodies and discuss diets. The Miss Flo, which opened in 1941, still feels like the comforting world of Before All That.

6. HIGH HAT AT THE PLANTATION INN, 295 Burnett Road, Chicopee (“High Hat,’’ Jan. 8, 2001)

Zippy makes his way up a hillside to join this white, top-hatted figure waving over the highway. Inside the Plantation Inn lobby, a magazine article reveals The Big Man’s story: He started out at a Framingham pizza shop, wearing a chef’s hat and holding — guess what? In 1960, the inn’s owners bought him and moved him to a car dealership, where he got an Uncle Sam makeover and stood until 1988. After years among the mothballs, he was resurrected by popular demand.

7. AL’S RESTAURANT, 14 Yelle St., Chicopee (“Stool Sample,’’ June 15, 2007)

“Al, is Chicopee real, or is it a state of mind?’’ Zippy asks former proprietor Al Mathews. Becky and Gus Mathews now own this 1958 Master Diner. Buy a Rollie’s orange cream soda, bottled at Holyoke’s Mt. Tom Beverage Co. Perfect with creamed beef on toast!

8. DONUT DIP, 1305 Riverdale St., West Springfield (“Round Advice,’’ July 8, 2005)

Zippy’s Z-Man incarnation swoops into the parking lot for a gluttony intervention: “Is that a crème-filled cry for help I hear?’’ No wonder he’s needed: custard puffs, hooters and fried cakes, oh, boy! These are the real homemade deal.

9. WHITE HUT, 280 Memorial Ave., West Springfield (“Nobody Home,’’ Jan. 28, 2003)

Oh, no, Zippy, this isn’t the White House, it’s the White Hut! It’s easy to see how he got confused. This structure is tidy and small, surrounded by a runway-sized parking lot, just like the presidential mansion. Was George Washington wild for the double cheeseburger?

10. BASKETBALL HALL OF FAME, Route 91, Springfield (“Next: Explain Basketball,’’ Jan. 31, 2003)

Zippy communes with the sculptural orbs of the building and its ball-topped obelisk. He’s ready for lift-off. They do suggest space vehicles, touched down to refuel on the banks of the Connecticut River, more than actual basketballs. Just go on in. But beware kryptonite.

11. GEORGE’S CONEY ISLAND HOT DOGS, 158 Southbridge St., Worcester (“Situation Abnormal,’’ July 18, 2003)

Kansas fried lizard, Jack Kerouac, and a giant poodle ricochet through the strip like pinballs pinging off plastic flippers. Step into the hot dog palace (founded in 1918, Art Deco interior added in 1938) with the best neon sign in the state (1940) and take a bite of history.

12. CORNER LUNCH, 133 Lamartine St., Worcester (“Counter Claim,’’ Dec. 29, 2007)

Ear studs are the topic at the counter in the strip, though Zippy — or Griffy, the avid eavesdropper — is out-of-frame. This shiny diner, a block away from another Zippy hangout, the Miss Worcester Diner, a.k.a. “Miss Woo,’’ began life in Babylon, N.Y., in the 1950s. One native Babylonian who lives here now recognized it when he walked in, says owner Elaine Boukalis.

13. CENTRAL DINER, 90 Elm St., Millbury (“Season’s Greedings,’’ Dec. 20, 2000)

Worcester Lunch Car #673 is a museum of 1930. Its wooden chairs and marble tabletops cry out from a lost world of heartbreaking innocence. Owners Chris and Amanda White are restoring it, and this spring they will bring the yellow exterior back to the original burgundy and beige. Zippy’s muumuu will no longer match.

14. PEG’S DINER, 87 Church St., Whitinsville (“Survival of the Species,’’ April 13, 2006)

“Marv, if you were a caveman and came upon a bright red berry bush, what would you do?’’ Zippy asks from the counter of Worcester Lunch Car #723, circa 1937. Cozied up to a gas-station-turned-hair-salon, Peg’s clings to the fabric of this red-brick milltown. Watch for the coffee-cup sign, and, two doors down, the thriving red berry bush — OK, it’s orange bittersweet.

15. AL MAC’S DINER, 135 President Ave., Fall River (“Freep Arking, Too,’’ Dec. 17, 2003)

The curving steel and swooping neon prompts Zippy to remind Griffy, “You can’t eat glass & steel . . . unless you use a lot of tartar sauce!’’ It does look like ribbon candy. This 1950s specimen is an oasis of spaciousness. Try the chowder, hold the tartar sauce.

16. SOUTH COAST LOCAL (formerly The Nest) DINER, 81 Fairhaven Road, Mattapoisett (“The Anti-McDonald’s,’’ Oct. 9, 2000)

Zippy says, “It isn’t about th’ food, you know.’’ And Griffy replies, “I know. It’s about taking back our souls from the Corporate Machine.’’ The duo would find the soul of this 1951 Mountain View diner blissfully intact under new owners Sherry and Wayne Gibson, whose outrageous home cooking now includes barbecue and Angus burgers and doughnut-sized Guinness-battered onion rings, all made from locally grown ingredients. Except the Guinness.

Jane Roy Brown can be reached at

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