Nothing says happy holidays to a nerd like a shelf full of vintage action figures in Santa caps.
That's the sight that greets customers outside Curry House in West Los Angeles, drawing gasps and nostalgic smiles from passersby who peer into the display window outside the restaurant. In a large glass case, the usual faux-food spread has been cleared aside to make way for more than 120 late-80s and early-90s figurines, arms raised in yuletide glee. And atop their plastic and metal heads sit more than 120 tiny, red-and-white felt Santa caps handcrafted by Curry House assistant manager Hiroichi Echizen and his wife, Yoshiko.
There are characters from Street Fighter, Power Rangers, Dragon Ball, Gundam, Transformers, Godzilla and Kamen Rider, and even a bulky Arnold Schwarzenegger figurine from Last Action Hero. Marge Simpson, perched in the front row with her family, sports a modified hat that hugs her blue beehive. Ninja Turtles crony Usagi Yojimbo has paper carrots taped to his cap's brim.
Echizen, 60, isn't sure exactly how many figurines he positioned in the window, on carefully cut squares of foam tape. Past 120, he lost count.
"And we have more at home," he admits with an impish smile. But some were too delicate to display, he says, and besides, "there's no more room."
The toys belonged to his son, Kenny, who is now 25. Most were sent to him from Osaka by Kenny's grandparents when he was a boy. But a few in the collection are even older. A series of Ultraman figures, a Japanese pop culture phenomenon dating back to the 60s, might be 40 years old, Echizen guesses.
Kenny eventually outgrew the toys, but Echizen found he couldn't throw them away -- partly because they still had the capacity to elicit joy, and also for practical reasons: "These are not cheap!" he points out.
Echizen, a marathon runner who says he runs about 100 miles per month, is lively and lean, almost buoyant on his feet as he darts around the restaurant on a Friday night. In a rare moment sitting down, he laughs heartily and slaps his thigh as he recounts the fit of whimsy that inspired his holiday project.
"We get lots of kids here," he explains in halting English. "I had this idea -- maybe I could do something for the kids."
Up next: How they made all the Santa hats