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
This is the fourth year Echizen has brought his son's action figures to Curry House for the holidays, but the first time he has attempted a display of this scale.
Echizen first approached his wife in June about the idea of making a dizzying number of miniature Santa caps for the figures' heads. “My wife said, 'I can't make so many!'” he recalls. But soon, she was wooed by Echizen's contagious enthusiasm. The couple sewed a few hats at a time over a four-month period, sizing each one to fit each figurine's head.
Shoppers who visit the plaza at Olympic and Sawtelle linger by the display window in awe. Echizen says collectors have approached him about buying some of the rarer figurines, which could fetch up to $100 apiece. But Echizen is not interested in selling them. “These are for kids to enjoy,” he says, eyes crinkling.
For every holiday, Echizen is Curry House's unofficial décor supervisor. Outsize hearts and pink crepe paper adorn the ceiling for Valentine's Day; glittery orange pumpkins, bats and adorable, fuzzy spiders festoon the counters for Halloween. But Christmas is when his talents really shine. Plump, stuffed Santa dolls tightrope-walk on chains of holiday cards strung across the ceiling. Plush penguins nestle together on patches of fake snow. Brightly-lit Christmas trees glow in every nook.
The kicker? Echizen doesn't even celebrate the holiday. “I have no religion,” he says with a giggle, as if confessing a secret. He just enjoys decorating and making children smile. He's fond of seasonal music, too; he likes to play Christmas tunes on the flute, he says.
Christmas hasn't even come yet, but Echizen is already thinking ahead. “For next year, I have more ideas,” he confides with a grin.