Paul Frank Is Still Orange County’s Friend

DIY—together. Photo courtesy Corky Nepomuceno/Fullerton Museum Center

“You know what? I’m going to have him wear a spacesuit when he does it,” says cartoonist Paul Frank. The mind most famous for bringing the charismatic Julius the monkey to the world in the mid-1990s is in the middle of a brainstorm. He’s scheming with his intern, Drew Tran, while explaining to a humble scribe from this infernal rag the process that goes into making a ladies handbag.

The quiet, vacant surroundings of the Orange Coast College (OCC) campus over summer break contrasts with the excited, sky-high ideas spewing out of Frank’s brain with unrestrained creativity and reliable regularity.

“Oh we should totally do that,” agrees Tran, sitting at a green patio table outside the college’s stylish Fashion Building. The young Orange Coast College graduate has been apprenticing with Frank for three weeks; they’re working on a project for an upcoming class for the Fullerton Museum Center in which students will learn how to design and create their own purse.

But first, back to the spacesuits. “We should get you a spacesuit, and then video [record it] and be like, ‘Hey, we’re in the computer—the robot lab!’” Frank suggests. “We get some dry ice, and we’re walking in slow motion, like in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and we’re holding our helmet.

“That’d be worth the cost of renting a spacesuit per day,” Frank continues. “That’s the kind of stuff that would bring good attention on social media.”

Photo courtesy Corky Nepomuceno/Fullerton Museum Center

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you hire Frank for. Not for the most practical ideas, the simplest ideas, or the most cost-effective or rational ideas. It’s those larger-than-life, grandiose, purely imaginative ideas that pop into his head and pour out onto paper, purses, Fender guitars and beach cruisers that have made Frank—and the characters he’s created—worldwide household names.

“He’s like a little kid playing,” observes Tran. “He just has fun.” That makes sense, as the company Frank created holds the trademark on the phrase “Remember to never grow up.”

They were introduced to each other by mutual friend Chris Amaral, an instructor with OCC’s fashion department; she has been supplying Paul Frank Industries with interns since shortly after the company launched from a Huntington Beach garage in the 1990s.

In those three decades, Frank has ridden the roller coaster of creative successes and cataclysms. All along the way, he has approached his career as a kid going to an amusement park on his birthday. Frank attributes a lot of the inspiration of Paul Frank Industries to Disneyland. “I got a lot of stuff from Disneyland,” Frank says of what he calls his favorite place. “It was mostly the stuff you wouldn’t think of. It wasn’t, like, Mickey Mouse.”

While many visitors are busy looking at sights such as Sleeping Beauty Castle or the nightly firework spectacular, Frank focused on the trash cans. The receptacles were once hand-pinstriped and decorated to match whichever section of the theme park they were in. Frank recalls being particularly inspired in the 1980s by a Space Mountain receptacle, incorporating a similar font in the Paul Frank Industries logo as an homage.

Frank talks of birthday visits to the Mouse house as a kid, his birthday money burning a hole in his pocket. “It was like that one day I was a star,” he says. Whether he spent his birthday money or allowance on a Matchbox car or a raccoon tail from the Daniel Boone Story in Frontierland, Frank recognized the power of merchandising. “[At Disneyland], there’s an eraser postcard, a sticker or a pencil, a patch,” he says. “That’s how I want Paul Frank stuff to be . . . something for everyone.”

He also recognized Disneyland’s ability to transport people to another world, making them forget about “the real world” even just for a minute. “You’re in this whole of the world when you go there,” he says. This inspiration was important to Paul Frank Industries from the beginning, including when it came time to build a booth for the company at the 1998 Action Sports Retailer show in Long Beach.

“This is important,” Frank notes, “because a lot of people go to a convention, and they just sit at that table that the convention provides, with a black tablecloth on it and . . . a folding chair . . . and then some room curtains in the background, and it’s like, ‘That’s not fun!’”

Ever the antidote to “not fun,” Frank made sure his booth was an experience worthy of Disneyland. With little money and even less experience, the fledgling company built a mock house in the shape of the brand’s logo and decked it out with midcentury-modern furniture and even a cactus garden.

Taking a page out of Uncle Walt’s book ultimately paid off for the brand; it received the best booth award and $500,000 in orders from that show.

Thirty years later, Frank says it’s time to give back to the place that inspired him.

Now a resident of Los Angeles, he comes back to Orange County weekly to instruct a new generation of creatives. He has taught at the Art Institute of California’s Costa Mesa campus and at OCC, where he took art classes in the 1990s.

Recently, the 51-year-old has also been having fun in Fullerton, another place near and dear to his heart. It’s the birthplace of his beloved Fender Guitars; during his summer break between junior and senior years at Ocean View High School in Huntington Beach, Frank screen-printed shirts for Seal Beach’s annual Rough Water Swim event to save up enough money to buy his first Stratocaster. The city was also home to the Hub, onetime stomping grounds for his garage band the Moseleys (the Slidebar stands there today).

And at the Fullerton Museum Center, he now teaches sold-out creative DIY workshops. Folks sign up for the $60 class without even knowing what they’re making—such as the aforementioned handbag. It’s a testament to the trust Frank has earned from his fans over the years to consistently create cool shit—and have fun while doing it.

“It’s thrilling to make something different still [today], whether it’s making it for a bunch of people or for 25 people at a time,” Frank says of the classes. “There’s something fun about showing up with these parts and doing stuff that nobody else does.

“That’s what keeps me going in life,” he continues. “That’s my main goal.”

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