As the newspaper put it, Culpeper, Virginia couple Leon and Gloria Thompson had “beyond doubt one of the most glorious junkyards in the land.” The place was a “marvelous eyesore,” sixty acres of wrecked cars, buses, fire engines, and other hulks that stocked the Thompsons’ used auto-parts business. The journalist focused in on family matriarch Gloria’s overzealous pride when she scolded her son Leon Jr. for calling their workplace “a junkyard.” In seeking to create a puff piece, the journalist used patronizing language to portray the working-class family in a comedic light and described their small business with absurd words like “glorious” and “marvelous.”
Today, TV networks are saturated with blue-collar-job reality shows like Storage Wars and Ice Road Truckers, which serve the same purpose as the newspaper article did: to entertain an audience by characterizing people with so-called “dirty” jobs as proud, stubborn, and idiosyncratic. However, the Thompsons’ story was published in 1977, when sitcoms dominated American television airwaves, not reality shows or docu-series. Exemplified in the ways that minstrel shows traditionally typecast African-Americans or political cartoons vilified Irishmen, stereotypes need continued reference in popular media to survive. The character-type perpetuated in the Thompson article and many other stories told about junk dealers in the 1970s and 80s had no better reinforcement than one of the most popular shows of the era: Sanford and Son.
Sanford and Son, now regarded as one of the best American sitcoms of all time, aired on NBC from January 14, 1972 to March 25, 1977. It followed the schemes of grouchy, sarcastic junk dealer Fred G. Sanford (Redd Foxx) and his even-tempered son Lamont (Demond Wilson). The opening credits display images of the Sanfords’ shabby-looking home and workplace, “Sanford and Son Salvage.” Many of the show’s gags centered on working-class Fred’s ill-fated attempts to “get rich quick,” as his junkyard was always one sale away from going out of business. Sanford and Son grew to become NBC’s highest-rated program, but it was not immune to critical ire. Baltimore writer Eugenia Collier described Fred and Lamont as “American child-men.” Criticism of television characters bled into reality, as contemporary media had a field day with junkyard stereotypes.
A nationwide tendency to better enforce zoning ordinances led to many “battles” between sprawling, unchecked scrapheaps and the people who opposed them. A 1978 revision to the South Carolina “Junkyard Control Act,” for example, stated that any junkyard owner or operator who allowed the screen around his property to “[fall] into such disrepair as to endanger the health, safety or welfare of the community” could face fine or imprisonment. The screen itself was a required installment, lest the junkyard be “visible from the main-traveled way of the highway.” Business owners reacted negatively to setting legal parameters around the definition of “eyesore.” One news article reported how Ed Johnson of Schenectady, New York annoyed his neighbors when his town board voted that “the accumulation of ‘junk cars’ outside the fence at Ed Johnson’s junkyard on Ballard Road was an eyesore and something should be done about it.” Johnson vowed to fight the board’s decision.
Examples of these one-man wars are numerous. “I’ve got to do what I got to do,” huffed junk dealer Sheldon R. Scott in an interview with a staff writer from Marion County, Florida’s Ocala Star-Banner. Scott was stubbornly protesting attempts by his neighbors to prevent the construction of his new junkyard. Another dealer, Perry Orr, who could not afford to buy a special permit to operate his junkyard, ranted, “It’s just a bunch of bull… who’s got $65000? If I had $65000, I wouldn’t be in the junk business. I’d be on the porch drinking a beer.”
Like the Sanfords, Johnson, Orr, Scott, and the Thompson family are also depicted, even in subtle terms, as “American child-men.” Writers and reporters characterized junkyard workers as excessively stubborn and sarcastic – men (of any race) who could be laughed at for their fruitless attempts to defeat zoning laws. Genuine outbursts of frustration were spun into simple, lowbrow complaints, often colored with a comedic tinge. Thus, many of the “funniest” aspects of Fred Sanford’s character – his crankiness, irascibility, susceptibility to getting into trouble- were repeated in popular media until the working-class “junkyard character” was inherited by the modern reality show format.
What makes Sanford and Son’s influence on junkyard stereotypes all the more interesting is the obvious fact that the main characters were black. When the show was on air, critical debate centered around whether the scriptwriters were depicting a positive or harmful depiction of black life. In her 2004 book Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power, Christine Acham argues that Sanford and Son fostered positive images because it carried features of black culture into the mainstream, which is reinforced by the fact that Sanford and Son was one of the few comedies of its time that found equal popularity among both black and white audiences. Mainstream comedic appeal was the draw of Fred Sanford’s character, an appeal strong enough that the media could look to find a “Fred Sanford” in all independent-willed small business owners that were drawn into battles like the zoning wars. Sanford and Son’s high level of quality merits recognition and respect – but it is up to audiences to learn how to distinguish its comedy from the reality.
Christine Acham, Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004)
“Junkyard near Culpeper is a marvelous eyesore,” The Free Lance Star, October 31, 1977.
“Junkyard Gripes Now Common,” Ocala Star-Banner, March 30, 1980.
“Wilton Board to Act on ‘Eyesore’ Junkyard,” Schenectady Gazette, November 15, 1983.
Michael Seth Starr, Black and Blue: The Redd Foxx Story (Montclair, NJ: Applause Books, 2011)