Mobile Home Park Mastery: Episode 86

Industry Trivia From The 1950s To 1960s

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Elvis lived in a mobile home both in Hollywood and in Tennessee. The 1950s and 1960s were the “Golden Era” of the mobile home industry, yet too few people understand this fact. In this second of a three-part series on mobile home trivia, we’re going to delve into some little-known facts about the mobile home industry from this important period in its history. Hard to believe that even Elvis had his blue suede shoes in mobile homes during this period.

Episode Transcript

Elvis Presley lived in a mobile home park, not once, not twice, but three times. This is Frank Rolfe. We're going to be talking about the Golden Era of the mobile home park industry, the 1950s to the 1960s in the second of our three-part series called Mobile Home Trivia.

Now the '50s and the '60s really were the apex, the very top of the pack for the mobile home park industry, and let's start off with 1954 because that's the year the very first movie ever came out about mobile homes and mobile home parks. It was called The Long, Long Trailer starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and as we all know the Lucy and Ricky from their own TV show, what happens is that Ricky in the movie is an architect in Manhattan. He decides to sell his penthouse apartment to live in a mobile home in a mobile home park. Why not? That's the new fun thing to do back in the 1950s.

In fact, if you look at the advertising from the '50s, you'll see that slogans and ads with such things as, it'll show a mobile home and say, "Everything is modern as can be, also the smart way to live," and then listen to this description of a mobile home park from a brochure of that era. "The new mobile home parks are fine neighborhoods with beautiful landscaping, recreational facilities like swimming pools. Outside in the yard you can set out a white picket fence, plant a rose garden, and do some informal entertaining." An entirely different product than what we think of today but was full reality back in the 1950s.

Now, let's talk for a minute about Elvis. We talked about Lucy and Ricky living in a mobile home park in 1954. When did Elvis live in a mobile home park? Well, the first time he lived in one was in the movie, It Happened at the World's Fair, in 1963. If you watch that movie, which I watch whenever it comes on TV, you'll see that the mobile home park is chock full of young professionals and people driving British sports car. In fact, every single mobile home in the movie has parked in front a Triumph or an Austin Healey or a Jaguar or similar sports car, and everyone who lives in the park all wears dinner jackets, cocktail party clothing, occasionally black tie clothing as they go off to their many entertainment venues. So that was the first time he lived in a park was in that movie, then he lived in one again in the movie, Speedway, in 1968. Same story once again. People living in mobile home parks driving sports cars, having very, very classy lifestyles.

But what most people don't know is that Elvis really did live in a mobile home in a mobile home park. We all think of Elvis as living in Graceland. I don't know if you've been there or not, but it's a great side trip. If you're ever down in the Memphis, Tennessee area I recommend you go there. But Elvis also owned 10 miles from Graceland a little ranch, and at that little ranch he had his own mobile home park, mobile home for himself and then one for the various folks that were hangers-on to Elvis at the time.

In fact, that home, a 1967 Delta mobile home, went to auction in 2018 and it brought $67,650, which was far less than what they estimated. They estimated 300,000 or more. It did have one feature. It had a gold painted bathtub. Now, Priscilla Presley, herself, wrote in her book about living with Elvis that the happiest time she ever had with Elvis were not at Graceland, were instead in that mobile home in that mobile home park. So that's a really strange story, but again hearkens to the fact that Americans really loved mobile homes and mobile home parks back in the 1950s and 1960s.

In fact, in that era 2% of the US population, roughly three million people, lived in mobile homes and mobile home parks out of 150 million people roughly in the US population, so about 2%. But what's interesting is who those 2% represented because the statistics back then were if you lived in a mobile home in a mobile home park you had higher demographics than people living in stick-built homes, the exact reverse of what you would expect today. Back then, people who lived in mobile home parks were in fact the cream of the crop.

Here's another statistic that was shown in a 1958 mobile home park article. There are three million people, including young marrieds, engineers, graduate students, industrial workers, professionals and military men and retired couples, living in mobile home parks, not the list you would probably see today. Today, there'd be a lot of people, perhaps lower earning professions, but in fact if you lived in a mobile home park in the '50s and '60s, you had higher education and higher income than those living in regular stick-built housing.

Now, there's some other interesting stats from the '50s and '60s that you need to be aware of. First, the first 10-foot wide mobile home came out in 1956. Why is that a big deal? Well, prior to that, all mobile homes shared the same width as modern RVs, eight feet. That's all you could have. The reason why, the highway department said that's as big a load as you could take down the road being pulled by your car, but in 1956, a mobile home company called [Selby 00:05:10] was curious if it was possible to build something bigger.

As with everything else, keeping up with the Jones's, there were people out there who wanted something bigger than eight feet, and they were curious. So they called up the state and said, "Can I build something bigger than eight feet?" And they said, "Yes, you can, but if you want to build something bigger than eight feet, you're going to have to go ahead and get a special moving permit to move it down the highway. You'll have to have a truck behind it saying "Wide Load." You can move it all the time, and you can't move it with a car. It has to be with a actual truck with a CDL driver's license. But if you want to do that, sure, you can go bigger than eight feet."

They got a permit to build a 10-wide mobile home, and that 10-wide was really the beginning of the industry because that was the separation moment between recreational vehicles, now called RVs, and mobile homes. So that was really the start of it all, and in fact, in 1956, the number one selling home, the best home in that era was built by a company called Spartan. As we've talked about in the past, Spartan was owned by J. Paul Getty, richest man in America of the time, and it was coming out of a plant that was building fighter aircrafter in World War II, building these all-aluminum, very, very nicely crafted mobile homes. So that was really the start of the luxury end of the industry.

It's an interesting bit of trivia that you can take those old homes, often from the '50s and the '60s, and you'll see them painted and the paint maybe looking kind of dreary. You can actually just pry the paint off. Underneath that is beautiful shiny aluminum just like an old spider plane of World War II. But that was really the start of it getting more glamorous was the building to have a 10-wide home where you have more room for furniture, more room for entertaining, but an interesting feature also of the area was the 1956 pacemaker.

Now, the pacemaker was the first two-story mobile home. Now I know you may have seen driving down the highway those two-story mobile homes on the mobile sales lot, maybe by Clayton or another manufacturer, but this is a different kind of two-story mobile home. This is actually not truly two story although the ad said that they were. They're really a story and a half. What you have is on one end of the mobile home you'll see this bump-up, and I'm sure you probably have seen these in pictures. What you have there is you have the bedrooms instead of being side by side, they're stacked.

On the top portion you have the master bedroom. The master bedroom has the regular accoutrements of a master bedroom, full standing room ceilings, but beneath that you have another bedroom. So, that's typically another bedroom for children or it could even be an adult, but it did not have a standing room height to the ceiling. It was more like a loft, but what was interesting, it was a loft underneath master bedroom instead of above like modern park models have. You can still see these homes in many, many mobile home parks. Now, in 1976 when HUD took over the industry, all of the ideas of having story-and-a-half homes ended, but these are still some of the best built mobile homes out there, very, very heavy construction, very, very good at weathering the weather.

Now, the next bit of trivia came up in 1966, and that was when Jim Clayton opened the first Clayton homes sales lot. So, basically, Jim Clayton, if you don't know much about him, he's the guy who was really kind of one of the four foremost folks of the industry back in the '60s and in fact sold to Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway in modern times, but that's what signaled and was the entrance of Berkshire Hathaway into what is now the largest manufacturer and financier of mobile homes in the US. But it all really started with Jim Clayton back in 1966.

The industry was doing so well that you have Clayton, who at that time was a car dealer, decide, "Hey, I want to get involved in this industry which is selling well and doing well and getting lots of media publicity." So he jumped in and opened the first Clayton Home dealership there in 1966. What that actually did was a whole new era of even greater aggressiveness on the marketing of the mobile home and the mobile home park. So really you have in the '50s the start of the industry as far as the new home production and super high stats. Today, we talk about the upper 1%, well, back then the upper 2% were the folks living in the mobile home parks, and then by the 1960s you have Jim Clayton, who's a master of marketing, jump into the industry and additionally push it even further forward.

There's another couple bits of trivia you also need to know. Back in the '50s and '60s, Frank Lloyd Wright built a mobile home prototype called the [Usatonian 00:10:02] Americana. Now, this mobile home prototype is still out there. It's at the Frank Lloyd Wright museum, but what they do with it every so many years, maybe every decade, they put it back on wheels and they roll it around America kind of to draw attention to Frank Lloyd Wright, and so you can actually see his mobile home prototype in many American cities every so often.

Also, there was a top industrial designer at the time called Raymond Lowry. Now, Raymond, Ray ... or maybe it's Raymond Loewy. I'm not really sure how you pronounce his last name, but he was the top industrial engineer of the era, did a lot of the main products we know today. He's a car designer. He did a lot of household appliances and stuff, and he also did a mobile home prototype. Now, it never went into production nor did Frank Lloyd Wright's. They were considered to be expensive to build but, again, the industry was doing so well in the '50s and '60s, you were able to attract the top design talent in America to look at this new product and give their own versions of what they think it could be. If you look at the prototypes that both gentlemen did, they're both very advanced. They have no attempt to even resemble housing like a lot of mobile homes do today. Instead, they're more of a streamlined art deco look.

Also, it's worth noting, as far as trivia in the '50s and '60s, was Stanley Marcus, the founder of Neiman-Marcus, he built a prototype mobile home park. It's still there, I believe. It was the last time I looked out in West Dallas. Now, what's interesting about that mobile home park, which I looked to purchasing at one time, the club house looked just like a Neiman-Marcus department store. He used the same brick. He had to use giant circular windows. Must've been insanely expensive back in the '50s and '60s to build, and the whole product was absolutely top of the line. It's everything that Neiman Marcus would do. So, again, you had such a glamour product in the '50s and '60s that you had the top people in design, the top people in retail all eager to be involved in an industry which they thought had a very, very bright future.

Now, in our final installment of a mobile home trivia, we're going to be talking instead of the '50s and '60s in the glamour era, the '70s and on, as far as the new era where it's refocused on affordable housing. Again, this is Frank Rolfe with the Mobile Park Mastery Podcast Series. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.