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Hot dog merchant who brought giant Paul Bunyan statue to Route 66 dead at 89

Hamlet Arthur Stephens seen age 81 this 2003 phowith giant Paul Bunyan figure thstood outside his hot dog stOgden Cicero

Hamlet Arthur Stephens, seen at age 81 in this 2003 photo with the giant Paul Bunyan figure that stood outside his hot dog stand on Ogden in Cicero for decades. The figure, which was moved downstate after Stephens retired, became a well-known bit of Ameri

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Updated: July 7, 2012 8:25AM



Hamlet Arthur Stephens was a giant in many ways.

He was a World War II Navy vet who flew a Hellcat, then known as the world’s deadliest aircraft. He opened a masonry business in 1946 and built many bungalows in Berwyn, Cicero and Stickney that are still standing.

But he was best known for constructing and operating Bunyon’s hot dog stand at 6150 W. Ogden — old Route 66 — in Cicero.

On Jan. 8, 1966, Mr. Stephens installed a 19-foot fiberglass “Muffler Man” of Paul Bunyan holding a hot dog in front of his hot dog stand, two days before it opened.

The big guy became an icon of Americana.

Mr. Stephens died Saturday of complications from pneumonia in a suburban hospital. He was 89.

Mr. Stephens sold Bunyon’s in 2003. The small, stand-up hot dog stand was built on the former site of a house of prostitution that was once frequented by Al Capone.

Bunyon’s was turned into a Mexican restaurant. In 2004, the Muffler Man moved south of the Cicero border to Route 66 in tranquil Atlanta, Ill., near Bloomington.

During its almost 40 years at the Cicero hot dog stand, the innocent Paul Bunyan statue had been clipped with 16 archer arrows and riddled with bullets from a .45. It has since been restored.

In the early 1960s, a California fiberglass company built “Muffler Men” for gas station chains. The roadside figures were spacemen, cowboys or other thrill seekers shaped to hold mufflers or tires. Mr. Stephens saw the retired Bunyan for sale in a magazine.

Mr. Stephens flew to Encino, Calif., to inspect his statue. “All these guys were in the yard laying on their backs,” he said in a 2003 interview with the Sun-Times.

Mr. Stephens paid $1,900 for the figure and had it shipped to Cicero in five boxes.

He replaced Bunyan’s long ax with a long hot dog.

He purposely misspelled his hot dog stand Bunyon’s to avoid potential trademark infringement.

At its peak, Bunyon’s was selling more than 300,000 hot dogs a year.

“Anybody can sell a hot dog,” Mr. Stephens said. “The trick is that you have to regulate how many hot dogs you put in according to the crowd. Most places throw in 50 hot dogs, and two hours later, they’re selling them.” Bunyon’s had a split steamer to keep the hot dogs warm and fresh.

The hot dog building and land was sold, but Mr. Stephens kept his homemade hot Italian giardiniera relish a secret. Bunyon’s giardiniera is still manufactured by his family and sold at select Whole Foods Markets in the city and Schaumburg.

Mr. Stephens was 81 when he sold Bunyon’s. He wanted to spend the rest of his life reading books. He had read every James Michener book and owned many Michener first editions. His father loved Shakespeare.

“That’s why they named me Hamlet,” Mr. Stephens said.

He had a sister named Ophelia, who lives in Chicago. Another sister, Sophie, was a biologist at the University of Chicago who worked on the atomic bomb project.

Mr. Stephens was born in Chicago on Oct. 26, 1922.

“My grandfather brought my dad here when he was 15,” Mr. Stephens said. “We were Armenians away from the Turks. My dad gained citizenship here. When he went back in 1915 to get his mother and sister, he was on the Lusitania when it went down. He was one of the survivors.”

Nearly 1,200 of the 1,957 on board the ship died.

Former Cicero village president Betty Loren-Maltese was a Bunyon’s fan and gave Mr. Stephens an “I LOVE BETTY” sweatshirt. In 2003, he recalled, “I was in Las Vegas, and I walked in to the dining room, and someone from Chicago goes, ‘Oh, there’s Mr. Bunyon!’ Customers always call me that.”

Bill Thomas of the Atlanta Betterment Fund board of directors was instrumental in securing the Muffler Man for its spot in downstate Atlanta (pop. 1,649).

“It has been the biggest single thing to happen to Atlanta in terms of tourism since the founding of the town” in 1853, Thomas said Monday. “Thousands of tourists come through Atlanta just to see him. We have a 43 percent increase in sales tax as a result of that statue and other attractions here. It is the absolute uniqueness of the Muffler Man.

“There is no other place in the world where you can have your picture taken with a 19 foot tall statue of a guy holding a hot dog. He epitomizes Route 66 kitsch and roadside attractions.”

Mr. Stephens and his wife, Vivian, were married 62 years. He would proudly proclaim that they never had an argument, though he would admit they sometimes had “emotional discussions.”

Mr. Stephens was always a reader. It was a cold late February afternoon when Mr. Stephens’ closed the door for good on Bunyon’s. He told friends about his books and said he wanted to hang out with his only grandson, Joseph Hamlet Star, who was then 6. Joey had brought a tiny new race car to the restaurant to replace his grandfather’s big old briefcase.

The idea was to play Route 66 race cars together, and that was just fine with Mr. Stephens, who always saw the beauty of a new morning on America’s byways.

In addition to his wife and grandson, Mr. Stephens is survived by a son, Arthur; daughters Linda Stephens and Elise Star; and a sister, Ophelia Merza.

Funeral arrangements are pending.



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