A World of Burgers and Monsters: Remembering the Monster Culture of Burger Chef

In the mid-1970s, the Burger Chef fast food chain was out innovating McDonald’s and winning the hearts and stomachs of Monster Kids across the Midwest, but by the early 1980s the big Monster Bash was over and Fangburger closed his castle gates forever.

Good evening, Boils and Ghouls, it’s the Phantom of the Ville coming to you from the Maple Inn Tavern at 9416 Taylorsville Road in Jeffersontown. I’m not here to imbibe, but I am feeling a little drunk on nostalgia. You see, the Maple Inn used to be the location of J-town’s original Burger Chef fast food restaurant and the building itself still looks exactly the way it did in 1977, including the teahouse roof design and the big orange parking lot lights.

This was once a place where kids could get their stomachs filled with flame-broiled burgers that they dressed themselves and their imaginations fired by a rogues’ gallery of cartoon monsters that called Burger Chef their home. The spirit of Halloween seemed to ooze in the grease of the burger grills.

Brothers Frank and Donald Thomas opened the first Burger Chef in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1958 at 1300 W. 16th Street using their own open-flame broilers created by their General Equipment Division to give their burgers a unique taste. In 1968, they sold Burger Chef to General Foods for $20 million and the brand expanded across the United States, eventually topping out at 1,200 locations.

As a result of rapid expansion, the company went into a financial crisis which resulted in the closing of hundreds of stores and by the early 1970s, Burger Chef focused its attention on the Midwest and Southwestern states. Louisville, KY was one of Burger Chef’s most successful cities and there were several locations across town in J-town, Okolona, Dixie Highway, Eastern Parkway and Bardstown Road.

Burger Chef will be remembered for several fast food innovations. They pioneered the “Works Bar,” where customers could dress their own burgers. More significantly, they invented the Fun Burger and the Fun Meal, which included boxes containing games and riddles as well as a bonus “surprise” toy, a concept that McDonald’s actually stole from them in 1979 when they unveiled the Happy Meal.

Amazingly, Burger Chef was also on the cutting edge of cross promotions with the movie industry. They debuted a successful promotion with the Dino De Laurentiis Company in 1976 when they released a series of collectible “King Kong” glasses, and were one of the first companies to successfully tie-in fast food premiums with 20th Century Fox in 1977 with a popular line of “Star Wars” posters. There was also a series of “Star Wars” Fun Meal boxes that kids could cut out and build cardboard land speeders, x-wing fighters and droids.

Also popular with kids were Burger Chef’s mascot characters, Burger Chef and Jeff, who had various adventures in the wacky world of the fast food business in give-away comic books, on the backs of Fun Meals and even on a series of promotional Monster Fun Records. These colorful, six inch flexi-discs were produced by Eva-Tone Soundsheets for a Halloween promotion in 1977.

Introduced in the early 1970s were Burger Chef’s rogues’ gallery of monsters that appeared not only on the Monster Fun Records, but in TV commercials, on Fun Meal boxes and Fun Burger toys all year round. There was Fangburger the Vampire and his entire blood-sucking family, Crankenburger the Monster, Wolfburger the Werewolf, Cackelburger the Witch, Burgerilla the Ape and Burgerini the Magician.

For those interested in collecting the Monster Fun Records, there were six total: “Fangburger’s Haunted Hotel” on black plastic, “The Ghost of Grizzly Mountain” on red plastic, “Transylvania’s Big Game” on yellow plastic, “Wolfburger’s Problem” on translucent red plastic, “Cackelburger Casts a Spell” on powder blue plastic and “Crankenburger, the Super Salesman” on translucent blue plastic.

Someone in Burger Chef’s marketing department must have been a Monster Kid. The monsters even showed up during the spring and summer in a series of sports glasses and on cut-out baseball cards!

In 1975, Burger Chef introduced the legendary Fun Village. You could go to the restaurant and pick up a large plastic mat that contained various roads and empty lots as well as cardboard punch-out trees, people and cars. There were a series of 24 Fun Burger boxes that you could build into the various houses and buildings of the Fun Village. There was the firehouse, the bank, the school and, of course, the haunted house! These cardboard buildings are extremely rare, highly sought out by collectors and can sell for big bucks on eBay and the secondary market. It is currently unknown if a complete set even exists.

If anyone out there actually has the haunted house from the Fun Village, I’d be your best friend forever if you would donate it to the Phantom of the Ville’s personal monster museum. As a wee phantom, I tried and tried to get the illusive Fun Burger haunted house, but was never able to get my grubby little claws on one.

I did manage to collect the “King Kong” glasses, the “Star Wars” posters and, through the magic of eBay, I now own a complete set of the Monster Fun Records. Most of these items can still be found at antique stores, sci-fi/horror conventions and Internet auction sites.

Unfortunately, all the restaurants were sold in 1982 and most eventually became Hardee’s, except for one Burger Chef in Cookeville, Tennessee that fought to keep its name and did so until 1996 when it was forced to become a Pleaser’s until it closed in 2002.

To Fangerburger, Wolfburger, Crankenburger and all their hideous kin, I say “Fangs for the memories.”

The Phantom of The Ville

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