Monday, March 17, 2003

'Monster Garage' new Discovery vehicle

By Jeff Wilson
The Associated Press

Wielding a cutting torch like a six-shooter, Monster Garage foreman Jesse James has been dazzling Discovery Channel audiences by guiding the transformation of ordinary vehicles into Frankencars.

His weekly series (8 p.m. today, Discovery) is a hit and it's made the tattooed 6-foot-2 host a star of the cable channel.

James guides a new team of mechanics each week on the latest mission to create something weird - something driveably weird - in five days with a budget of $3,000. The goal, he says, is to "transform it into a monster."

A Porsche 944 morphed into a driving range golf ball retriever, a Ford Explorer became a garbage truck, a Chevrolet Caprice was transformed into an ice rink resurfacer, a Mini Cooper evolved into a snowmobile, a Mustang became a lawnmower, a NASCAR racer became a street sweeper and a PT Cruiser is now a wood chipper.

"Producers always want to do agricultural stuff," James laments, adding he wants speed out of the steroid-packed creations. "No speed, no reward."

A Chevy Suburban was made into a portable wedding chapel, complete with a complicated pipe organ, stained glass atrium and ramps for the bride and groom to reach the altar. A machine hurled rice through the SUV's roof.

Upcoming shows feature a mobile home morphed into a skating park and a police car turned into a doughnut shop.

James, who has "Pay up, sucker" tattooed on the palm of his hand, snickers with a menacing grin as he grabs a hissing plasma cutter and lets the sparks fly on another strange-change project: transforming a Mazda RX-7 into a three-wheel dune buggy.

"I like putting my helmet on and going to work," the 33-year-old father of two says amid the clatter of hammers, falling debris and pounding rock music. "It's good to relentlessly cut at something - just hack it up."

Series producer Tom McMahon says Monster Garage is a reality show that creates heroes out of the build team.

Monster Garage creations evolve on a platform inside a 60-by-60-foot structure in East Long Beach, Calif., with interior walls painted in flames. There are power drills, air-hammers, grinders and James' beloved plasma cutter.

A $100,000-plus custom motorcycle built down the street at West Coast Choppers, where James and his crew make muscle bikes for people like Shaquille O'Neal, Kid Rock and Keanu Reeves, is usually parked conspicuously in the middle of the shop.

The year-old Monster Garage show has developed quite a following. Hundreds of shade-tree mechanics log onto the Web site each week in a bid to become a member of the build team, says Clark Bunting, Discovery Channel general manager.

"They are everybody from designers to engineers to people who are working in their garage and are extraordinarily skilled," Bunting said from his Maryland office. "They cross all social and economic barriers. We're seeing more and more celebrities who want to be a part of it, but they have to have a talent and have to have a passion."

It was executive producer Thom Beers who signed up James after Beers featured James in the documentary Motorcycle Mania.

"He said Discovery needed to open up a little bit, that the network shouldn't be so earnest. Discovery needed to laugh a little bit," Bunting said. "Males 2 to 55 are watching this in droves. People are incredibly passionate about it."

As for his new television fame, James seems embarrassed.

"I'm just a metal worker," he says.

TV today: Katie Couric, whose husband died of colon cancer in 1998, starts the Today show's fourth annual colon cancer series (7-9 a.m., Channels 5, 22).

Biography profiles actress Diane Keaton (8 p.m., A&E).

Oscar-winners on Turner Classic Movies: In The Heat of the Night (8 p.m.), Some Like It Hot (10 p.m.) and Blazing Saddles (12:15 a.m.).

John Kiesewetter contributed to this report.

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