Cabel Sasser just wanted some McNuggets.
But when the 40-year-old app designer stopped in at the McDonald's in Centralia, Wash., while on a family trip in March, he was riveted by a 10-foot-wide, hand-painted mural portraying retro Happy Meal characters frolicking in the shadow of Mount Rainier. Grimace and Captain Crook lolled in a haystack. Ronald McDonald milked a cow.
"I've been in a fair number of McDonald's in my life," Sasser recalls. "They don't have anything that would make you stop in your tracks and appreciate the artwork. I basically just totally lost my mind."
The mural was signed by one Wes Cook—who, it emerged, was a prolific set and theme-park designer for more than four decades until his death in 2005.
Sasser is the skinny, animated co-founder of Panic, an app developer headquartered across West Burnside Street from Powell's. The company has done a bit of work with Disney Imagineers: "We're theme-park nerds," Sasser says. He was now obsessed.
It took him two weeks and a $2,000 outlay on eBay, but Sasser was able to procure a collection containing more than 500 pages of original designs by Wes Cook: tracing-paper drawings and blueprints for theme-park rides, restaurants and costumes. The drawings, now in Portland, include work for Universal (a Popeye the Sailor Man boat, never built), the Shriners (a gigantic parade costume that would allow members to dress as the club's Big Bird-like mascot, the Kisselbird) and the Walt Disney Company—which actually built several of Cook's ideas at a Japanese park called Tokyo DisneySea.
The eBay seller told Sasser he'd gotten them by buying the contents of an unclaimed Los Angeles storage locker. But he hadn't moved fast enough—the locker was 60 percent cleaned out, and the seller lost bids for two other lockers containing Cook's work.
"Wes Cook's life work was left unpaid-for in a storage locker in California," Sasser says. "It's everybody's nightmare, right? It's both exciting and heartbreaking."
By Sasser's tally, as much as 85 percent of Cook's drafting sketches could still be out there—and he's not done looking for it. He dreams of getting his hands on Cook's weirdest project: a religious triptych depicting the baptism, crucifixion and resurrection of Ronald McDonald.
"Everybody consistently refers to him as 'eccentric,'" Sasser muses. "Why doesn't he have next of kin? Why was there no obituary notice?" And where can he find the rest of Wes Cook's drawings?
"My theory is the McDonald's stuff went first," Sasser says. "McDonald's collectors are bonkers."