Foam Alone

Mario Del Castillo ain't Picasso, but Picasso never worked in a medium usually reserved for packing material

On a six-foot-square piece of aluminum that leans against a wall behind Mario Del Castillo's house in West Hialeah, the words Calle Ocho 96 are spelled out in foot-high letters of lavender, red, yellow, green, and blue, all fashioned from Styrofoam. Along with several other signs stored in the yard, this piece was to have graced this year's famed Calle Ocho street festival. Of course, as most Dade residents know, the event was canceled for the first time in its eighteen-year history after Cuban MiGs shot down two Brothers to the Rescue Cessnas.

A Cuban himself, Del Castillo understands why the show didn't go on. Still, it hurt him. For one thing, he says, he will receive only partial payment, if any at all, for the work he did before the cancellation was announced. (He estimates his losses at about $5000). Worse, perhaps, is the disappointment that his creations won't be displayed. Del Castillo is 78 years old, but he's almost childlike in the energy he devotes to his job -- making things out of Styrofoam -- and the pride he takes in it.

He shakes his head of luxuriant white hair, and lifts bushy owl-like eyebrows over the tops of his metal-framed glasses. "It's too bad," he says. "But I know everyone wants me to do stages for a lot of different festivals, because I can do it the best."

One gets the impression that he'd keep doing what he does even if he lost money on everything. Del Castillo has made Mickey Mouses and Spidermen on a whim for neighborhood children; he has shaped Christmas mangers, Wise Men, sleighs and reindeer, a Caridad de Cobre shrine; and he has rotated swans and seashells for quinceanera presentations. He points to a photo of an elaborate stage setting he made for a festival a few years ago: the exterior of a Spanish colonial church, complete with Styrofoam bricks, windows, and columns -- even a clock with movable hands. The details are perfect. "But that's not important," Del Castillo says excitedly. "More important, everything I made myself. For an old man, that's not so bad."

Not bad at all for a man who started in this line of work at age 63, having retired from a very different but equally creative career. As the owner of Star Body Shop, Del Castillo gained notoriety for transforming ordinary autos into fantasy machines. Clients hired him to make their cars and trucks bullet- and bomb-proof. Sometimes he'd install a compartment filled with tacks that would drop out onto the roadway with a touch of a button. Other cars could be started by remote control from ten yards away. Most of the James Bond-ish vehicles, he says, went to South American government officials. "They were having a lot of trouble with terrorism," he explains. "The dealers would tell them I could build the things they needed, because there was no factory in Miami that could."

Daisy Fernandez, Del Castillo's daughter, remembers visiting her father's shop when she was a teenager and marveling at the bulletproof glass samples that hung on the walls. "There were different grades of materials for different gunshots," recalls Fernandez, a long-time aide to Metro commissioner Alex Penelas. She was really impressed, she adds, when her dad converted a van into a mobile clinic (complete with X-ray machine) at the request of the first lady of Venezuela.

But the best custom job to come out of Star Body Shop was the one Del Castillo did in the Sixties, for Candid Camera.

The way he tells it, the producers had an idea for a stunt involving a tourist who gets a memorable tour of Miami. They needed a car that would split in half on cue, leaving the tourist stranded in the middle of the road, in the rear half. Del Castillo sawed a Mercury station wagon in half, had an extra set of wheels installed under the front half, and reconnected the car so the driver could pull a handbrake lever to release a pin in the frame, whereupon the front half would drive on without the back.

The night the Candid Camera episode aired, the Del Castillo family gathered with great anticipation. "We all watched," Fernandez says. "It was a thrill for us to know something like this was coming out of our family."

Her father was disappointed, though, at not seeing his name among the credits.

A native of Gines, Cuba, Del Castillo grew up in a farming family. At 22 he moved to Havana, where his experience with farm machinery helped him land a job repairing bus bodies for the state transit service. He eventually opened his own shop. He and Elena Fernandez, a dressmaker, married in 1937. Their son Darwin was born the next year, Daisy in 1948. In 1954 Del Castillo brought his family to Hialeah, where he has lived ever since.

It wasn't long after he opened Star Body Shop that Del Castillo heard Styrofoam calling to him. A chunk of the substance was lying around his garage, and he took out a pocket knife and found himself carving a fish. It delighted him. "I said, 'Look at this,'" he recounts. "'When I'm retired, I'm going to use foam for a hobby.'"

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