‘It was only natural’ to paint Elvis on the side of the barn

By Becca Tucker

It started with James Dean and Elvis in 1995. Marlon Brando joined them in 2006, followed by Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman last year.

The cows may be gone from Manno Farm, but the old dairy is well known these days, not because of what’s in, but what’s on the barn. Bikers have been known to pull in for a mural selfie, and Elvis and friends have become a ubiquitous directional landmark. But there’s something of a mystery, too about the growing installation. Is it a play on the name Manno Farm? An older woman commissioning a fond walk down memory lane?

Nope. The man behind the landmark is Rocco Manno, 46, son of the Rocco Manno who bought this farm in 1950. Father and son still make and sell hay, and the elder Rocco keeps chickens and grows a vegetable patch whose asparagus patch covers half of Elvis’ face by the middle of each summer. The younger Rocco, who lives up the hill with his wife and two kids, makes his living as an art teacher at Warwick High School, but he’s found a way to bring his art home.

Manno’s chosen subject matter has nothing to do with his last name, he says. “I’m a big fan of the ‘50s. I like the era,” he shrugs. “I would’ve loved to have been around in the 50s. I love the music, the cars. I just feel like it was simpler,” an impression, he admits, that comes from the movies, so who knows.

“I’m a big Elvis fan, so it was only natural” to start with him, said Manno. Following with Dean and Brando was “simple,” said Manno, who studied film and animation at the University of Oklahoma. They’re all good actors with a macho mentality who made good films. Picking the last two was more of a challenge. Come to think of it, Paul Newman may be a bit more refined than his wall-mates.

Some people ask Manno why it’s all men, why Marilyn Monroe’s not up there. “No particular reason,” is all he says. After all, it’s his wall.

Well, it started off as his wall. Now, apparently, a lot of people feel a sense of ownership. When Manno painted over the original mural to do version two, people driving by were “flipping out, yelling ‘Put it back!’” he recalls.

So Manno can’t take them down, or let them fade away — which they do, if he doesn’t keep on top of it. “The sun wreaks havoc after a while,” he said, pointing out how James Dean’s pompadour has faded from black to red.

It was in 1993 that Manno got inspired. He happened to see the artist Robert Wyland, known for his life-size “Whaling walls,” painting a pair of humpback whales onto a 220-foot by 30-foot wall down in Wildwood, NJ.

After clearing it with his dad, he power washed the barn, stripped the paint, repainted it white, taped up two pictures, sketched them large in Sharpie, and airbrushed the colors with a paint gun. It took about 10 hours, most of it spent prepping the building.

The drawing itself is easy, he said. “The details are big, none of these super fine things you have to worry about.”

Manno added a second mural on a smaller barn, of firemen hoisting a flag after 9/11. He and a friend who’s a retired New York City fireman were “not really sure what to do with ourselves” in the days following the tragedy. “This was all I knew what to do.”

If he ever finds more space, he might add Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. But “it took forever just to get to these,” he said. “You know how it is with little ones. You don’t know where your time goes, but you know you don’t have any?”