Riding along with Cheech and Chong

Tonasket resident Bluejay Hankins (center) hangs out with Cheech and Chong in a van rebuilt by Kevin Hands of Oroville.

MANSON — Tommy Chong and Richard “Cheech” Marin were presented with a sweet surprise and a flashback to the 1970s when the comedy duo performed at Mill Bay Casino July 7.

Kevin Hands, owner of Double K Auto and Grass Monkey Garage in Oroville, built a replica of the van from Cheech and Chong's 1978 feature film “Up in Smoke” this past year, and drove it to their show. The opportunity to present the van to the comedy duo was as big a surprise for Hands as it was for Cheech and Chong.

Bluejay Hankins of Tonasket saw a photo of the van posted on Facebook, and a week later a friend of his who books gigs for Mill Bay Casino called to let him know Cheech and Chong were coming to town.

“Because of my work in music, my friend offered me backstage meet-and-greet passes for the show,” said Hankins, CEO of Sick Donkey Records. “I asked if I could have extra passes to bring along the van and driver, and a video man and a camera man.”

Hankins, who had never met Hands, tracked him down through Facebook and called him.

“I told him, 'Hey, I got you tickets if you want to bring the van,” said Hankins. “He freaked out on the phone for a second.”

“Bluejay calls me out of the blue and it was the coolest thing ever,” said Hands. “I grew up with the Cheech and Chong lifestyle in the '70s, but I never expected to ever meet them.”

Hands said he had seen the van sitting near the Molson turnoff for several years, and every time he drove past it he would comment, “That's the Cheech and Chong van.”

He purchased it April 5 and had it rebuilt by May 1.

“Usually when I do these projects, you have to wait a long time for parts to come in. But all the parts came together and everything just clicked, so I thought, 'Wow, that's cool. I'm supposed to build this van,'” said Hands, adding his friend Geoff Fogg helped with the paint work.

The day of the show, Hands and Hankins met for the first time at the Tonasket Natural Foods Co-op. Hands drove the van and Hankins drove his own car, recording the journey all the way to Chelan.

“Cheech and Chong didn't know about the van; we didn't tell them ahead of time. We lined it up with the chauffeur from the casino, and met Cheech and Chong at their hotel, pretending to give them a ride to the show,” said Hankins. “I had a photographer and a video man and we caught their reaction, seeing it for the first time. Then we followed them to the show and pulled up right next to the green room and got pictures of them with the van.”

Hankins said at the meet-and-greet after the show, they invited the comedy team to step inside the van and autograph the ceiling.

“They thought it was pretty cool. When Chong sat in the passenger seat, he said, 'Wow, man, this really brings back lots of memories,” said Hankins. “They were definitely happy with it, they thought it was really cool and it was really well done. It really looks like the original one from the 'Up in Smoke' movie.”

“They thought the van was awesome,” said Hands. “When they got in, they looked at each other and said, 'It's bringing back memories,' and they started laughing, and I knew I did good.”

Hands said the opportunity to meet them was a once-in-a-lifetime thing he never thought would happen.

“They were my teenage idols back then,” said Hands. “They were really neat, just laid back guys kicked back and enjoying life still. It was the coolest thing ever.”

Hankins said he had seen quite a lot of interviews and footage of them over the years that wasn't acting, and they were much as he expected in person.

“If anything, they play up the stoner part when acting, but they aren't so silly in person. But they are still really happy, and smiling and they seemed happy with the show and everyone they met. They were easy to talk to and really down to earth and pleasant,” said Hankins. “Working in the industry, I meet plenty of stars who don't want to give you the time of day, but they were not anywhere close to that.”

Hankins said he has worked with some of the same people, including Jim Charleston, the director of Cheech Marin's television show called “Nash Bridges.” Charleston directed a music video for Sick Donkey featuring Essential I of Omak, with music by Turbulence of Jamaica and filmed on Stevens Pass.

After taking a break from working together in 1985, Cheech and Chong reunited in 2002.

“They are currently touring, and flew in for this one show,” said Hankins, adding, “The show wasn't completely sold out, but it was a really good turnout.”

Hankins said the duo perform stand-up comedy and music, pretty similar to their old routine, with updates to some of their old skits.

“Cheech is 71 and Chong is 80, and I gotta say Chong is doing amazingly well. They both look great, but for 80 years old, Chong is clear-headed and really on top of it still,” said Hankins. “People think of him as this big stoner, which he is, he still smokes a lot of pot but he's one of the most intelligent men I've met in a long time.”

Chong's wife has her own stand-up comedy routine, and his son is their tour manager who plays bass when his dad does songs in the show.

“Tommy Chong is actually a pretty good singer and guitar player,” said Hankins. “He had a big hit before he ever met Cheech, with a band called Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers.”

Hankins said growing up in an alternative community in Okanogan with a lot of Cheech and Chong fans, he started watching their movies at a fairly young age.

“Up in Smoke” grossed more than $44 million at the box office.

“As soon as I started buying records, I would buy theirs when I would find them,” said Hankins. “And when I started working as a DJ, I would play a record that was all instrumental and cut in samples of their records over it.”

Hankins said he brought three of his old Cheech and Chong albums to the show for them to autograph.

“I had the ‘Big Bambu’ record that had the big rolling paper in it, and they were like, 'Wow, the paper is still in it,' and they signed that, too. When I posted that photo, it got more likes than anything I've ever posted on Facebook,” said Hankins.

In 2005, Hankins established Sick Donkey Records along with Essential I, AKA Omak alum Silas Goggiel. Hankins is in the editing stages of short film he's compiling of both video and stills of the event, including drone footage of the van journeying to Chelan, to be released on Sick Donkey Records.

“The video is going to be pretty sweet. I brought along my photographer, Van Adam Davis, and he was a great one to bring,” said Hankins. “I'm also including an interview with Kevin about building the van.”

Hands, who founded Double K Auto in 2009 and Grass Monkey Garage in 2015 for custom jobs, said he does one special project each year. Last year he built a 1968 Volkswagen bug, stretching it out into a “rat rod” and taking second place in a Sandpoint show with about 500 cars.

“I like to build stuff that's totally unique,” said Hands. “It takes the right mindset and skills to do what no one else does.”

His next project “will have to be a secret. There's lots of things going on in my twisted mind.”

Fogg laughed and said, “He's gonna build the Starship Enterprise and fly it over.”

“It's all about fun,” said Hands. “I build a project every year and have my fun with it and sell it and then go build another project the next year.”

Hands said building cars was his “winter job,” and summer finds him manning “Kevin's Fun Time Rentals” on Lake Osoyoos.

“I make sure everybody's out there having fun,” said Hands.

As for the van?

“It's headed to Venice Beach. I sold it to a friend who markets marijuana products,” said Hands. “I told him, 'You're going to make a million bucks with this van.' It's pretty funny stuff.”

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