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Northwest Indiana city now boasts a Mascot Hall of Fame

WHITING, Ind. — At the end of November, in the middle of the night, a few weeks before the Mascot Hall of Fame opened in Whiting, the large, colorful snot that dangles from the front of the building blew away and rolled down Front Street.

Now please note: There is not a single metaphorical thing about that sentence. The day after Christmas, an actual Mascot Hall of Fame debuted in this small industrial dot of 5,000 outside Chicago, and on the facade of its $18 million complex is a giant purple mascot with a Mt. Rushmore schnoz, from which extends a snot the size of a bathtub.

A storm sent it flying, then bowling down the street around 2 a.m., past the recycling centre, past the Whiting Little League field, past the Roosevelt Club building.

“We realized it only after the police called,” Orestes Hernandez, the Hall’s executive director, said. “We got this phone call — ‘Uh, your, er, your booger is rolling down the street.’ “

It was hard to miss.

The Mascot Hall of Fame, a decidedly irreverent monument to sports mascots, has been a bright spot for Whiting — a literal bright spot. About 25 minutes south of downtown Chicago, pull off I-90, and the palette here is grey on grey. Shuttles from local casinos shush past, caked in road salt. The wind kicks bitterly off Lake Michigan, smoke trails from chimneys in hard-right plumes and everything appears to begin and end with the nearby BP oil refinery, a sprawling maze of steel and flames reaching into the sky.

Everything but the Mascot Hall of Fame.

Sure, it sits against rusted brown railroad tracks, an arm’s reach from slow-moving freight, and yeah, it shares a parking lot with the public works department and animal shelter, and yes, it is a sports hall of fame that celebrates the furry, goofy and noncompetitive.

But it’s also colorful and charming, and with 25,000 square feet and three floors, surprisingly sleek, as unexpected as a bucket of popcorn dropped on your head by Benny the Bull.

“I call this our take on bronze busts,” Hernandez said, staring up at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade-size balloon heads of mascots suspended in the main foyer, greeting you as you enter. “We’re not going to become some repository for old, dusty sports objects.”

Don’t think austere.

Think strange. Think a somewhat modest shrine to the playfulness of sports marketing mashed against a more expansive, education-minded children’s museum. (The snot, which looks more like the world’s largest tangle of rubber bands, is the museum’s intentional way of telegraphing that playfulness.)

You do learn things: Such as how it feels like to sweat inside a mascot costume while being poked for autographs, and that mascots (“by tradition”) have four fingers, and that White Sox mascots Ribbie and Roobarb only lasted seven years “due to verbal abuse.”

There is an exhibit that asks you to strap on 40-pound sandbags (to approximate the weight of a costume), then dance and monitor your heart rate. It’s not easy being fuchsia, or having a baseball for a head, while entertaining thousands.

And of course there are a few dusty old objects.

Mascots are the unsung heroes of sports and communities.

The Hall — which honours both professional and college sports mascots (but will eventually include high school and even non-sports-associated corporate mascots, its founders promise) — has a Mascot of the Month display, a single full-body suit on a mannequin, on loan from a team (right now it’s Moonchester, the blue alien mascot of the Manchester City football club in England). There are the Phillie Phanatic’s oversize sneakers, and the disembodied head of the Cleveland Indian’s fluorescent swamp creature Slider, and the tail of the Baltimore Orioles’ Bird, and part of the dinosaur shell that Dinger of the Colorado Rockies hatched from in 1994. There is memorabilia of the University of Wisconsin’s Bucky Badger and Utah Jazz’s Jazz Bear.

But the focus is less historical than interactive. So a virtual T-shirt cannon, a Mr. Potato Head-like build-a-mascot lab, a sneakily challenging game that asks you to pair mascots with teams. (A little regional stereotyping comes in handy here — naturally the Sasquatch mascot belongs to Arkansas). And everything is hosted by Reggy, the Hall’s personal mascot, a “purple party dude” of undetermined species. (His hair resembles a small order of fries.) Reggy is the Hall’s storytelling vehicle, so ubiquitous here that he even gets an origin: He was a mascot without a team, lonesome and on the skids (he wallows in the gutter in one video), until (and I am not making this up) he stumbles on Whiting’s annual Pierogi Fest, at which he is welcomed into the embrace of travelling babushkas.

Weird thing is, that’s not far from the truth.

The Mascot Hall of Fame came to Whiting on a whim. A consultant the city hired was searching for something to do with its undeveloped waterfront. They considered a Whiting historical museum or a museum about the history of Standard Oil (which had founded the Whiting refinery in 1889). Joe Stahura, mayor since 2004, said: “We ultimately determined we needed to do something different than rely on a refinery for the rest of our days. We are sitting on three miles of Lake Michigan shoreline.”

The Pierogi Fest, which draws 250,000 visitors in July, helps cover the summer, “but we needed something to extend into cold-weather months, something to put bodies on our streets so the business district could survive.”

Then they discovered Dave Raymond, a Pennsylvania marketing executive who had performed as the Philadelphia Phillies’ Phillie Phanatic mascot from 1978 to 1993.

Retired from the Phillies, Raymond was running a marketing firm that specialized in developing mascots for sports organizations; his successes include Burnie, the Miami Heat’s anthropomorphic fireball, and Gritty, the Flyers’ disturbed-looking viral sensation.

In 2003, at the Milwaukee Brewer’s Miller Park, during the usual race between large, teetering sausage mascots, then-Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Randall Simon bonked Guido the Italian Sausage (really a college student named Mandy Block) on the head with a bat. Major League Baseball fined him $2,000 and suspended him three games. But more important: Dave Raymond was watching.

Seizing on the Milwaukee debacle (and hoping to draw publicity to his business), Raymond led a march through Philadelphia, demanding rights for mascots. This led, he explained, to a wider discussion of mascot appreciation, which led in turn to the creation of an online Hall of Fame in 2005, Its initial inductees included the San Diego Chicken, the Phoenix Suns’ Gorilla and the Phanatic.

Raymond established a virtual Mascot Hall of Fame in 2005 and long expressed dreams to make it a brick-and-mortar hall. Stahura cold-called Raymond and asked if he might consider Whiting for his nascent plans. Raymond had never heard of the place. He assumed it was a joke, and Stahura assured him it wasn’t. That was five years ago.

The Mascot Hall of Fame became a Whiting city project, developed with a combination of tax increment financing (TIF) redevelopment funds and corporate donations. The mayor said that when he explained his plan to constituents “the look on their faces was ‘What the heck?’ They couldn’t get past the (Hall of Fame) misnomer to see it would be more of a children’s museum.” He told them that a Mascot Hall of Fame fit well with the city’s self-image and Pierogi Fest, which he calls “whimsical and wacky.”

“Oh, I think there were a lot of naysayers in Whiting,” said Kathleen Ulm, who co-owns the Junk Yard T-shirt shop down the street from the Hall. “I mean, it’s big, it’s gaudy, it’s loud — it’s a good time. But initially, people felt the money could have been better spent.”

Raymond, in a phone interview from his home in Pennsylvania, said, “Mascots are the unsung heroes of sports and communities,” noting their good works at hospitals and parades. On the other hand, mascots are also branding, a gateway into a sports franchise; not to mention, with fixed expressions and unblinking eyes, they can be nightmare-inducing — the Wall Street Journal referred to Gritty as “satan’s armpit.”

As Whiting raised money for its Hall, and Raymond began a tour of sports organizations, meeting with marketing executives to persuade them to support the Hall (by lending their copyrighted mascots), not everyone could envision his dream. .

“To be frank,” Raymond said. “I would explain what the Hall would be and you could see them thinking, at the end of the day, this thing would be in a garage in New Jersey, like a couple of smelly mascot costumes in the corner and a plaque on the wall.”

He batted about .500, he said.

A number of organizations said sure: The Phillies, Raymond’s old employers, and Cleveland Indians lent the use of mascots (and made six-figure donations to the Whiting attraction). In Chicago, the Sox, the Blackhawks and the Bulls also got behind the Hall, allowing their mascots’ likenesses to be included. Michelle McComas, director of entertainment and events for the Bulls, said the team was “honoured” to have Benny the Bull part of the Hall, regarding his induction this summer as a “fun celebration” that would “introduce even more people” to the NBA mascot.

The Cubs, conversely, allowed their mascot, Clark, to take part in the Hall’s opening ceremony, but Clark (and the Cubs logo) is nowhere to be seen in the Hall. Staley Da Bear, the Bears mascot for the last 15 seasons, is also notably absent. The Bears declined to comment, and the Cubs didn’t respond to interview requests for this story. Raymond said that, in general, some clubs couldn’t see an “advantage to exposing their brand outside their immediate area” while others “wanted to know they would get a dollar return if, say Clark, took part, and I can’t guarantee that.”

It’s worth noting: Not every sports organization that agreed to be part of the Hall of Fame, financially or otherwise, has a mascot inducted (or set to be inducted). (Raymond said they are not a “pay-to-play” organization.) Indeed, the San Diego Chicken, of Padres fame, was inducted, yet his likeness cannot be found in Whiting.

This is because the Chicken, aka Ted Giannoulas of San Diego (who owns and controls rights to the character), said in a phone interview that he already has Chicken memorabilia in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., among other museums, and he would rather not “dilute” the Chicken’s branding by allowing it a place in Whiting.

“In the context of global events, this is a First World problem,” he said. “They’re doing just fine without me.”

Though both Giannoulas and Raymond deny it, Hernandez, executive director of the Hall, said “from what I understand there is some animosity between (Ted) and Dave, but whatever that is, I don’t really care, get over it — that Chicken needs to be included in this Hall of Fame.”

So at the moment, to walk around the Mascot Hall of Fame is to be reminded of what’s there and what, glaringly, is missing. Mr. Met, of the New York Mets, and Brutus Buckeye, of Ohio State — included. The Chicken, the Cubs, the Bears, the Brewers’ anthropomorphic sausages — not included.

The Hall is also light on artifacts, such as, well, furry costumes — officials say this is because of the demands of maintaining historical artifacts (though more memorabilia likely will be added). And the actual Hall, where the 21 inductees are honoured, is a single-glass case looking out on a not-especially-magisterial three-way intersection in Whiting.

Still, there is promise.

The city of Whiting, which operates the Hall as its own municipal department, owns licensing rights to Reggy for the next 10 years (after that, Raymond gets them). Mayor Stahura said annual revenue of $1.6 million from the Hall of Fame should sustain it. He sounds confident. The grand opening isn’t until April, the latest induction ceremony isn’t until June.

But the residents of Whiting, said Joel Bender, co-owner of Mind Benders Puzzles & Games in the nearby business district, “have come around to embrace the museum as a positive thing to do for our kids.” Hernandez, a former executive with the Miami Marlins (who moved from Miami to Whiting about two months ago), anticipates 50,000 visitors a year. He imagines hosting lectures on the history of mascots, good and bad. A mascot camp already is scheduled for March.

“What we need to … become is the home for mascots,” he said. What that requires, despite the purple fur and the oversized shoes, is to be taken seriously.

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Source: Chicago Tribune

This is an Indiana Exchange story shared by the Chicago Tribune

Christopher Borrelli, The Associated Press