Road trip news, rants, and ruminations by the Editors of RoadsideAmerica.com
November 1, 2013
Fans of the film A Christmas Story have had only one place to go for year-round pilgrimages: the house seen in the movie, which is in Cleveland, Ohio (There’s also this unintentional tribute). However, the town where the events in the film really took place was Hammond, Indiana. It felt overlooked. It wanted its share of an enduring holiday touchstone.
Hammond has a guy who knows a good idea can grab you and not let go. That guy is Bill Wellman, and that idea is a bronze boy with his tongue stuck to a flag pole.
Bill was born in 1923, has an unlimited amount of pep, and would be roughly the same age as the film’s protagonist Ralphie (maybe a few years older). He’s also vice-chairman of the Hammond-area visitors bureau. When the 30th anniversary of the film arrived in 2013 he told his younger board members, “We need a photo op.”
It was unveiled on October 29: a life-size bronze statue of a scene in the film where Flick, Ralphie’s friend, gets his tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole at Warren G. Harding Elementary School, the result of a “triple dog dare.”
All of this, said Bill, was part of his goal to “make it about show business.” Bill, whose father in 1948 opened a Western-themed bar in Indiana by riding a horse into it, was raised to appreciate the value of showmanship. Bill was part of the team that brought The John Dillinger Museum to the same Welcome Center. And in 2012 Bill convinced the town of Valparaiso, Indiana — where he lives — to install a statue of Orville Redenbacher, its hometown popcorn king.
“I told our young mayor, ‘What we need is a photo op,’” said Bill, who cited a study that showed that Orville was “95 percent recognizable, just like Colonel Sanders in his prime.” Bill also said that corporate giant ConAgra Foods granted permission for the statue only on the condition that it contain no references to popcorn. “They said we could have Orville, but we couldn’t have popcorn,” said Bill. “I’m not sure what their logic was, but we got a first class statue!”
For the new statue in Hammond, Bill said he knew from the start that Flick had to be its subject. “It’s gotta be Flick and it’s gotta be first class,” Bill said he told his fellow board members (Hammond made certain to use the same artist who had sculpted Orville).
Although Bill himself has never stuck his tongue to a flagpole (“I was smart enough to know better”) he knew of many boys who had.
Which raises the question: what about people visiting the statue? Hammond does have cold winters and the flagpole is made of real metal (The one used in the film was stick-resistant plastic). Bill said he has encouraged the Welcome Center to post a sign, “If You Lick You Will Stick,” or at least to attach a piece of wood to the pole so that visitors who dare to imitate Flick will leave with their skin intact.
(Bureau spokeswoman Nicki Mackowski-Gladstone told us that Hammond will do what it can to discourage creating a saliva-centric attraction such as The Gum Wall of Seattle.)
And what of the real flagpole and Warren G. Harding Elementary School? They’re both long gone, but true fans can visit the empty lot where they stood — it’s only 2.5 miles northeast of the Flick statue, on the north side of Cleveland Street just west of Parrish Ave. Bill said that there’s no historical marker at the site, but Hammond was thinking of making one.
October 3, 2013
“The problem is that it doesn’t fit in his hands… you’d have to break the thumb off,” laments Bruce Kennedy, as we ponder his wondrous and mysterious giant ax.
The wall-mounted prop is a tool denied its intended grip in the hands of a 20-ft. tall fiberglass statue named “Big Mike,” a Bunyan-style Muffler Man.
Bruce is a collector of unique sculptures, and he also owns a fabrication business. We’re thrilled about that, because he found space on his Hayward, California property to install Big Mike and another Muffler Man in 2013.
And he wants more.
Big Mike had been an unofficial landmark in Hayward — one of the first generation of Muffler Men, dating from around 1966, and had been used to advertise a succession of businesses along Mission Avenue. By 2011, the last business had closed, the Muffler Man disappeared, and local citizens panicked.
Uh, the panic part may be just in our own heads…but they noticed he was gone.
Hayward-without-Big-Mike was only a temporary calamity. In early 2013 the bearded giant was back, now in the fenced yard of Bell Plastics. And by late summer 2013 another Muffler Man, a cowboy, had been installed at the same location.
Bruce read about the cowboy on RoadsideAmerica.com — an owner in Missouri had it in storage for over ten years, for a purpose never fulfilled, and was ready to release it back into the general population.
“There were spider web cracks all over the fiberglass,” he said, and crushed sections. Twelve years in storage had not been kind to the retired gunslinger.
But Bruce was already committed to repairing and refurbishing the statue for public display. The restoration was executed by a fiberglass artisan who normally does Christmas and holiday work, so an off-season project was ideal for his schedule and Bruce’s budget.
The fiberglass repair was followed by a complete paint makeover. Muffler Men are often displayed with rudimentary painted eyes and lips, and perhaps some cheek rouge, but Bruce thinks his artist brought it to a whole new level. The cowboy has intricate facial features and fancy western duds, including snaps and buttons.
Conspicuously, the two giants have not been erected side-by-side. “We’re close to San Francisco,” Bruce said, with all that may or may not imply.
Chiefly though, Bruce prefers to avoid raising the temperature of any civic entities which might regard his little/big hobby unfavorably. For example, he’s commissioned an excellent horned demon skull to substitute for Big Mike’s head. Visitors will see it throughout the month of October. However, it’s not illuminated at night. Best to stay on the correct side of that line between landmark and eyesore…
Bruce collects other things, chiefly discovered via eBay. Scattered around his offices are plexiglass display cases containing oriental art and sculptures. His personal office is a clutter of papers and interesting figurines. An 8-ft. tall fiberglass Indian warrior stands in the entrance room to Bruce’s offices. It’s a new acquisition, purchased on eBay from a seller in San Diego. He showed us an accessory bear tooth necklace and knife that will eventually be attached. For now, it just dominates the room, in front of the ax.
The ax was not an eBay purchase — it was actually an anonymous donation. A story in the paper informed locals about Big Mike’s whereabouts, and one morning soon after Bruce noticed a big package leaning on the fence in the bushes. There was a note: “For Big Mike.” The package contained an ax with a wood handle and fake ax head. “B.M.” was carved into the handle heel.
Bruce still has no idea about the identity of Big Mike’s mystery benefactor.
October 2, 2013
Shutting down the government has thrown a spotlight onto one of the naming quirks of roadside attractions: any museum with enough moxie can slap a “National” onto its title, and it’s perfectly A-OK.
“National” is like “Natural” on a bag of corn chips: you’d like to believe it means something good, but it may mean nothing at all.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that some “National” museums really are at the whim of Beltway politicians. For example, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, can be shut down by a squabbling Congress, while only a few blocks away the National Museum of Crime and Punishment — a private business with a National name — remains open, unhindered.
Custom and pride set some parameters on the National name, even though there may be no real rules. For example, the National Museum of Funeral History and the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum are by far the biggest of their kind in the country, worthy of a National name.
Attractions such as the National Construction Equipment Museum, the National Civil War Naval Museum, and the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame would merit their titles even if they weren’t impressive, because they have no real competition.
Specialized interests are usually a giveaway that the National name is unofficial, such as at the National Museum of Roller Skating and the National Mustard Museum. The National Presidential Wax Museum may be skirting the standards a little — there are other waxy President attractions — but it’s just down the road from shutdown-shuttered Mount Rushmore. For the month of October you can stand in the wax museum and mouth off at famous politicians.
When in doubt during a government shutdown, it never hurts to call ahead to find out if the National museum on your itinerary is in fact unaffected by national bickering. And, of course, museums whose visions extend outside our borders, such as the International Banana Museum, are beyond the power of even the most grandstanding Washington hack.
September 22, 2013
Trundle Manor in Swissvale, Pennsylvania, is the self-described “art house/tourist trap” — and home — of artists Mr. Arm and Velda. They are welcoming hosts with so many strange stories to share that they couldn’t all fit into our Trundle Manor Field Report. Here are three more:
The Former Owner of Trundle Manor
According to Mr. Arm, the house — which he bought abandoned — had previously been owned by a man named Charlie: a compulsive hoarder and shut-in.
“Charlie was found in what is now our bedroom, on Velda’s side of the bed,” said Mr. Arm. “He had apparently taken his own life with a shotgun, a bag over his head, and the house filled with natural gas.” However, Mr. Arm talked with the fire chief who found Charlie, “and he said, ‘I don’t think it was suicide. I think it was part of the gay prostitution ring in Swissvale.’ I’ve lived in Swissvale my whole life, and that’s the only time I’ve ever heard of that.”
“We badly want to say that this house is haunted,” said Velda, “but we’ve never seen anything.” Mr. Arm added, “Charlie’s left us alone. Either he likes what we’re was doing because we’re collectors, or he’s terrified by what we’re doing.”
Velda Meets Mr. Arm
According to Velda, her favorite item in Trundle Manor is displayed in the parlor: a taxidermy tableau of two squirrels dressed as a bride and groom.
The squirrels, Velda added, are going to be the toppers on her and Mr. Arm’s wedding cake.
The Jars-of-Dead-Things Aesthetic
There are lots of jars of dead things in Trundle Manor, most of them “packaged” by Mr. Arm and Velda. “Both of us grew up watching old horror movies,” said Mr. Arm, “and in the background of old horror movies are all these things floating in jars: eyeballs, hands. I thought that was normal.”
Not only normal, but beautiful. “They’re like my own stained glass windows,” said Mr. Arm. “Things in fluids are more fascinating to me than seeing anything alive. I like inanimate things. The Manor has all these dead things I can take pictures of.”
According to Mr. Arm and Velda, their favorite item in the Trundle Manor gift shop is its octopus tentacle necklace, each one featuring a tiny tentacle inside an equally tiny jar.
“They’re preserved in the same fluid used to preserve the giant squid in the London Museum,” said Mr. Arm. “The curator taught me the formula.”
August 29, 2013
The twin villages of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, proud as they are of their annual Wisconsin State Cow Chip Throw and Festival, admit they were not the first to celebrate the bovine natural resource. That honor, duly acknowledged by the towns, goes to Beaver, Oklahoma, the Cow Chip Throwing Capital of the World.
But Sauk City and Prairie du Sac are quick to assert that their dung toss has surpassed Beaver to become the biggest such celebration in the world. Given the amount of artistic effort channeled into their annual Labor Day Weekend event — including Cowabunga, a 14-foot-tall “Trojan Cow” that lifts its tail to make deposits during the Tournament of Chips Parade — the twin villages are now front-runners in this rear-ended contest.
Marietta Reuter, chairwoman of the festival, told us that the relative narrowness of the hurling field in the twin villages has spawned another innovation, “chip deflectors.” At first they were shaped like the clothespin-nosed Dinochipus and were wielded like miniature shields-on-a-stick. Later versions, modified every few years, resemble cow heads with eye holes and are worn as masks. “I particularly love it when the chips hit the fans, because that happens a lot,” Marietta wrote us in an email, explaining the need for the deflectors. “One year I saw the same person get hit twice. You would think you would start paying attention after you got hit once.”
Marietta said that those who miss the event can track down chip souvenirs year-round at the Sauk Prairie Area Chamber of Commerce office. And while there’s no giant, permanent photo-op monument to the Wisconsin cow chip — yet — Marietta said that she and the art-savvy Chip Committee would think about one.
August 15, 2013
New Ulm, Minnesota, has for years been enticing tourists with its Germanic attractions: a glockenspiel, beer pubs, and a really big statue of Hermann the German (Third largest copper statue in the U.S.). In 2012 the town sought the help of a Minneapolis marketing firm, which coined the slogan, “Germans Have More Fun” and transformed a Hermann bobblehead into a town spokesman with his own Twitter account. In January 2013 the campaign won a state tourism award.
What the town wanted was a legend — an attraction that would last longer than a tweet or even a slogan.
“Like the Blarney Stone,” said Terry. “You really don’t believe that kissing a grotty old stone in Ireland is gonna give you luck, but you buy into it and do it.”
The legend, it was decided, was that the Hermann statue had left behind a huge footprint, fossilized with age, and it had recently been unearthed in Glockenspiel Park (An approach similar to the wildly successful Cardiff Giant hoax). People would visit the footprint in the park, and touching it would bring them more fun, which would reinforce the Germans Have More Fun theme.
Preservation and convenience held sway, and it was decided that the footprint should instead be mounted on an outer wall of New Ulm’s downtown Chamber of Commerce building — where it was unveiled with much local fanfare on July 17, 2013. But to justify that unusual spot, the footprint needed a new backstory. And that’s where it got New Ulm into trouble.
In the new version, the footprint was an ancient artifact that had just been rediscovered in a crate in the Chamber of Commerce basement. It had been hidden there for nearly a hundred years — since the start of Prohibition, according to an accompanying note — because people had been having too much fun in New Ulm (remember all those beer pubs).
The Minneapolis marketing firm issued a press release with the story and set in motion a series of media rollouts, including a video of two fake “mythbusters” finding the note. “I made a wood crate, and they staged some crap around it to make it look like it was long-lost and dusty,” Terry said.
The media ate it up — too eagerly. The story was picked up by the wire services and Terry found himself talking to an Associated Press reporter, who was checking the facts. “He asked me, ‘Did you create this?’ and I said, ‘Oh, no, we really found it!’” said Terry. “I thought, ‘We’ve created a legend, we can’t really backtrack now… that would shoot the whole concept in the foot, ha-ha.’”
Terry decided to call back the reporter and tell the truth. The headline of the resulting story read, New Ulm Tourism Chief Admits Faking Story.
“I’m a national liar!” Terry said, excited and happy about the way things turned out. “That got us more press than anything!”
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