Dead Pals of Sam Sanfillippo
We pull into the driveway of a low-slung brick building, as fresh-scrubbed and tidy as everything else in this part of the world. It's a funeral home. Sam Sanfillippo -- the owner -- walks toward us across the lawn, dragging a sprinkler, his free hand extended in a welcoming handshake. Sam loves visitors. What he's got is worth visiting.
Sam knows a thing or two about death, and he's not afraid to talk about it. Within a few minutes of introducing himself Sam tells us that he was wounded five times in W.W.II, and left for dead twice on Omaha Beach during the Normandy landing in 1944. "When those German 88 shells explode, they blow the life out of you," he says. "They were carting me off to the morgue. The vibration of the bouncing jeeps started up my heart and woke me up. Twice. Been living on borrowed time ever since."
Photos of astronauts and Indian chiefs and US Presidents and Wisconsin celebrities fill the walls of Sam's office -- Deke Slayton, Vance Brand, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford -- Sam posing and smiling with them all. "That's me and Governor Knowles in 1977," Sam tells us, pointing to two grinning men holding fish. "He died in my car after fishing on Lake Arbutus in 1993."
Sam continues about his longtime fishing buddy: "We were listening to a Brewers game and the Governor said, 'Sam, I hope they hit a home run.' I said 'What's the score, Guv?' And his head fell on my shoulder and he started gasping. I gave him CPR, but it was no good. That was it." Sam can't remember if the Brewers hit that home run, but he still uses the late governor's 50-yard line seats at Wisconsin Badgers games. "He was a great guy."
Sam, the perfect host, excuses himself and returns wearing a red Badgers cap and blazer (a gift from Governor Knowles), its lapels studded with club pins. He walks us down to the basement, throws a dozen circuit breakers on a wall panel and -- Ah! - now we're getting somewhere.
A menagerie of dead animals emerges from the darkness. The rumpus room walls are covered with literally dozens of giant fish -- muskie, arctic char, grayling, lake trout, whitefish, dolphin, flounder, a 500 pound blue marlin -- some posed in mid-thrash as they chomped Sam's fateful hook. A barracuda, for some reason, wears a top hat and cutaway coat. The mammals, many in elaborate display cases, fill the floors, the wall space not occupied by fish, and every available flat surface. "At my house I've got just as many," Sam tells us. "You want some coffee?"
Sam runs off to gather refreshments and we look around. Tiny motors whir as Sam's collection creaks into action: a squirrel rocks back and forth in a chair while smoking a pipe and reading a book, muskie spin eerily in wood-framed seascapes. The elaborate dead "Squirrel Bar" has white, brown, and black squirrels sharing brews and cigars and good times -- forever. In "The Woodland Fair" diorama, chipmunks populate "Lou's Bar & Grill," ride a merry-go-round, eat cotton candy. Half-naked 'munks dance on-stage at the "Topless Girlie Show." A squirrel rides an animated bucking bronco amid a tableau of colorful plastic dinosaurs. A pack of rare albino squirrels straddle Playskool tricycles and spin on a Ferris wheel.
"They don't know what to do -- the old people," Sam says, returning with our caffeine. "At funerals, you know." So he came up with the idea of sending them down here -- to hang out with frolicking dead animals. Maybe human heaven will be just as much fun.
What do kids think of all this?, we ask. "They love it!" Sam exclaims. "Of course, kids...they don't like killing animals. I don't like killing animals." Then how did all these dead animals end up here? "Road kill," Sam answers. "And accidents." Sam says that all the chipmunks came from local golf courses. "Killed by golf balls."
The ideas for the perky dead animal dioramas are all Sam's. The original preservation work was done by a man named Vito Marchino -- the most talented taxidermist in the world, according to our host. "Died in 1995," Sam tells us. "Got a call that his wife passed away and would I do the body preparation? Sure, I said. Then a half-hour later I got another call. Vito dropped dead, too. He was a wonderful person." Sam now has a new taxidermist.
The Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward has put in dibs for Sam's collection when he drops dead (He was on their Board of Directors, along with Governor Knowles). Or the collection may stay in the funeral home as a permanent memorial. Happily, although Sam is 78, he shows no sign of kicking the bucket -- or even of slowing down.
"You wanna see the preparation room?" he asks, grinning eagerly, as we start packing our camera gear. He swings open a door. The unmistakable odor of formaldehyde hits us. Sam gets such a kick out of it all; how could we refuse?