The Mascot Hall Of Fame Opens
Without resorting to hyperbole, Whiting’s Pierogi Fest is easily the best dumpling-related weekend the state has ever produced. A three-day toast to polkas, Polish food, and piwo (Polish for beer), it celebrated its 24th anniversary in July by drawing 300,000 people to Whiting, a refinery town just across the state border from Chicago. All those zeroes are real: Three hundred thousand came to a city of 5,000 to eat niche ethnic food. Pierogi Fest is the Region’s Mardi Gras, but with way more potatoes.
It’s also bonkers. The festival, which covers the mile-long 119th Street business district from the Knights of Columbus to Oil City Stadium, is stuffed full of vendors, beer gardens, and polka bands. (Pro tip: Do not request “Too Fat Polka.” They will get to it.) Its introductory Polka Parade features a Twirling Babushka Brigade, cross-dressing retirees pushing lawn mowers, and a guy who goes by the name Darth Pierogi. There’s also a mascot named Mr. Pierogi who looks like a lopsided Twinkie with shoes and who, conveniently, ties into Whiting’s unorthodox strategy for drawing people into town the rest of the year.
“We’ve pursued a bunch of businesses, and now we have them here,” says Joe Stahura, a lifelong resident and mayor since 2003. “From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the streets are jam-packed. But now we gotta get them to the point where they can survive outside the summer months.”
His strategy for doing so: The Mascot Hall of Fame, an interactive museum dedicated to the finest mascots in college and professional sports that opens this month. It will be big. It will be green, and also purple. And it’s the crown jewel in Stahura’s long-game plan to make the “Little City by the Lake” a family destination. “Pierogi Fest is wacky, it’s kind of poking fun at ourselves,” says Stahura. “The Hall just hit me. I thought, If we can make this happen, it would almost be a marriage made in heaven.”
Now in his fourth term as mayor (after serving five consecutive terms as councilman), Stahura’s longevity in the job is due in large part to his passion for revitalization. In 2009, Stahura oversaw the spending of a $19.3 million grant from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, which he says first provided the “color and animation” to Whiting’s resurgence. That money went to a refurbished lakefront park—the largest public project in Whiting’s history—as well as to the process of buying up business-district property, clearing out abandoned buildings, and selling many of them to developers for $1 each.
Between the lakefront and the festival, Whiting was carving out its niche, but Stahura still needed a year-round draw. He had explored ideas like a Standard Oil museum and a Chicago baseball hall of fame, but couldn’t see either providing much juice. “Putting newspapers and trophies in a building wasn’t an attractive enough option,” he says. What’s more, he was spooked by the failure of the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, which shut its doors in 2012 and moved to Atlanta, the victim of dwindling attendance. But when he bumped into a curious online entity called the Mascot Hall of Fame, he felt it clicked with Whiting’s evolving brand. Mascots, he thought, were just crazy enough to work with Whiting’s off-kilter and family-friendly vibe. So he put in a call to a large green furball with a trumpet nose.
In 2003, before things went viral, Randall Simon went viral. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you knock down a sausage.
In early July of that summer, Simon, visiting Milwaukee’s Miller Park with the Pittsburgh Pirates, took a bat and bonked the costumed head of Mandy Block, who was participating in the Brewers’ longstanding mid-inning tradition called the “Sausage Race.” Block toppled over into sports infamy, and Simon became a pariah. He was briefly questioned by police, fined $432, and upon his return to Milwaukee, he apologized to Block and bought Italian sausages for an entire section of fans. (Weird side note: In 2010, Simon would briefly play for the independent-league Gary SouthShore RailCats just down the road from Whiting.) Still, his place in history was secured: Simon was the guy who made it OK to punch a mascot.
David Raymond did not take this sitting down. As the original Phillie Phanatic from 1978 to 1993, he saw Simon knocking over not just an innocent sausage but his entire legacy. “I had phone calls from just about every media outlet that day asking me what I thought of the mascot mayhem,” he says. “The reports were all tongue-in-cheek. But people in Milwaukee were upset.”
In response, Raymond launched The Mascot Hall of Fame, an online tribute to the mascots of America from college and professional sports. Its first honorees were San Diego’s Famous Chicken, the Phoenix Suns’ Gorilla, and, naturally, himself. Raymond says the first induction ceremony, hosted online, drew something like 18 million media impressions. “Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser were having an argument on PTI—‘There’s no way the gorilla should be first,’ that sort of thing—with the Mascot Hall of Fame logo on the screen,’” he says. “People were having fun with it, taking it exactly like we wanted them to.”
For years, the Hall existed only online, though it drew thousands to an IRL induction ceremony in Philadelphia, just down the road from Raymond’s old office. And that’s where it lived until four years ago, when Raymond’s phone rang with a 219 area code. “We used to say, ‘One day, somebody’s gonna call us and want to build this place,’” Raymond says. “But it was a joke. We didn’t know anything about development.”
Stahura’s pitch sold him fast. Raymond admits he struggled initially to find Whiting on a map, but its mayor was offering energy, money, a family-friendly brand, and access to Chicagoland. Mostly, he offered a chance to actually build the thing. Before long, Raymond and Stahura were breaking ground, reaching out to teams, and designing exhibits—which are far from standard museum fare. Befitting a monument to human-sized dancing birds, the 25,000-square-foot Mascot Hall of Fame won’t be a staid affair full of plaques and bronze busts. This is a children’s museum, a hands-on experience for the under-12 crowd. The $16 million space is designed as a venerable “Mascot University,” and if you are against fur-based puns, turn back now. Visitors begin at Fur-eshman Orientation and proceed through the Department of Furry Arts, the Science of Silliness Lab, and Phuzzical Education. The atrium will be decorated by full-sized mascot heads suspended down from the ceiling. There will be design-your-own-mascot exhibits, field-goal simulators, a theater showing GoPro footage straight from a mascot’s head, and competitive games that involve firing T-shirts into a crowd. Al Spajer, the museum’s executive director, has a buzz sentence for it: “This is not gonna be a place to come and look,” he says. “It’s a place to come and do.”
It’s also a place to learn. The museum’s exhibits will include education components that link such topics as the science and physics of putting on a 30-pound costume, or the proper nutrition required to power a dancing Buckeye for three hours on a hot Saturday. The STEAM-oriented curriculum has been partly written by nearby Calumet College and Trine University in Angola. “We’re tying in science, math, and engineering with everything,” says Stahura.
The names behind it belie the Hall’s wacky vibe. The museum was designed by Jack Rouse Associates of Cincinnati, whose other projects include LEGOLAND California, Universal Studios Florida, and the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta. The first teams to make commitments were the Cleveland Indians and Phillies, and the list has expanded to include Chicago’s Bulls, Blackhawks, and White Sox. “I sat in Jerry Reinsdorf’s office with my renderings and he said, ‘If the Phillies are helping you, we want to help you,’” says Raymond. Other sign-ons include the New York Mets, Ohio State, and Auburn.
The building is supported by a $14 million tax-increment financing package, while the exhibits are being paid for with private money. The hall is currently in the process of raising $4.7 million through sponsorships and naming rights, which Stahura says has accelerated now that finished exhibits are going in. Centier Bank, family-owned and founded 123 years ago in Whiting, kicked in $250,000.
Stahura and Spajer are hoping for more money to come in at a December 19 “fur-tie” fundraiser, which will herald the soft opening of the museum. Next year, they’ll go all-in with a spring induction ceremony that will welcome the Bulls’ Benny the Bull, the Blackhawks’ Tommy Hawk, the Kansas City Royals’ Sluggerrr, and Penn State’s Nittany Lion. “This is why it’s going to work,” says Raymond. “Whiting has shown how they can get people there. They embrace this silliness. It’s part of their own brand. And the Hall of Fame fits right in.”
From The Mascot Hall of Fame, you can walk to Whiting’s lakefront park, a $50 million paths-and-gazebos project that includes the Whoa Zone, a floating water park that opened in 2017. Stahura estimates that 600,000 people drive through the lakefront park each year. “And 22,000 pay for the Whoa Zone,” he says. “Most people were like, ‘Nobody’s gonna pay $20 to jump on that silly thing.’ Now there are lines to get on.”
It’s one of Whiting’s many draws these days. The town’s decades-old Fourth of July parade attracts up to 50,000 people, and its July 3 fireworks show pulls another 15,000. Oil City Stadium, just down 119th Street, hosts high school and summer ball, and Whiting’s entry in the Region casino game, the Horseshoe, is a steady draw. There are regular concerts at the Pavilion at Wolf Lake—this fall it hosted such diverse acts as the Steve Miller Band and Gucci Mane. As for Pierogi Fest, it has appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal and been touted by NPR and Oprah.
To those figures, The Mascot Hall of Fame hopes to add 50,000 visitors a year. “If we have 300,000 people for Pierogi Fest and can’t drag 20,000 of them to the museum, we’re not doing our jobs,” says Stahura. Their hole card is their proximity to Chicago, something the College Football Hall of Fame lacked. “We did an analysis on their museum versus ours,” he says. “In the South Bend area, there are only about 317,000 people. Here, we’ve got 9.5 million within an hour-and-15-minute drive.” And other halls of fame are in unusual spots. It’s not like Cooperstown (baseball), Canton (football), or Springfield (basketball) are in bustling metro areas.
Stahura sees his area’s new addition as the culmination of a decades-long plan, and a benefit for the whole town. “If you drive an hour to come to The Mascot Hall of Fame, chances are you’re gonna want something to eat,” he says. Whiting expects the Hall to have a $240 million impact over the next 20 years—enough to make any mayor stand up and cheer.