On Saturday, September 20th, I picked up John (a Brookfield Zoo keeper pal of mine) and headed up to The Squared Circle in Lincoln Park. Local fans of national horror host, Svengoolie, know this Chicago restaurant is not only owned by the beautiful pro wrestler, Lisa Marie Varon, but also home to the official “Svengoolie burger.” I think I’ve pretty much made it clear that his last visit there was the BEST Svengoolie public appearance EVER and folks, I oughta know. Even as far as a month before the big day was slated, I found myself smiling just thinking about it.
Tragedy, however, has no sense of timing.
Despite the thrilling prospect of once again being able to watch Svengoolie alongside Svengoolie, the event was taking place at the tail end of what had been a rough week. It began when the host himself was slammed with the news that his dear friend and mentor, Jerry G. Bishop (original Svengoolie), had passed away that Sunday. Despite Bishop having moved to California (where he’d started a successful restaurant business) the two communicated regularly with Bishop a rock of support during the time his protege’ was recovering from a heart attack this past winter.
I had no idea how Svengoolie, as a public figure, was able to deal with this loss while having to issue statements, answer interview questions, and make public appearances. I wasn’t alone…
I was sent a message from my friend and fellow Goolie, Joan Yingst, asking if his Squared Circle viewing party would be canceled in lieu of Bishop’s death. Two days later (the day before the event), a tragic accident would claim her own life. For me, her absence would be palpable and I awoke that Saturday morning with my eyes still swollen from crying.
Thankfully the host of this event, Ms Varon, had enough enthusiasm and sunshine for everyone. This was never more evident than an appearance she made on a local morning show touting the occasion. I loved the great things she said about Sven and obviously couldn’t have agreed more.
Though similar to his last Squared Circle visit, this time he’d only be appearing the duration of his TV show and not arriving two hours earlier like before. After I picked up my friend, I made it to the restaurant about 45 minutes early and was lucky to have found a single parking spot still open.
As soon as I walked in the door I discovered the place was mobbed! Every table was taken and I spotted my friends, the Cortese family, sitting right up front. Jamie Lee had been unable to attend the previous Squared Circle event but had no intention of missing this one and I saw that she’d ordered the “Svengoolie Burger” as a dutiful fan would.
I also saw the inimitable Brian Bernardoni who was joined by his father, Alan, as well as a close neighbor friend. Brian creates a replica of Svengoolie’s old set every Halloween (which you’ll get a look at soon yourselves) and I’d brought him an old animatronic skeleton I’d had since the ’80s. It was one of the same models used for a time on Svengoolie’s set and I thought he could use it. I also brought him a copy of Svengoolie’s presentation of Motel Hell. The last time we’d gotten together, Brian asked me if Sven was ever going to present that movie but the truth is, he already had. Brian can be forgiven for missing it, however, as the show aired only once in the ’90s and wouldn’t receive a re-airing until one more time…nearly fifteen years later!
At this point we were still barely three steps in the door when I heard my name being called from across the room. It was my zoo keeper friends from the Lincoln Park Zoo, Marisa and Alycia! They were joined by Chicago Red-eye writer, Elliott Serano, who informed me that there was room for us at their table. Thank God, as the place was packed and I don’t think Mr. Cortese would’ve appreciated me sitting on his wife’s lap!
I introduced them to John and they instantly hit it off having a shared occupation; albeit at two different Chicago zoos. This would end up making the evening more fun which I’ll get into later.
Having starved myself all day in preparation, I ordered myself a Svengoolie burger (like Jamie) even though I really wanted to try something else The Squared Circle had to offer. Lisa, if you’re reading this, would you mind naming one of your pizzas after Sven, too, so I don’t have to feel guilty deviating from the burger?
With very little room to move, I didn’t envy the servers having to dodge patrons while carrying large pans of pizza and trays loaded with drinks. In what seemed like no time at all, Svengoolie entered via the kitchen (like he did the last time) and everyone cheered.
After a few welcoming words (well actually it was more like a sports announcement) from Ms Varon, an immediate line of fans began forming to meet Sven while I gobbled my burger from a safe distance. I figured, like his last visit, there’d be plenty of time to chat with him later. Boy was I wrong!
Things were loud and chaotic until Jim Roche, Sven’s erstwhile assistant, yelled for everyone to be quiet. This was to ensure that proper respect would be given to the special TV tribute Sven had created for Jerry G. Bishop, airing just before the show. You can see it yourself, here…
“Wait a minute, why did that dog grow fangs?” one of them asked. John played Devil’s advocate and explained what happened.
“So…what? Dogs are now suddenly related to Sabre toothed cats?”
At one point a dragonfly became super-sized after landing on the fish specimen (one which the keepers noted should not have been routinely handled without gloves nor with the scientist smoking a pipe over it) and grew to eagle proportions. Marisa howled, “Wow!!! That’s fast acting!” John, prepared to offer another explanation before stopping himself.
Soon we were all asked to quiet down once again as the reason for this event was about to be revealed. Ms Varon had the honor of being asked to join Sven in a skit for the show and this night would mark her big Svengoolie debut…
If you would like to see the audience reaction to that clip, here’s a look…
Despite the crowd, Lisa is a master at being the perfect hostess. Greeting all her guests…and often strangling them at no extra charge!
There was a lot of fun people who showed up including Chicago’s own David the Rock Nelson. Scary Monsters Magazine publisher, Dennis Druktenis, introduced me to the Independent filmmaker at Monsterbash back in 2012 and everybody that’s me him knows he’s a true character. There’s even a documentary about him.
I remembered during Monsterbash, him taking out a big rubber ant and throwing it at unsuspecting, random conventioneers. He would then film their reactions as part of his movies. Horror Host, Mr. Lobo from Cinema Insomnia told me later that day that this was a common element of his films. He came by our table and introduced himself (obviously not remembering that we’d met before). While we got along great back then, this time I must have rubbed him the wrong way because after asking if he’d brought along the rubber ant he got upset and yelled, “I’m just here to have a good time!!!” before storming off. Sheesh!
Elizabeth Haney was in attendance too and sitting with Brian. Brian would later pay her tab (note to self: next time ditch the zookeepers and sit at Brian’s table). Elizabeth is always a great fellow Goolie to talk to when you’re going through tough times. In fact, earlier this year she was practically my own personal Oprah. She gave me a hug and we talked about Joan. A couple of other people I’d never met came up and said how sorry they were to hear of her passing too which proved she’d made a lot of friends in the monster world.
I also saw a guy named Pete Blanchford whom I recognized as a regular visitor on our Facebook page and went over to say “hello.” He was sitting up at the bar and not far from where I was during Sven’s last visit.
While near the bar, I bumped into a guy named Lawrence who would provide me with a short-lived ego-boost.
“Oh my God!…Wait a minute…are YOU Dave Fuentes!?”
I looked at him confused before gazing down embarrassed. I mean, a fan of the blog? “blush” How nice. “Why…yes, I’m Dave Fuentes,” I said sheepishly.
“Oh my God! You’re the one who has the YouTube Channel with all those Svengoolie songs! I LOVE those songs…look here, I have a bunch downloaded on my phone! (He played one for me). At this point I found myself mimicking one of Sven’s more popular sound effects: “Oh, uh…yeah.”
“Do you have The Killer Shrews song?” He asked excitedly. “Man, I LOVE that one! Wow, this is so amazing… Oh geez, I need to get a picture with you!!!”
So there you have it, folks. If you want to feel important forget all that “work hard and reach for the stars,” crap. Just open up a free YouTube account and start uploading the hard work of someone else.
Elliott had brought along a special gift for me thereby making this post an official sequel to the one I wrote covering Rich Koz at Lincoln Park Zoo’s Bowling for Rhinos event (seen HERE). In case you don’t feel like going “THERE,” I’ll give you a quick synopsis…
Elliott had hand-painted an authentic, hollowed out ostrich egg with the image of Svengoolie. I quickly became obsessed with it but, despite purchasing a butt-load of raffle tickets, failed to bring it home. Apparently Rich felt so badly about it he asked if Elliott privately if he would please make me one which he did. So, in case you missed the moral of this story, I’d like to use it as “Exhibit A” for all those folks who think I’m nuts for idolizing Svengoolie. He’s a great guy and clearly my devotion has not been misplaced. I should probably also start worshiping Elliott too.
Elliott brought me to Sven (we waited forever before finally seeing a moment to get to him) and presented me with my prize.
I thanked Sven for his kindness along with Elliott (and I gotta say, this egg looks even better than the first one he made) and couldn’t wait to add it to my Sven-shrine when I got home.
The movie ended as did the appearance. I said goodbye to Sven and we exchanged brief comments regarding the sad developments during the previous week. It was a good time and perhaps the timing actually wasn’t so bad after all. In times of sadness, what better place to be than surrounded by friends?