It was a beautiful sunny day this past Sunday and not unlike the last time Svengoolie visited J.J. Blinkers in Antioch, Illinois. In fact, it was just over five years ago when the national TV horror host descended upon the trick shop like an atomic rubber chicken; blasting all turnout expectations in an unforgettable visit the locals still talk about to this day. Mere minutes from the Wisconsin border, Antioch would be inundated with fans while providing them with fun embellishments such as complimentary gift bags and Svengoolie-style treats. By the time it was all over, the village wouldn’t know what hit them and Rich Koz would prove himself to be one broadcasting legend whose popularity only seemed to grow stronger with age. The question surrounding his latest appearance wasn’t if he’d bring in the crowds but how the store was prepared to handle them all?
A clever use of Capitalism would be one way. Joanne Linker, owner of J.J. Blinkers and whom we interviewed a couple of years ago during our It Came from the Trick Shop series, offered a special “Svengoolie Fast Pass” you could purchase the day before at a local craft fair. The passes sold for $5.00 each and would grant it’s holder a spot in a separate line that had priority admittance. Unfortunately for me, I don’t live anywhere near Antioch and had no choice but to leave earlier on Sunday to take my chances with everyone else.
My friends and fellow Svengooliacs (a term coined by Mark Hamill to describe us super fans), Don and Bunny, had already arrived and had been texting me updates right up until I got there. If you’ve seen Sven’s “Boa Brace” parody commercial , then you’ve seen those two performing in it. The spoof garnered high praise from viewers and became an instant classic with fans. Thankfully, my friends haven’t allowed their Svengoolie Stardom to go to their heads and offered me a spot in line. One of these days I’m going to have to buy myself a stuffed boa constrictor from Brookfield Zoo and have them sign it for me in honor of their successful television debut!
We were just catching up on things when I heard someone calling my name. It was a lady named Theresa whom I’d met a couple of years back during a ghost tour at Chicago’s other zoo, Lincoln Park. As fate should have it, she was carrying extra passes and graciously offered them to us. What a doll!
Standing in line for any fan event provides opportunities to meet other like-minded folks and we enjoyed talking to a guy named Ray who was wearing a Godzilla T-Shirt and proudly sharing photos of himself meeting Svengoolie at a previous event while dressed as Skeletor. It was pretty obvious by his enthusiasm that Ray fit Mr. Hamill’s definition of a Svengooliac, too.
I decided to survey the line (now halfway down the street) while searching for any “interesting” fans. One that immediately stood out was a woman decked to the nines in full Chicago Bear’s regalia. Not only was she one of the most colorful people in attendance but a fairly brave one at that considering we were so close to the Wisconsin border and just as likely to run into a fanatical Green Bay Packer’s fan as well. I’m no fan of football but I do know that the rivalry between those two teams is palpable. I didn’t catch the woman’s name but she made a point of telling me that she was giving up watching the Bear’s opening game in favor of seeing Svengoolie. I’m thinking that in her world that was quite a sacrifice.
The oddest costume I encountered was a man dressed in a green robe with a bird mask. At first I thought maybe he was trying to be a rubber chicken in honor of Sven but he looked a lot more like a crow than poultry. Even more confusing was his holding what appeared to be an antique, iron “ice grabber” that was clamping a blonde wig (???).
Joanne and crew were pretty flashy themselves with the former dressed as The Cat in the Hat complete with helpers Thing 1 and Thing 2. Before Sven arrived she was running around pell-mell making sure everything was in place for his arrival. The poor woman reminded me of my mom on Thanksgiving morning.
As the time drew near, we all stared vigilantly at an empty, reserved parking space in front of the store. We were hoping we’d catch him pulling up and exiting the car and Ray promised to drop to his knees and yell, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” after he did. Convinced he wasn’t kidding, I had my video camera out and on standby. Unfortunately we really weren’t worthy as Svengoolie had already arrived and was parked behind the store. Regardless of the missed opportunity, none of us were complaining once that line started moving.
When we reached the entrance, the shop’s manager, Kim (a.k.a. Thing 1), took our passes while giving everyone a free raffle ticket to win J.J. Blinkers merchandise. The winning numbers were revealed the next day on Facebook with the lucky ticket holders instructed to return to the store and claim their prizes. Considering J.J. Blinkers is ninety minutes away from me, I can honestly say I’ve never been more relieved to lose a raffle!
After we finally made it inside, we ogled the store’s merchandise, especially the ones geared towards us Sven fans. These included rubber chicken holiday ornaments and Theresa bought herself an entire box. I will say they were pretty cool and a worthy addition to my Svengoolie shrine.
We knew we were close to Svengoolie when we saw his producer/right hand man, Jim Roche. We complimented him on the show and talked about the success of The Svengoolie Stomp which debuted the previous weekend. The song’s been getting lots of play at my house and the other Dave liked it so much he included it in his latest Music to Die For entry.
Discussing the song made me wish Sven’s Director, Chris Faulkner, had been there too. Not only did he do a stellar job on The Svengoolie Stomp’s accompanying video but also consistently delivers the best film prints and high quality host segments possible. In my opinion, Sven’s scenes have an almost ‘50s Technicolor look to them that gives off a sense of warmth to the viewer. It perfectly complements Svengoolie’s performance while providing nice, fuzzy feelings for us stressed-out working stiffs. Dare I say it, the Svengoolie show is like rubber chicken soup for the soul!
Due to the immense number of fans, I kept my visit brief even though I hadn’t seen him in six months and missed being around him. Amongst the crowd were plenty of returning locals including a family who’d brought their 5 year old son to see him while sharing an infant photo of the same child taken during Sven’s last visit. There were also families representing THREE generations of Rich Koz Svengoolie fans who all came together to see him.
As we were leaving, we were handed some J.J. Blinkers swag along with a special “I Saw Svengoolie at J.J. Blinkers” coupon for 31% off our next purchase (BTW the odd number signifies how many years they’ve been in business).
Don, Bunny, and I had lunch at the local Vegas Café which featured paintings of movie stars and the ‘60s Batman. When we finished eating, we saw that the line to see Svengoolie was even longer with more people arriving. I later learned that despite staying an extra hour to accommodate everyone, the line still had to be cut.
So what exactly makes Svengoolie’s visits to J.J. Blinkers so significant? Perhaps it’s the novelty of having a commercial TV horror host visiting a privately owned, local business. Or maybe the near perfect “Americana” of Antioch’s Main Street providing the ideal venue for celebrating the epic career of Rich Koz whose multigenerational appeal has made him more than just a celebrity but a tradition here in the Midwest. Whatever the reason, one can’t escape the irony of a trick shop proving to the world that Svengoolie fandom is no joke.