It’s the Saturday before Halloween, and Charlie’s Ale House near DePaul is stuffed with humanity–wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling. Cuddly critters, retro archetypes, ethnic stereotypes, cultural icons, sexual fantasies, seasonal monsters, celebrity cartoon characters, and anthropomorphic household objects have climbed tables and chairs to escape sweating onto each other’s greasepaint. It isn’t working.
“Excuse me,” I scream to a bartender. “Is Mount Rushmore here?”
“All the way in back,” he says, and I squint into the distance, looking for Tom’s four heads. I don’t see them, but I begin an aggressive push, squeezing past fake breasts and other dangerous protuberances until ten minutes later I make it to the side of the national monument himself.
His costume, being four heads wide, is large and unwieldy. Because he fears whacking someone in the head or worse, destroying his own handiwork, he remains stuck in the corner, surrounded by female sightseers, who poke their fingers into his soft foam latex faces and say, “Way cool!”
Tom’s exhilarated. People have been buying him gin and tonics all night. “They love me,” he says, and they should: he’s spent uncountable hours sculpting this costume. His face, covered by a George Bush mask, juts out of the space where Teddy Roosevelt should be. No special fondness for the president is intended, but if it wins him the $200 first prize, Tom will take it.
And even if he doesn’t win, he’ll still get to enjoy what he calls “the one day each year people pay attention to me.” Deep-cleavaged Madonna wannabes and bare-midriffed women dripping in sequins and feathers slink past him and say, “I’m sorry; I just have to touch you.” Men display the international thumbs-up sign and slap him high fives. Creatures and celebrities–many costumed impressively themselves–shake their heads and croon, “You didn’t make that, did you?” This type of admiration is not part of Tom’s daily existence. Outside of Halloween, the last time he received public attention was when his friends dragged him to a snooty bar where he was turned away for wearing paint-splattered shoes. The Neanderthal bouncer looked down, screamed “Hey you! Shoes!” and showed him the door.
Tom claims any reasonably attractive woman can experience that “belle of the ball” feeling. All she needs is an average body to cause an instant sensation if she walks into a Rush Street bar, say, in her underwear, as surprisingly many do during the Halloween rush.
But Tom’s a man, a shy man, a man who, although he realizes sexism and inequality cause many problems for women, still envies them because, he claims, “they can just sit back and enjoy the attention.”
The woman dancing near Tom is doing just that. She’s got everything it takes to be tonight’s belle of the ball: big hair, painted face, nice boobs, tight pants. When our disc jockey requests our applause for “the U.S. Hair Olympics Team,” it becomes apparent that this woman, her female cohort, and a male with a foot-tall pompadour are supposed to be 1960s hairdressers, complete with silver hair clips hanging off the hems and lapels of their pastel smocks. It’s also apparent they want to win the costume contest.
They just might, too. They’re the only contestants bold enough to climb onstage with the disc-jockey emcee, grab his mike, and promote themselves. When the DJ finally points out Tom–whom he calls “the rock of Gibraltar,” the hairstyling queen is shaking her booty directly in front of him, blocking the crowd’s view.
My task becomes clear. As the crowd thins and bodies shift, I gradually lead Mount Rushmore to higher ground.
We’re standing on a table when the finalists are announced. This time our DJ gets it right: Mount Rushmore. The hairdressing trio is counted as one finalist, as are the Flintstones, a group who in the interest of mobility have abandoned their Stone Age vehicle near the door.
Yet what appears to be our most formidable opponent–a man dressed as a huge baseball glove–can’t do anything to make himself more mobile. He’s stuck on low ground, near the men’s room. From the waist up this guy’s dressed as a Cub player, from the waist down his real legs are covered by the glove, which surrounds him–the construction must be eight by eight feet. Phony, foot-long baseball player’s legs are attached to the guy’s torso; the effect is that of a giant baseball mitt surrounding a tiny, somewhat deformed Chicago Cub.
The winners are judged by audience response. Perhaps the Cubs’ poor performance this year turned people against the glove man, who like the Flintstones receives only polite applause. The crowd cheers more loudly for the “U.S. Hair Olympics Team”–although I don’t know why since the girls I went to high school with dressed like that every day. But the jingoism of the 90s has its advantages because they go bonkers for Mount Rushmore: screaming, applauding, hooting, howling, and grunting. Mount Rushmore wins by a landslide. Two hundred smackers.
This is not the first time Tom’s won a contest with this costume. Two years ago he was Mount Rushmore at the South Loop’s Cotton Club. The ambience was reminiscent of a high-society costume party–the kind you’d see in a Marx Brothers movie. Women dressed as flamenco dancers, flappers, and eighteenth-century royalty while men found any excuse to wear a tuxedo, crown, or cape. The only contestant–besides Tom–willing to look less than gorgeous was a heavyset dude dripping blood and wielding a rubber knife. He approached Mount Rushmore, stabbed Washington between the eyes, then went down the row and methodically knifed each president–a gesture of conceptual genius that worked on many levels. It made no difference. Tom won first prize anyway–$300.
After Tom’s good fortune at the Cotton Club, he thought he was a shoe-in for the grand award at the Riviera: $1,000. But his confidence was crushed when he saw the other contestants, an array of bizarre megaconstructions, including a fish-faced man who wore an aquarium on his shoulders and no less than three monsters toting decapitated heads. Tom started drinking to build his confidence. He’s not typically a boozer, so by 2 AM visitors to the men’s room were treated to the rare sight of Mount Rushmore puking in the toilet. He never knew who won.
Following this fiasco, Tom swore that someday he and Mount Rushmore would win a solid thousand dollars. That was in 1989. Unfortunately during Halloween of 1990 he was stuck working outside Chicago, in a smaller city with smaller stakes. Mount Rushmore stayed home.
This Halloween, Tom’s intention to take the city by storm has reached full force, and he’s made substantial improvements to his costume. What was once a headpiece and a chest-length rookie “bib” is now a full-body suit, thanks to canvas, paint, and several cans of spray insulating foam. Tiny trees and human figures–the type used for model train sets–now grace the rocky nooks and crannies. Tom’s success at Charlie’s Ale House has merely whetted his appetite. “Three more nights!” he keeps telling me, as he pores over newspapers and phones bars in search of the best-paying competitions.
Wednesday, Halloween eve, the pickings are slim, and Tom ends up at the Union, even though the voice on the other end of the phone refuses to divulge the amount of the cash prize. It’s a headbanger bar, at least tonight, filled with curly-tressed men brandishing bare, hairless chests and, as Tom puts it, “the most beautiful babes in the city.”
Tom’s approached by a gorgeous, six-foot-tall woman swathed in leather.
“You might have the best costume here,” she says, “but I’ve got the most original.”
“What are you?”
“I’m Axl Rose!” she says. “The only gender bender here!” She emits a macho heavy-metal yelp–the angry cry of a desperate woman who knows that by the end of the evening it will be Tom, not she, who wins the all-time grand prize: $21. Tom rolls home about 2:30. “Oh well,” he says, “better than nothing.”
Thursday, Halloween night. Penises are big at the China Club. A man in a trench coat flashes us, exposing his foot-long fabric-stuffed penis as we calmly sip our drinks. Long Dong Silver, a nine-foot-tall pirate with a two-foot-tall parrot sitting on his shoulder and a three-foot-long male organ extending from his crotch, is surrounded by a group of admirers in the next room. But the largest penis is worn by a guy bouncing about with a pink cardboard tube for a body; two balloons serve as testicles. Tom and I agree that Long Dong, who appears to be sculpted from Styrofoam, is one of his stiffest competitors.
Tom’s other rivals are both statues. A white-skinned, white-robed woman with a humongous plastic bowl on her head representing a birdbath is accompanied by a gold bust of Thomas Jefferson sitting on a column. The bust is a guy wearing 18th-century garb and spray-painted gold. His body is the column. He looks good. Too good.
Mount Rushmore and Thomas Jefferson stare at each other; finally the ice is broken and they express mutual admiration. I converse with the birdbath–I’m impressed with the way her feet have become a grape-festooned pedestal. But then I would be, dressed as I am as sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the designer of Mount Rushmore. Tom–the real sculptor–has constructed a lightweight hammer and chisel for me, and I occasionally chip away at Lincoln’s chin for effect.
The China Club, unlike Charlie’s Ale House, is no corner bar, but a warehouse-sized club filled with a thousand, if not more, heavy-duty partiers who paid ten bucks just to walk inside. My Bud Light costs $3.25, and it’s clear that the $1,000 cash prize is small potatoes to the owners.
But not to tonight’s crowd, who take this competition as seriously as the World Series. Not happy merely applauding, screaming, and whooping in approval, they bellow, boo, and bark in disapproval. Female creativity is discouraged–the birdbath woman is hissed offstage. Another Long Dong–this one a leather-clad man wearing a standard porn-store dildo–appears onstage with a scantily-clad woman. The response is mixed until the woman bares a breast, and the crowd loudly voices its support. Another partially dressed woman, this one leading an attractive winged ape man by a leash around his neck, is too subversive for tonight’s crowd, or perhaps they’re just turned off when he makes licking gestures at her crotch. Our favorite Long Dong, the nine-foot pirate, doesn’t make the final cut, nor does the guy dressed as the giant penis, despite the monumental support from his friends, who cheer, “PEE-nis! PEE-nis! PEE-nis!”
But in 1991 patriotism must be even more popular than explicit sex, because the top two finalists are Mount Rushmore and Thomas Jefferson. Four heads are not better than one and Jefferson wins. Fortunately Tom’s done his homework–second prize is $500. Not bad for a night’s work.
Beating out bare tit is enough to boost any man’s ego. Inspired by last night’s winner, Tom shucks the Bush mask and covers his own face with gray greasepaint. On Friday, the day after Halloween, he’s taken his act to Ka-Boom, where bouncers and bartenders swoon, “You shoulda been here last night! We gave away a thousand bucks!”
We learn it was awarded to a woman in an ordinary costume who took off all her clothes: a cheap trick that unfortunately would have been hard to top.
Tonight’s grand prize is only $250 cash or a trip to New York, but it’s being awarded by Al Lewis and Butch Patrick–the original Grandpa and Eddie Munster from TV’s old Munsters series. Grandpa Munster is “82 years young,” a more than seasoned vaudeville vet, who tells tacky jokes about his sexual prowess or lack thereof. The participants onstage are also veterans, of sorts. The baseball-glove man, third-place winner at Charlie’s Ale House, is one of the finalists, as is a giant ape toting a caged human–a getup that scored a thousand bucks the night before at a bar in Schaumburg. But they’re both towered over by that four-time winner, Mount Rushmore.
The crowd picks the finalists, and Grandpa and Eddie Munster must judge the winners. When once again Mount Rushmore triumphs, Tom discovers he not only has popular appeal but is highly regarded by Hollywood professionals.
Grandpa Munster asks Tom if he’d prefer the trip to New York (for one), which includes free dinner at his chichi Italian restaurant, Grandpa’s. Tom’s torn: he needs the money, but doesn’t want to insult his benefactor. Grandpa Munster whispers something that Tom will remember for a long, long time.
“If I were you, kid, I’d take the money.”
And, with the approval of a childhood idol, Tom does, bringing his grand total for Halloween 1991 to $971.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry.