Front Row Seat: Duluth's mascots are a strange bunch — and that's just how we like it
From Champ to Rhubarbara, Duluth's mascots are best at their most offbeat. There is such a thing as too offbeat, though, as an ill-fated baseball head learned the hard way.
DULUTH — If there's any city where a mascot costume might be practical, it's Duluth.
Our sports calendar has plenty of frosty days when shivering spectators could look at the person jumping around in a thick foam-and-fur suit and think, "That mascot has it made."
Yet, Duluth's history with mascots has been a little uneasy. The city's most recognizable mascot, the University of Minnesota Duluth's Champ the Bulldog, has always faced the question: Why a bulldog? What does a British mastiff breed have to do with the Northland? According to the university's own research, the team nickname originally sprang from a Depression-era football player whose face resembled a bulldog.
The recent, and recalled, redesign of the Bulldog mascot suit inspired a wave of nostalgia among local sports fans, who pointed out that Champ was known as "Killer" before a family-oriented rebranding in 1997. Commenters also recalled the Maroon Loon, a hockey-specific UMD mascot who regularly took the ice from 1984-2006.
That was a more combative era in ice hockey, and on at least one occasion the Maroon Loon was goaded into throwing some punches. In 2001, the News Tribune published a letter from Esko resident Troy Gist, who described seeing a couple UMD fans try to steal a Super Soaker the mascot had been using to spray the crowd.
"The mascot turned on the men with flying fists," Gist wrote. "From this day forth, the mascot should be known as the Maroon Goon."
Without condoning retaliatory assault, it's only fair to observe that mascots have too often borne the brunt of fan frustration. Longtime followers of Duluth baseball may remember the Earl of the Dukes, the short-lived mascot of the Duluth-Superior Dukes from 1993-1994.
Just before what the News Tribune described as the Earl's "abrupt retirement" in favor of the less conceptual Homer Hound, staff photographer Clara Wu caught an image of young fans presumptuously poking at Earl's baseball-shaped head. The dapper mascot's resigned posture seems to suggest he knew his days were numbered.
"The enlarged baseball head took its toll on the mental state of small children," the team's general manager Bob Gustafson told the News Tribune two years later. Gustafson said he kept the former mascot costume in his office, but, "I'm afraid of him."
After the 2002 season, the Dukes left for Kansas City, where they were renamed the T-Bones and hyped by Sizzle the Bull. Today, Duluth has the Huskies, whose mascot Harley D. Huskie boldly styles himself "the smoothest and coolest dog in all of baseball." (Sorry, Snoopy.)
Actual animals have frequently been adopted as Duluth teams' unofficial mascots, inspiring mourning at the animals' eventual demise.
UMD shone a literal spotlight on a bulldog named Ham after the pet survived outdoors for 11 days during a legendary 2009 blizzard. Ham lived to be 14 years old, and died just recently. Catsby, a neighborhood feline beloved by the Duluth East community, was honored with a life-size statue near the high school after meeting his demise on a roadway in 2016.
In 1996, Kool 101.7 drew a firestorm when it announced a literal mascot launch. DJs declared they would be dropping live turkeys from a helicopter onto the Miller Hill Mall parking lot. If you caught one, the station said, you could have it dressed for Thanksgiving dinner.
"An animal rights group, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Duluth International Airport, the Duluth Police Department, Miller Hill Mall, scores of angry shoppers and a smattering of attorneys" were all up in arms at the plan, reported the News Tribune.
In reality, it turned out to be "just a gag to introduce the radio station's new mascot," inspired by a 1978 episode of "WKRP in Cincinnati." The station later introduced a penguin mascot, without forcing any actual flightless birds to give their wings a workout.
It may seem strange that a radio station would have a mascot, but having personally danced in Duluth wearing a mascot suit in the shape of The Current's oval logo (during my past employment at the MPR music station), I can attest that it does get attention.
Scores of other local businesses have given mascot suits a spin over the years. A mascot race that takes place each year as part of the Grandma's Marathon kickoff festivities regularly includes figures like Mr. Slice the pizza slice (Papa John's), Jack the bull terrier (Wells Fargo), Sudz the shampoo bottle (Great Clips) and an unnamed Kemps cow.
You don't need a national profile to have your own mascot, though. The Edgewater Hotel and Waterpark has employed the services of Tiki Tom and Tiki Tina, while Black Woods Grill and Bar diners were greeted by an elderly (and immobile) man named Bruce until a customer absconded with the mascot's head last fall. Bruce is now back ... in a sense.
"He's been there for 25 years," said Black Woods Group CEO Julie Thoreson. "It's surprising, the amount of people that come back each year and have their pictures taken with him. ... They started to notice, and then we started to hear buzz when they'd walk by and go, 'Oh, yeah, his head was removed.'"
Thoreson's staff scoured the internet in a quest to replace the figure, which was originally purchased at a trade show in Chicago and subsequently given a proper name by servers at the Duluth restaurant. Thanks to eBay, Black Woods staff ended up finding an heir and a spare.
"We bought two of them," Thoreson explained, "in fear that if this happened once, you know people, it'll happen again."
So far, the Duluth Public Library Lynx has managed to keep its head on, even pitching in to help with snow removal. The lynx joined the library last year, soon getting up to everything from pressing pennies to dancing with the Teddy Bear Band.
"We're getting out in the community more," said Erin Kreeger, executive director of the Duluth Library Foundation. "In the conversations I had with (library staff), the foundation agreed, wouldn't it be lovely to have something that kids really identify as the library?"
Duluth's most iconic event-related mascot, though, is Rhubarbara: the anthropomorphic rhubarb plant who appears each year at CHUM's Rhubarb Fest. Originally created in 2008 by adapting a mascot costume left over from Duluth's Green Man music festival, Rhubarbara quickly took on a life of her own.
"She's so fabulous-looking, we'd never mess with the design," volunteer Ann Gumpper said after helping to give the costume a touch-up in 2016. "She's the glamour vegetable of the festival."
"It's amazing what a stalk of rhubarb can do for a community," said CHUM's then-development director, Mary Schmitz. One could perhaps say the same thing about a bulldog, or a walking shampoo bottle, or an aristocratic baseball.