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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.

122619.F.DNT.Decade_Rhubarbara
Rhubarbara, who debuted at the 2008 CHUM Rhubarb Festival and is seen here in 2014, has taken on a life of her own.
File / Duluth News Tribune
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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.

A black-and-white image of a yearbook photo of a light-skinned man with a strong eyebrow and prominent jowls.
The original Champ? The strong jowls of 1933 UMD football player John “Jack” O’Hehir, seen here in an archival photo, reportedly inspired the school's adoption of a bulldog mascot.
Contributed / UMD

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.

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UMD student Taylor Korum gets hydrated to hype before a 2016 hockey game. Korum, who played Champ for half a decade, told the News Tribune that "sometimes when you get in the suit you completely change ... You drop your personal life and now you are a mascot."
Samantha Erkkila / File / Duluth News Tribune

"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.

A black-and-white image of three light-skinned boys sitting near a mascot character with a baseball head and monocle, one poking the mascot's head with an umbrella.
The Earl of the Dukes mascot is taunted by young spectators at the Duluth-Superior Dukes home opener at Wade Municipal Stadium on June 10, 1994.
Clara Wu / File / Duluth News Tribune

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.

A life-size statue of a domestic cat perches on a rock surrounded by snow. The statue is wearing a hair binder on its raised left paw, and a red holiday bow on its neck.
"The Great Catsby," a 2017 sculpture by Ann Klefstad located just off the Lakewalk near Duluth East High School.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

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.

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The University of Minnesota Duluth will form a committee to help create a different Champ costume after facing backlash from fans over the new costume.

"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.

An artificial figure of an old light-skinned man with a ring of wild white hair, dressed in formalwear and sporting a red carnation in his lapel.
"Bruce," the Black Woods Grill and Bar mascot, is seen in the Duluth restaurant's lobby.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

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."

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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?"

Local events have their own mascots. There's the Gobble Gallop turkey, the Smelt Parade queen and "Max," the 17-foot walking skeleton who provides a focal point for the annual All Souls Night parade.

A man carrying a banner for the "Magic Smelt Puppet Troupe" walks ahead of a giant smelt puppet at the start of the Smelt Parade.
A 10-foot-long puppet known as the Smelt Queen leads the Run Smelt Run parade along the Lakewalk in Duluth's Canal Park on May 8, 2022.
Teri Cadeau / File / Duluth News Tribune

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.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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