20 weird and wonderful things in Madison
Explore the quirky side of Madison
Madison is known for many things, but being boring has never been one of them.
It has never had a shortage of quirky characters with bizarre behavior or puzzling places and odd occurrences. In fact, our appetite for the abnormal is so strong here that the folks at the Wisconsin Historical Society last summer created a downtown tour called “A Walk on Madison’s Weird Side.”
“There’s a huge audience for weird stuff here, and we’ve got plenty of it,” says Anna Yarish, who in March left her position as office manager of the Wisconsin Historical Museum.
The tour includes tales about some of the city’s most mischievous residents and some of its most unusual history. The tour’s co-creator, historian Maggie McClain, attributes our acceptance of the odd to Madison’s inclusive, progressive nature. “You can be whoever you want to be here,” she says.
In keeping with that theme, we’ve pulled together some of the city’s most notably obscure people, places and things. But this is by no means a complete list. Use it as a starting point to begin your own discoveries. And as you explore, Yarish says to remember that “weirdness doesn’t mean bad – it should be embraced.”
When Elvis Saved the Day
On the night of June 24, 1977, Bruce Frey and his sister raced to Dane County Regional Airport hoping to catch a glimpse of Elvis Presley as he got off his plane the night before his show in Madison.
Although they didn’t see the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll at the airport, what they saw instead was far better.
“We left the airport after not seeing him and were behind a limo at the stoplight at the corner of Highway 51 and East Washington [Avenue], and I looked over and saw a fight. Two guys had another guy pinned down and were throwing punches at him,” remembers Frey, who was 20 then. “The next thing I know, the limo door flies open and I say to my sister, ‘That’s Elvis Presley getting out.’ ”
“Elvis walked up to the two guys beating up the kid and he took a karate stance and he said, ‘I’ll take you two on’ and they just froze. The kid getting beat up just ran off,” says Frey, who had gotten out of his car, too. “He ended up shaking hands with those two and asking if everything was settled. They nodded.
“[Elvis] stuck around for a bit – he was pretty amused at the whole scenario – smiling and looking around,” says Frey, adding that when people began to gather, the “Don’t Be Cruel” singer “waved to the crowd, said thanks and went on his way.” Elvis died less than two months later.
About 10 years ago, a stone marker appeared at the northwest corner of the intersection to commemorate the incident. The marker had a metal image of Elvis swinging his guitar and a plaque describing what happened that night. At some point, the plaque went missing. It hasn’t been restored yet, but we hope it gets replaced soon. This bit of Madison history deserves remembering.
Duckmobile to the Rescue
Jen Mulder’s Duckmobile is a sight to be seen. Covered by more than 300 rubber ducks of varying size and style, it’s now in its third incarnation. The first one hit the road in 2008.
Her reason for creating and continuing it is simple: “It’s to make people smile and it makes me smile,” she says. “I get so many notes under my windshield from people saying it made their day.”
And there are other benefits, too. “I never lose it in the parking lot,” she jokes.
Wheels Up, German Style
“It’s a type of gymnastics popular in Europe mainly. Here, it’s more of a circus art or performing art,” explains Carly Schuna, a competitor, performer and coach of the abstract art known as German wheeling. “I usually describe it as a large hamster wheel for humans.”
While the sport is quite accessible, advanced spinning, twisting and rolling “requires a lot of strength and grace,” she says. “There are several ways in which the wheel can move. It lends itself well to performance.”
The acrobatic and dangerous art of German wheeling, which is performed with others or solo, is gaining popularity in Madison. Five years ago, when Schuna, a three-time national German wheeling champion, and Luke Emery started their Head Over Wheels circus art coaching program, they had a handful of students.
“Now there [are] almost 50 active wheelers in town,” she says, adding that her students range in age from 8 to 60.
Art Paul Schlosser
He’s our prince of musical parody.
For more than 30 years, Art Paul Schlosser – never without his guitar and kazoo – has serenaded State Street with folksy, funny tracks ranging in topic from the joys of peanut butter sandwiches to cats taking baths.
“It’s not what you’re going to hear on the radio, that’s for sure,” says the 58-year-old busker, painter and poet. “Maybe that’s what keeps me out on State Street and not in the clubs.”
Schlosser, always wearing bright shirts, funky hats and sometimes a chicken suit, released his first cassette tape in the early ’90s and now has more than 40 recordings under his belt. His longevity and output has taken him a few places. He appeared (very briefly) on America’s Got Talent and (also briefly) on MTV. He was also once mentioned on “The Colbert Report.”
A couple of the street musician’s more popular chuckle-worthy songs include the purposefully nonsensical “Purple Bananas on the Moon” and the very relatable “I Was Eating Cheese.”
His influences include comedian/songwriter Allan Sherman, The Monkees and The Beatles, but it was “Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger who convinced me that even though I wasn’t a great singer, I could still sing,” he says.
Of the busking hustle, he says, “I make enough to pay my rent [and] I don’t want to get a regular job.”
Money aside, his real motivation is bringing joy to others. “It’s like therapy – you’re helping someone else smile and then you’re smiling too,” he says. “I love to eat, but I love people even more.”
A Doctorate in Prank-ology
Leon Varjian’s college pranks were legendary.
Using University of Wisconsin-Madison as his comedic canvas during the late 1970s, Varjian orchestrated covering Bascom Hill with plastic pink flamingos, erected a seemingly submerged Statue of Liberty on the frozen waters of Lake Mendota and led a boombox parade down State Street.
Credited for giving students and locals a reason to smile following the tumultuous, sometimes violent protests on campus over the Vietnam war during the 1960s, Varjian also once organized a game of ring toss using hula hoops and the statue of Abe Lincoln on campus as the goal. He also led a petition drive to rename UW-Madison as the University of New Jersey so “students could go to a fancy East Coast school without moving.”
Though he never actually graduated – only taking one-credit courses to stay enrolled and qualify to take part in student government – Varjian, who died in 2015 at the age of 64, forever lives on as the most creative class clown on campus.
What Wood You Like to Know?
Since 1910, Madison has housed the only federally funded “wood utilization research laboratory” in the nation. And the Feds are very proud of it.
Inside the huge Forest Products Laboratory just west of the UW-Madison campus, some 60 scientists conduct experiments and research that is “primarily or partly responsible for many of today’s wood-based technologies,” brags the lab’s website. The mission is simple but noble: “To use our nation’s wood resources wisely and efficiently, while at the same time keeping our forests healthy.”
They even have a hotline, 608-231-9200, for all of your, uh, burning questions about wood.
Footballs, Birds and a Skull
While Madison has no shortage of art, there are some works that fall outside the norm. Here are a few:
This 50-foot-tall obelisk by artist Donald Lipski, located fittingly at the entrance to the Camp Randall stadium, resembles a giant piece of limestone eroding into a slender pile of footballs. It’s actually made out of gel-coated fiberglass.
Those giant, steampunk-esque metal birds outside an office building just off Willy Street are probably the largest example of upcycling on the east side. Designed by artist Doc Evermore, they’re made out of the remnants of a local heating and air conditioning company.
This 1,500-pound, enormously-oversized bronze cast skull outside the Chazen Museum of Art on University Avenue looks like a holdover from Halloween. It’s part of a 67-piece, skull-themed collection that artist Jim Dine contributed to the museum.
The Adventures of Eddie Elson
Edward Ben Elson was in a very odd, outlandish league of his own.
Known as a free spirit with a big heart, the lawyer and frequent political candidate often defended the rights of the poor and those with mental illness.
But he’ll forever be remembered for his wild antics and jester-like behavior. What else would you expect from a guy whose business cards read “Far Out Lawyer, Specializing in Loony Law”?
Whether it was defending a friend’s dog in court or announcing his latest political run while nude at a bar (because he had “nothing to hide”), Elson fearlessly chased publicity.
His greatest feat came in 1973. He garnered national media attention for selling tickets to escape Earth by – according to an angel Elson says he spoke to – riding off into space on the Comet Kohoutek. As the day of departure approached, he even rented a movable staircase from the local airport and stationed it in McFarland.
With a crowd of ticket holders and reporters present, Elson climbed the staircase on Dec. 24 and waited for Kohoutek, but the comet never came. As he descended the stairs he was asked about it and reportedly replied, “Comet? What comet?”
The call for play submissions on the Broom Street Theater website sums up its nontraditional goals nicely: “We like experimental, we like unflinching, we like non- commercial, we like weird.”
And that’s exactly what theatergoers get. “We’re hard to pin down. We veer wildly from show to show. It’s a grab bag,” says artistic director Doug Reed of the 49-year-old nonprofit’s original on-stage content. “We have no advertisers and no corporate sponsors, so we’re not beholden to bite our tongues.”
And they certainly don’t. Recent shows have included the tale of a basement-dwelling, teetotaling virgin in “Menace to Society: A Mormon in Milwaukee” and a dark comedy pitting job seekers against the 1 percent in “The Full Treatment.” This fall, the theater company will offer a selection of 10-minute plays about U.S. commanders-in-chief titled “Unpresidented.” You can probably guess where that’s going.
A Huge Hotdog on Wheels: The Weinermobile
Although Oscar Mayer moved its headquarters out of the city and closed the meat processing plant here last year, Madison will always be the original home of the Weinermobile.
What began as a bizarre marketing gimmick back in 1936, the famed weiner on wheels has had a few incarnations over the years. One version even had microwave ovens that vented the aroma of cooking hotdogs as it was driven. Currently, there are six of the street-legal franks on the road, each measuring 60 hot dogs long, 18 hot dogs wide and 24 hot dogs tall.
Unmistakable and immediately recognizable, the orange and yellow Weinermobile was actually, and almost inconceivably, retired from 1976 to 1986. Now, however, the fleet has expanded to include not only the traditional traveling beacon of backyard barbecues, but also a three-wheeled WienerCycle moped and a WienerDrone.
The Many Songs of Madison
Where most cities have one official song announcing its amenities and the pride of residents, Madison has enough for a short playlist. In fact, there are five official city songs. Chosen by a city committee in 2006, they are, in no particular order:
The accordion-infused, humorous “Oh Wonderful Madison” by Peter and Lou Berryman
The Dane Varese Band’s guitar-heavy tribute “Madison”
We couldn’t find “Madison” by Douglas Hamilton online (neither could the folks in the mayor’s office), but we’re assured it’s great
Amy Shapiro sings and strums a guitar in her slow tribute to “My Friend Madison”
“Home to Madison,” in which Tracy Silverman sings about his favorite memories – inserting mentions of brats and familiar highway locations – to a sauntering violin.
Lake Mendota’s Loch Ness Monster
One of the most circulated reports of a sea serpent in Lake Mendota began with a tickling of toes.
Back in 1917, as a sunbather dangled her feet into the lake, she felt an unwanted caress. She turned around to see “the head and neck of a huge snake, or dragon, extended above the surface.” She screamed and ran.
Before and since that incident, boaters and fishermen have reported seeing a 25-foot spotted monster with a broad, flat-topped head and a long, spiked tail slithering through the lake.
Over the years, it earned the nickname Bozho, taken from Algonquin and Ojibwe folk hero Winnebozho.
The Development that Wasn’t
The UW Arboretum is full of tall grass, trees, wetlands, flowers and shrubs. But beneath part of it, lie ruins of a failed housing development.
In 1926, contractors began building a suburb on the south side of Lake Wingra. Financial troubles derailed the project, and only seven houses were built. Due to marshy soil, those homes sank into the ground and vegetation now covers them.
If you know what you’re looking for, you can still find “Madison’s Atlantis” poking out of the ground.
When the World Naked Bike Ride rolled through town in mid-June last year, the Madison Police Department made a forewarning announcement “to make sure that all citizens are aware and [know] what to expect.”
Here’s a hint: It’s naked people. On bikes.
“This event has created a variety of different responses from citizens asking questions about the legalities of such an event,” the MPD announcement stated. The police department added, however, that (thankfully for participants) “nudity is not a violation” of public indecency laws here and “it should also be known that disorderly conduct cannot be enforced for mere nakedness.”
One of many similar events around the world, the goal is to raise awareness about our reliance on fossil fuels. This year, Madison’s 9th annual World Naked Bike Ride is scheduled for June 16.
A Lot of Mustard in Middleton
Yellow condiment connoisseurs rejoice – there’s a place just for you in Middleton!
Opening first in Mount Horeb in 1992, the National Mustard Museum moved its stock of more than 5,000 mustards and related memorabilia to Hubbard Avenue in Middleton in 2009.
Also a store, the popular tourist spot offers mustards for sale by their origin country, style and in variety packs. Bonus: Admission to the museum is free.
Our city bird is made of plastic. And it’s pink. And it’s not actually a bird. It’s a lawn ornament. If you haven’t guessed by now, Madison’s official bird is none other than the plastic pink flamingo.
Formally designated by the Madison Common Council in 2009, the choice of this “bird” is recognition of a prank played by UW-Madison students in 1979 when they covered Bascom Hill with a flock of more than 1,000 fake flamingoes.
Not everyone loved the idea of giving the metal-legged decoy official city status. Four alders voted against it.
In case you and the kids missed both Drag Queen Story Hour events at local libraries last year, you’ll likely get another chance soon.
Praised for their inclusivity, the events put a twist on the normal storytime activity – this time, drag queens read children’s books to families.
Inspired by similar events on the East and West coasts, Madison Public Library officials say the response to the first two events was so great, they’re planning more.
Tigers? Yes. Swearing? No.
Le Tigre Lounge, a cozy bar just off the Beltline, is filled with more than 300 figurines, stuffed animals, paintings and pictures of tigers (hence the name). But it deserves mention for another reason: There’s no swearing allowed here.
Owner Steve “Paul” Josheff says Le Tigre has been cuss-free since his father opened it in the 1960s. “My dad used to say, ‘You just don’t swear around women,’ ” remembers Josheff, adding that the rule is applied equally. “If a lady was swearing, my dad would tell her, ‘Hey, please don’t swear. There are gentlemen present.’ ”
Steven Potter is a Madison native who has been a reporter for nearly 20 years. He’s currently a graduate student in journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a focus on multimedia reporting and data visualization.
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