“Say ‘bobblehead’ five times. You just have to smile.”
Collector Bobbie Davis of Green Bay offers this advice to the glum, ho-hum and meh-sayers. The waitress and mother of two meditates to relieve stress. She kickboxes to vent tension. But all she needs to brighten her day is to look at her growing collection of bobbleheads.
There’s obviously a substantial number of people like Davis shaking their heads “yes” to bobblehead collections. Bobble-making is a burgeoning business. And bobble-distribution is huge, especially at ballparks. Fan giveaways crowd Major League Baseball’s promotional calendar this season — T-shirts, garden gnomes, pennants, caps, baseball cards, posters and more. The giveaways that sell out stadium after stadium, game after game, are the bobbles, which demonstrate why there are 130 bobblehead promotional nights on the MLB’s 2015 schedule.
The Milwaukee Brewers’ calendar contains 20 all-fan giveaways this season, including two gnomes, seven T-shirts and 10 bobbleheads. Fans left Miller Park on May 10 with a Hank the Dog bobble and later this season the Brewers will give away bobbles in the likeness of Carlos Gomez, Paul Molitor, Khris Davis, Bob Uecker, Jonathan Lucroy and also a vintage Brewer boy bobble.
Bobbles are popular enough these days to give Phil Sklar and Brad Novak big heads. These Milwaukee buddies are the brains and believers behind the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum, which they hope to open in the city in late 2016. They also manufacture and sell bobbleheads to support charitable causes and commercial campaigns.
Sklar and Novak, co-founders of the hall of fame and museum, have been best friends since middle school. They attended UWM at the same time. They’re both big sports fans. And they’re roommates with an extensive bobblehead collection.
“It got to the point where bobbleheads were taking over the kitchen,” Sklar says. “And we were like, what do we do with these?”
Building a bobble
The men — Novak was working in sales and Sklar in corporate finance — began talking about how to transform a hobby into a business. They knew they wanted to exhibit the collection and collect more bobbles. But a complete business model came together for them when they helped create a bobblehead for a friend involved in the Special Olympics.
“We realized there was no real good provider of bobbleheads out there offering bobbleheads to somebody who wants 500 or 1,000,” Sklar says. The guys were aware of major suppliers providing tens of thousands of bobbleheads for mass market but they identified an unfilled market for boutique bobbles — say the Little League Brewers rather than the Milwaukee Brewers.
Novak and Sklar began creating bobbles. “We’ve had really good traction,” says Sklar, adding that the company has manufactured several dozen bobbles and is working on several dozen more. “We’re working not just in our area. We’re working all over the country.”
To make a bobblehead — one or 10,000 — a client provides Novak and Sklar with photographs showing what features they want included, or exaggerated. An artistic rendering is created and then, with the client’s approval, a mold is created. Once the mold is finalized and a painted model approved, production begins.
The minimum order for a custom bobble is one, with the price at about $110. Novak and Sklar plan to create an online system for ordering a custom bobble. And someday perhaps, patrons will leave their museum with a personalized bobble.
“The technology isn’t there right now for people to come in and take a bobblehead home, but they could have their face scanned and have their bobblehead in a week,” says Sklar. “And we can have virtual bobbleheads to share on social media.”
Opening the museum
Novak and Sklar are evaluating sites for the museum and hall of fame, with a focus on establishing the institution in downtown Milwaukee.
“This has the potential to really be a good attraction that draws people into Milwaukee,” Sklar says.
Already they have artistic renderings of how the museum might look and, as they plan for an opening, they are visiting other museums in other cities.
“We’ve also done a lot of research online,” Sklar says. “A few things that we have built into the plans for certain are we want to tell the history of bobbleheads. And how bobbleheads are made. And what’s the story behind certain bobbleheads? We can tell those stories, the story of Jackie Robinson or Willie Mays.”
It turns out that the Willie Mays bobble is a milestone in bobblehead history.
The first published reference to a bobblehead is in an 1842 Russian short story, “The Overcoat,” by Nikolai Gogol, who wrote, “like the necks of plaster cats which wag their heads.” Many types of bobbleheads have been made over the years. But modern bobble mania dates to 1999, when the San Francisco Giants gave away the Mays collectible.
“Now,” Sklar says, “I think bobbleheads are everywhere. There’s so much negative news everywhere and we just want to bring some positive cheer, unite people. Bobbleheads, they’re just fun.”
But first, an exhibition
Novak and Sklar’s bobblehead collection is approaching 4,000, large enough that a couple of interns will spend this summer cataloging items.
“And we’re getting more and more bobbleheads,” Sklar says, adding that collectors have offered to donate or loan items to the museum.
In January 2016, RedLine Milwaukee will preview the museum’s collection in the exhibition Bobbleheads: Real & Fantastical Heroism.
The exhibit “presents both a challenge and an opportunity for RedLine Milwaukee,” says RedLine executive director Jeanne Jarecki. “While we will be in our sixth year as a growing nonprofit, we expect this exhibition will attract thousands of visitors and international attention.”
RedLine, 1422 N. Fourth St., Milwaukee, is a charitable organization that promotes the arts through education and with a focus on social justice. The exhibition will focus on heroes: How do we define “hero”? Who is a hero? What are the differences between a “real hero and a fantastical one”? And what role does heroism play in social activism?
Using a timeline approach, the exhibitors will share the history of bobbleheads, explore technological changes in the craft of making the bobbles and examine bobbles as cultural objects.
“We’re looking to showcase the breadth of bobbleheads,” says Sklar, who notes that bobbles vary in size and material, including ceramic and plastic. “In the past five years, people have gotten really creative with bobbleheads.”
The key element of any bobble, of course, is the bobbling ability, by spring or hook.
“If it bobbles, it’s in. That’s our tagline,” Sklar says.
On the Web …
Find more about the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum at bobbleheadhall.com.