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The Phanatic and Raymond

The current Phillie Phanatic poses with David Raymond, the original Phanatic. Raymond is one of the driving forces behind the proposed National Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting.

WHITING —  After just less than two years, things seem to be jumping — and dancing and twirling and shooting out streams of confetti, water and silly string — in honor of a merry band of mirth-makers who it's hoped will take center stage in this small lakeside community.

But first, money needs to be raised to make the city's vision of a National Mascot Hall of Fame a reality, and fundraising efforts have kicked off with the creation of a brochure being distributed to potential donors.

The brochure lays out, in colorful detail, how a mascot hall of fame could entice visitors to make repeated trips to the venue to enjoy a variety of activities and events.

The museum will honor some of the well-known sports mascots who have entertained fans for generations, while at the same time giving visitors the chance to engage in such activities as creating their own miniature mascots or acting out what it would be like to be one.

"You can do a show," said Hall of Fame Executive Director Al Spajer. "You can be a virtual mascot where you're performing in a skit and the audience is watching you." 

"It's all about having kids trying to interact with things when they come in there," Whiting Mayor Joe Stahura said.

"It's really going to be a children's museum that focuses on and highlights the world of mascots."

The brochure describes various potential features of the hall, including what visitors may see as they approach the building, to be located at the corner of 119th and Front streets.

"You'll see bright, bold graphics on the building's glass exterior ... stretching along the Front Street facade. Atop the building, a throng of wriggling, waving 'tallboys' (air-driven tube men) dancing on its roof will invigorate and animate the structure, transforming it into a living building and sending a clear message that this is not a staid, static museum nor an ordinary Hall of Fame," Spajer said.

In addition to talking to architects and potential donors about what a mascot museum should include, "we also talked to our grandkids," he said.

When the youngsters are asked what they are looking for in a museum, Spajer said their reply is: "What can we do there?"

David Raymond — the original Phillie Phanatic -- and members of his company, Raymond Entertainment Group, came up with the idea for a Mascot Hall of Fame. He said in addition to the exhibits there will be regular visits from mascots and special events, including the yearly Mascot Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

He said the genesis of the hall of fame was an incident involving a participant in the Milwaukee Brewers' popular Sausage Races, in which costumed characters representing different types of sausages race around the bases.

In July 2003, baseball player Randall Simon, then a first baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, accidentally struck one of the characters with a bat causing the woman inside the costume to fall down.

There were no serious injuries, but Raymond was approached by a member of his entertainment group, Chris Bruce, about doing something fun in response to the incident.

Raymond was able to gather a group of about 30 costumed mascots to march on Philadelphia City Hall to unveil a Mascots Bill of Rights. The lighthearted event ended up attracting an even bigger crowd and even more attention the following year, and soon, the idea of a Mascot Hall of Fame was born.

Whiting created synergy

The Mascot Hall of Fame is only an online entity at the moment, and Raymond thought at first they might eventually be able to have a mobile exhibit or be a part of some other existing development.

The opportunity for a hall of their own came with a call from Whiting a couple of years ago.

Raymond now is confident officials will be able to raise the necessary funds to construct the interior features of the facility.

"I don't think there's any way we are not going to meet our fundraising goal," he said.

Stahura sees the hall as the focal point of his plan to make the city a destination place, one that already draws thousands of enthusiastic visitors for another quirky, fun-filled event each July — Pierogi Fest.

Stahura hopes the Mascot Hall of Fame will be an anchor that could spur other developments such as restaurants and hotels around it.

Raymond said some of the visits to other halls of fame, such as the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, are like a pilgrimage, where one might just visit once every four or five years. He doesn't want that to be the case with the Mascot Hall of Fame, and neither do Stahura or Spajer.

Spajer sees it as a place where children will come with their parents and grandparents and other family members again and again. 

"What I always tell people is when I close my eyes and think of the Mascot Hall of Fame, I see a parking lot full of school buses, because that's going to be our stock in trade," Spajer said.

The city enlisted the firm of Jack Rouse Associates to come up with the conceptual master plan that is being sent to potential investors.

The firm has been involved in creating such attractions as the Crayola Experience, in Easton, Pennsylvania, and Kellogg's Cereal City USA, in Battle Creek, Michigan, which feature displays that invite hands-on visitor participation.

The firm has proposed the same type of interactive displays throughout the planned hall of fame.

The mascots in the hall of fame currently come only from the world of sports, but corporate mascots may be added in the future — which could potentially aid the hall's fundraising efforts.

Raymond said a future expansion could include a section honoring the performers themselves, including such people as the late entertainer Max Patkin, known as The Clown Prince of Baseball.

Stahura said the city will use tax increment financing bonds to construct what has been envisioned as a 25,000-square-foot building. He said the city is probably going to invest about $8 million in the structure, parking and related exterior components.

He estimated another $2.5 million to $4 million will be spent on interior attractions.

It is a "pretty massive project," Stahura said, but it has "got the potential to be literally a national attraction, not just in the Midwest or Northwest Indiana. Because if you think about it, there is no such animal out there."

The project was initially scheduled to open fall of next year, but Stahura said "the sooner we get a couple of donors to step forward, the sooner we'll have a shovel in the ground."

He said he doesn't want to start designing or building a structure before meeting the minimum targets for interior exhibits.

"We are looking for corporate donors, we are looking for potential individual donors who may be able to contribute," Stahura said.

"We have some wealthy benefactors in Northwest Indiana who we hope would come to the table with us."

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Ed has been with The Times since January 2014. He previously covered government affairs for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in Florida. Prior to Scripps, he was with the Chicago Regional Bureau of Copley News Service.