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15 May 2009

Men in Suits: A new documentary explores the cult of Wisconsin mascot Bucky Badger

Men In Suits

A new documentary explores the cult of Wisconsin mascot Bucky Badger.

[photo: Bucky Badger]

The coolest moment of my life was looking at myself in the mirror and seeing myself as Bucky,” says Jeff Thiele. “‘That’s Bucky, and somehow I’m inside of him.’”

Thiele is one of seven young men who played Bucky Badger, the University of Wisconsin-Madison mascot and Dairy State icon, during the 2007-2008 school year. Two of them grew up on farms, one cares for a father with Alzheimer’s, and one shaved a W into his chest hair for a laugh. But once they disappeared inside the mischievous mustelid’s fuzzy fiberglass head, their individual identities fell away, and they each took on a deeply felt responsibility to uphold the tradition and spirit of the school—even if that meant dancing with cheerleaders.

Filmmakers John Fromstein and Scott Smith followed the mascots from the ’07 tryouts, when two new Buckys joined the roster, to the ’08 tryouts, when three veterans were preparing to move on, for their new documentary Being Bucky, which screens May 28 in Chicago.

The Wisconsin-badger connection goes back to the early 1800s, when lead miners digging along the Illinois border took to living in their tunnels, which came to be known as badger dens. Bucky (full name, Buckingham U. Badger) first led a UW pep rally in 1949, and the state adopted the badger as an official symbol in 1957.

“Bucky is on frickin’ everything,” says Smith, the film’s Chicago-based director, who grew up in Milwaukee and Madison. “There’s a dry cleaner, Badger Plumbing, Badger Bus. You go to the grocery store, there’s always a Bucky Special. I don’t know another state where the mascot of the school is the mascot of the state, but that’s how it is in Wisconsin.”

In 2006, Fromstein’s son Charlie, a UW student, saw a potential movie in the rigorous trials his roommate was going through for a shot at being Bucky. Charlie turned his dad, a Chicago producer and UW alum himself, on to the idea. “He thought it was a secret society,” John Fromstein says.

Smith and Fromstein went up to Madison for tryouts the next year and got footage of nervous undergrads auditioning for a panel of judges from the UW Spirit Squad. “We’re not judging you as a human, but as a mascot,” Spirit Squad director Josette Scheer, a former cheerleader, tells the contenders in the film. They’re shown being tested in five areas: dance, props, skits, pushups, and cheerleading pyramid. In optional skating tryouts they tumble and slide on the ice at the UW hockey rink, wearing badger heads and street clothes.

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Smith and Fromstein recorded the two successful recruits getting welcomed to the Bucky family by the veterans, but “then they were like, ‘OK guys, bye, we’ll see you tomorrow,’” Fromstein says. “When they were going to go celebrate, we weren’t invited.” There’s a striking absence of undergrad debauchery in Being Bucky. Fromstein says he and Smith promised university officials “not to [show] alcohol or drugs or other things that would be hurtful to the brand,” partly because it was required for access and partly because “this wasn’t The Real World. We weren’t trying to go in there and do something seedy.”

The Buckys take seriously their role as ambassadors for the university. They speak with awe of football coach-turned-athletic director Barry Alvarez despite his apparent antipathy to the mascot. “They feel they deserve more respect,” Fromstein says. “They feel slighted. We pushed a couple people [in the athletic department] on this and they were pretty defensive,” reluctant to acknowledge that a problem existed. Being Bucky addresses that tension between the mascot’s duty to be goofy and Alvarez’s all-business approach. “Bucky’s for the fans,” Alvarez says in the film. “He’s not for the team.”

Fromstein wonders whether Alvarez is neglecting part of what makes UW unique. “Barry would say, ‘We’re just worried about football.’ His mindset is winning games. But there’s more to it than that.” Back before Alvarez turned the team around and started winning, Wisconsin fans “created all these fun things to pass the time,” Fromstein says—their “Jump Around” ritual (bouncing to House of Pain’s “Jump Around”) after the third quarter, their slow-then-fast take on the wave, and “fifth quarter” polka dancing on the field. “They’re the best school at creating that environment,” Fromstein says. “And Bucky is the personification of that.”

The seven Buckys are conflicted over the degree of freedom that the costume grants them. “You put on the suit and no one will know it’s you. You can do whatever you want,” Thiele says. But his fellow Bucky Ryan Schwoegler speaks of “still getting acquainted with how far I can take it.”

Fromstein says the limits have been “pulled back over the years. Bucky used to get in fights with other mascots. Now he’s more law-abiding.” Being Bucky shows the Buckys enumerating and then violating the rules and conventions of badger behavior: no talking in costume, no holding babies, no appearing in partial costume, no using their Bucky status to pick up women.

Smith and Fromstein trail the Buckys to Mascot Camp, where the badger romps with rivals Herky the Hawk from the University of Iowa and Sparty the Spartan from Michigan State. Then it’s on to the National Mascot Championship in Orlando. As the year winds down, we see the Buckys coming to terms with the fleeting and anonymous nature of their celebrity. “I’m 100 percent being replaced,” retiring Bucky Sky Halverson says. “People won’t talk about the Halverson years. Only the Buckys will remember you.”

The film sometimes plays like a love letter to Madison. A Milwaukee native who got a business degree from UW-Madison in 1979, Fromstein has deep ties to the university—his parents, his wife, and her parents all went there, Charlie recently graduated, and Charlie’s brother John is still a student. “I was emotionally attached to it for so long,” he says. Making the film, “it was always bothering me, ‘Am I seeing this clearly enough?’”

After school Fromstein went to work at Chicago ad agency Bayer Bess Vanderwarker, where he oversaw Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike” commercials. He left BBV in 1996 to start a series of boutique media production companies and ad agencies. In 2004 he opened Fulton Market Films (later adding Fulton Market Media for work on commercials and branded content) to produce a documentary about Western-Eastern Divan, the Spain-based orchestra that former Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Daniel Barenboim and author Edward Said founded to foster collaboration between Arab and Israeli youth. “The kids hate each other at the beginning of the month,” Fromstein says. “They love each other by the end. Some of them develop physical relationships.”

Fromstein hired documentary powerhouse Albert Maysles to shoot the film. But after six months of development the project fell apart over creative differences between Fromstein and Barenboim. “He didn’t want us there for the beginning,” Fromstein says. “He said the orchestra wouldn’t be ready. But with all due respect, maestro, it’s not about the music, it’s about the cultural clash. We could have shot what he told us, but we didn’t feel there was any drama in that.”

In 2006, a mutual friend introduced Fromstein to Smith, a fellow ad man looking to make movies. They hit it off, united by their mutual interests and “cheeseheadedness.” Both men grew up in Milwaukee’s Jewish community; both play the drums, cheer for the Packers, and like classical music and jazz. “He was like my alternative-universe brother,” Fromstein says. “His sense of humor was very familiar to me. That’s not easy to find.”

Smith had been an aspiring director and screenwriter during his years in the ad business in California and at Leo Burnett in Chicago, where he oversaw Miller Lite, McDonald’s, Hallmark, and Oldsmobile campaigns. His first short film, Ten, about a guy breaking all of the Ten Commandments in two minutes, landed him a slot as one of three finalists on HBO’s Project Greenlight in 2004. The next year he became creative director of Element 79, a Chicago agency, where he directed commercials for Cricket, Long John Silver’s, and a Frito-Lay spot that ran during Super Bowl XL. He joined Fulton Market Media in 2006.

The two started developing a fiction film, Ink, based on Charles Dickinson’s 1991 novelRumor Has It, about an editor pushed to desperate measures as his Chicago newsroom crumbles around him. Jim True-Frost (Pryzbylewski from The Wire), 2008 Tony winner Deanna Dunagan, and Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts are all on board to act in it. “It’s very relevant right now, so we’ve committed ourselves to doing it,” Fromstein says, though financing has been tough to come by.

In the meantime, Being Bucky has taken over their cinematic lives. The documentary, which Fromstein financed for “a couple hundred thousand,” premiered in April at the Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison. Tickets sold out two hours after they went on sale, and Being Bucky won the Audience Award, going on to a theatrical run at Marcus Theatres in Milwaukee, Green Bay, and Madison. The DVD is due out in June, and more screenings are in the works.

Throngs of adoring fans crowded Bucky at the Milwaukee opening, while Stubby the Ticket Stub, the Marcus Theatres mascot, stood outside the circle, ignored. “Stubby was waving his arms, trying his hardest to get noticed,” Smith says. “I was like, ‘Man, I feel so bad for you.’” Fromstein says he asked some kids, “‘Don’t you want to get your picture taken with Stubby?’” But they only wanted Bucky.   v

Being Bucky

Thu 5/28, 7 PM, Landmark’s Century Centre, 2828 N. Clark, 773-509-4949,beingbucky.com.

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