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11 Awesomely Unexpected Things in St. Louis’s City Museum

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It’s hard to describe St. Louis’s City Museum to people who haven’t been there, but calling it a giant playground is a good place to start. The 600,000 square foot building, formerly home to the International Shoe Factory, was purchased in 1995 by Bob Cassilly (who died last year while creating a new, similarly whimsical tourist attraction, Cementland). The classically-trained sculptor set out to make a funhouse for young and old out of unique, reclaimed objects found within the city’s municipal borders. Today, the museum accepts things from all over. “As we have grown we have had greater opportunities presented to us of stuff from outside St. Louis,” says museum director Rick Erwin III. “If you have something cool you want to give us, I’m not going to say no just because it’s not from St. Louis. Cool stuff is cool stuff.”

The museum space is based on repetition, solid lines, curves, and colors. "People will call and say, 'Hey, do you want a vacuum cleaner?'" Erwin says. "I'll say, 'No. Do you have a thousand vacuum cleaners? I'll take that. I want a lot of stuff!'" They hate dead ends and columns, and built a full-scale bowhead whale for their first floor. Because the museum is constantly finding things and accepting donations, the space is always growing and changing. The newest space is a series of tunnels underneath the building, a giant indoor treehouse, and a slide that goes into the museum's pump room. Erwin calls it "The Fungeon."

The collection includes cranes, old bridges, a human-sized hamster wheel, vintage opera posters, a room of preserved insects, a bank vault, a fish tank full of turtles (and one very friendly 39-pound catfish), and at least one alien dressed like Elvis in a coffin—all accessible via stairs, elevator, tunnel, or slide. (The museum also houses an aquarium and an old-fashioned shoelace-making facility.) "It was all Bob's idea," Erwin says. "People think I made him up." A sign outside reads: “The City Museum is full of creativity, adventure, and learning … and is fraught with DANGER. Enter at your own risk!”

So basically, it’s the coolest—and most entertaining—place on Earth. Here are just 11 of the many awesome things you’ll find at the City Museum.

1. The 10-Story Slide

The International Shoe Company didn’t have freight elevators, so workers sent shoes to different floors on chutes. “Workers would stop the shoes when they saw their size, switch shoes and then send their old shoes down,” Erwin says. Cassilly and company converted the chutes into a dizzyingly fun spiral slide that deposits visitors in the museum’s caves. (There's also a 5-story slide.)

2. Two Planes

“The story goes that we purchased them after the flood of 1993,” Erwin says. “One of them belonged to Wayne Newton.” Now, the planes are part of the museum's MonstroCity; visitors can crawl through a series of wire tubes and explore the interior of the planes.

3. Big Eli

This 30-foot-high Ferris wheel, which was manufactured in 1940, was found in a barn. "It used to be on a flatbed, so it's actually safer up here," Erwin says. Before it was put on the roof, it was fully restored.

4. A School Bus

To create the museum's exhibits, a team of artisans will often cut through the building’s floors or hoist objects up the side of the building—sometimes without permits, as they did with this school bus, donated by the Roxana School District, that overhangs the roof. "You can actually make it bounce," Erwin says. "It's on hydraulics. We spent a lot of money proving that it's safe." Also on top of the building: a giant praying mantis sculpture created by Cassilly; a pair of Beluga whale sculptures placed to look like they’re swimming; a dome with a rope swing; and a splash pond. (There were plans to put a water park on the roof—including a slide down the side of the building—but unfortunately the building couldn’t support the weight of the water.) Everything is constructed by the in-house team.

5. The World’s Largest Pencil …

This 76-plus foot, 21,500 pound No. 2 pencil was made and donated by Ashrita Furman, who is currently the world record holder of the most world records. It contains 4000 pounds of graphite and is the equivalent of 1,900,000 regular pencils. If you could lift it, you could write with it—and its 250 pound rubber eraser can do its job, too. "It took a crane to get this into the building," Erwin says. "It was in two pieces."

6. … And The Largest Pair of Underpants

These 7-foot-tall tighty-whiteys once went missing from the museum’s walls. "They just disappeared one day," Erwin says. "We vowed that we would go commando until they showed up." They reappeared 3.5 weeks later, freshly laundered.

7. Fiberglass

Those things that look like icicles hanging from the City’s first floor ceiling? It’s actually fiberglass donated by Boeing. "It's the same stuff you wrap around the outside of an airplane," Erwin says.

8. Cooling Tube

This cooling tube, located on the museums's first floor, came from St. Louis-based brewery Anheuser-Busch. "It used to be inside the beer [tank], to keep the beer cold," Erwin says. Now, visitors can climb up it to other floors of the museum.

9. The Puking Pig


This is a boiler expansion tank, with the face of a pig, that’s bolted to the back end of a 1899 fire truck. Every 90 seconds, the tank fills with water and tips—which makes the pig look like it’s puking.

10. Pipe Organ

This organ was built in 1924 for the Rivoli Theater in New York City. It's been fully restored and is now operated with an electronic console.

11. Cross

This cross came from the east wing of the Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis. That's where, in the 1940s, the exorcism that inspired the novel and film The Exorcist took place. "The story goes that during the exorcism, the cross was struck by lightning," Erwin says. "This became very famous in the last year or so. People want to sleep under it. It's a little weird."

BONUS! Stuff they have that’s not on display … yet.

The Museum is constantly expanding and tweaking its space as it gets new stuff. Currently, the world's largest tennis racket—also built by Furman, it measures 50 feet, 3.01 inches long by 16 feet, 8.6 inches wide—is sitting in storage, just waiting for a place in the museum. And there's more: Various cast iron store fronts from St. Louis, thousands of glass bottles, 50,000 paver bricks, a merry-go-round, an airplane, neon signs, corbels from Chicago Union Passenger Depot, and, says Erwin, "so much terra cotta that we could build an addition."

Have you been to the City Museum? If so, what's your favorite part? What cool treasures did we leave out?

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
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Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
iStock

If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
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If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
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While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
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Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
iStock

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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