CHICAGO — On a bitterly cold night, fans line up outside the United Center almost two hours before the puck drops. They come for more than the Blackhawks game. This is bobblehead night. The first 10,000 ticket holders get a collectable, plastic doll of the captain, Jonathan Toews.
“We’re in a good line,” Phil Sklar says, digging his hands into his winter coat as he cranes his neck to glance at the arena’s glass doors. “There’s plenty of bobbleheads for the people here now.”
He should know. For Sklar, 31, collecting bobbleheads is not a hobby. It’s a career. Last fall, he quit his $110,000-a-year gig in corporate finance to focus full time on his dream. He’s working to open the first National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum in his current hometown, Milwaukee. And it’s that quest that has Sklar and childhood buddy, Brad Novak, driving 90 minutes to Chicago for a Tuesday night game against the hapless Coyotes. The pair are constantly chasing bobblehead nights, at major- and minor-league arenas. The giveaways are a major source of supply.
Sklar will keep a Toews bobblehead for the museum collection. But he has come with a stack of small bills to acquire additional bobbles from people not interested in holding on to a doll. A Toews will sell for about $15 on eBay. That money can be used to help fund the cause.
In the line outside the arena, as they wait, Beth Van Damme, a Blackhawks fan, overhears Sklar and Novak talking about their plans and can’t resist asking the obvious.
“What’s your most interesting bobblehead?”
This, in some worlds, might provide an excellent flirting opportunity. Particularly for a CEO. Not Sklar. With his ever-present half-smile — he’s often wearing that expression, as if you’ve got a dollop of mustard on your chin but he doesn’t know how to tell you — he answers quickly.
“It’s hard to pick,” says Sklar. “It’s kind of like picking a favorite kid, I guess.”
Sklar doesn’t have any children. He does have a climate-controlled storage facility for his collection, otherwise known as his two-bedroom, 1,400-square-foot condo. He lives there with Novak, 30, who quit his sales job last year to become president and co-founder of the Hall of Fame and Museum.
The place is as neat as humanly possible when you own thousands of plastic dolls. Sklar’s collection stretches beyond the typical sports heroes. There are bobblehead sausages, bobblehead dogs, even a bobblehand of Michael Jackson’s famous sequined glove. The figures cover every surface, from desktops and the living room mantle to the kitchen countertops.
Which is what leads to their mission: To find a proper home for their obsession. That might be in an existing sports venue, as Sklar has been talking to several of Milwaukee’s professional sports teams. They could also work out a spot inside another property. Sklar has grown friendly with Jim Haertel, the owner of the former Pabst Brewery headquarters. That’s a possibility.
Early next year, RedLine Milwaukee, a gallery and art incubator, will feature the first exhibition of the museum’s collection. Tourism officials are also supportive.
“We have a world-class art museum, the only Harley- Davidson museum in the world, and this is a perfect opportunity for the city,” says Dave Larson, the director of convention services for Visit Milwaukee.
As a boy, Sklar collected Matchbox cars. He didn’t push them across the kitchen floor or roll them over homemade jumps. The cars were lined up, neatly and in pristine condition. Next, he collected baseball cards and eventually, Beanie Babies.
Jodi Sklar remembers Saturday mornings hauling Phil and his younger sister, Meagan, out of the house to a gift store in Rockford, Ill., in search of Beanies.
“Sometimes we’d stand for hours,” she says. “Sometimes it was cold. Sometimes it was very hot. A lot of times we would leave one store and go to another one.”
Some mothers would worry when a son, sporting an MBA from Northwestern University, walks away from a high paying job with benefits to fill his home with slightly creepy plastic dolls with oversized heads. Not Sklar.
“Of course I was concerned, financially, but at the same time, you want your son to be happy and do something he feels passionate about,” she says. “He never complained about his job, but when you asked him, he didn’t elaborate. There just wasn’t, you could tell, a joy.”
There were no hard feelings at Actuant Corporation when Sklar gave notice. In fact, the day he left last October, his boss presented a going away bobblehead of legendary Brewers star Robin Yount.
“They knew the job wasn’t something I was super excited about,” says Sklar. “You’re sitting at a desk all day, you’re not interacting as much. I like creating things.”
He’s saying this from a church basement on a Sunday morning. The basement is packed with men scouring tables covered in cardboard cards, some dating back a century. There are also hundreds of bobbleheads, ranging from a relatively rare, ceramic Milwaukee Braves model from the 1960s to rows of modern-day players.
Bobbleheads have been around for decades and some of the older ones, those depicting the Beatles, for example, can go for thousands. The modern era of bobbleheaded mass production is generally marked by a 1999 San Francisco Giants giveaway of Willie Mays dolls. Success Promotions, the St. Louis-based company Sklar works with, has watched its business grow dramatically since opening in 1998. Today, the company has $2 million of annual revenue from the approximately 600,000 of bobbles it sells through more than 250 professional and collegiate teams.
At the card show, Sklar works the table. He is both networking for the museum and working out a business strategy.
Right now, he and Novak are getting by, in part, on the 600 people who have signed up to become members since November. Long term, they aim to add revenue from admission fees and special runs of bobbleheads.
He and Novak show off two examples they’ve produced.
There is “Lucky Beard Guy,” the communications technician who became a local folk hero when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers tugged his nine-inch-long facial growth during a game last season. There is also Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers. He’s a Chicago Cubs superfan. Sklar went so far as to have Wickers record his distinctive voice for the doll.
The math is simple. The bobbleheads cost $5 a piece to make. Sklar and Novak donate $1 per sale to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and an undisclosed licensing fee to Wickers. The Ronnie “Woo Woo” goes for $20. Sell enough, you make money. Order too many, you’ve got a garage full of Ronnie “Woo Woos.” So far, only 1,500 of the 5,000 have sold.
“We probably made too many,” Novak says, “That was a learning experience.”
Sklar and Novak are buddies from childhood, having gone to the same middle school. But they have different roles. Novak, the president, is the silent partner, as in, he doesn’t speak much. Sklar, the chief executive, seeks coverage from newspapers and television outlets. Novak is uncomfortable in interviews and often scrambles out of frame when he spots a camera.
Even if Sklar is the talker, he’s no big mouth. When he speaks, he often looks away with that half-smile. He is persistent, though, particularly with e-mail, approaching anybody and everybody if it can help the cause. He also has a dry sense of humor.
Earlier this year, Sklar sent out a press release announcing that Pete Rose, famously banned by Major League Baseball, would be considered for the Bobblehead Hall of Fame. It wouldn’t take the commissioner’s approval. The case would be settled with a public, Internet poll.
“We have found no evidence of any wrongdoing by any of the Pete Rose bobbleheads,” Sklar wrote, announcing the vote, which continues through the upcoming baseball season.
“He’s just one of those Midwestern people,” says Jim Lindenberg, the owner of a sports memorabilia company, Legends of the Field, and a potential investor in the museum. “He’s low key, yet he’s persistent. He’s sneaky that way where he’s calling a lot, e-mailing a lot, making a lot of these great contacts and getting people excited about the bobbleheads.”
As for the museum idea, Lindenberg says it makes perfect sense.
“In Milwaukee, we like our beer, we like our cheese and we like our bobbleheads,” he said.
Game night in Chicago, Sklar and Novak enter the arena and collect their bobbleheads. Then the work begins. At least for Sklar. Novak keeps his distance, holding a plastic bag with their bobbleheads. He’s uncomfortable, he admits, approaching strangers with cash to suggest they part with their Toews dolls.
Sklar has no such reservations. He wanders the lobby, whispering to people passing by.
“Anybody want to get rid of their bobblehead?”
“Beer money? Five bucks? Ten bucks?”
This is a tough crowd, he concedes.
“Blackhawks fans are much more into their bobbleheads,” he says. “They like their team.”
There’s also competition. A man in a hoodie has been offering $15 a bobble. Clearly, this man is not working for a museum. He’s also hostile. When a cameraman stops to take his picture, he cusses at him.
When the puck drops to start the game, Sklar and Novak are sitting in their seats. They’ve got a half-dozen bobbleheads, the two they got by walking in the door, four others acquired in the lobby. The game is a laugher, with the Blackhawks beating the Coyotes 6-1.
When it’s over, Sklar and Novak head out into the cold night. It’s late, but they’re not tired. Because the founders of the world’s first bobblehead museum know that somewhere, sometime soon, there’s going to be another bobblehead night, and they’ll be there.