The Lope: Something Sober This Way Comes

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Something Sober This Way Comes

"He loves you and he just wants to save you from evil things" I hear the nice little old lady tell a nearby child who shrinks back from the jittery gaze of the mechanical man.

I don't blame the kid. Had I not been raised on "The Twilight Zone" I'd make myself scarce, too.

The days grow shorter and dusk spreads like an ink blot. Why, just last night, darkness came an hour earlier. The 2006 Kansas State Fair was over last month, but I've saved this for these days when spooky things are meant to come to the fore. Ladies and Gentleman, huddle close together for I present to you the dark jewel of the Kansas State Fair: the Women's Christian Temperance Union's mechanical man.

This is no static display model. In staccato motions, he turns his head, shifts his eyes, raises and lowers his eyebrows, moves one arm to ring a bell, the other to point to a book and most spookily of all, his cracked latex lip quivers. The lighting is terrible in the WCTU's location under the grandstands of the fairgrounds so I used a flashlight, which had the added bonus of enhancing the mood.

See him ring his bell in the above video.

The mechanical man is the property of the Kansas chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which refers to it as their "little man". They've brought it to the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson for 71 years as the attention-getter for their booth.

The WCTU was formed in 1874 to combat the influence of alcohol on families and society. They have lost a few battles, such as their attempt to counteract the campaign for repeal of the 18th Amendment (Prohibition), but they were influential in the fight for women's rights, a fact they really should play up more.

Currently, the WCTU promotes abstinence from drugs and alcohol and the Kansas chapter employs their little man to give the message. He wants abstinence, and he makes his points by turning the laminated pages of a book, pieced together largely from pictures cut out of magazines. The effect is charmingly reminiscent of the old Reefer Madness genre of films.

Here's a movie of the book.

He was made by the Character Display Company of Chicago; according to the WCTU, they bought him in 1935 for $155 - no small sum back then. However, at 71 straight years of usage at the Kansas State Fair alone, I'd say they got their money's worth. They actually have two of the things; I've seen the other and it's recent-era replacement grey suit lacks the pizaz of the red suited regular "little man."

The WCTU exhibit at the Kansas State Fair challenges people to walk a straight line while wearing these distance-distorting glasses. Its pretty convincing and its fun to watch people wobble and hesitate as they try. It actually strikes me as a bit dangerous on a concrete floor, but I'm glad they ignore the prevailing wisdom of avoiding anything that could cause a lawsuit. Better that a kid stumbles a little under the grandstands at the age of ten than wraps his car around a tree at the age of 16. Oh my, listen to me; the mechanical man has won another convert.

Ace Jackalope has found something I'd never seen before at this particular booth - a person under 30.

While the "little man" works the Kansas beat, others of his kind proselytize in other states. Like tracking down the names and locations of the five wizards in Lord of the Rings, some are known and some aren't. "Charlie" or "Dr. Wise" he is called at the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute in Indiana. They acquired him as a gift in 2001. That's right, there are more of them out there. Sleep well, my friends; and Happy Halloween Eve.


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