Inside the world’s largest bobblehead collection

IT’S A LONG, CREAKY walk up 30 wooden stairs to get to bobblehead heaven. But there’s something fitting about breathing hard and feeling a little wobbly yourself when the doors of the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum open up and 10,500 joyous ceramic figures sit waiting to wiggle.

The museum is nestled into a corner of downtown Milwaukee within a few Giannis Antetokounmpo full-court heaves of the Bucks’ home court. For a flat fee of $5, regardless of age, patrons can wander into the world’s largest collection of bobbleheads.

It feels like the most glorious place on earth. The bobbleheads live on meticulously ordered shelves, lined up a few deep, row after row. There are displays that you can walk past five times and still notice a different little creature staring at you on each pass. Very few are tucked away behind protective cases, so Katherine Lord, the museum’s director of operations, greets most visitors with a smile, a scavenger hunt challenge sheet and a gentle request not to touch the bobbleheads.

It’s hard to resist, though: They’re all so happy sitting there right in front of your face, and the feeling becomes mutual in a hurry.

All of the obvious sports figures are represented: LeBron James, Patrick Mahomes, Mike Trout, Giannis, Aaron Rodgers … so many of Aaron Rodgers. There’s one of him in home Green Bay Packers gear, one in away gear, and even one of him as a “Jeopardy!” host. At some point soon, begrudgingly, they will add an Aaron Rodgers in New York Jets gear, and the locals will let out a sigh and hope Jordan Love ends up with a bunch of bobbleheads, too.

There are treats around every corner. On a walk-through, Phil Sklar, one of the museum’s co-founders, points at bobbleheads of the cast of “Better Call Saul” and says many people are stunned to learn that more than half of the collection consists of non-sports bobbleheads. Then he works his way through a series of displays that outline a surprisingly lengthy history of the bobblehead, which goes back centuries to Chinese nodding dolls.

But that’s the official origin story of the bobblehead figurine. There’s an unofficial version, too. As Sklar walks around the museum on a muggy Milwaukee afternoon in August, he points to a large photo on the wall. “That one right there,” he says, “is the real story of how it all began.”

Over the next five minutes, he tells an unlikely origin story of the idea of this museum, a story that traces back 20 years to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee cafeteria, to a single act of kindness from an unexpected godfather of modern bobbleheads: Auburn men’s hoops coach Bruce Pearl.

PEARL WAS NEW to Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the late summer of 2001 when he sat down for breakfast one morning. He noticed that one of the cafeteria workers, a 27-year-old who is intellectually disabled named Michael Poll, wouldn’t stop talking to students.

Packers, Brewers, UWM sports, more Packers… Poll would clean for 10 seconds and do impromptu sports radio for the next 10 minutes. It was a recipe for getting fired. “As a coach, my job is to put people in positions to be successful,” Pearl says. “This was not a job that Michael was going to be successful in.”

On some days, Poll would have a job coach there to shut down the radio show and steer him back toward clearing off and wiping down tables. On other days, Poll would be by himself and not much cleaning would happen. “That wasn’t the best job for me,” Poll says.

But Pearl saw something in Poll. He struggles for words to pinpoint exactly how to describe it. You know those people who are the opposite of a Debbie Downer? People so present, so ecstatic to be alive that it infects you in the best possible way? Poll was something like that for Pearl. He introduced himself to Poll, and Poll immediately had 38 questions and comments about the men’s hoops team.

They hit it off right away, and Pearl had an idea. Maybe Poll could channel all that exuberance, all that energy, into being a team manager on his upstart Panthers basketball team? His job coach there could be Bruce Pearl.

Pearl called Poll’s parents, Connie and Larry, and asked whether they’d be willing to let Michael be a part of his college basketball team. They didn’t answer for a few seconds, but it wasn’t because they had a tough decision to make. Michael had been born with brain atrophy, and doctors thought he might never walk or talk. His fine motor skills, even now, aren’t great, so he struggles to write or pick up small objects.

They had spent their whole lives worrying about Michael, about trying to help him find a place where he’d be valued, a place where he’d find value for himself. And here it was on the other end of the line, from a well-known college basketball coach. They both fell apart. The answer was yes.

Poll began his job as a team manager later that week and quickly became a fixture of the program. Pearl loved his energy and passion for the team, and he often would introduce Poll to his players as an example of someone living 100 percent in a place of gratitude, of relishing his role in a way any of us could learn from.

He thought that had a profound effect on, say, a point guard who wanted to score more than run the offense, or the sixth man who thought he should start. “When Michael Poll is around, you’re better,” Pearl says. “Everybody is better.”

At one of Michael Poll’s first home games, his parents sat anxiously watching as he came out with Pearl and the team. Pearl stood up from the bench right before the game was about to begin, and he high-fived every player on the team. Then he worked his way down the front row of fans at courtside.

As the Polls watched, they noticed someone trailing behind Pearl, matching every high-five that he handed out. It was Michael, and that moment became one of the most beautiful things they had ever seen. They looked at each other and thought of how a doctor once told them, “You’re not going to have to worry about him — his personality will carry him through.” They had never believed it until that moment.

About a year later, in the fall of 2002, two lifelong friends — Phil Sklar and Brad Novak — enrolled at UWM and started hitting basketball games. They loved the atmosphere, and the team was good under Pearl. Within the first few games they attended, they noticed the way Pearl and Poll rallied the team. “You can’t miss Michael,” Novak says. “He’s always running around, cheering, being Michael.”

They found themselves as captivated as Pearl had been, and they introduced themselves to Michael and his parents, which led to them meeting Pearl, too. Over the next few years, they also became members of Team Michael Poll, and the bandwagon just kept filling up. Poll began working as an unpaid manager for other UWM teams and often threw out the first pitch at the baseball team’s games. He eventually became such a presence that Milwaukee had a “Michael Poll Day” across the entire city, and the Brewers had him throw out the first pitch at a home game once.

In the summer of 2002, Novak took a PR internship with the Rockford RiverHawks minor league baseball team. Part of his job involved handling Bobblehead Day, and the fervor of fans that day around this strange piece of memorabilia swept him up. Kids loved them. Adults loved them. Players loved them. He loved them. A seed was planted in his mind.

Over the next few years, Pearl and Poll got closer and closer, and eventually, Poll found himself working with other sports teams, too. Michael’s parents had gotten comfortable dropping him off on campus, especially knowing that Pearl, Novak and Sklar were nearby in case Michael needed anything. “They just became close and…” Larry says. His voice trails off and he looks away. “Sorry, it gets me emotional. It changed his life.” He takes another long pause. “It changed all of our lives.”

And then one day in 2005, Pearl called Poll and his parents with devastating news: He had taken the Tennessee job. They had known it would eventually happen — Pearl had won two Horizon Conference titles in the 2001-05 span, and in his last season, UWM romped past Alabama and Boston College to get to the Sweet 16. He was that year’s hot coaching candidate.

When Michael Poll found out, he went down into the family’s basement by himself. “I cried a lot,” he says. “I kept saying, ‘I can’t believe he’s leaving me.'”

Pearl felt pangs when he left, for sure, but he also believed Poll was in good hands with Novak and Sklar — “the bobblehead guys,” as he lovingly calls them. During a 25-minute Zoom, Pearl throws out “the bobblehead guys” or “the two bobblehead guys” as shorthand for Novak and Sklar seven times.

The two bobblehead guys started playing tennis and other sports with Poll and hanging out with the family as they moved out of college and into the professional ranks. By 2012, Novak and Sklar were working full time in the Milwaukee area and hanging out with the Polls when they could on the weekend. They’d had a long-running quest to get to every MLB stadium, and they noticed how often they’d get to a new town and find that bobbleheads were being given away.

The next time they were at a UWM men’s basketball game, both of them had a thought: Why not make a bobblehead of Michael Poll? Sklar went to the school with the idea of producing 500. The athletic department expressed interest but didn’t have the budget. So Sklar explored for the first time how to make a bobblehead himself. He could only find a place that would make a minimum of 1,000 of them, so he went for it.

He still remembers being in his office, working as an assistant finance director for a $500 million company that manufactures heavy machinery, when he got the call that a giant skid full of bobbling Michael Polls was at his house. He’ll never forget the thrill of looking at 1,000 bobbleheads all boxed up there, just waiting to bring joy to others. “It was such a cool feeling, and now, we get to have that feeling all the time,” Sklar says.

For the next six months, he and Novak sold the bobbleheads online and occasionally at sporting events on campus. They were $25 a piece, with $5 going to Special Olympics in Poll’s name. They didn’t sell all 1,000, but they came close. Novak put together a news release and was surprised at how many media outlets responded. That was the moment they realized there was an entire bobblehead economy.

The next spring, Sklar and Novak noticed that their collection had swelled past 1,000 bobbleheads, and Sklar’s imagination began to run wild. He and Novak had started occasionally joking around about just quitting their jobs and trying to get into bobbleheads as a full-time business. But bobbleheads as a profession? Come on.

Just for the heck of it, Sklar put together a business plan for a museum, in which he laid out a vision for a shrine to the history of bobbleheads. Sklar came up with a genius twist on a traditional Hall of Fame, though: He thought maybe they could honor bobblehead history while also manufacturing and selling the dolls themselves, just like they had with Poll. So their museum would have revenue from visitors and merchandise and could reach partnerships with athletes, teams and leagues to produce them, too.

The plan was impressive. But every time he bounced it off Novak, they’d laugh at the ridiculousness of it. They were realists, and Sklar especially thought it felt like a terrible idea to quit his six-figure job and try to build a temple to toys. Who would ever do that?

Six weeks later, he handed in his two weeks’ notice.

THE MUSEUM BEGAN MODESTLY. Novak and Sklar quit their jobs in October 2014. They started soliciting donations of bobbleheads for the museum, while simultaneously building out an operation to create and sell bobbleheads.

They didn’t find a physical location in Milwaukee until 2017. By that point, they had procured all the essential historical bobbleheads — there had been a 1960s MLB series of papier-mâché bobblehead dolls, and the San Francisco Giants offered a Willie Mays bobblehead giveaway in 1999 that officially launched the modern craze. Then Novak and Sklar started producing their own bobbleheads. Sklar’s pitch to kick back a significant chunk of money to an athlete’s or team’s favorite cause, usually 20% of sales, often sealed the deal.

Novak located a reliable place in China to manufacture the dolls and booked a warehouse and shipping center in Milwaukee that served as their central hub. They gradually refined the process to the point where a bobblehead picture and preorder option could go up on the museum website about an hour after an event happens.

One of their greatest quick-turn successes was in 2018 when Sister Jean went viral during Loyola’s Final Four run. Within 48 hours, with Sister Jean’s approval, they had sold a bobblehead of her in all 50 states, with a record 40,000 buys when all was said and done. “I think the bobblehead guys can retire off their sales,” she said during a news conference.

Maybe their favorite part of being “the bobblehead guys” is that they can make a bobblehead just for the hell of it. Behind the front desk at the top of the steps sits a collection of bobbleheads of all the museum staff members. They recently got interested in the Savannah Bananas, an independent baseball team, and voilà, the Bananas line is coming soon. Novak and Sklar are also considering a more robust custom bobblehead offering — it’s entirely possible that in the near future, for a premium price, you could get 10 bobbleheads of Grandpa and Grandma for the next family reunion.

When asked his favorite bobblehead backstory, Sklar first cites Michael Poll — that was the spark for this entire wild ride, after all. But then he tells a fun anecdote about a series of “Home Alone” bobbleheads they made. Sklar grew up near Chicago and always loved the movie. Since nobody had made a “Home Alone” bobblehead, he took it on as a personal passion project. He negotiated with the movie studio and eventually got sign-off to make ones of Kevin, Harry, Marv and the tarantula.

The kicker to that story is that one day, he and Novak were working in the museum when they heard someone creak their way up the steps and approach the front desk. Their office isn’t visible from the floor of the museum, but they like to sit just a thin wall away, where they still revel in every “Oh my gosh” from visitors.

On that day, they heard a man say, “Hi, Macaulay Culkin is downstairs. Is it OK if he comes up and takes some videos and photos?” Their ears perked up. But what were the chances that Macaulay Culkin was actually standing outside their bobblehead museum?

Pretty good, it turns out. Culkin was standing outside their museum. He came in and shot some videos that he posted on his social media channels, and Novak and Sklar hustled out to meet their first celebrity visitor. They took pictures with him, and Culkin explained his visit by saying he loved the series they had done. “Every holiday season, I put my ‘Home Alone’ bobblehead out on my mantel,” he told Novak and Sklar.

By early 2020, the museum had gotten to north of 5,000 bobbleheads. At one point, an Ohio man named “Bobblehead Bob” Manak died and willed his entire collection of 1,500 to the museum. The manufacturing arm of the business was able to produce a few hundred different new bobbleheads every year, and Sklar and Novak had a reputation that made collaborating with big leagues, teams and athletes easier than ever. Business was booming.

Then COVID-19 happened.

THE STATE OF WISCONSIN first alerted all small businesses in March 2020 that they’d need to shut down for seven days. Then it was a month, and then two months, and pretty soon, Sklar and Novak realized the museum portion of their business wasn’t opening any time soon. All told, they had to keep it closed for almost 15 months.

Museums and halls of fame were among the hardest-hit businesses in the world during the pandemic because there’s no way to DoorDash or digitize the magnificence of paintings or dinosaur bones or Super Bowl jerseys or bobbleheads. The International Council of Museums found that nearly 100% of museums were significantly affected during 2020-21, and about 1 in 25 permanently closed in the aftermath of the pandemic.

For Novak and Sklar, they lost all in-person business from what was a solid all-around operation. Attendance at the museum was about 10,000 people per year, which, at $5 per person, was enough to keep the lights on. It also put a huge dent in the upselling potential — memberships, bobbleheads, hats and shirts, for example — for each person who came up those rickety steps.

With sports shut down and the museum locked up, Sklar struggled to figure out ways to keep the business afloat. They got some state money, and online business was solid but not enough to break even. Sklar manages most of the finances for the museum and was tasked with figuring out some other ways to keep revenue coming in and the staff of nine employees working.

That’s when a wildly unanticipated savior emerged. On Jan. 23, 2021, Inauguration Day for President Joe Biden, one of the museum’s employees reached out to Novak and Sklar with an urgent message.

“We have to do a bobblehead of Bernie,” she said.

“Bernie Brewer?” Sklar asked.

“No, Bernie Sanders,” she replied.

She had immediately recognized the power of the Bernie inauguration memes, with the Vermont senator seated with a mask on his face, his legs crossed and mittens on his hands. Novak and Sklar scrambled, and within two hours, there was a picture of a bobblehead prototype of Sanders available for purchase, with a chunk of money to go to first responders during the pandemic.

The Sanders bobblehead eventually came close to beating Sister Jean as the best-selling item they had ever produced, with almost 40,000 sold at $25 apiece. But even bigger than that, Novak and Sklar saw a temporary path forward for the museum. With the sports world locked down, certain public figures — politicians, especially — were exploding into the American consciousness. And most public figures do not require approval to make something using their likeness. So they started thinking long and hard as a fleet of government officials went viral during the pandemic.

When Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings became a thing, the museum sold thousands of bobbleheads of the New York governor sitting at a news conference table. Then they started producing bobbleheads of Cuomo’s ASL interpreter, Arkady Belozovsky, which again sold a few thousand. Kentucky governor Andy Beshear’s ASL interpreter, Virginia Moore, actually supplanted Belozovsky within a few weeks, with almost 10,000 bobbleheads bought.

But all of those didn’t even come close to what happened when the museum started offering a bobblehead of Dr. Anthony Fauci. As is the case with so many government officials, Sklar and Novak aren’t sure whether people bought Fauci because he is revered or despised, or both. They try to play it down the middle because, for the love of all that is holy, when bobbleheads become politicized, we are all doomed.

Either way, Fauci sold almost 60,000 bobbleheads, again with some proceeds going to first responders. “That might be the best-selling bobblehead of any kind ever produced,” Sklar says.

If Fauci is divisive, it’s nothing compared to a shelf 10 feet away from his bobbleheads. Novak and Sklar labeled it “Controversial Bobbleheads,” and whoo boy, that’s an understatement. There are racially insensitive figures, canceled sports stars and a slew of other uncomfortable figures. There’s a binder featured prominently nearby that was produced by Ferris State’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery that addresses the vast history — and it is vast — of racist dolls, books and bobbleheads. “We don’t want to hide history,” Sklar says. “Those can be educational.”

There are even some bobbleheads so bothersome they cannot be displayed and are kept in the basement, which Sklar calls “The Bobblehead Hall of Shame.” Those include a series of 13 well-known serial killers, and the museum staff has to routinely compare its shelves with news headlines.

Sklar turns around from the controversial section and goes to the back wall of the museum, which is surrounded by windows that look out over the city. On this day, sunshine pours in as he shows one of his favorite spots in the whole museum. Within a few feet of a display honoring Poll and the significance of his bobblehead, he has two large spaces with a sea of Post-it notes. One asks visitors for their favorite bobblehead doll, and the other offers people a chance to make bobblehead suggestions. Maybe there is another Michael Poll out there, waiting to be bobble-headed.

This is the land of bobblehead opportunity, flooded by sunlight. In this spot, the majesty and hope of these goofy little shaky-headed figurines feel more alive than ever. People overwhelm both boards with their thoughts, and Novak and Sklar love just drifting back there and seeing what the public imagination has come up with.

Votes for favorite bobbleheads are typically hometown-specific; Sklar thinks about 40% of their annual visitors are from the greater Milwaukee area, which means Brewers, Packers, Bucks and Bears fans dominate that board with their picks.

On this day, though, the other board of Post-its is overrun with suggestions to make a bobblehead of the breakout rookie star of MLB, Elly De La Cruz. But there are quite a few new votes for Pink, who had performed that week in Milwaukee to rave reviews. And it’s hard to miss a prominent vote in the middle of the board that responded to “Who should have their own bobblehead?” by simply writing, “Your mom.”

Sklar chuckles and crumples up the joke. “Somebody always writes that,” he says. It’s a funny suggestion, but one that belongs in the basement, not the sunlight on the second floor.

ON A RECENT ZOOM, Pearl hops on and then immediately stands up from behind his computer. He wanders off into the background of his office and starts shuffling through trophies, plaques and other memorabilia on his shelves. He wants to find his Michael Poll bobblehead doll. “It’s in here somewhere,” he says before giving up.

He sits back down and says, “Can I tell you a quick story about how I met Michael and the bobblehead guys?” He starts talking for about 10 minutes straight. But then he gets aggravated when he gets to the moment that he first saw the Michael Poll bobblehead. He stands up and starts walking around his office again.

After 30 seconds, Pearl returns. “I’m almost embarrassed that I can’t find it. It’s in here somewhere,” he says.

He tells a story about last year’s Final Four instead. Pearl usually goes to mingle and hang out if Auburn gets eliminated, as was the case this year when the Tigers were bounced in the second round. Novak and Sklar usually go, too, and they always try to catch Pearl for a few minutes. This year, they had a special surprise guest with them: Michael Poll.

Pearl couldn’t wait to see the whole gang. He felt so grateful for the way that Novak and Sklar have filled the void over the years since he left Milwaukee. “I can’t say enough good things about the bobblehead guys,” he says.

He had sent them his schedule for the entire weekend and hoped they’d cross paths. And sure enough, on Saturday morning, he wrapped up a coaching seminar and heard a familiar voice yell, “Coach Pearl!”

There stood Poll, alongside Novak and Sklar. They all hugged and talked for a few minutes. They’ve seen each other fewer and fewer times over the years, so these meetings are cherished. Pearl considers himself like an uncle to Poll, and he says Novak and Sklar are more like brothers. But at that moment, it just looked like four bobblehead guys.

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