Sunday, May 26, 2024

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Guest Commentary

Saving Floppy: a real dog fight


Since the scandal broke, the story has been on TV, radio and all over social media. The decision was apparently made by someone high in rank within the bureaucracy. Within an hour after the leak, the news quickly spread via social media. Apparently those responsible actually thought they could bury the story under all the other latter-day scandals like IRS abuses, the Benghazi attack and NSA snooping, but the Historical Society soon realized “Floppy” fans have a nose for news. From Prague to Bangkok, and everywhere in between, the refrain is the same: “Where’s Floppy?”

In 1957, the fertile mind of Duane Ellett created a character from some balsa wood and a bit of material. Carving a wooden dog was the easy part. But giving it soul and personality is what made this dog every kid’s best friend. Floppy was quick-witted, charming, self-effacing and had a great sense of humor. For about 30 years, Duane and Floppy entertained generations of boomer brats on TV and in person. A shot at telling Floppy a joke and beeping his nose was like winning the lottery for the lucky kid who got the chance. School children rushed home to see Duane and Floppy at 3:30 pm. Some even feigned illness to watch the S.S. Popeye starring Floppy at the noon hour. Floppy was an integral part of tens of thousands of central Iowa children’s lives. He was also a favorite at the Iowa State Fair.

Duane Ellett died suddenly of heart attack in 1987, and with him went the soul of Floppy and the rest of Ellett’s characters. In 1994, the Ellett family donated Ellett’s puppets (yes, as much as we all hate to admit it, Floppy was actually a puppet) to the Iowa Historical Society. A display was created and has consistently been the museum’s most popular exhibit. The museum’s gift shop exclusively sold the only authorized Floppy shirts and memorabilia, and those products have been an excellent revenue source for the Historical Society for decades.

In December of 2009, the first of two “Floppy Film Festivals” was held at the Historical Museum. A thousand people showed up for the four shows. Since there were no tickets offered prior to the show, people lined up to get in. Those who failed to get tickets waited for the next show. In 2010, the story was the same. The film festival was a wildly successful by every measure. Naturally, any organization enjoying that kind of response would jump at the chance for the next festival. Any organization other than the Historical Society. They cancelled further festivals. Then in November of last year, the Historical Society shut down the gift shop with little notice — the gift shop that had raised tens of thousands of dollars over the years selling “Floppy” memorabilia.

At about noon on June 4, the Historical Society demonstrated the same astute marketing prowess. An email was unceremoniously circulated to the staff declaring that the Floppy exhibit would be removed and replaced with John Karras’ bicycle. Karras was one of the folks who originally started the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Though the actual RAGBRAI exhibit will be located on the second floor of the museum, the decision was made to remove the Floppy exhibit. The email made no mention of “restoration” or the return of the exhibit. Thanks to social media, news travels fast. By 1 p.m., a “Save Floppy” Facebook group was started (by yours truly).

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Wednesday, the conventional media had picked up the story. By the time Andy Fales did his TV segment Wednesday evening, the “Save Floppy” Facebook group had more than 3,900 members. Friday, on “Iowa Press,” Gov. Branstad indicated Floppy would be “back by popular demand.” The group now has about 5,000 members and is growing. Floppy Nation has gone global, with members from Prague to Singapore, Round Rock, Texas to Alpine, Wyo., L.A. to Long Island and Seattle to Miami.

Fales also interviewed self-described “museum professional” Leo Landis. He is the museum curator. It was Landis who said, “It wasn’t a cavalier decision we made.” Landis’ name wasn’t on the email that circulated, so he may just be the Historical Society’s Susan Rice. If so, he’ll no doubt be up for promotion.

Perhaps Floppy is a bit too lowbrow for Mary Cownie, the Director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. It’s clear to thousands of taxpaying baby-boomers Floppy had a very positive influence in their lives. It’s hard to imagine a more wholesome and innocent character than Duane Ellett’s beloved Floppy, qualities that are practically extinct from our current culture. It’s also hard to imagine a more tone-deaf group than the decision-makers at the Historical Society. It’s eerily similar to the State Fair Board’s decision to destroy the 160 year-old homestead at the fairgrounds last year without any public dialogue. In fact many people are now questioning the entire philosophy and operation of the Historical Museum. The oldest thing in the massive, vacant atrium is the friendly volunteer who greets you. Is it really a museum or just a safety deposit box that rat-holes donated state treasures in an underground lair?

One thing is clear: Floppy still lives in the hearts of tens of thousands of fans, and they will they not rest until it is known when they can see their old friend again. CV

Kent Carlson is a native Iowa artist interested in the preserving Iowa’s architectural heritage and the common sense of its leaders. And he writes a few columns for Cityview, too.

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