Instead, Sklar and Novak spent their time watching Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, deliver televised public health updates. Soon they were seeing stories about merchandise — T-shirts, doughnuts, socks — bearing Fauci’s likeness. It was time, they decided, to give Fauci the “ultimate honor” of being turned into a bobblehead.
On April 1, they announced on the museum’s website that the company would produce a Fauci bobblehead (retail price $25) and donate $5 from each sale to the Protect the Heroes campaign, which supports the purchase of personal protective equipment for hospitals. Within a week, customers had preordered 20,000 of the dolls, making Fauci the most popular figurine Sklar and Novak had ever sold. They wrote the campaign a check for $100,000 and decided to make 42,020 Fauci bobbleheads — a number they projected would satisfy demand. By mid-August, the dolls had sold out.
Meanwhile, they fielded a flurry of emailed requests for bobbleheads of other prominent officials, such as White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. Typically, Sklar says, after a big game or a sports-related “viral moment,” one or two fans will email the museum suggesting it make a commemorative bobblehead. But the demand for elected and public health officials in the early days of the pandemic was different. “It was something that we had never seen before, in terms of people getting excited about their governors or their representatives,” he says.
Sklar and Novak considered immortalizing every governor in polyresin, but it was a gamble. The museum would have to order a few hundred of each to keep costs low. And people weren’t clamoring for likenesses of shutdown-averse governors like Brian Kemp of Georgia or Ron DeSantis of Florida. Had they done so, the museum would have complied, says Sklar, who describes himself as a moderate Democrat but politically neutral when it comes to the bobblehead business. “If there’s a demand for a ‘Sleepy Joe’ [Biden] bobblehead or something, we’d do it.”
The co-founders decided to make figurines of officials for whom the demand was clear, among them Birx, Cuomo, DeWine, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. By August, the museum had sold several hundred of each figurine and donated $5 per sale to charity.
Bobbleheads, which became popular in the 1960s and gained new fame as stadium giveaways in the early 2000s, are an unlikely forum for gauging political resonance. The majority of the nodding statuettes depict athletes or mascots and are prized by sports fans. The bobbleheads of the covid-19 pandemic, by contrast, belong to a tradition of political trinkets that dates to the presidential campaign of 1840, says Trevor Parry-Giles, a professor of communication at the University of Maryland at College Park, who studies political campaigns and merchandise. “It speaks to an inherent tendency in the American political culture to engage in this kind of commerce,” Parry-Giles explains. “The campaigns produce it, their opponents produce it, the culture produces all of this ephemera around the campaigns.”
Campaigns usually don’t make bobbleheads specifically because of their potential to caricature the candidates, Parry-Giles says. But the demand for independently produced political — or politicized — figures like Fauci and Cuomo makes perfect sense if you think of them like sports bobbleheads: The star players sell.
When I tell Gov. Evers that his bobblehead was created in response to consumer demand, it takes him a moment to stop laughing. Evers, a Democrat, displays his own collection of bobbleheads in his office in Madison. Milwaukee Brewers pose near former Wisconsin governor Bob La Follette and a Fauci that Evers received as a gift. “The group of governors I’m hanging out with at the museum obviously have struck a chord,” Evers says, “especially as it relates to the coronavirus and our interest in making sure that people that we serve on a daily basis are healthy. So I’m honored to be with them.”
Fauci suggests his bobblehead’s popularity says more about the public’s desire for honesty and hard facts than it does about him as a person. “As opposed to that being a bobblehead of me, Tony Fauci, it’s really a bobblehead of the symbol of a person who they trust, and who they feel is giving them clarity and important information that they need,” he says.
The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum isn’t the only entity capitalizing on the moment. Bobblehead manufacturer Royal Bobbles has also made figurines of Fauci, and its likenesses of President Trump as a diapered baby and of Hillary Clinton wearing prison stripes are part of the collection and the online shop at the Milwaukee museum.
Sklar says he and Novak consider more than the bottom line. For instance, they would not produce a figurine of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, even if it would sell. But the co-founders are willing to display offensive bobbleheads in the museum if they are no longer produced, on the principle that they’re part of the historical record and the museum is not promoting their sale. In its collection are dolls of the racist “Mammy” character that appeared in pop culture through the 1950s, flanked by an explanation of the toys’ history. The museum also has a bobblehead of Osama bin Laden.
By late August, the pandemic-related bobbleheads had raised $222,500 for the Protect the Heroes campaign. A second version of Fauci — this time making a “facepalm” gesture, as he appeared to do while standing behind the president during a March coronavirus news conference — had also sold out. The museum had started taking preorders for a holiday ornament of the physician.
Sklar and Novak reopened their downtown Milwaukee attraction in September, limiting capacity and requiring guests to wear masks and practice social distancing. “With Dr. Fauci being our number one seller ever,” Sklar says, “we wanted to follow his guidance.”
Robyn Ross is a writer in Austin.