Capitol Theater Candy

Wherein I have great fun creating one small part of a very large thing, with much help, plus I inadvertently court controversy

Mike Woolson
May 8, 2018 · 16 min read
Faux 1920s candy for a silent movie palace on wheels. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I am fortunate to count myself among the artists, craftsfolk, cat-herders and random miscreants of Five Ton Crane, the Oakland-based artist cooperative behind such crazy jumbo immersive Burning Man installations as the Steampunk Treehouse, the Raygun Gothic Rocketship and Storied Haven.

The Steampunk Treehouse (2007), the Raygun Gothic Rocketship (2009) and Storied Haven (2015). Pics by John Tupper, John Maffei and Sara Chieco (respectively).

Last year, 5TC landed a plum commission: the creation of an original installation for the Smithsonian Institution’s “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” exhibition (now playing in Washington DC!). The result is the Capitol Theater, a 12-seat, art deco silent movie palace on wheels. It’s a freaking breathtaking wonder to behold, nigh-literally bursting at (and between) the seams with exquisitely-crafted detail (Grant Diffendaffer’s blog captures this epic amazeballsness better than I can here).

The Capitol Theater, now showing at the historic Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC. Pic by Sean Orlando.

Since my contributions to 5TC’s previous projects had mostly been along the lines of sweeping the shop and putting all the cans of spray paint in one place, I was surprised when I was invited to make the candy for the concession stand. False modesty aside this was for me a perfect gig, bringing together a number of obsessions…vintage design, cartooning, 20th-century Americana (warts and all) and being a wiseass. In high school I even worked candy stand at a fading movie palace.

The inter webs is handy and everything, but nothing beats a well-stocked home reference library.

Between some family stuff that had me shuttling to Michigan, and the finely-hewed procrastinative approach I find optimally conducive to the propagation of lofty ideas, things came together slowly at first and were a crazy mad dash to the finish line later. I don’t know why it always ends up that way.

My partner Katie Keech was a collaborator the whole way…her life-consuming job kept her from doing near as much as she wanted to but she was invaluable brainstorming, driving and critiquing ideas, and helping with art and fabrication. The crew (and in particular project lead Bree Hylkema) also provided critical feedback and ideas. And I’m in the literal debt of a lot of free-font designers out there.

Candy in its natural habitat. Don’t squint! Plenty of closeups after the next couple paragraphs. Pic by Grant Diffendaffer.

Right as I finalized the designs an amazing bit of good fortune dropped from the sky, when a branding and design firm offered to fabricate the packages. Their team was super friendly and excited about the project, then apparently someone else saw the designs and had serious concerns about the company seeming to endorse some of the political commentary, or people on the production floor thinking these were actual products. Which in hindsight makes sense but I sure didn’t see it coming.

I was embarrassed and apologetic for creating this hassle, and they were apologetic for throwing a wrench in the works…the upshot was that one of their people prepped the templates and then they farmed the work out to subcontractors at their own expense. They politely declined to be credited but man am I in their debt, they made the stuff look way more authentic than I ever could have myself. Thanks, Unsung Heroes.

Fabrication Weekend begins at the Uncles’ House, which would have been Fabrication Month but for the Unsung Heroes

As it turned out, that was the canary. Making these topical was always the plan, but it was never my intent to offend or stoke controversy for its own sake. I’d already agreed to have one pulled because of crew concerns that it was too much (though I made it anyway because it was important to me). I carefully avoided any words or images that could be reasonably considered offensive, and I don’t think any of us thought anything in the rest was remotely objectionable. Ha ha on us.

One morning whilst I was substitute teaching first-graders and the crew was doing the installation in DC, I got a text saying the gallery director had objected to three of the ten remaining pieces and discussion was ongoing. By day’s end I learned that two had been pulled, and the third only made it thanks to impassioned intervention by the install crew and the show curator.

As an artist, certainly, censorship sucks (and I don’t mean that in a positive way at all). And granted, not all art is appropriate for every venue. And the half-full way of looking at it is I could have done worse than having just three of eleven pieces yanked, even though each represented a lot of work and passion.

But it is galling to have my work censored for reasons having nothing to do with artistic merit or even “obscenity,” and it’s gallingly, bitterly ironic that it happened at a Burning Man show. The Self-Expression here was hardly Radical. MAD Magazine was doing edgier stuff when I was ten.

So it stung, it irks me still, and I think the implications are profound.

Silver lining: now I’m an artist with work both displayed in and banned from a major art institution. That puts me in not one but two sets of very good company.

For you left-coasters, the Capitol Theater Candy is also the subject of a show hanging at Lanesplitter Pub in Berkeley through June. Artist’s reception Sunday May 20, 4-7pm.

Anyway, the candy. Ready? Let’s roll:

BLACK SOX LICORICE PASTILLES

I was surprised more people didn’t get this one, since I’m not a baseball buff and I get it. But the ones who get it, get it.

Long backstory short: the 1919 Chicago White Sox were a beloved and winning team, but many players were bitter over poverty wages paid by miserly owner Charles Comiskey. So a few of them agreed to throw the World Series in return for a payout.

The scandal broke soon after, leading to some lifetime bans and lots of new rules. They got dubbed the “Black Sox,” though that nickname might have been used earlier because Comiskey was also too cheap to pay for laundry and the players wore their uniforms unwashed in protest.

No one knows for sure if star outfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson was in on the fix, but there’s a legend of a kid encountering him on his way into court crying “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”

My first idea was “Ty Cobb’s Licorice Spikes” and I was surprised to learn the widely-despised player actually had a candy named for him. But a bit of party banter with my friend Ted Wellman led to this.

The kid here is a riff on Walter Berndt’s comic strip “Smitty.” My dad got me a book of old comic strips when I was 12, and a 1920s series with him and the baseball greats of the era is an old favorite of mine. So he was a natural to use here. Thanks Dad and yay books.

KISSIN MINTS

This one seems to be everyone’s favorite. Using sexism to mock sexism would normally be a risky approach, but Trump’s hot mic sound bytes gave it an instant context everyone gets…though using the Prez as the mouthpiece for sexual harassment nearly got this one pulled from the candy case.

The man on the box is inspired by John Held Jr., whose flappers and college boys defined Jazz Age cartooning. The woman is more of a departure, since women were rarely drawn with any kind of facial expression back then (there is a whole genre of unflappable flapper comics. In fact ”Blondie” started out as a flapper strip till the Depression hit and she went domestic, and her face is still not very expressive 90 years later).

Kissin Mints was on the Choppin Block but for passionate intervention by the 5TC install crew and the show curator (thanks guys). Apparently the condition was that the back could not be displayed (which was the plan anyway), even though I’d gone to the trouble of cleaning up the President’s profanities with ast*risks.

I should call Fox News and Breitbart with the story of how some liberals at the Smithsonian conspired to remove our President’s own words from public display in the nation’s capitol. That’s heavy sh*t, man.

LIL’ DIPPER CHILDREN’S CHEWING TOBACCO

More irony, more reflection on how companies will sell anything if they can get away with it. My original idea was children’s cigarettes, but this name was too good.

I was going for a low-end look here. I did the logo and art by hand, and the type was scanned out of an old reference book and placed by hand. I would have done that for all of these but dang it takes forever.

The Unsung Heroes Corp. of America is a nod to the folks at the branding company.

SCOPES’ MONKEY BAR

Another one I was surprised more people don’t get, but I’m a geek.

In 1925, a substitute teacher named Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution in a public school in violation of Tennessee law. The “Scopes Monkey Trial” was a national sensation, like an MMA title match between the Victorian Era and the Roaring Twenties. Of course Scopes was convicted and fined, but in the process smartypants defense lawyer Clarence Darrow verbally dismembered elder statesman prosecutor William Jennings Bryan’s creationist arguments with questions like “so where did Cain find a wife?”

Much to my surprise, this was also cut from the Smithsonian because apparently, an image of a monkey in a top hat is racist. Which, to my mind, calling a monkey in a top hat racist is itself kind of racist. Especially when the whole point is that we are, each and every one of us, monkeys in top hats.

At the same time, I take that kind of thing very seriously. If this had occurred to me I probably would have rethought the design, or done something else, because right or wrong the joke was just not worth having that argument with anyone.

But again and for the record: WE ARE ALL THE MONKEY.

SIGGY’S EDIBLE COMPLEX

Sigmund Freud has been joke fodder for generations. His theories were all the rage in the 1920s, mostly because up till then nobody was allowed to talk about sex at all. So Freud was a good icebreaker, but he remains at best a problematic ambassador. There’s ample evidence, for example, that he knew his ideas about kids sexualizing their parents were bullsh*t, but he stuck to them because he knew nobody wanted to hear the truth: that children were in fact being molested by adults.

The “Siggy Moment” references an incident so mind-fryingly messed up that it has stuck in my head since I read about it thirty years ago. Emma Eckstein was an early patient of Freud’s (who later became a psychologist herself). She suffered from painful menstrual cramps and liked to masturbate, so of course Freud diagnosed her with hysteria (that being the era’s catchall for “hush, woman”). A colleague of Freud’s concluded she had a “nasogenital disorder,” based on his inexplicable theory of links between sinuses and genitalia, so they operated. On her nose. In 1892.

Let that sink in a minute.

But wait, there’s more. Eckstein’s recovery was slow, which Siggy blamed on her inability to accept his diagnosis. Then a nurse discovered the fools had left a chunk of gauze in her nose which became infected and caused a hemorrage when it was removed, almost killing her.

I am not making this up. Freud was a smart guy and a game changer, but there are war criminals who did less repugnant things.

BLOWHARDS

This one and “Edible Complex” came late in the process. The slate was full but Katie and I got to brainstorming over beer and pizza, I grabbed a napkin and wham, two more to make.

This one was problematic though, since it’s the only candy where the joke is entirely contemporary. Unlike the others it will seem dated in a few years…at which point I guess I’ll have to come up with a new one mocking President Elizabeth Warren.

Fortunately, the Smithsonian solved my existential dilemma by nixing this one too, for fear that some member of Congress would take umbrage and use it as an excuse to cut their funding. Which is all just nuts to me, because this isn’t political, it’s just a joke, like making fun of Obama’s ears…If I’d called them “Corrupt, Lying, Treasonous, Adulterous Orange Candies,” I might concede the point. But there is no measure by which the man cannot fairly be called self-aggrandizing. That’s being polite, frankly.

And again: BURNING MAN SHOW. This got censored from a BURNING MAN SHOW.

Because it made fun of the President.

Argh.

The back sides of all of these were afterthoughts, I wasn’t going to bother because they were going to be in a case. But Bree poked me on that, and pointed out that when docents were there they would be able to pull out candies and show them off. And I’ve been a sucker for hidden jokes since long before some gen-Xers started calling them Easter Eggs anyway.

Can you tell by the time I got to this one I was in a hurry? I thought the low-end see-through thing was a cute conceit but it seems to only confuse people. The side panels, not shown here, say “MADE IN MEXICO,” Bree’s suggestion and a very funny one. I was gonna write “MADE IN MEXICO BY TINY HANDS” but worried that would come off as a child labor joke (and yes, I do have some standards).

“MEOW DOG CANNOT BE STOPPED” has been our household battle cry whilst contending with various challenges and indignities of late.

OLD MONEY

This one is Katie’s baby (and one of two we crafted all by ourselves). Her family is Old Money (deeded their land by Lord Baltimore himself). The money is long gone but Old Money endures past cash flow issues (“Grey Gardens” being the poster child of such).

After she came up with the name I pitched a couple snazzy design approaches — make it look like a dollar bill, put a dollar-sign money clip on it — and every time she would sniff at me and say “that’s New Money. Old Money doesn’t do that.”

I love this one because it’s so minimalist and different, the handcrafted card (based on Katie’s mom’s debutante calling card) and plastic wrap make it clear this is not like that other candy over there. The only change we requested in the final installation was that this not have a price tag, just a card that said ENQUIRE. Because if you have to ask…

Old Money is not trying to impress you. If you’re Old Money, you understand; and if you’re not, you don’t matter.

The back side has unintended irony: I needed to glue a big panel down to hold the wrap (which was so hard to get on there) and didn’t realize that Tacky Glue soaks into and warps things faster than Scientology. But it inadvertantly speaks to the seedy underside of Old Money…one can almost imagine a young Charles Dickens haphazardly slapping that label on as he imagines a better life.

Since the display would hold three boxes with only the top label visible, I somehow got the idea to tell a little story of zombie proletariat revolution on the three boxes. I don’t know, it was late.

I ran through a million of these tiny cards trying to get the printer to not make it crooked.

RED SCARES CINNAMON CANDY

The first Red Scare came on the heels of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and post-WWI xenophobia. With no government programs to check poverty, Communism was appealing to the working class and drove things like the union movement, which was distressing to most of the rich folks (who were already pretty indignant about the under-13 labor market being illegal all of a sudden).

My idea was, like the others, to make this an American candy naively milking buzzwords. I wanted to add big Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin heads in the style of the Pep Boys logo, but worried I had too many cartoons already. Then somehow in the course of designing with primary colors and nominally-illegible faux Cyrillic fonts it went in a whole other direction, all by itself, and became an exported Soviet candy.

Which of course made the back perfect for a 5TC shoutout.

WALLSTREET’S JUMBO BUBBLE

As you may have gleaned, I skew toward verbosity. So I’m really happy how this one uses just six words to make the joke. Man it took forever to get it down to six words.

The funky design riffs on Tween Meals, an actual candy of the era.

The Unsung Heroes at the branding firm did an amazing job with this one in particular, the fill is a custom piece of plastic and the printing is on a foil that looks like old school flat color printing (they used the same foil for the Black Sox and Lil Dipper). It’s also impossible to stack neatly, which makes it even more realistic.

CALIFORNIA SNOWFLAKES

Another late addition to the deck, when Grant Diffendaffer pointed out that mocking ourselves would help balance the snarkiness, which of course made eminent sense even though at this point I needed another candy to get out the door like I needed a hole in the head, especially since I had to do the fabrication myself and match the awesome Unsung Heroes stuff. I was stuck on a name till my East Coast big sister Marci reminded me that they call us snowflakes over there.

The other challenge was that I’d pretty much run through my bag of design tricks and was already worried the candies looked too much alike. But Katie did the art and picked the colors off an old girlie tie my sister got me, which all pushed me out of my comfort zone as a designer.

In hindsight I don’t know if I should be offended that the gallery was okay with me mocking Californians but not Trump.

I was literally writing the back panel two days before I packed this stuff up for the install. Turns out there aren’t many good liberal jokes on the web. The first one Katie made up, the second is a Polish joke from high school (I’m Polish, it’s okay) and the third did indeed come from a web site. Then I still needed to fill space so I used the ingredient list from Twinkies.

IMPERIAL WIZARDS

And, this one. I figured from the start it might be problematic, but I also thought it was critical for a project celebrating the Silent Era.

Aside from voter supression, Jim Crow laws and lynchings, the 1920s saw the Ku Klux Klan resurgent for the first time since Reconstruction. They counted three million members across the country, and in 1928 they marched 50,000 strong, in full regalia, right. Past. The. Smithsonian.

Their revival was largely spurred by D.W. Griffith’s 1915 “Birth of a Nation” — the very first feature film, the first movie screened in the White House, a national sensation, a textbook of cinematic technique and an appallingly racist piece of celluloid garbage, which tells how brave white Southerners formed the KKK to save America by keeping freed slaves from voting after the Civil War.

As a white guy it’s easier to view the old days with happy nostalgia than it is for a person of color, I think. A black kid in 1928 might not have been allowed in the Capitol Theater and even if he did the only people he’d see onscreen who looked like him would be savages and buffoons, played as often as not by white people (like Al Jolson, who launched the sound era in blackface a year later). And today, when racist douchecanoes are feeling more empowered than they have in a generation, this crap needs to be called out no matter how uncomfortable it makes people feel.

I finished it knowing it wouldn’t be displayed, as there were concerns among the crew that it was over the top and might cause a flap that sucked the air out of the rest of the piece. It’s the nature of collaborative art that you give and take and I didn’t want anything of mine to distract from everything everyone else did, so I didn’t raise a stink about that.

I would like to see it in there eventually because I think it’s important. It’s my favorite one of the set and arguably the best “art” I ever done did. I get that going there can be a little triggering and dark for some, but I just don’t think there’s a damn thing wrong with mocking the KKK. And I think those little marshmallow heads (handcrafted with sculpting clay and a Rapidograph) are beautifully silly.

Oh and here is the back of the Wizards, a bit florid but the font asked for it. The whole package is less subtle in its messaging than I would normally like, but when you swim in this pond you want to leave no room for misinterpretation.

And that’s the candy. I just finished making jumbo versions on canvas for the bar show. Next I gots to look into how to make more of the candies because people have asked and I have precious few extras. And the dishes and laundry, need to get to those eventually…

Anyway I did clean the dining room later

MEOW DOG CANNOT BE STOPPED

©2018 Mike Woolson / jumbobrain.com

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade