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A & E

Fresh touches mark 39th annual 'Festival of Gnomes' in Joliet

Joliet’s annual ‘Festival of Gnomes’ gets new creative touches

JOLIET – Terrifying.

That was Kevin Healy’s thought when he first encountered Snotgurgle, a mean troll and enemy of the gnomes. Healy, 26, now of Lisle, was just 5 when he first attended “Festival of Gnomes” with his grandmother Celeste Healy.

“When Snotgurgle entered, all the cast members onstage screamed and hid,” Healy said. “He came stomping through the audience, spraying silly string all over – his snot – and getting in their faces.”

At the 39th Annual Festival of Gnomes on Saturday and Sunday at the Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park & Theatre in Joliet, Healy, a veteran of the show, will assume the Snotgurgle role former Joliet resident Tom McCabe played for so many years.

Also at the festival, one set of boy and girl soft-sculpted gnome dolls will be up for raffle. They were made by new dollmaker Sally Susner of Shorewood. The dolls have been a cherished tradition since Sue Shetina began making them in 1983.

These are two recent changes that keep the festival fresh and ever-new.

The gnome dolls
have a new maker

Susner said she became a dollmaker when Shetina retired two years ago. Although she is an experienced seamstress, Susner said the gnome pair were the first dolls she ever made.

She even had to search online for the cloth resembling “pliable skin” and doll joints when she couldn’t find a local source. Using Shetina’s dolls as guides, the actual doll fabrication went smoothly. The finished products, Susner said, are “cuddly and lovable.”

“It wasn’t difficult,” Susner said. “It just takes time.”

Like Shetina, Susner signed the dolls on their bottoms, but she added one extra element – a heart, reminiscent of vintage Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls.

“They’re made with a lot of love,” Susner said of the gnome dolls.

Perhaps that’s why the dolls assume their own personalities, Susner speculated.

“Their eyes, their smiles,” Susner said. “They come out differently every year.”

Snotgurgle gets
a new look

As he waited for his turn to audition, Healy said he mulled over Snotgurgle’s qualities – mean, repulsive, rude – and had a lightbulb moment.

“He’s like a college frat boy,” Healy said. “So I turned my baseball cap around and started shouting at everybody. They loved it.”

Healy said he participated in youth drama workshops at the theater and began acting in “Festival of Gnomes” when he was 11. He broke from the festival in his freshmen year of college because showtime occurs during final exam prep time, Healy said.

But after moving to Lisle two years ago to shorten his commute – Healy is a software engineer in Downers Grove – Healy realized he was homesick for Joliet. And what could be more Joliet to an actor than “Festival of Gnomes?”

“I wanted to reconnect with my roots,” Healy said. “I wanted to get back in touch with the soul of Joliet.”

So Healy rejoined the gnome cast two years ago. He played the “poor woodsman” and acted in various ensemble scenes. Healy attributes two things to the festival’s enduring popularity. One is its family appeal of universal themes.

The second is the dedication of the directors, cast and crew.

“They love it,” Healy said, “moreso than the audience.”

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IF YOU GO

WHAT: 39th annual “Festival of the Gnomes”

WHEN: 1 and 3:30 p.m. Dec. 5 and 1 p.m. Dec. 6. Lobby opens at noon both days.

WHERE: Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park & Theatre, 201 W. Jefferson St., Joliet

COST: $5 for a show ticket, $3 for a gnome cap, $1 for a cookie variety plate. Cash or check only.

RESERVATIONS: Email bipark@jolietcity.org or call 815-724-3760 option 2.

ETC: Free parking and admission to lobby. Lobby includes flute music, gift shop and tassel-sewers. The live show is 90 minutes.

VISIT: www.bicentennialpark.org.

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‘GNOME’ MORE

• Key characters – Snotgurgle, the evil troll; gnome from Nome, Alaska; naughty gnome Kostja; Tinker gnome, frustrated with his inventions; garden gnome and bearer of good fortune; Wartje, a legendary, clever gnome who outsmarts evil trolls. Also, wise animals and a lovable talking rat.

• Gnome doll raffle – Two soft-sculpted boy and girl gnome dolls will be raffled off at the end of the event. Tickets are 50 cents each or six for $1. Winners need not be present. Dolls now on display at Bicentennial Park.

• Tassels sewed on gnome hats – Tassels mark the number of festivals attended. For every 10 years, “a dehydrated star and moon beam” tassel is sewn onto the gnome cap. Billie Limacher, known as “Grandma Gnome,” began the tradition. Gnome hats are $3 in the gift shop. Tassels are free. Tassels are sewn on – also for free – by the lady gnomes gathered around the fireplace in the lobby.

• Meet and draw – After the show, children are invited onstage to meet the gnomes in person and draw their own gnomes to take home.

• Gnome gift shop – Filled with unique “gnome-made” treasures.

• Cookie factory – Where patrons can pick their favorite $1 variety cookie plate.

• Gnome music – Cindy Butler, flute instructor, returns with her talented students.

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