Once upon a time, a frog costume turned into a mascot empire.
Facemakers Inc. makes mascot costumes for businesses in America and around the world, all out of an old grade school on Chicago Avenue in Savanna.
The entrance to the main hall is full of artwork of magicians and circuses, with stained glass in the office windows.
The artwork is part of the mystique cultivated by Facemakers’ owner, Alan St. George. Nancy Willis, the company’s general manager, said St. George founded Facemakers when he was a student at the Chicago University of the Arts.
“In 1972, he was hired to promote the horror movie ‘Frogs,’ and wore a frog costume while handing out jumping frogs,” Willis said. “He didn’t like the costume, so his friends helped him make his own.”
The costume became St. George’s stepping stone into costuming. He sold the frog's head to a costume shop owner in Chicago, and later went into creating and selling costumes to customers.
While “Frogs” eventually ran its course, St. George didn’t forget where his project started. The film's movie poster hangs on an office wall.
In 1976, Alan and his wife, Adrienne, moved to Savanna, where they bought what is now Havencrest Castle. The mansion was renovated with several elaborately decorated rooms, and was open for tours for a time until Alan returned to sculpting following Adrienne’s death in 2006.
Facemakers moved to its current location in 1989. Willis said the company employs six people, but has employed as many as 24 during busier times.
“Business goes up and down. It is steady,” Willis said.
One of the company’s steadiest customers is the federal government. Facemakers is one of only two mascot companies licensed to create Smokey Bear costumes.
“It’s our bread and butter,” Willis said. “It’s a federally regulated symbol of the U.S., and you must have written permission from the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Natural Resources to use it.”
In addition to middle and high school mascots, such as the Freeport Pretzels mascot, Facemakers provides costumes for corporations, among them Happy Joe’s Pizza mascot, Happy the Dalmatian. They’ve also made bumblebees for Applebee’s, Kirby the Kangaroo for a credit union in New Mexico, various candy bars, a hummingbird, and many more.
“We’ve made a rock costume for a school in Plymouth, Massachusetts,” Willis said.
Possibly the most interesting costume could be Speedy the Geoduck, which serves as the mascot for Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. The burrowing clam is represented by a mascot in shiny golds and silvers.
Facemakers can produce a costume on short notice, with a number of stock costume heads pre-made and ready for decorating. The school’s former gymnasium contains stacks of negative molds ready to be poured with Foss, a type of resin. Facemakers also uses positive molds, which can have resin poured over them to create the mask.
Masks are often made in pieces, ranging from as a few as two for simple costumes to multiple components for more complicated heads.
The company can create complex masks – including ones with moving jaws or winking eyes. The wearer uses a monofilament line to manipulate the winking mechanism.
Once the basic mask is created, it moves on to painting and decoration.
In the “fur cover room,” Nikki Becktel and her daughter, Ariel Becktel, both of Mount Carroll, were working on costumes during a recent day at the plant. Nikki was working on a blue hawk, while Ariel added touches to a Smokey Bear costume.
“I do paint and other stuff,” Nikki said. “You learn as you go.”
The room contained rolls of “fur” and other fabrics, as well as the mask of a snarling bear in one corner.
Down the hall, in the sewing room full of fabrics, Bonnie Queckboerner of Milledgeville and Frances “Cissy” Ensey of Savanna assembled costumes.
“I’m working on a cow costume for Wisconsin,” Ensey said.
Facemakers can refurbish costumes they’ve created. They maintain hundreds of designs, and accept artwork of a costume concept. Designers will work to create a mascot from the artwork, Willis said.
It was a little quieter than usual during a recent visit to Facemakers, but business always has a way of picking back up.
“Now, we’re doing five costumes a week,” Willis said. “In our busy times, we typically ship five costumes a day.”
Address: 800 Chicago Ave., Savanna