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"The things people want to do with the Hamm's Bear is unbelievable," says the Hamm's Bear, sitting in a booth at Grumpy's in northeast Minneapolis. "Off the charts. It gets weirder every time."
The Hamm's Bear is full of himself. He's been bragging to me all night about how much action he gets. He's been talking about how he can walk into any place in town and instantly be the life of the party. Right, I say. Prove it. I mean, let's face it: The Hamm's Bear's heyday was a few decades ago, and he sure as hell is no Crunch or Goldy Gopher, two state mascots the Hamm's Bear scorns.
"I want to fight them all," says the Hamm's Bear, who occasionally speaks in the first person. "I'd like to kill that Vikings guy, that Hagar the Horrible, because he wears bear skin. The Hamm's Bear doesn't play basketball or football. He's a hockey guy, because he likes winter and ice and blood, but his main sport is drinking. The Hamm's Bear challenges what's-his-face from the Timberwolves"—Crunch—"to a drink-off."
Anyway, to prove the powers of his animal attraction, the Hamm's Bear takes me across the street to the 22nd Avenue Station, a neighborhood strip club better known as the Double Deuce. "The Hamm's Bear is getting ready to hibernate," says the Hamm's Bear, looking down past his large snout at the street as he gingerly steps off the curb. "It's going to be a long goddamn cold winter. The Hamm's Bear needs to see some box."
The Hamm's Bear has been to the Double Deuce only once before. That moment now lives in bar infamy: the night people threw money at the stage and begged the strippers to dance with the Hamm's Bear. As a result, when the door to the joint opens this night and the patrons see the Hamm's Bear bumbling in, every face in the place lights up. "He's baaaack! He's baack!" they sing, working-class smiles creaking through hardened-for-winter mugs.
Straightaway, Double Deuce owner Glenn Peterson regales the Hamm's Bear with stories of his lifelong Hamm's fixation and his prized possession, a neon Hamm's sign he stores at his cabin for safekeeping. The Hamm's Bear nods and says nothing: The Hamm's Bear has heard it before.
"On my table up north right now, I have the Hamm's salt-and-pepper shakers, I have the original neon sign—it was given to me as a gift," says Peterson. He's excitedly speaking into the Hamm's Bear's snout and making eye contact with the Hamm's Bear's permanently jovial eyes. "I buy Hamm's in the 30-pack all the time. I can't go to my cabin without a 30-pack of Hamm's, because all of my friends up there, this is what they drink.
"This guy I know who lives on Island Lake, 240 miles north, where I have a cabin, he has a basement full of nothing but Hamm's memorabilia. He has no idea how much this stuff is worth. Everybody up there drinks Hamm's. This is the north country, and they still drink it, and sell it, and love it."
The man inside the Hamm's Bear is one Corey Shovein, a 35-year-old salesman for the local Hohensteins beer distributor. As a self-described "beer geek," Shovein knows his Hamm's history by heart. The Hamm's brewery was started in Milwaukee in 1865 at a time when regional brewers ruled. Campbell-Mithun Advertising of Minneapolis created the campaign that featured the Hamm's Bear and the jingle "from the land of sky-blue waters." The Ojibwe artist Patrick DesJarlait came up with the Hamm's Bear.
In the year 2000, the St. Paul Pioneer Press named the Hamm's Bear as a runner-up on its list of "150 Most Influential Minnesotans of the past 150 Years." But his once-ubiquitous image is nowhere to be found these days: The same forces that assassinated Joe Camel, for marketing to children, hit the Hamm's Bear with a ricochet.
"The song was catchy, the imagery was catchy, and even though you don't see him anymore, it shows how formidable the advertising was," says Shovein. "People still know who the Hamm's Bear is. People ask to have it in parades and all that kind of crap. But it's hotter than the gates of hell in this thing, so the Hamm's Bear prefers winter."
In the past three years that Shovein has been donning the costume, the Hamm's Bear has been asked to engage in every sexual situation imaginable. The Hamm's Bear has been propositioned, punched, and partied with. He has found himself in corporate boardrooms, private parties, and athletic events. And he has brusquely knocked over kids who are too young to appreciate the Hamm's Bear legacy.
"I put it on whenever anyone asks," says Shovein, a married father of two toddlers. "It can be a little addicting. I generally lug around a Polaroid, and we do a dollar a photo and give that money to charity, or give the money to the servers. It turns into a melee. Honestly, people just line up to get a hold of the Hamm's Bear.
"They usually have two goals: Get a picture with the Hamm's Bear, and get the Hamm's Bear railed [drunk] to see what else they can milk out of him. It works, for the most part."
Over at the Double Deuce, a Goliath biker clad in a Hell's Angel hat, leather jacket, and T-shirt sits at the end of the bar. But he rises quickly and becomes territorial when his stripper girlfriend shows a bit too much interest in the Hamm's Bear.
"NO CAMERAS OR CELL PHONES," scream the signs, but the Hamm's Bear is no mere regular. Pictures are taken of him with the owner, with the owner's sidekick (who carries out the bartender's suggestion to "grab the bear's crotch") and with Sherry (no last name, please), one of the dancers who presses her boobs into the Hamm's Bear's face, kisses the Hamm's Bear's nose, and puts her hands all over the Hamm's Bear's fur as the boys on sniffer's row look on and, perhaps, wonder where they can find a bear suit.
"There's only six of these [suits] in existence," says the Hamm's Bear. "We get offered boatloads of money from collectors for it all the time. The Hamm's collectors come to these conventions, and it's like a Star Trek convention. They see it and they want it."
He'd be crazy to give it up, because spend even one night with the Hamm's Bear and the old rock star bromide comes true: Women want to be with him and men want to be him. That's certainly the case at the Double Deuce, where the overheating Hamm's Bear quickly straw-shotguns a couple of PBRs and says, "Let's roll."
On the way out, the Hamm's Bear stops for a few last photos with a dancer and a biker.
"See?" says the Hamm's Bear, as if to ask: Does a bear piss beer in the woods?
Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or email@example.com