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Duluth's giant rubber duck: Lovable gimmick or nefarious inflatable of evil?

Caitlin Nielson

Caitlin Nielson

This weekend, hundreds of thousands of tourists will descend upon the Twin Ports for Tall Ships Duluth. The event is a celebration of discovery, and of man’s longstanding fascination with traveling the world by sea. However, all the history bound in its wake has been hijacked by a 60-foot-tall rubber ducky.

Why does the duck fascinate us so? What do the locals think of it? The seamen? And what kind of monster would create such a thing?

To answer these questions directly, City Pages went to the scene to interview the people in the duck's enormous shadow. 

Caitlin Nielson 

Jan, 60, Cumberland, WI. 

Artist.

Did you consider painting any yellow duck portraits for this event?

Jan: I didn’t. I don’t have any paintings of ducks.

Knowing you were going to an event with this much rubber ducky enthusiasm, did you consider painting rubber duckies into an existing canvas of streams?

Jan: I wouldn’t do that. But I’ve also tried approaching an event with specific portraits in mind. I went to the loon festival with loon paintings and they didn’t sell well. I don’t need to pander. This is me. This is what I do. So this is what I bring.

What is your favorite waterfowl?

Jan: Great Blue Heron.

Caitlin Nielson

Jonny, 29, Duluth.

Sailor.

Can you describe what your day has been like so far today?

Jonny: Today I woke up at 2:30 and came on watch about 40 miles outside of Duluth. I was on watch for five hours; got us into Duluth. As soon as that was done, I went down to the galley to help clean up after breakfast. Then I took about a 10-minute nap, changed my T-shirt, got on the dock, then went out for the parade of sail.

It’s definitely not a leisurely life but it’s exciting and fun.

What do you think about the giant rubber duck that everyone is talking about?

Jonny: You know, at first I was not a fan of the duck. In theory, I was not cool with it. But then I saw it in Green Bay and, I don’t know. It’s interesting in that it’s got this kind of strange Andy Warhol presence. It’s kind of an enigma. I’m not sure the questions it provokes are worth answering. “Why?” is the whole point. It’s a duck.

Caitlin Nielson

Elsa, 3, Duluth.

Child, duck fan.

Did you like the giant duck?

Elsa: [Nods incessantly.]

How do you think it got so big?

Elsa: It was big and then it got bigger and bigger and bigger.

Do you like your new T-shirt?

Elsa: Yeah.

Caitlin Nielson

Dan, 21, Duluth.

Food & Libations for Tall Ships Duluth.

Did the sight of the giant duck fill your soul with joy?

Dan: It took me a half hour to find this tent through the crowd. I guess I’m pretty indifferent to the duck.

How often do you think you’ll wear this shirt in the future?

Dan: Probably never.

Caitlin Nielson

Lynn, 46, Wasau, WI.

Cindy, 54, Stevens Point, WI

Teachers and Sailors with Minnesota, Wisconsin Sea Grant/ Center for Great Lakes Literature.

ROV demo conductors.

Why are you including a rubber duck in your robotics demo?

Lynn: The rover has a camera mounted in front. The duck gives the operator something to look for on the screen.

So it’s just a coincidence that you chose the rubber ducky?

Cindy: No.

Lynn: So this is the type of ROV that we’d be using in the classroom. It’s affordable for teachers to check out. With the Sea Grant what we’re trying to do is…

Caitlin Nielson

I’m sorry. I have another question about the duck. Do you think it’s ethical to pander to the current wave of interest rubber duckies as a means to sell whatever it is you're peddling? Do you think you’re crossing the line?

 

Lynn: No.

Cindy: Definitely not.

Lynn: I’ll do whatever it takes to teach science.

Have you considered adding rubber duckies to any other aspects of your curriculum?

Lynn: No.

 

Caitlin Nielson


Mark, 60, Superior, WI.

T-shirt designer for Tall Ships Duluth.

How did you get involved in the creation of these T-shirts?

Mark: I work with Grandma’s, who is doing some of the catering and we became involved with the merch design.

It seems like the rubber ducky is overshadowing the rest of the event. What do you think?

Mark: Some people thought that. I don’t know. Kinda? Kids really like the duck. I’ve been here for all the Tall Ship events. The duck is just an added attraction.

How are sales of duck merch going so far?

Mark: Awesome. It’s going really great.

Caitlin Nielson

Chris, 37, Winnipeg, Alberta.

Jonete, 33, Winnipeg, Alberta.

Standing in the duck's massive shadow.

What kind of cosplay is this?

Chris: I don’t think that’s what we’re doing.

Jonete: We’re interpreting history. We are part of the community that supports the ship and its crew.

What do you think about the duck?

Jonete: We were here in 2013 with the Tall Ships. This time it’s obviously different. But I was really excited when I saw it.

How has the rubber ducky permanently altered this wonderful event?

Chris: There were a lot more young people out. Everyone’s excited to see it. I think it’s a good thing for everyone.

Caitlin Nielson

Willie, 30, Washington DC.

Event staff.

What are you doing for the Tall Ships event?

Willie: I do whatever they need me to do. I set up. I break it down. Security if need be.

Do you anticipate the Tall Ships crowd to get out of control? Do you think you’ll have to bust some shit up?

Willie: No. You might find a few drunk people, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

Why do you think people are so excited about this duck?

Willie: I think it maybe reminds them of childhood. I really don’t know. I’m from DC where an important event from my childhood would be like the Million Man March. So…

So this is what the white people get excited about.

Willie: Ha. Yeah it’s weird; 330,000 people in town to see a giant rubber duck. It’s whatever. I’m not sure we were ready for all these people.

Caitlin Nielson

Craig, 50, Duluth.

Executive producer of Tall Ships Duluth/Creator of Momma, the Giant Duck.

How did you become the executive producer of Tall Ships Duluth?

Craig: I had in a previous career produced music festivals. This wasn’t the kind of event that I was used to working on, but they reached out to me and it seemed interesting. I was transitioning out of the music world, which isn’t an old person's game.

So you’ve retired to the world of Tall Ships. How long have you been doing this event?

Craig: Exactly. This is the third Tall Ships event for me. The fourth total for Tall Ships Duluth. I’ve also done Tall Ships events in other cities. I did a reenactment of the Battle of Lake Erie for its bicentennial. So we took 17 tall ships out into Lake Erie and reconstructed a battle. The ships were firing cannons at each other. Things like that.

How many people were killed in the reenactment?

Craig: None. No people were killed. It was a different story than the original battle.

Do you expect a bigger crowd this year than in years previous?

Craig: We do. Part of that is the lineup of our ships. We’ve also taken a pretty progressive approach to marketing. We do a lot of digital advertising as opposed to print ads in the local paper. We do Google and Facebook ads. My marketing director has been really savvy getting the word out throughout the United States and Canada.

On behalf of City Pages: Thank you for the imminent demise of our paper.

Craig: Come on. I read you guys online.

It’s no big deal. So we have to talk about the duck. This is your baby, correct?

Craig: Yes, I own the rubber duck. Had it built two years ago for Tall Ships Los Angeles.

How did you get the idea?

Craig: Honestly, I was at a bar one night and someone who I was working with on the L.A. side of the event had said that out there you needed something else. You needed something big to wow the people. They floated this idea by and I said sure, let’s do it.

Did you have any idea how big this would be?

Craig: No idea. I thought people would like it. But I didn’t know it would be such a hit. When you invest in a giant rubber duck you have to know this will either be a really smart decision or a decision that will make you look really stupid. There’s no middle of the road. I’m glad it’s turned out to have been a smart decision.

How do you respond to the allegations that you built the duck as a means to overshadow the event with your own creation?

Craig: [Laughs] Is that an allegation? I don’t see it that way. Understand that I’m a promotor and a marketing guy. I could see how a purist tall ship fan could be upset about it.

The first night we debuted the duck, I was told by some of my staff not to go near the ship captains. They were upset with me. Upset that the duck had stolen the media.

Fast forward to the last night of that event. I went to the crew party expecting the captains to be furious with me, but that’s not what happened. They told me never before had so many people come across the decks of their ships.

People might come to see the duck, but then they see the ships and they fall in love with ships. It can be a gateway for families. The goal is to get people here. That’s my defense. 

I forgive you.

Caitlin Nielson