TAA Outtake No. 2: The WTC Awards Ceremony

[Keeping the outtakes coming with the other outtake from my visit to the 2007 World Taxidermy Championships, which had taxidermists from more than 16 different countries in attendance. Even so, the ceremony (and this passage in the book proper) began with a singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and only “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Also, remember especially toward the end that this happened in the spring of 2007. The specificity of the references may be one reason this bit got cut out.]

Larry [Blomquist] introduces Mike Kirkhart, one of the fish judges who is here to give an “incovation.” I admit to being completely ignorant to what such a thing might be. Exactly what could posssibly be invoked at a taxidermy competition’s awards banquet? Kirkhart is a tall man with silver hair on his round, round face, and at the podium he tells some old yarn about a man named Bubba, who converts to Catholicism, being told by the priest that he was born a Baptist, he was raised a Baptist, but that now he’s a Catholic. Still, though, Bubba grills venison on Fridays, to the confusion of his Catholic neighbors. Eventually they investigate, and everyone comes to find out that just before putting the steaks on the grill, Bubba makes the sign of the cross over the meat and saying, “You were born a deer, you were raised a deer, but now you’re a catfish.”

Kirkhart knows his audience, and the joke fucking kills. Hoots and hollers fill the Expo Hall, and when it all finally settles down Kirkhart turns to matters more serious: God and taxidermy. “God has give us the beauty of nature,” he says, with the slow and even cadence of a preacher. “Let’s hear a round of applause, all of you, for loving the Creation so much to make it beautiful in His eyes.”

And before I know it Kirkhart leads the room in the saying of the Lord’s Prayer.

It’s something I’ve heard in churches before, sure, but the effect of 500 people bowing their heads over mixed-green salads with walnuts and dried cranberries, everyone somehow knowing the rhythm, keeping time with one another’s kingdom comes and daily breads, is nothing short of spooky. At this point in the evening, before anyone’s eaten a bite, before any awards have been handed out, what’s being invoked seems to be a kind of self-satisfaction. It’s no surprise that the majority of American taxidermists are Christian. What is a surprise is that—in the way this weekend has brought together people who orient their lives such that the majority of their time is spent in the company of people just like them—no one is aware of even the possibility of difference under this wide ceiling. Or no one feels a need to regard it. I also spend the majority of my time with people like me (in this case: academia), and to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” without giving time to “O Canada” or La Marseillaise or “Aegukga” or “Hatikvah” would be a shameful affront. To say the Lord’s Prayer without an equivalent Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Wiccan prayer would be unspeakable. To say a prayer at all would be unspeakable given the atheists one must these days assume present. And yet the WTC folks make no such assumptions. The taxidermists they know are good Christian folk, and tonight is the time to honor this.

Then we eat. Dinner is prime rib with twice baked potatoes and steamed vegetables. The Silver Legacy’s banquet staff have put in the middle of my plate a tiny purple flower. I eat around it and go out to the lobby for another beer.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about the WTC’s awards banquet is the surety with which it adheres to the traditional model. There’s a teleprompter, for instance, a wide blue-screen monitor situated far enough away from the podium that most folks reading fron it have to squint and stumble over their speech. At the foot of the stage sits Ken Edwards, the WTC’s video productions and banquet producer, running the multimedia extravaganza single-handedly with a laptop, scrolling through the teleprompter’s text, cueing up video clips and still images, playing incidental music between presentations. It’s all very familiar—if not the Oscars than at least the American Music Awards.

Larry, as owner, is our host—Billy Crystal without the song-and-dance hooey. And it’s fitting that we have celebrity presenters in the form of WTC judges. If every awards show needs its Jack Nicholson, it’s here in the form of Frank Newmyer, a nine-time world winner and such a celeb in the field that at the trade show earlier Friday afternoon, a vendor who sells glass-enclosed coffee- and end-tables in which to display one’s mounts told me their in-house bird taxidermist won the 2007 Pennsylvania State Show with a ruffed grouse.

“And he beat out Frank Newmyer with that bird,” she said.

Newmyer lives in Michigan and so his one-time presence at the Pa. State Show seems peculiar, except that Pennsylvania has one of the best attended and competitively toughest shows in the country. But Newmyer’s participation at shows is now obligatory and vital in the way it is with top celebrities at all awards shows. Meryl Streep acts in a film and she’s automatically in the running for Best Actress. Same with Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman and, yes, Jack Nicholson. Frank has the man’s grin down pat, the one leftover from his turn as the Joker, and squints up on the stage as though he’d rather be wearing sunglasses. He’s been asked to present the Carl Akeley Award for most artistic mount, and as he fumbles with the envleope he fills the deadair with expert banter, asking the audience, “What do you think, people?” That grin again.

Another thing every awards show needs is a celebration of the illustrious history of its industry. The WTC’s got this down, not only with the slide show of past WTCs we watched during dinner, but also with the incidental taxidermy-related video clips we watch throughout the ceremony. Larry introduces these early on in the evening, inviting us to “take a look at some of the ways our profession has been depicted by Hollywood over the years.” First clip presented is, naturally, Norman Bates in his house with a cup of coffee, explaining that taxidermy as a hobby is “cheap really: needles, thread, sawdust.” This gets big laffs. Other clips include amusing commercials for WASCO taxidermy supply, a clip from Amelie featuring a mounted dog in a kitchen, and a long, extended clip from—wait for it—Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

It’s from an episode in which the Fab Five make over a New Jersey taxidermist. Edwards cues up the entire opening credit sequence for some reason, and when it pops on the screen I get apprehensive. It seems unlikely that in a room of 500 people there isn’t a single other queer person in attendance, and yet I’ve never been in a room of 500 taxidermists and their different-sex spouses before. The folks at my table watch the opening with a kind of amused curiosity. Who is this blond-maned man with the long beak flitting around a city street? What does all this have to do with taxidermy? No one’s really laughing, or even smiling. No one seems to quite know what’s going on until the title screen appears, with its silly bit of wordplay that’s funny only the first time. “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” it reads, and then people laugh, and they laugh hard. They laugh as though this is the first time they’ve ever encountered such words, and that’s when it hits me that this is very likely the truth. One thing I was able to bask in while spending four days in Reno is that not once in any of the spaces I moved through did someone discuss Britney Spears’s shaved head. Not once did I hear anything about Paris Hilton. Not once. The one thing we all have to give taxidermists is that they don’t watch Bravo, they don’t watch E!, they don’t read Us Weekly. It’s like I’ve spent four days in the world’s last irony-free zone, and it’s been a kind of vacation.

[Of the 16 possible Best in World medallions at the WTC, only 8 were awarded in 2007. Why only 8? Who won those 8? What does it all mean? Why not pre-order The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy today?]

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