Adult Swim participants take the Gerbil Wheel seriously.
For many young adults in Madison, a typical Friday night consists of drinks with friends at a local bar, not pine-cone art and a gerbil wheel the size of a Honda Accord.
But for those fortunate enough to have snagged sold-out tickets to Friday night's Adult Swim, the Madison Children's Museum adults-only monthly fundraiser, the night was anything but typical. The museum opened its doors to grown-ups looking for wine, music and a chance to recapture the feeling of childhood curiosity and wonder.
"When we opened about a year ago, I had many high school and college-aged friends saying, 'I've heard so much about the museum and I really want to come. Do I have to borrow a kid to get in?'" says Kia Karlen, the education director of the museum. "So that started the idea of a night for adults only, with the proceeds going to support the museum."
As grown-ups began filtering in, many had an uneasy look, as if the absence of children somehow made them trespassers on sacred ground. But after a glass of wine and some preliminary handling of the museum's exhibits, all quickly took on the unmistakable look of the building's intended visitors, fervently touching buttons and levers with large and glowing smiles.
Apart from the night's planned activities, including dance lessons from Wisconsin Tango and a performance by Latin jazz sextet Mambo Blue in the museum's craft section, adults were free to explore and follow their interests at will, much in the same way a preschooler could wander from finger painting to building blocks as their afternoon education.
To give a complete list of the museum's activities would be like trying to name all the candies in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. The short list includes: live-chicken handling, hula-hoop contests on the rooftop garden, model car construction, an elevator equipped with piano and player taking Elton John requests, Lego factories, a slide disguised as a dragon and the Philosophone, a phone booth whose telephone receiver emits pre-recorded quips (voiced by local artist and Isthmus contributor P.S. Mueller) such as "Can a million butterflies lift a bowling ball?"
And let us not forget the night's most popular spot: a human-sized gerbil wheel.
"You get adults on the gerbil wheel and they turn into... silly people," says staff member Jodie Kaetterhenry, shaking her head as the line for a chance to walk on the wheel grew by the minute. "It's not even the alcohol that trips them up. Being bigger, adults can get that thing moving pretty fast, and their center of balance isn't like a child's."
"There have been some incidents during the past two events," adds Karlen with the hint of a smile on her lips. "We've had to make modifications and install a hand brake to slow the wheel down."
Some in attendance, however, would not let the new handbrake hamper their enthusiasm for the gerbil wheel.
"I enjoy getting kicked off the gerbil wheel," says second-time Adult Swim visitor Gregory, his cheeks and forehead glistening with recently applied face paint. "You're not supposed to run on it, but I do. I get intense on the gerbil wheel."
Such playful comments were the norm throughout the night, as the atmosphere fostered a sense of unguarded silliness. For three hours, visitors were able to break down the walls of adulthood and delve into adolescent creativity, reminiscing all the while about their own childhood memories and experiences.
"Because I've worked in a children's museum for a long time, I didn't realize how much childhood is missing from adult lives," says Karlen at the close of the night. "And I knew adults would be excited to go in the gerbil wheel and sit down with some arts and crafts. I think its important that we hold onto that."
A special holiday edition of the event is already scheduled for Friday, December 9, with tickets going on sale next month. If the sold-out status of the last two events are any indication, tickets are expected to go fast.