Eric Sandgren is wearing a Band-Aid two inches above his left eyebrow. The associate professor at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine notes that he's been banging his head on things since he was 3 years old. This time, it was a dresser.
"I bent down to pick something up, and BLAMMO!" he exclaims. "It was a good one." But he made the most of it. "I teach the inflammatory response to veterinary students and toxicology students," he notes. "The inflammatory response is what the body does whenever there's injury, and that paves the way for healing. One of my co-workers says, 'Eric, you're either very clumsy or a superhero in disguise.'"
Perhaps both: What better disguise for superheroism than clumsiness? Sandgren, 54, laughs at this suggestion. He is, however, serious about disguises. His recent Halloween appearances on State Street have included a stilt-walking grim reaper and an enormous praying-mantis puppet.
This all began when Sandgren's daughters were acting in Sun Prairie Civic Theater productions of The King and I and Annie. As a parent, he observes, "you can't just sit around at civic theater." First he was part of the stage crew, then props manager. During this time, he developed an urge to build giant puppets. Teaming with another SPCT principal, Sandgren's early efforts were rewarded with an invitation to the Sun Prairie Corn Festival parade.
"After I stopped laughing," Sandgren says, "I thought, 'Sure'!" He would parade as a giant mouse. Bobby Castello, his SPCT co-conspirator, was a pterodactyl. "We didn't know what we were doing," Sandgren allows. "We'd barely practiced in them. But he and I immediately found our roles, and the crowd was all looking up and, Whoa!" Sandgren was hooked.
This led him to State Street. In his first appearance, he was an enormous rearview mirror with two friends as dangling fuzzy dice. The next year, he bought a pair of drywallers' stilts, practiced on them enough to gain confidence, and "designed this figure-of-death puppet, a grim reaper, with PVC tubing and wire and cloth and a big ball for the head and a couple flashlights for eyes."
Accompanied by two friends, he went up and down State Street a couple of times. "Somebody was dressed as the devil, and he stopped and bowed. I couldn't see this, but apparently a lot of people as they were walking by me would just drop down dead." By about 10 p.m., however, the crowds had grown larger and more intoxicated, so Sandgren called it a night.
Last year, the trio attended as a praying mantis, a spider and butterfly. The enormous puppets once again made quite an impression. Sandgren and company again departed at about 10 o'clock: "We went out for some burgers and to talk about it. After about 20 minutes, I got up to go to the bathroom and I said, 'Guys, try to stand up.'" The other members of the party did, emitting cries of pain. Carrying large puppets up and down State Street a couple of times taxes muscles that are not used to being taxed.
Sandgren has little memory of the Halloween costumes he wore while growing up in Janesville. Like so many other kids, most of his attention during those childhood Halloweens was focused on all the candy he harvested. He was, however, a big fan of Mighty Mouse. His mother would pin a red cape on him, and "I'd run outside, singing, 'Here I come to save the day!'"
By the time he arrived at the UW as an undergrad in 1973, the big fad sweeping the country was the antithesis of elaborate costumes: streaking.
In contrast, he observes, "When you wear something on State Street, you're telling a story - creating a story."
Sandgren plans to return to this Saturday's Freakfest with a new version of his grim reaper. In part, he wants to check out all the other inventive costumes. "A lot of people really put a lot of work into not just the execution but also the ideas," he observes. He understands the impulse, and its addictive nature. "I don't want to stop. It's just too much fun."