Hot Stove #157 – Willie the Penguin

As previously reported, Rita and I are thrilled to have our Pfizer vaccination shots.

Editorial Cartoon U.S. covid vaccination

And now we have an added reason to celebrate – Kauffman Stadium will have fans in the stands this season. Can’t wait to get back to the K.

Spring training is going well for the Royals. Caution – that means nothing. But there is some evidence that the John Sherman/Dayton Moore off-season moves will prove fruitful. And that Bobby Witt, Jr. Keep hope alive.

While we await the sorting out for the regular season, I thought I would talk about penguins in baseball. Also, cover some classical music in Lonnie’s Jukebox.

That makes no sense, right? There are no penguins in baseball. And the Jukebox is stocked solely with rock ‘n’ roll records.

It’s a bait-and-switch. This post is not about baseball. It’s about Willie the penguin. If you are a baseball purist or anti-penguin (not that there’s anything wrong with that), feel free to skip down to Lonnie’s Jukebox, which is also a bait-and-switch – the classical music is not what you might be thinking.

 Penguins on the Diamond: Before I get to Willie, I want to share this clip of penguins taking the field at a Rangers game in Texas. It is narrated by Morgan Freeman, one of the few people who might rival Vin Scully. If the narration sounds familiar it comes from the Oscar-winning documentary March of the Penguins (trailer here). The penguins on the mound in Texas are Humboldt penguins, not the emperor penguins in the movie.


1992 – The Original Willie the Penguin: In 1992, Rita and I acquired a life-size (3-feet) inflatable king penguin. We can’t remember why.

To choose a name for our new pet, we consulted granddaughters Alex and Carly, then 8 and 6. They suggested “Chilly Willy,” after the popular penguin cartoon character.

 Chilly Willy logo.png

The name and spelling evolved to “Willie.” King penguins look a lot like Morgan Freeman’s emperor penguins, but the kings are shorter and the beak color on our inflatable model favored the king coloration. Below, Carly, Willie and Alex.

[Alex and Carly Update: They are now the mothers of our four great-grandchildren. Time flies.]

The original Willie ended when the California crew of grandchildren came in and had too much fun with him. He deflated. Deflation has happened more than once, so “Willie” in this post is a composite of the original and three or four descendants.

1992 – Ken Hill and Willie: In the fall of 1992, as Rita and I were getting ready to leave on vacation, we visited our dear friend Ken Hill who was in the middle of an extended hospital stay. We took along Willie for some laughs, and then asked Ken if he would watch Willie while we were gone. So Willie became a conversation piece for Ken’s constant stream of visitors.

After Ken was released from the hospital, he had a black-tie party at his home in December. Willie, owning a natural tuxedo, attended. Below, Rita, Lonnie and Ken with Willie sporting a top hat and red bowtie and cummerbund.

Willie wasn’t the only dignitary that night. Below, Rita and I chat with Ken’s favorite candidate, Mel Carnahan, who had won the race for Missouri governor in November.

1998/1999 – Willie is Kidnapped: Sometime in the 1990s, Willie moved from the first floor to a corner in a spare bedroom upstairs. One day, we got a note in the mail and some photos of what looked like Willie in unknown locations. Here is the note:

So we rushed upstairs. Willie was gone! He’d been kidnapped. As it turned out, he had been gone for months and we had not noticed. The ASPCA would not be pleased with us as pet owners.

As seen in the photos and others we received later, Willie travelled extensively, both in the US and in foreign countries – even taking an ocean cruise. He sat poolside at a hotel in Mexico. He lounged in a hammock. Rested in a bed. Drove a van. In the desert. In California. Drinking a Bud Light. Drinking from a water fountain. Taking a shower.

In the mountains.

On the beach. Drinking a Dos Equis beer.

One of the photos was a little disturbing. It showed Willie in a plastic recycling bin, but fortunately his captors did not follow through with that threat.

1999/2000 – “Willie’s Home”: On December 31, 1999, Rita and I hosted New Year’s Eve dinner. It was our 23rd straight New Year celebration with Woody and Jane Overton. The other guests were Jim Graham, Sandy Thompson, Larry and Diana Brewer and Richard and Alison Martin. The Martins’ daughter Cora, just two months old, was sleeping quietly upstairs. [Cora update: Now in college at William and Mary. Time flies.]

Soon after we sat down for dinner, the doorbell rang. Rita went to the door and we heard her happily shout out “Willie’s home!” And sure enough, our kidnap victim had returned. No one else was at the door. He came with more photos of his adventures – he had clearly enjoyed the journey. Willie also carried a note.

Rita and I knew Willie could not independently run away from home. Maybe he was suffering from Stockholm syndrome (although unlike Patty Hearst, Willie did not rob any banks). The line about the “stowaway” really hurt. From the photos, we could tell he had been on a cruise – the same four-generation family cruise that Rita and I had been on with my mom, kids and grandkids. He had been deflated, packed in a suitcase, inflated at sea and photographed. Only Rita and I were clueless.

We quickly narrowed the family suspect to my son Brian who often acted as a house-sitter when we vacationed – he had a key to the house. We assumed he was the one who left Willie at the door that night. We were pretty sure two co-conspirators were sitting at our dinner table. Larry and Diana Brewer had recently traveled to places that matched up with some of the photos.

All we got from them were firm denials. The good news is that no ransom was paid. They knew we would not bargain with faux terrorists.

Rita was very happy to see Willie return.

Woody Overton was the regional head of GSA and had to leave our party early to go to his office. There was a fear that the government computers would go bonkers at midnight – the imagined Y2K crisis as the country entered the year 2000. We later learned that Woody’s staff pranked him by flipping the master light switch at midnight. The building went dark and Woody’s worst fears about Y2K were realized. Then the lights came back on.

With Woody gone from our party, Jane found Willie to be a suitable (and tuxedoed) replacement for midnight photos.

2007 – Galapagos Islands: With Willie playing such a key role in our life, we were naturally drawn to penguins in the wild. In 2007, we joined Larry and Diana Brewer on a cruise of the Galapagos Islands where we saw the eponymous Galapagos penguins. They are endemic to these Islands and are the only penguins found north of the equator.


2008 – Antarctica: The mother lode of penguins.

Our cruise began at the southern tip of South America and first took us to the Falkland Islands where we saw three species: gentoo, king and Magellanic. At Gypsy Cove, Magellanic penguins burrow into the hillside for their nests and walk to the ocean as shown below. The beach has land mines left over from the 1982 Falklands War, but the penguins are not heavy enough to set off the mines. We watched from a safe distance.

The next stop was at South Georgia where an estimated 250,000 king penguins stretch from the beach up into the “Alps of the Southern Ocean.”

Below, Rita walks with Willie’s distant cousins.

I’ll stop here with Antarctica penguin photos, but we saw additional species as our cruise took us through islands, icebergs and whales to our ultimate destination, the continent of Antarctica.

As for baseball in Antarctica: “He’s safe!”

Baseball/Softball Penguin Greeting Cards gifts | Epic Sports

2009 – South Africa: In 2009, we went on our fourth African safari, this one to Krueger National Park in South Africa. After the safari, we headed to Cape Town where one of our day trips took us to the Cape of Good Hope to see African penguins. Rita and I viewed them from the boardwalk on the beach.

2010 – Italy: The Brewers added some additional Willie photos from our travels together in Italy. Larry produced photos of us with Willie at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, on St. Mark’s Square in Venice and (below) in Cinque Terra. Alas, Willie was not actually there, just photoshopped.

To the Brewers’ credit, they eventually confessed to their role in Willie’s kidnapping. They outed some co-conspirators who took Willie on trips – Tom Brewer (their son) and Jim Graham (who was at the dinner table when Willie returned on New Year’s Eve). They also snitched on Brian, but he continued to deny involvement. One rumor we heard was that my mom went to Brian’s cabin on the 1999 cruise and Brian was in the process of inflating Willie. He asked that she not tell us. She never did, nor have any other members of the family. A code of silence – a Shalton family version of omerta.

2013 – Crystal Bridges: In the fall of 2013, we joined Irv and Sharyn Blond on a trip to Bentonville, Arkansas, to see the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. We stayed at the 21C Museum Hotel, a very nice establishment located just off the town square and a 15 minute walk by trail to Crystal Bridges. 

Hotel 21C is owned by art patrons who have filled their hotel with many installations of interesting art. But what caught our eye were the green penguins. An art cooperative designed 4-foot red penguins for the first 21C hotel in Louisville, and as each new hotel is opened, a new color of penguins takes residence. In Bentonville, green. In the Kansas City hotel (the old Savoy), the penguins are sky blue.

The penguins inhabit various parts of the hotel and in Bentonville, several stand as sentries on the roof (reminded Rita of the statues on the roofline of the Vatican).  

Penguins even on the roof - Picture of 21c Museum Hotel Bentonville -  Tripadvisor

There were apparently 200 made as they are numbered like a limited edition set, say 42/200.  We were told that there were about 50 in and atop the hotel.  They migrate constantly, sometimes for example being in the elevator or in different locations on your floor. Below, Penguin 66/200 with Lonnie, Sharyn, Rita and Irv. During our stay, we abided by one of the posted rules, “Please don’t feed the art.”

Below, Rita at breakfast with Penguin 56/200. The restaurant walls are filled with wild animal artwork such as the tiger above her head. Penguins often joined diners, but only upon request – it seems that some patrons were freaked out and did not appreciate the whimsy.

Although the 21C penguins do not look like Willie, they have common genes. All 21C penguins are made of recycled plastic. 

2014 – Crystal Bridges and Alice: A quick non-penguin story. Rita returned to Crystal Bridges a year later with two of her high school friends, Anne Devaney and Lynda McDonnell. As they walked back from the museum to the 21C Hotel, there was a sudden rainstorm. They were getting drenched, and luckily a woman came by in a golf cart to give them a ride. In the selfie below, wet-heads Rita, Anne and Lynda with their chauffeur Alice Walton, the founder of Crystal Bridges.

[Architect Trivia: Alice Walton’s architect for Crystal Bridges was Moshe Safdie who also designed the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. The Kauffman is the home for the Kansas City Symphony which gets a shout-out in Lonnie’s Jukebox below.]

2015 – Budapest: When we travel and encounter penguin “art,”, we often can’t resist taking a photo. Below, at a stop in Budapest during a Danube River cruise, Rita with two Willie-like sentries at an ice-bar.

2020 – The Zoo and the Nelson: Last year during the pandemic lockdown, the Kansas City Zoo brought three penguins to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of art. The video is priceless and went viral (click here).

Penguins go on a field trip to the art museum for a day

[Penguin Trivia: The penguins at the Nelson are Humboldt penguins, one of four species known as “banded” penguins for the common trait of a band of black that runs around their bodies. You have already seen the other three banded species above: the Galapagos, Magellanic and African penguins.]

[Kansas City Zoo Trivia: There is a live-cam of the Helzberg Penguin Plaza, home to 17 king penguins (like Willie), 8 macaroni penguins and 45 gentoo penguins (click here). The 19 Humboldt penguins live in a separate warm-weather habitat.]

Townsend Place Willie: After the 1999 kidnapping, we kept a closer watch on Willie. In 2002, we moved to a condo in Townsend Place and sent Willie to Brian’s house to entertain our newly-born granddaughter Emersyn. [Emersyn update: now in college at the University of Arkansas. Time flies). That Willie ultimately leaked away like his predecessors.

No doubt feeling guilty for never admitting his part in the kidnapping, unindicted co-conspirator Brian bought us a new Willie a few years ago. Below, the latest Willie stands by his globe and checks out the activity on the Plaza.

BREAKING NEWS!!! When I sent a draft of this post to Brian for fact-checking, he confessed his role in the kidnapping. It turned out to be more brazen than we had suspected. We were at home when the crime was committed. While we were distracted during a family gathering around our pool, Brian surreptitiously went into the house, snatched Willie from the second floor, rushed out the front door and threw him in the trunk. Poor Willie.

Why tell us now? Maybe to clear his conscience. Maybe to have the full history in this post. Although I have not done the research, I think the real reason is that the statute of limitations has likely run on inflated-penguin kidnapping.

Travelogues: We of course saw more than penguins on our trips to the Galapagos, Antarctica and Africa. For the blue-footed boobies, leopards, rhinos, etc., see the travelogues at this link on the Lonnie’s Jukebox website.

Lonnie’s Jukebox – Classical Gas: In July of last year, Kansas City’s public radio station (KCUR/89.3) launched a sister station at 91.9 to play classical music 24/7. This would not normally be noted in the rock ‘n’ roll world of Lonnie’s Jukebox, but I want to talk about my friend Dan Margolies who has a show on the new station. Dan has a long history of journalism in Kansas City – Kansas City Business Journal, Kansas City Star and currently a senior writer and editor at KCUR.

Dan is also a classical music aficionado. On Thursday nights from 8 to 10 p.m., Dan and Kansas City Symphony Music Director Michael Stern co-host a show that features past performances of the Kansas City Symphony. The co-hosts provide insights and commentary and interview guests from the orchestra. The show is replayed on Sunday from 4 to 6 p.m.

91.9 Classical KC - Homepage | KCUR 89.3 - NPR in Kansas City. Local news,  entertainment and podcasts.

I’ve listened to some of the commentaries, and they are excellent. And way over my head. I sometimes listen to the music for a while, but the pieces are much longer than 3-minute jukebox records. So while I appreciate classical music, the jukebox selections below are only tangentially related to the genre. For the serious classical music fans out there, tune in to Margolies and Stern on 91.9. You can listen to their archived shows here.

Classical KC’s first membership drive is coming up (March 20-26), and Dan tells me that Maestro Stern has snagged a very special guest for their Kansas City Symphony show: Yo-Yo Ma. Sounds like a good time to tune in to their show. In addition to Ma being one of the great performing artists of our time, Dan says Ma is a “mensch – one hell of a super human being.” Case in point: Yo-Yo Ma gave an impromptu performance this past weekend during his observation period following his second Covid shot (click here).

Today’s playlist:

“Classical Gas” by Mason Williams (1968). Guitar player Mason Williams was the head writer for the Smother Brothers Comedy Hour in the late 1960s (won an Emmy for his writing). The premier of his “Classical Gas” was on the show.

“I Hear a Symphony” by the Supremes (1965). Spoiler alert. They are not singing about the Kansas City Symphony.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen (1975). Not the “Hungarian Rhapsody,” but pretty, pretty, pretty good.

“Cartoons and Classical Music” by Chuck Jones and others. When Rita and I attend the Telluride Film Festival, we see most of our movies at the Chuck Jones Theater. It’s named after the famous creator and director of cartoons for Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes. The cartoons are full of classical music. In this linked thread, the first entry features Bugs Bunny and the “Hungarian Rhapsody.” Next up is a Chuck Jones creation synchronizing the “Barber of Seville” with the slapstick action.

“A Fifth of Beethoven” by Walter Murphy (1976). This disco hit is part of the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever, and the linked video is from the movie. Gives an appreciation for the reach of classical music. From its premier in Vienna in 1808 to John Travolta on a disco dance floor in Brooklyn, Beethoven’s 5th still rocks.

Speaking of Beethoven, he was born in December of 1770, and there were many celebrations of his 250th birthday anniversary this past December. In Peanuts 50 years ago, Schroeder celebrated Ludwig’s 200th birthday anniversary…



As for Beethoven and baseball…

bottom of the 9th and the bassists were loaded | Musician jokes, Musician  humor, Music jokes

But the true “bottom of the ninth” of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is its final movement “Ode to Joy.” In the first cartoon above, Snoopy references lyrics (“NICHT DIESE TONE”) from “Ode to Joy”:

Check out the joy Beethoven brings to contemporary flash mobs (click here). I’m betting it does the same for you.

Bravo! Bravo!