Meet the Jewish founder of the world’s only bobblehead museum

A crochet museum in Joshua Tree, California, features countless crochet animals that appear in airport advertisements around the world. The National Mustard Museum in Wisconsin was founded by a Jewish seasoning aficionado.

In February 2019, another niche museum opened about 90 miles east of the mustard mecca: the Bobblehead National Museum and Hall of Fame, located in Milwaukee.

Co-founded by Phil Sklar, a native Jew from Illinois, and his friend Brad Novak, the institution is the only museum in the world dedicated to bobbleheads. His collection contains 7,000 unique bobbleheads, including some made by Sklar and Novak.

Big heads date back to the late 1700s, Sklar explained in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. A famous painting of Queen Charlotte, whose replica hangs in the Big Head Museum, shows two figurines behind the monarch, with moving heads.

Fast forward to 2021, when the museum has unveiled its first Hanukkah items: a Bobble Menorah that features nine billowing “flames” (no real fire, of course) and comes in three color patterns, and a Bobble Dreidel in a gelt- shaped base.

Phil Sklar, co-founder and CEO of the Bobblehead National Museum and Hall of Fame in Milwaukee, WI (Bobblehead Museum). (credit: courtesy)

“Having the candles with the flame moving and the dreidel on a spring, we thought it was pretty unique,” Sklar said. “It was tasteful and one that people would enjoy displaying at Hanukkah or with their Judaica collection.”

We spoke with Sklar about how a one-of-a-kind collection became a one-of-a-kind museum, how he uses bobbleheads for a good cause, and of course which famous Jews have their own bobbleheads.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

JTA: With any collection like this, the first question has to be: How did you get to bobbleheads?

Sklar: My father collected baseball cards and helped me collect when I was little. Brad was working for a minor league baseball team in the early 2000s, and they gave away a bobblehead for the first time in 2003. We decided the bobblehead was a cool thing, and the [Milwaukee] The Brewers and the Bucks and the local football and hockey teams were handing out big heads. So we started circling the bobblehead dates on the calendar, since we were going to go to several games a year as big sports fans anyway. The collection grew from that.

How did this interest become the only doll museum in the world?

The collection grew out of travel. We took a trip to try to go to all the major league stadiums, and as we traveled we went to different museums in local places. Several times we would go to the stores in the stadium area, or to the antique malls, and we would just pick up some bobble heads from the area to bring back.

Before we knew it, we were doing some shopping, trading, and selling on eBay, in our spare time. Then, in 2013, we set out to produce a bobblehead for the first time, from a friend of ours who was a manager for the sports teams at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and also a special Olympian. We think it would be a good way to honor him. During that process, we realized that there was a need in the market, an opportunity to produce bobbleheads (people or things that had not otherwise been produced) and commercialize them.

At that time, our collection was around 3,000. I don’t even know how we get so many. We were running out of space for them. It’s so much easier to store 3,000 baseball cards – you can get a box and put them away. But 3,000 ringleaders take up a lot more space. We started brainstorming and realized that there is no museum in the world dedicated to big heads. There are museums devoted to mustard and spam, and a lot of other random stuff. So we started doing market research on the museum side, and it was in November 2014 that we announced the idea for the museum.

Tell me about the collection. How many big heads do you have now, and what are some of the highlights?

We have 7,000 unique bobble heads on display at the museum. The collection itself is now in the 10,000-11,000 range. We are introducing new big heads almost daily. There are teams that send them, organizations, people from all over the country. It’s really everything from sports to pop culture, politics, music, movies, TV, comics. Really anything and everything that can be turned into a bighead, including the menorah and the dreidel.

Do you have a personal favorite bobblehead?

The one of [our friend] Michael is one of the guys who drove the whole museum idea, so that’s my sentimental favorite. He is also Jewish. We didn’t meet because we were Jewish, we only saw him around campus when we started going to school and we met him. Then we met his family and found out that we went to the same congregation.

What has been the reception to the museum? How did the pandemic affect your work?

We have been impressed by the reception. We have had visitors from all 50 states and I think 25 different countries.

We open on February 1, 2019 and then close for approximately 14 and a half months in March 2020 due to the pandemic. Fortunately, we were able to produce a ton of bobbleheads during that time. In early April it was the first Dr. [Anthony] Fauci’s Bobblehead. That became our best-selling bobblehead in a week. We have now raised more than $ 300,000 for Protect the Heroes, which is administered by the American Hospital Association to provide resources for first responders. So we were able to keep busy, keep everyone working for us, and also do something for a good cause during the pandemic.

With some unique collections, there may be subcultures that develop within particular groups; The cult popularity of the Phish band among Jews comes to mind. Is there a bobblehead subculture you’ve seen?

There are definitely several bobblehead subcultures. There are definitely people who collect Jewish figures and dolls. Or it’s usually your favorite team or player. There is definitely the Grateful Dead [bobbleheads] – quite a few different bobble heads, and people try to collect them all. There are people who are political, they want everything presidential or historical.

The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle did a story and we sent them pictures of the different Jews that have been depicted in big heads. Sandy Koufax, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, KISS member, a wide variety of people. It’s fun to watch, there’s more [Jews] than we had anticipated when we reviewed the list.

How do you decide who to do?

Every day we come up with new ideas. Staying on top of news, social media, and current affairs is definitely helpful. But then we have a long list of general ideas. For example, there hasn’t been a turkey doll in a long time, and we have a series of dolls where Christmas characters are sitting on a shelf. So we have a turkey on the shelf for Thanksgiving. Things like that we will sometimes identify years in advance. Many of them take a while to materialize. But what’s more, what do we think people will enjoy or buy? And we start from there.

How did you decide to create the Hanukkah balls? What is your goal with the products?

It was probably around this time last year, more or less close to Hanukkah, and we were thinking, there really hasn’t been anything Hanukkah related when it comes to bobbleheads. And I mentioned to my aunt who lives in Omaha, works at the [Jewish Community Center] in babysitting there, and she really liked the idea and brought it up to some other family members and they thought it was pretty cool. So we did a render, went through a few different iterations of the layout, and thought, yeah, this would be great.

You go to Target or to different stores, and you see a small display of Hanukkah-related merchandise and then aisles of Christmas stuff. We could definitely help increase that assortment. They won’t be at Target or Walmart this year, but it could be something that in future years could be added to that assortment for a wider audience to see and buy.

Are there any other Jewish holidays that you think would be particularly conducive to a bubble?

Yes, I think my aunt sent a list. There were some characters like Judah Maccabee. We could do Purim. We are waiting to see how the big heads of Hanukkah go. There are also other fun things that we could turn into balls. A bobble hamantaschen came to mind. But I don’t know, it could make people try to eat it or something. We will put a warning on the package.

Many of their products and launches are related to charities. Why is it important to you to use big heads to support these causes? Does your Jewish identity have any impact on that?

I think it probably has something to do with my education. Let them teach you to give back and teach you about tzedakah [charity]. And we’ve seen other bobblehead companies start to do the same, and they haven’t done it in the past, so I think we’ve actually inspired other people. We’re not doing it to drive sales, but we’ve seen that when you have a good cause, you can definitely help drive sales and increase excitement around you as well. But we are really doing it to give back to causes and to get people involved.

Is the Hanukkah launch related to a charity?

We haven’t connected this to anything as of yet, but we’ve also done things after the fact. Bernie Sanders, we did the opening bobblehead with his gloves, and we didn’t realize he was going to take off like crazy. We ended up making a five-figure donation to Meals on Wheels Vermont, which is the cause they donated to with the proceeds from the mitts. There is a good chance that we will do something after the fact.

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