The Uptowner was packed, and not just for a late Sunday afternoon. People were wedged into every nook of the perennial Riverwest bar, and if somebody wasn’t bumping into you every ten seconds or so, you must have been outside. Jock Jams blared from the speakers, and anticipation was in the air.
On two TVs at separate ends of the bar, the Wisconsin-Michigan State game was coming down to the wire, the Badgers – once down double-digits in the second half – racing back to tie the game and trade the lead back-and-forth with the Spartans before eventually heading into overtime and taking the lead for good. It was the first time Wisconsin had won the Big Ten tournament since 2008, and it was the first time the championship game had gone into overtime.
But that was merely the background entertainment. That wasn’t the contest the excited and eager crowd was here to see. No, the main event was the Uptowner’s third annual beard competition, marching about 55 impressively groomed gentlemen – as well as several faux-bearded females – down a makeshift carpeted runway to find out who was a hair above the rest.
Even Uptowner owner Steve Johnson’s beloved paintings on the walls – oil portraits of his dearest friends and family courtesy of Mike Fredrickson– got into the act, festooned with taped-on facial fur.
"My dad said hell f*cking no you can’t touch my paintings," said Martha Johnson, Steve’s daughter, as well as one of the event’s co-organizers. "(Mike Fredrickson) walked me to his studio and gave me an oil painting, and my dad said that if I could put a mustache with tape on his painting for a week and a half, then I could hang beards and mustaches on his paintings. And fortunately, it turned out that it worked."
Martha was inspired to bring a beard contest to Uptowner three years ago while watching a TV show. It seemed like fun, as well as a perfect fit for the Riverwest bar considering one commonality amongst its diverse crowd is often facial hair. There was just one problem: Martha knew little to nothing about running a beard contest or even the rules. Fortunately, early word of the event drew the interest of Rob Woelfl, a beard competitor himself.
"I found out they were having one at the Uptowner, and when I showed my interest, they asked if I would help them formulate rules and make it more like a real beard contest," Woelfl said.
Woelfl ended up taking the offer, passing on competing in order to help the Uptowner create a legitimate beard contest – as well as serving as the event’s emcee. Picking and choosing the best elements and categories of his previous competitions, Woelfl and the Uptowner wound up with seven categories: freestyle facial, partial beard, best mustache, full beard – under three inches, under three inches and over eight inches – and whiskerinas, in which women compete for the best fake beard. All entrants received small prizes – various hair and styling products – while first place winners received a certificate and $50.
Judging the contestants was a small panel of familiar Uptowner faces, as well as last year’s big winner Ryan Bonen. There are several criteria for judging a fine beard – such as color, shape and size – but in the end, the verdict is subjective, with a judge’s own preferences playing a part in picking the winning whiskers.
"I like seeing the unkempt beards, the guys that just grow a beard to grow a beard," Bonen said. "They find their style or pattern, and they like to keep it. It’s themselves."
The competition was delayed for a bit due to the Badger game (thanks for going to overtime, jerks), but that just gave me more time to walk around the Uptowner, listen to a wandering saxophone player and chat up the stars of the show: the various beard battlers packed inside, drinking beer and chatting with fellow patrons and competitors.
One of the most intriguing beards belonged to welder Greg Olson, competing in his fourth contest and first at the Uptowner. His two-year-old beard, entered in the freestyle category, was shaped into an almost octopus tentacle formation; for fans of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, the look was pretty much a real-life Davy Jones.
"For a design like this, it takes usually about two or three hours, depending on if the hair is dirty or clean; usually a little bit dirtier tends to form better," Olson advisd. "Loops are I guess the easiest thing to do. It forms your face better, but on the sides, it’s supposed to look like an infinity symbol at a certain angle."
It was a nifty design, but Olson noted that his dream beard has several years to go, a project when he’s 60 or 70 and his beard is long enough.
"When I get old and I’ve got a grey beard, all I want to do is dye it blue," Olson said. "That’s all I want; that’s my dream beard. I know that’s kind of plain, but I just think having a bright white beard dyed blue … it’d be awesome."
He’d need the kind of beard fellow competitor Matt Nelson was bringing to the stage, a long white mane that he’d been growing out for six and a half years and that could easily put the Smith Brothers to shame. The beard was probably about two feet long – if not even more so – and according to Nelson, he’d trimmed about that much off of it to keep it neat and even across the bottom.
"I noticed at work that a lot of the younger men coming in are starting to grow beards now instead of keeping it shaved or trimmed," Nelson noted. "I also work at the Renaissance Faire, and during those times, the measure of a man was the measure of his beard."
His tips of advice for those struggling with subpar stubble: be patient and brush it to train it.
This advice wouldn’t be much help for Megan McGee, although that didn’t stop her from competing in the Whiskerina category, decking herself out in a thick fake rounded beard and an Abe Lincoln-esque top hat to complete the look.
"I heard about it last week – my friend Jason is competing – and I thought, ‘That sounds hilarious,’" McGee said. "I’m actually in a female sketch comedy group, and we have a lot of beards and mustaches. I figured I’d dig out some and go do that."
Not only did Megan have a purse full of stick-on mustaches and beards to pick from, she also had one of the best explanations for the recent surge in facial hair popularity – the beard boom, if you will.
"I heard about this thing called peak beard, that apparently women will be attracted to whatever there is less of," McGee hypothesized. "I think we already hit peak beard, and it might go the other way, but what do I know?
"Plus, it’s Riverwest; anything can happen."
With the end of the Badger game, the time for talk and theories was over, and the Uptowner’s cold hard beverages would now be served with cold hard judgment. The raucous shoulder-to-shoulder crowd gathered around the makeshift carpeted runway – leaving a little window for the judges – where the facial hair fashion show was about to begin with the mustache contest, easily the smallest category of the day with only two dapper entrants.
The numbered contestants were gathered to the far side of the stage, and when their names were called, each individual took a strut down the stage. Some brought props, like a comb or, in McGee’s case, an extra mustache to toss at the judges’ table; others simply brought their well-groomed faces, maybe some poses and gestures to pump up the crowd and then fluffed and stroked their beards for the judges. All the while, the MC Woelfl filled the crowd in on the contestants, where they were from and a fun fact – featuring references from Warren Beatty to furries.
The largest category was full beard under 8 inches, totaling up over 20 entrants. However, the final category – full beard over 8 inches – inspired some of the biggest crowd reaction. When the first entrant, John Kennedy, hit the stage, the left side of the runway actually resembled an actual fashion show runway, attendants’ phones pulled out, recording and snapping photos of the grand beards flowing onto the stage.
All the while, the facial hair fans stayed on their feet and loud, cheering on their favorite beards. With the late start pushing the contest into the evening, they all seemed to stick around as well for the final category: the crowd-voted Best of Show featuring each category’s winner – including McGee, who won first in the Whiskerina category. The final beard standing, however, belonged to full beard under 8 inches champion Corey Kyle Galvan and his nine-month-old facial feature – a product of shampoo, conditioner, blow-drying and pomade for an extra shine.
"I’m completely shocked," Galvan said. "This is a great pleasure. This is my first time winning anything. This is my first beard competition and my first competition in general, and I took first. I want to do it again; this is wonderful."
The atmosphere was raucous and loud; the judges’ gavel gave their table a solid beating at several moments, to the point where I was concerned we might finish the day with a pile of splintered kindling where a table once stood. But it was also friendly and open, people of all types and hair lengths enjoying the show. And even if the end results caused a touch of controversy – many were surprised Olson’s tentacular beard missed not only first, but placing entirely – everybody had a fun time, which, in the end, is the goal.
"I like the camaraderie," said James McMahon, whose pointy mustache and beard combination took first in the partial beard category. "Just meeting different people from all over the place. And usually any of the people who’ve done contests are genuinely nice and like to drink beer."
"I love meeting new people, traveling to new places and enjoying the camaraderie," Woelfl said. "There’s so many different types of people with beards that you’d never expect to meet."
Even the babyfaces in the crowd – myself included, since I can only manage a goatee that makes me look like Hans Gruber’s scraggly cousin – were a part of the community and festivities. Kevin Braun, who said he can’t grow much of a beard himself – "I tried a couple of times," he admitted, "but it’s not a pretty sight" – heard about the contest from a flyer at a Colectivo I the hopes of checking out "something different." He and his partner Rochelle Garza had such a good time that she tried to convince him to give it a grow.
"We’ll see," Braun said. "Maybe I’ll see you next year."
For next year's contest, we may see him and his beard in a new locale. In just three years, the Uptowner has seen the competition grow immensely, reaching new highs in terms of crowd turnout and contestants – ranging from locals to people hailing from Missouri, Iowa and Michigan. Woelfl noted that they had more preregistered contestants for this year’s edition than in the entirety of last year’s contest. But with all this growth, a new venue may be necessary.
"We might be too small," Martha said.
Even if there’s a shift from the Uptowner playing host to somewhere else playing host, however, the vibe will hopefully remain the same. And now that they’ve built it, the beards shall come.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.