Getting Lost In Lou

Staff Writer
The Voice-Tribune 

Owner of Why Louisville Will Russell.

Owner of Why Louisville Will Russell.

It all began with a red crew-neck.

Displayed prominently in the middle of WHY Louisville’s T-shirt wall, a screen-printed tee featuring 50 unique reasons to love Louisville spurred a scavenger hunt to learn more about the city’s rich history.

A mix of the obvious Louisvillisms – the Kentucky Derby, Bourbon and Colonel Sanders – with the lesser-known – American rock band Slint, the Goatman of Pope Lick and resident Will Oldham – the T-shirt is a refreshing reflection of the city’s both quaint and commercial character. Launching into full investigation mode, The Voice-Tribune decided to further examine the intriguing list of 50 reasons, starting at the source of inspiration: WHY Louisville. Inside the local “non-serious retail” shop’s newly opened NuLu location, WHY Lou Two, we spoke with owner Will Russell, founder of Lebowski Fest (No. 31 on the T-shirt) about his popular store and the article of clothing in question.

“(Creative studio, State Champs) came to me with the idea, and they had a list,” Russell said of the WHY Louisville T-shirt. “Some of their choices remained and I added quite a few, some more obscure stuff.”

Russell humbly chose to leave his store off the list, though we think it’s more than deserving, especially with the addition of WHY Lou Two. The NuLu store carries much of the same eccentric, locally-made merchandise as the original Bardstown Road site, offering everything from Bourbon cookbooks to inflatable beards, terrariums and “souvenirs that don’t suck” within a refreshing, circus-like atmosphere. The shopping experience is further enhanced with free popcorn, pony rides for 25 cents and the chance to spin the wonder wheel, with a winner every time.

Concluding our WHY Louisville visit, it was off to meet quirky Councilman Tom Owen, No. 40 on the T-shirt. Owen may be best known for his method of transportation, a bus/bike combination, along with his expansive knowledge of Louisville history. “I get up every morning assuming that I don’t have an automobile accessible to me,” Owen said of his unconventional lifestyle, which he’s maintained for the last decade or so. Owen shares a car with his wife, Phyllis, but only uses it on the rare occasion his destination is much too far to bike.

Councilman Tom Owen.

Councilman Tom Owen.

Owen jokes he’ll save $100,000 in 10 years due to his mode of transport, which he chose coincidentally, not “because of any grand plan or eureka decision.” “I like speaking to people (on my bike) and it makes me feel like I’m part of a bigger picture,” he said.

Since 2002, the former Methodist minister has served as Democratic councilman for District 8. Owen earned his Ph.D. in American history and, oddly enough, resembles another famous Kentuckian, Abraham Lincoln.

When he “grows up,” the septuagenarian would like to possess two costumes – an Abraham Lincoln getup and riverboat captain ensemble – and walk convention halls, handing out brochures or discount coupons to passersby. He also aspires to host a syndicated TV program, called “What In The Hell Is This?” during which Owen would discuss peculiar gizmos and demonstrate their function.

While he’s not sure exactly why he’s been recognized on the WHY Louisville T-shirt, Owen has a few guesses. “The bicycle thing, the funny looking face, which I didn’t control, (my) way of doing history,” he surmised. “I didn’t plan on it being this way, but I just somehow ended up finding a different groove.”

Next up, The Voice inquired about No. 17 on the T-shirt, Happy Birthday Park, an upcoming attraction on the southeast corner of Fourth and Chestnut Streets commemorating the legacy of Patty Smith Hill and her sister Mildred Jane Hill. The Hills, who co-wrote “Happy Birthday To You” – sung in virtually every nation around the globe – pioneered the development of the kindergarten movement in Louisville. They believed that children learn best through play, a concept embodied in the Patty and Mildred Hill Happy Birthday Park. Boasting an interactive shadow wall, karaoke room and tree house to prompt people of all ages, abilities, races and nationalities to sing, dance, laugh and make music, the focus of the park will be to bring out the potential that lies within in every child.

“We’re going to start building the park as soon as we get the funding,” said Marsha Weinstein, president of the board of directors for Happy Birthday Park. “If you notice around town, there’s not too many statues or parks that publicly recognize the accomplishments of women.”

It could be awhile before the project’s complete, but with park renderings reminiscent of scenes from “Alice in Wonderland,” the venue’s sure to be a hit once it arrives. It’s not just children who’ll anticipate the opening, either. Happy Birthday Park is for any and everyone – after all, “everybody has a birthday,” Weinstein said.

Speaking of whimsical, the Wonderland-esque park may have met its match with a peculiar rabbit, located off Barrett and Royal Avenues. No. 12 on the list, the “Giant Bunny,” is a nearly 7-foot-tall tree carving of a furry cottontail.

Retired school teacher Jane Leis, who lives in the home bearing the rabbit, had the bunny carved nearly 10 years ago. “I always had a rabbit in my classroom (at Urban Montessori),” said Leis. “Before I retired, when I went to public schools, I thought, I’m not getting any more rabbits, and the tree was dead so I thought, that’s it.”

Given the same name as each of her class rabbits, the tree carving by artist Mike McCarthy became known as “Rudy Lou.” Over time, word of mouth turned the bizarre lawn decoration into a small-scale attraction. People began showing up in Leis’ front yard to take wedding, prom and graduation pictures, with Easter being prime time for photo-taking.

Sadly, the Giant Bunny has begun to rot, and is expected to crumble as soon as May of this year. “In two months it could be gone. It’s sad, but as I said, my rabbits died when I had live ones, so my tree died, too.” Leis said. “I don’t have another tree and it’s a small tree. And I just don’t think (I’ll replace it).”

Though there can only be one Giant Bunny, not every local legend must die. The home of the cheeseburger (No. 16 on the tee), Kaelin’s Restaurant staked its claim on the invention of the classic sandwich in 1934. Closing to the public in 2009, the life of the diner has been revived by Mulligan’s, “Kaelin’s Second Chance,” which prepares the cheeseburger the same way Kaelin’s did, albeit with a slight modification.

“We have people that come up all the time and they’ll take pictures with the (original Kaelin’s) sign out front,” said restaurant manager J.R. Harrison. The Kaelin’s name recently received top billing on the building next door. In late February, a soft opening welcomed Kaelin’s Coffeehouse, which provides coffee with “perks,”  signature pastries, such as the $2 Black Velvet – chocolate ganache over a melt-in-your-mouth peanut butter crumb layer – and lunch and dinner, with a full breakfast menu debuting at the soon-to-be-announced grand opening.

“We went with the coffee concept because … the (original Kaelin’s) opened at 6:30 in the morning for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” said Tim Clark, co-owner of Mulligan’s and Kaelin’s Coffeehouse with wife Andrea.

Kaelin’s Coffeehouse, 1801 Newburg Road, will host live music and an open mic night on Wednesdays within the venue, decorated with Kaelin’s antiques and a counter made from Colonel Sanders’ breading table. Most impressive about the new restaurant – You can order the renowned Kaelin’s cheeseburger even for breakfast.

It’s no wonder Kaelin’s, along with the other previously mentioned notable figures and attractions, are among the 50 reasons to love Louisville. We think you’ll adore the city that much more once you discover the stories behind the other 46 on the list.

One Response to “Getting Lost In Lou”

  1. Debbie McAfee

    March 16, 2013

    Dear Ashley,

    My husband and I used to live in the house with the Giant Bunny. Our first child, a son, was born while we lived in that house. We always refer to the bunny as the “Royal Ave Bunny” or “Royal Bunny”. At one time there were T-shirts printed with Royal Bunny on them. Several Easters ago, that first child, had his picture taken with his wife and son/daughter in front of the Royal Bunny, for the occasion.

    The house holds many memories, since my parents and younger brother moved into the house when we moved out. My mother and brother lived there longer than we did. Alas, my brother got married and my mother moved in with us down the street, in a house my grandmother built. After less than two years, my brother and his wife moved to Oldham County and sold the house to Jane Leis. After awhile, before we had to move off of Royal Avenue, the Royal Bunny was born. I loved it!

    There is a connection between my daughter, who was 17 at the time, and Jane Leis but due to the HIPPA laws, I think we would need Jane’s permission to write that story. I think I can say this –> I was very proud of my daughter and very happy the story ended the way it did.

    I am sad that soon the Royal Bunny will be no more but we have some pictures to remember the bunny. Thanks Jane for giving us such a special memory.

    Debbie Snyder McAfee