BY CHERYL EICHAR-JETT
Illinois travelers and residents are pretty well used to seeing giant oversized Route 66 icons along the Illinois stretch of the famous Mother Road, including the “Muffler Men” – the Lauterbach tire man in Springfield, Paul Bunyon in Atlanta, and Gemini Giant in Wilmington. Then there’s the World’s Largest Covered Wagon, driven by a very large Abe Lincoln, displayed along Route 66 in Lincoln.
But on Monday, January 16, what arrived at the Illinois Rock & Roll Museum on Route 66 in Joliet was no Muffler Man or covered wagon – it was a 24-foot, 1,600-pound giant guitar – “Gigantar!”
Gigantar was the idea of Ron Romero, founder and executive director of the Illinois Rock & Roll Museum on Route 66 at 9 W. Cass Street in downtown Joliet, and a musician in his own right. A group led by Romero formed a nonprofit organization in 2017 and was able to purchase the three-story building two years later. When completed, the museum will also include music education classrooms and a recording studio. One floor of the museum will tentatively open this spring. The guitar sculpture was created by acclaimed artist Shannon MacDonald, known in the music world for her designs, featuring celebrity subjects such as the Beatles applied to guitars, drums, motorcycles, and cars, as well as more traditional canvases and illustrations.
Gigantar was funded by a grant from Heritage Corridor Convention & Visitors Bureau. Event sponsors included Old National Bank, Legacy Express Trucking, D’Arcy Buick GMC, and Harrah’s Joliet Casino and Hotel. The museum itself has been created with money from grants and private donations plus the organization’s 700-plus charter members.
Gigantar left MacDonald’s studio in New Jersey where it was created on a flatbed trailer hauled by Legacy Express Trucking the previous week. It stopped for its first public appearance in Indianapolis, Indiana, before making scheduled appearances in Illinois. On Monday, January 16, Gigantar made stops for photo ops all day as it made its way north on Illinois Route 66 toward its new home in Joliet. The first stop was at Motorheads Bar, Grill, and Museum at Springfield, where Gigantar was posed with the World’s Largest Route 66 Shield. (If you sense a theme here, you’re onto the general plan.) The next stop was in Lincoln to pose with the World’s Largest Covered Wagon.
Gigantar’s third stop was in Atlanta, right in front of “Tall Paul,” the Paul Bunyon giant. Then it was on to Bloomington to stop at the huge McLean County Museum of History (the former McLean County Courthouse). From there Bloomington police gave the Gigantar trip vehicles an escort into Normal, parking for photos in front of Ryburn Place in the historic Sprague’s Super Service.
Next up was a stop at Lexington’s neon “Lexington” sign, followed by a stop in Pontiac in front of the giant Route 66 mural on the back of the Route 66 Museum. From there, it was on to the Ambler-Becker Service Station in Dwight, the Coca-Cola House in Gardner, and the Gemini Giant in Wilmington. It arrived that evening at the Illinois Rock & Roll Museum in Joliet, where it was attached to the front of the museum building during the week.
On Friday evening, January 20, the lighting ceremony at 5:00 pm was a festive event with about 200 people in attendance. Joliet police directed traffic around a cordoned section on Cass Street to accommodate the crowd. Joliet radio station 95.9 The River was there with a live feed to entertain the crowd until museum founder and executive director Ron Romero took the mic, along with museum staff and musicians Rick Nielsen of the band Cheap Trick and Jim Peterik of the band Ides of March. Romero thanked Gigantar designer Shannon MacDonald, supporters and donors, and the staff of Legacy Express Trucking for getting Gigantar safely from New Jersey to Joliet.
Finally, Nielsen did the honors and flipped the switch, engaging a purple light around Gigantar as cameras and cell phones captured the moment.
On its tour through Illinois, Route 66 and music fans plus the curious showed up, as well as reporters from various media. Romero was quoted in The Pantagraph as saying, “We want people to know that it exists, our museum exists, and we want to be inclusive of all of Route 66 that we can. There’s a lot of great music history here in Illinois, throughout the whole state, and nobody has really recognized that yet, so we just got lucky. We came around at the right time.”
Although a giant guitar on the front of the museum has been part of the design on paper for quite some time, finally it is a reality to signify just what the museum is all about. To follow the museum’s progress, go to roadtorock.org.