Putting Kooky back together requires elves

Last Updated: June 14, 2003

Jim Stingl


Here's a confession from 35 years ago. Santa Claus kicked me and my friends out of the Kooky Cooky House after he caught us on our third trip through the line in search of free cookies.

We were penciled in on the dark side of the naughty-or-nice list.

If you remember the Kooky Cooky House, you've lived around here for at least a quarter century and Capitol Court was in your Christmas orbit.

With 193 shopping days till this most frenetic of holidays, I bring this up now because the Kooky Cooky House might be coming back this year. The plan is to put it at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

The walls and roof of the prefab chalet are intact, but the cookie factory inside must be rebuilt from the gingerbread up. Handy people with time on their hands will be needed to put it back the way it was.

"I looked in the phone book and I don't see any Kooky Cooky House replicators," says Gino Salomone, a producer at WKTI-FM who is leading the charge to bring back this piece of his childhood for the current generation of kids.

I'm worried, though, and I tell him so. Will kids accustomed to being dazzled by video games and cinematic special effects marvel at two boxing gloves appearing to flatten what appears to be cookie dough?

Will their eyes widen when they see a strip of what appear to be gingerbread cookies being fed into what appears to be an oven? Will they be happy with a cookie from Santa rather than, say, holiday Nerds or reddish-greenish Fruit Roll-Ups?

Absolutely, insists Salomone, one of those people who even at 44 years of age still has a face full of childlike wonder.

"I believe they're still going to be enchanted. There's a lot of visual candy for their eyes," he says.

At the very least, their dewy-eyed nostalgic parents will love it.

Like many of us, Salomone spent a lot of time at Capitol Court at the triangle of 60th St., Capitol Drive and Fond du Lac Ave. It was Milwaukee's premier shopping center from the 1950s until the 1970s, when it began a sad, slow decline that ended with its death and demolition two years ago.

The Kooky Cooky House was located near the south end of the open-air mall. It was built by a couple of clever carpenters who pieced together an amazing array of gizmos, pulleys, dials, gauges, flashing lights and whatnot to look like a magical cookie factory.

People lined up in the cold to walk through, holding onto railings made of interlocking gingerbread persons. A minute with Santa was the grand finale of the visit, and every kid walked away with a cookie and a coloring book, except the sugarbuzzed punks like me who were booted out.

"In my mind, that was Santa," Salomone said. "He took a break from the North Pole and he came there to the Kooky Cooky House. It was real to me."

Salomone has obtained old interior photographs and even movie footage showing how it all fit together. He said he's willing to put up the money to buy replacement gadgets and supplies if craftsmen, craftswomen or art and engineering students come forward to volunteer their time, talent and tools. If you think that's you, call him at (414) 967-5440.

Larry Rank worked for 41 years at Capitol Court as a maintenance engineer. He said the cookie house was stored in the shopping center basement for most of the last 25 years after the mall lost interest in putting it up every Christmas.

One by one, the pieces that formed the kooky baking operation disappeared. One of the last to go was the square-headed robot who seemed to be running the whole show. He spent retirement perched on a chair in the Capitol Court break room.

"A couple guys we had working there started throwing things at it and broke it," Rank said.

Rank remembers giving the stove to a school to use in its plays. But he's not sure it's still out there. He does have the blueprints for the house, dated 1960.

But when someone suggested discarding the pieces of the house itself, Rank resisted and asked if he could have it. He thought maybe he'd put it up on his son's farm up north, but that never happened.

Two years ago, Salomone got interested and he led a volunteer army who loaded up the house and took it to Kallas Honey Farm on Milwaukee's northwest side after the farm offered to store it in its warehouse.

"It's just stuck away in a corner, all piled up and looking for a home," said co-owner Perry Kallas, who spent many childhood hours himself inside the Kooky Cooky House.

A few other holiday remnants from "fabulous Capitol Court" still remain and could become part of the zoo exhibit. Larry Awe, who worked alongside Rank at the mall, has the giant Santa that used to stand on the roof of Kellers liquor store. And he has half a dozen of the big candy canes that once decorated the shopping center.

The 80-foot Christmas tree that stood in the center court, actually an iron framework covered with boughs, was cut apart with torches and discarded years ago.

But the Kooky Cooky House may just live again.

Remember kids, one cookie to a customer please.

"Reprinted with permission from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel."