La Porte City, Ia. — Even among the horde of bikes, it was nearly impossible to miss the 7-foot-tall foam mushroom situated along Main Street in downtown Vinton.
Then I spotted the grotesque masks and the name of the shop behind the giant fungi: Midnight Creations, subtitled “The Secret Laboratory.”
By day, owner Kerry Hopkins is a mild-mannered food service supervisor for the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. But his passion is special effects. He loves to craft these macabre latex faces and forms into shape.
Thursday I found him in the middle of airbrushing paint onto a giant pair of claws, what he called “reacher arms.”
Hopkins, 51, was in his bliss — immersed in the aesthetic detail of fangs, rotting flesh and popped eyeballs.
“The mushroom out there was an experiment,” he explained. “I’m trying to do more with foam.”
By entering 305 Main Street, I had unwittingly stepped into both the quirkiest shop of this year’s RAGBRAI and a microcosm of Main Street decline in small town America.
For about 46 years, this storefront was a pool hall and then a restaurant, Dave’s Chicken House.
Dave, Hopkins’ dad, was a meat-cutter when he got into the business. He died in 1993. Hopkins’ mom, Darlene, 84, retired four years ago. She and her son struggled along with the restaurant in the wake of Dave’s death.
Hopkins took down the restaurant sign just this year. That struck me as a final, symbolic resignation to the end of the family trade. A “broasted food” decal remains affixed to the front door. (Broasted chicken was the specialty and was served to previous waves of RAGBRAI riders.)
He decided to put his creature workshop in the front of the building while he rehabs the rest of it and mulls how best to use the space.
“Businesses like that are going away, where that’s your main income,” Hopkins said of his family’s defunct restaurant.
The mom-and-pop shops often are replaced with hobby shops — storefronts whose owners expect nothing more than supplemental income.
The conversation made me dwell on a bittersweet angle on RAGBRAI: Our circus sweeps in and ever-so-briefly breathes life to some of Iowa’s smallest towns. But then the bikes roll out, unable to fix the fundamental problem of eroding rural infrastructure.
Soon I was swept up again in Hopkins’ enthusiasm for his craft. He spoke of the “haunt industry,” the TransWorld convention in St. Louis, and more.
He described his process: He starts with clay, sculpts a mold, pours in liquid latex and then meticulously paints on one subtle layer of color after another.
He once took a class from Jordu Schell, the sculptor and Hollywood creature special effects artist who has worked on “Avatar,” “Men in Black” and other films.
Hopkins sells zombie heads for paintball targets and to “haunters clubs” online.
A head on a post sells for $60 in La Porte City, but might go for twice as much at a trade show.
Hopkins also sells something much more conventional: colorful paper stars lit from within — what he calls “starlamps.” They dangle and fill his secret lab’s front window.
Jason Leete of Des Moines and Jackie Kohler of Grimes (Team El Kohleete) stepped inside to marvel at the wares.
“This is super cool,” Kohler said.
A steady stream of riders took a peek. Some of them had noticed photos that had been posted on Facebook earlier in the day.
Now on summer break, Hopkins returns to work in a couple of weeks. But he’d rather stay focused on his clay, latex and blood-red paint in the shop.
Darlene admitted that she doesn’t have any of her son’s gruesome faces on display in her living room. But she’s proud to see the family storefront endure.
“You should see it at night when all the stars are all lit up,” Darlene said as she sat across the street from the address where she had spent so much of her life. “So the old building still makes La Porte City a little brighter.”
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