At last year’s Festival of the Gnomes, catastrophe nearly struck when they ran out of bird seed. A small child who wanted to feed the birds after the show sobbed when he had no birdie food to throw.
Billie Limacher, Grandma Gnome herself, collected all the spilled seeds she could find into a baggie for the distraught tot.
“Well, we tell them you have to take care of man and beast,” she said matter-of-factly.
As Grandma Gnome, Limacher — dressed in her signature long green skirt and hat decorated with decades of buttons and tassels — doesn’t move as quickly as she did at the first Gnome Show 37 years ago, but her fingers are still nimble enough to sew tassels on children’s caps.
The 37th Festival of the Gnomes will be at 1 and 3 p.m. Dec. 7 at Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park and Theatre in Joliet. The 90-minute indoor show is a mainstay Christmastime tradition in Joliet. A cast of all ages tells the story of the “wee” folks’ good works for man and nature, all the while outsmarting the sinister troll named Snotgurgle.
After the show, children are invited onto the stage to meet the gnomes in person and draw a gnome of their own to take home. You’ll also want to pick up a gnome cap in the gift shop to bring back year after year. And each year, Grandma Gnome and her helpers will sew a tassel to the cap. One can see by all the tassels on a cap how many times someone has been to the festival.
For every 10 years one attends the show, Limacher personally sews on a special “dehydrated star and moon beam” tassel onto their gnome hat. She will even have a couple of 30-year pearl pins to dole out to longtime gnome show-comers this season.
Stemming from European folklore, the plot of the play was conceived by the park’s first manager, Georgiann Goosdson, who directed for many years. It remains a show designed for families of all faiths and ages, bringing a message of goodwill towards men.
“It’s like Santa and the reindeers and Rudolph. It’s tradition,” Limacher said. “It’s well-established.”
Co-directed by Roger McReynolds, Lori Carmine and Jan Novotny, the 90-minute show moves quickly, especially with audience participation and action in the aisle. Kids love fan-favorite Snotgurgle, who lurks about in the audience searching for gnomes. He has been played by Tom McCabe 36 of the 37 years of the show — and in the original costume, nonetheless.
The gnome hero Kostja and his wife are portrayed by Eric Moniger and Cheryl Foster. The main human characters, the poor woodsman and his wife, are played by real-life husband and wife Tom and Jan Novotny. They also narrate many scenes throughout. Their daughter, Lori Carmine, was in the show as a child and now has four children of her own in the show.
There are several other members who have also been with the show for decades, like pianist Tom Cowgill, who has tickled the ivories since the show’s inception.
“He’s a lawyer. Lawyers have pretty cold hearts, but he’s a very warm gnome. He plays for pretty much the whole show, so he gets his practice in,” Limacher said.
The Festival of the Gnomes wouldn’t be complete without the two soft-sculpture boy and girl gnome dolls that are raffled off each year. The dolls are handmade by Sue Shetina, who is retiring from doll making after 25 years. Raffle tickets will be sold for 50 cents each or six for $1.
“I’m broken-hearted. They are just beautiful and she signs her name on their behinds,” Limacher said. “I’m searching for somebody to (continue making the dolls.) It’s a tradition. Kids bring their dolls back year after year and get tassels sewn on the doll hats as well. Kids in high school and college are coming back.”
Kids who attend the Festival of Gnomes “are just mesmerized,” Limacher said.
“When I see any of them during the summer, they always say, ‘Hi Grandma Gnome.’ When I put that hat on, I’m a real gnome.”