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Holy schnike! Wisconsin Historical Museum remembers Chris Farley with exhibit

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Part of contemporary comedy history, the gaudy blue suit jacket and ugliest-shade-of-green tie hang on a bulky mannequin in the Wisconsin Historical Museum's basement. Expected to attract large crowds to the Madison museum today through Nov. 15, the garment will be behind glass because patrons would touch the clothes, officials fear, worn by a character who bellowed about living in a van down by the river.

Nearly 10 1/2 years after his death at age 33, Chris Farley receives a loving tribute in the museum's new exhibit, featuring everything from his Edgewood High School football jersey to this renowned jacket and tie from his "Saturday Night Live" breakthrough character, motivational speaker Matt Foley.

Leslie Bellais, curator of "Chris Farley Remembered," puffs up the jacket's shoulders before the exhibit opens. Among the two dozen or so items, she says, it's easily the most immediately recognizable.

"It wasn't new when they used it," Bellais says. "And the colors don't go together."

But …

"You don't see how well it works until you see the video," she adds.

And, yes, snippets of Farley routines, including scenes as Foley, will be shown on a continuous loop. Visitors will see Farley's arms pumping and his bombastic character looking as if his size and pratfalls will shred the suit.

It's funny. It's bittersweet. It's Wisconsin history.

The museum, located on Carroll Street at the Capitol Square, wanted to showcase Wisconsin entertainers born, raised or who attended school here.

"Chris is a perfect example of that," Bellais says. "A lot of (stars) never came back. He loved Madison. He loved Wisconsin. He carried that love of the state into his work. Even in (the film) 'Beverly Hills Ninja,' he gives directions, 'Go down Aberg Avenue, …' putting a Madison street into the dialogue."

The exhibit opening coincides with the publication of "The Chris Farley Show," a book weaving recollections — most brutally honest — of countless Farley family, friends, co-workers and others. It's co-written by Tom Farley, Chris' oldest brother, who helped provide the museum with many Farley artifacts.

"Here it is more than 10 years later and people still come up to our family and say how sorry they are that Chris passed away," Tom Farley says. "They miss his laughter — then they share funny stories and Chris has us laughing again.

"I know he would have loved this exhibit and been very humbled. Chris understood that wherever he went, the fans and crowds came with the territory — and he embraced it willingly. But it was different here. This was home. This was his safety net."

Bellais originated the exhibit after helping the museum buy Farley's tattered jacket from the comedy film "Black Sheep." She showed it to Tom Farley and he offered to supply other materials. At first, the museum officials planned an exhibit called "Wisconsin Goes Hollywood" — they even bought one of the heavily beaded performing jackets of Wisconsin-born Liberace — but Farley's life provided ample material on its own.

The exhibit separates Farley's life by youth, his work with The Second City and "Saturday Night Live," and his films. An epilogue includes a program from his funeral. The latter provides "a serious component because of his death and his fight with drug and alcohol addiction," Bellais says. "But we're trying to celebrate his life."

The exhibit should draw an audience in their 20s and 30s, a demographic not typically at the museum, she says.

While giving a lecture on fashion history to a UW class, Bellais mentioned the Farley exhibit. She asked the college class whether they knew Farley and everyone did. Then she mentioned Farley's obscure comedy "Almost Heroes," released posthumously, and more than one-third of the class had seen it, surprising Bellais.

"A new generation is discovering him," she says.

AT A GLANCE

  • WHAT: "Farley Remembered"
  • WHERE: Wisconsin Historical Museum, 30 N. Carroll St., Madison
  • WHEN: Opens today through Nov. 15
  • HOURS: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
  • TICKETS: By donation. $4 adults, $3 for ages 17 and under, $10 for a family.

Among the items in "Chris Farley Remembered":

  • Sword used in the film "Beverly Hills Ninja"
  • Sleeveless "Saturday Night Live" T-shirt worn by Farley after shows
  • Jacket and hat from the film "Tommy Boy"
  • A letter from David Letterman urging Farley to appear as a guest on "Late Night" to promote "Beverly Hills Ninja" ("As you know, my background is in martial arts," Letterman wisecracked.)
  • The Second City sweater inscribed with his first name — a gift from The Second City's producer in 1989
  • His original Marquette University rugby team jacket
  • Jacket and tie worn by Matt Foley character, "Saturday Night Live"
  • Tattered jacket from the film "Black Sheep"
  • Edgewood High School football jersey
  • Original script for "Almost Heroes" with chocolate smudges
  • Piece of stone from original star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, awarded posthumously in 2005
  • Autographed promotional item from "Black Sheep"
  • Bobblehead to promote 10th anniversary DVD release of "Tommy Boy"
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