Red All Over

Collinsville celebrates as its mighty catsup bottle turns 54

Some catsup bottles get whacked on the bottom 54 times -- but not as a birthday ritual. They're endlessly drained and refilled in restaurants, or aging in the fridge door, forgotten and crusty.

But the "World's Largest Catsup Bottle" stands alone, 170 feet tall (that's 460 feet shorter than the Gateway Arch, but still monumental), and is loved as a vintage masterpiece of American kitsch and as the inspiration for an annual birthday party in Collinsville, Illinois.

The bottle turns 54 on Sunday, July 6, providing the sauce for the "Fifth Annual Downtown Collinsville World's Largest Catsup Bottle Summerfest Birthday Party and Custom & Classic Car & Truck Show." The bash, presented with help from the bottle's friends at Downtown Collinsville Inc., and the Catsup Bottle Preservation Group, apes those kids' birthday parties of yore, with a Hula Hoop contest, water-balloon toss, musical chairs, "Please-Pass-the-Catsup" version of hot potato and kissless twist on spin-the-bottle. And if that doesn't jolt your catsup down the bottleneck, this year's event boasts its first-ever media sponsor: Becky, Queen of Carpet and diva of wee-hour television.

The all-day soiree is free, and it's free to park. And party host Mike Gassman figures that 5,000 people attend the event each year.

"We keep wanting to get the guys that estimate the Fair St. Louis to tell us that we've got 100,000," he jokes, referring to the dubious attendance figures touted by the more famous party. As to any condimental proceeds, Gassman says, "Proceeds? If we ever do see proceeds they will go to help fund the Downtown Revitalization office."

The Bottle itself was revitalized in 1995, and being that salsa sales have eclipsed those of catsup nationwide, it was high time for the landmark to spruce up its appearance.

It originally served as a functional water tower, built in 1949 for the bottlers of Brooks Catsup -- once a warhorse brand that you'll still find in many a chili recipe in church-lady cookbooks. The tower, made of riveted steel, closed in 1963 when Brooks no longer made catsup at the site.

Brooks Catsup, now part of Birds Eye Foods and bottled in Wisconsin, donated $10,000 to the $78,000 project. To this day, Brooks provides four to six cases of catsup for the festival.

And, yes, it's "catsup" in Collinsville, because that's the way it's spelled on the big bottle. In the 1980s, however, Brooks drifted from its classic, tapered bottle of ribbed glass to a blockier, plastic vessel. With the change came the turn in label verbiage to "ketchup." That's fine with many who grace their plates with puddles of red.

"Personally, I can't say 'catsup,'" Gassman says. "It's ketchup to me. But we all know what we're talking about."

Partygoers can see if they know their Hunts from their Heinz in the "Brooks Catsup Tangy Taste Test," and the Zydeco Crawdaddys will perform live music. You'll find Collinsville about 12 miles east of downtown St. Louis, off I-55/I-70. The festival happens along Main Street in the downtown district. Look for the catsup bottle on the horizon, south of town. Visit www.catsupbottle.com or call 618-345-5598 for more info.

 
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