Far More than Child’s Play
For this group of west suburbanites, LEGO are building blocks of creativity
When Jamie LeBlanc was in his early 30s and gainfully employed, he still looked forward to receiving LEGO catalogs in the mail.
“I was a closet LEGOhead,” says LeBlanc a couple of decades later. “We in the LEGO community call it your ‘dark ages’ — when you saw a cool set come out, you’d build it, but you weren’t active in the community.”
An “In Your Neighborhood” postcard from LEGO alerted him to model railroad show being held at Pheasant Run. That visit turned his LEGO universe upside down.
“It was adults, building on a different scale than I’d imagined. What I loved best was the humor, the LEGO characters doing silly things,” says LeBlanc, who is mayor of Virgil, northwest of Elburn. “I hadn’t realized other adults were building and displaying, and I hadn’t thought about the displaying aspect at all.”
He immediately joined the group behind the 2002 event, the Northern Illinois LEGO Train Club (NILTC). As the Internet became a “thing,” the wider LEGO community found each other online and a phenomenon grew.
“People outside the community are used to LEGO sets — their kids play with them. We as adults take it to an artistic level,” says LeBlanc, now the NILTC president.“We provide a vehicle for creative people to show what they create to the public. You can put it online and get likes, but it’s very different to stand in front of someone and have them shower you with adulation. You don’t get that feedback online.”
The NILTC’s biggest event is the annual show at Wheaton’s Cantigny Park, Dec. 14 and 15 this year. Originally a way to keep the facility busy during what had been a relatively inactive time of the year, a few train groups were invited — a scouting club, a Lionel train club and the NILTC. By the third year, the NILTC was the sole exhibitor.
“Cantigny realized everyone was crowding around the LEGO stuff, so let’s just do LEGO. But even then, it wasn’t the juggernaut it has become,” says LeBlanc of the “controlled circus” that has drawn as many as 12,000 visitors over a weekend.
LEGO displays are placed throughout the visitors center, the First Division Museum and McCormick House. A Marine collects Toys for Tots. Star Wars and Disney characters stroll around.
The men and women of the club have no guidelines on what they create for the holiday show. Some are imagined from scratch, others are representations of actual buildings. Some are a hybrid, “using an existing structure or movie item and adding your own twist,” says LeBlanc.
Eclectic displays are melded together by trains. “A lot of us put holiday aspects in it — but it’s not all Christmas and white snow.”
An audience-participation contest is the annual show’s newest feature. Ten members will build their best Christmas-themed LEGO creations to fit into a 10-ft by 10-ft by 2-ft-tall space. Patrons will vote on their favorite. The winning artist will be awarded a large LEGO set and a random patron/voter will be selected to receive a LEGO Store gift card.
“Some people are drawn to something that makes them laugh, others are drawn to more traditional displays. It will be fun to see what resonates with the public,” says LeBlanc.
He has no idea what the 10 displays will look like. “They’re keeping it close to their vests — they want to debut them to the public and to other members. It’s kind of a one-upmanship.”
The club has 26 members and offers six to seven shows a year. Interested venues are on a three-year waiting list. One year there were 10 shows, turning the club into “more of a second job than a really cool hobby.”
“Six or seven allows us to have regular jobs and lives and still be active in the club without angry spouses. It’s supposed to be fun and relieve stress, not incur stress!”
The “brick heads”— mostly from western suburbs including Western Springs, Streamwood, Elmhurst and Naperville — have fun together. Prospective members go through an introductory process before they are invited to join the “silliness and magic.”
It’s not all fun and games. Shows require lugging tables, clamping them together and securing plexiglass barriers. Members bring their own “brick” — setup can take 10 to 15 people as long as 6 or 7 hours.
Most shows are at public libraries, which loves the NILTC because it draws all ages. When arriving at a new venue, LeBlanc asks librarians, “What did you expect when you heard we’d be here?”
“A few tracks with trains running,” is the common answer. “We never thought it was THIS!”
“I love turning people’s minds around,” says LeBlanc. “This ain’t my kids’ LEGO!”Edit Module