By MICHAEL MILLER
For The News-Gazette
"Anyone can grow a beard. It takes a man to grow a mustache."
No, those are not famous words from Mark Twain or a Dickensian novel. That is a quote from Barney Joyce, the president of the Pi Omega Omega fraternity of Champaign-Urbana. Perhaps he might have been introduced to you as Moose (his frat name).
For those of you who have shown up at a downtown bar and witnessed a random, choiresque singing and felt like you are missing out on a bad joke, you kind of were.
That singing in the style of the Irish jig "Nancy Whiskey" is a staple of Pi Omega Omega (insert POO reference here) and signifies a new inductee to the not-so-exclusive local fraternity.
The non-campus-related frat got off to a modest beginning as a local dart-league team, depending on who was sober enough to remember, and grew infectiously among service-industry employees. The frat is home to perhaps more than 1,000 members – again, depending on who was sober enough to remember. The Mr. Mustache Competition arose from slight jealousy over a Courier Cafe employee's uncanny ability to grow a thick mustache over the restaurant's three-week holiday closing. It has since snowballed into a fierce challenge of improvisational skills and stage presence that makes "America's Got Talent" look like Karaoke Night at a dingy Las Vegas lounge.
For the better part of a decade, this manliest of competitions – and ladies are more than welcome to don a faux 'stache – has been regularly held at the Mike 'n Molly's beer garden. The packed-house event forces the contestants to step up and run the gauntlet of mustache-themed trivia questions, a talent round and, as of last year, a swimsuit competition. The judges crown a champion based on a sliding scale of appearance, crowd appreciation and, of course, the awesomeness of the mustache.
"It's an intrinsically male thing because only men can grow mustaches, but it's kind of more than that now," said Mike 'n Molly's owner and yearly fill-in contestant Mike Murphy (Os). "It's about celebrating the mustache as a means to be funny around it."
Past winner Bill Turner (Wink) hopes to provide laughs and grow the winning mustache once again.
"For me it is random. For some it is specific. This year, I don't know what I'm going to do just yet," Wink said. "My mustache is coming in quite large this year. I might think of doing Tom Selleck or other mustachioed characters from American television."
It can be somewhat challenging to come up with a standout character in what can be a colorful cast. Last year was the first time I was brave enough to compete in this formidable engagement of follicles. My foray into this event culminated in a second-place finish as the 1970s game-show host with an impeccable hound's tooth jacket and pencil-thin microphone, Flip Flopperson. My better was Evan Smith (Braveheart), who, as last year's winner, plans to make a special flight in from Arizona to do the compulsory Mr. Mustache duty of hosting this year's competition.
"I wasn't in it for the title. I was in it for what comes along with it. A mustache isn't a fashion accessory, it's a lifestyle," Braveheart said. "When someone asks, 'Do you want more jalapenos with that?' 'Yes, I do.' When you walk into a bar, people know who you are because of the mustache."
That attitude helped Braveheart win over the crowd and the judges in what was also his first voyage into the Mr. Mustache Competition. This year's field features a mixture of former Mr. Mustaches and more first-timers, including many local faces such as improv comedy star Matt Fear (Cockney), culinary artist Cameron Patten (Beetle) and the man who puts the duke in the band Duke of Uke, David King (with the apt frat name Duke).
The Mr. Mustache Competition has a group of regular participants, but nobody holds the track record of continual crowd favorite Jack Osborn (O-Zone), who received a Lifetime Mustache Achievement Award last year for his nearly perfect attendance – 11 of 12 years – and his constant pushing of the envelope. Some of O-Zone's most memorable characters have been his zombie-inspired costume and his lovable turn as Mr. Pringles.
"I don't think I elevated it. I perpetuated it. My whole object is to lose," Osborn said. "I think the people who get the worst mustaches are the real winners."
No, O-Zone. Nobody ever loses in the Mr. Mustache Competition. As Moose says: "It's really all about the mustache. Everything else doesn't matter."