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Colonically speaking, it's totally tubular

The 40-foot-long, crawl-through Colossal Colon is on a 20-city tour to promote colorectal cancer awareness.

March 07, 2003|Roy Rivenburg | Times Staff Writer

In the shower, some people sing, some people shave and some envision giant polyurethane body parts motoring around the U.S.

Early last year, somewhere amid lather, rinse and repeat, Molly McMaster hatched the idea for a jumbo colon that would cruise the countryside promoting cancer awareness.

One year and $1 million in donations later, the Colossal Colon has kicked off a flashy 20-city tour. The 40-foot-long, crawl-through innard is a testament to how far some charities will go to capture public attention. It's also a magnet for jokes.

In Chapel Hill, N.C., a college fraternity plotted to kidnap part of the colon so that it would become a semicolon. In New York, visitors said they wanted to scoot through the stately intestine dressed as gerbils. Others have asked, "How do you clean the colon? Do you send in a giant broccoli?"

Even the company that built the exhibit can't resist wisecracks. "When can we do a breast cancer tour?" crew members ask.

But the snickers don't bother organizers of the colon campaign. Humor was part of their plan.

"This is a disease nobody wants to talk about," explains Shanna Duncan of the Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation, a co-sponsor of the tour. "We feel that if people are laughing about it, they're talking about it."

Visitors who pass through the horseshoe-shaped intestine encounter giant polyps, hemorrhoids, tumors, diverticulosis and other diseases, all modeled on footage from human colonoscopies. The pink-hued colon weighs about 3,000 pounds and stands 4 feet high. For people unable or unwilling to crawl inside it, there are viewing portholes.

Offbeat gimmicks are nothing new in the health awareness field. Breast cancer groups have strung thousands of bras across the Potomac River and the Las Vegas Strip to publicize their cause. And a crib-death foundation once stuck red clown noses on Amtrak trains and freight trucks to raise funds.

Other organizations employ celebrity pitchmen, such as Bob Dole for erectile dysfunction or Dan Quayle for deep-vein thrombosis.

McMaster, 27, a onetime radio DJ and ice hockey coach who survived a battle with colon cancer four years ago, is no stranger to publicity stunts. In 2000 she skated from her home in upstate New York to Colorado to raise money for cancer research.

That led to an appearance on the "Today" show -- and a challenge from host Katie Couric to devise a crazy stunt for National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, in March. "The wheels started turning in my head," McMaster says.

Once she got the idea for a monster colon, everything quickly fell into place. Her first stop was a former catheter plant in Argyle, N.Y., that builds fake dinosaurs, 10-foot-high promotional shoes and scenery for amusement parks. "It's certainly one of the strangest requests we've had," says sales manager Carl Zutz of Adirondack Scenic Inc. The company drew up three designs and said the project would cost $60,000.

A pharmaceutical firm, cancer groups and friends chipped in. "We raised the money in three weeks flat," McMaster says.

The Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation suggested making the intestine tall enough to walk through, "but Molly thought it would feel more like being inside a colon if people had to crawl through it," Duncan says.

Visitors to the tour receive purple and green Colossal Colon passports, which are stamped at the various educational stations that accompany the exhibit. The first station is a game-show set, complete with buzzers and microphones for contestants. Among the multiple-choice questions: "How much spit do you produce every day?" (answer: 1.5 quarts) and "How tall would you be if you had a 40-foot colon?" (answer: 50 to 60 feet).

Another station features a plastic box with a magnetic wand that is used to pull a metal marble past various obstacles inside a miniature intestine.

Other gargantuan body parts could be next. Zutz says his company has been contacted about building a similar prop for another health group. A super-enlarged prostate, perhaps? Or maybe an X-rated version of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile? Zutz won't elaborate, saying the project is "still in negotiations."

The Colossal Colon is scheduled to visit Los Angeles at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration on Temple Street, June 18-21. Details are available at www.checkyourinsidesout.org.

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