In `Simpsons' challenge, it's the battle of the Springfields

May 27, 2007|By Bob Secter and Rick Pearson | Bob Secter and Rick Pearson,Chicago Tribune

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Forget Lincoln. Illinois' state capital, renowned for its ties to Honest Abe, now wants to be known as the home of Homer Simpson.

The Simpsons, the television cartoon satire that inspired cult-like loyalty among millions of viewers worldwide over its 18 years, is set in a never clearly defined but incredibly dysfunctional place called Springfield. That has led to a raging debate about which of the more than 30 U.S. towns named Springfield is the model.

Twentieth Century Fox is now exploiting that dispute to gin up publicity for its new full-length The Simpsons Movie, due out in July. Fox has challenged Springfields coast to coast to prove why they're the most fitting template for the show. The winning Springfield gets to host the premiere.

Several have taken the bait, including Springfield, Ill., where Mayor Tim Davlin vowed in a recent State of the City address to prove "we are indeed the city that best represents the community on television."

All of that might seem a great honor if the mythical town in question were the idyllic one portrayed in Father Knows Best, the sappy '50s sitcom set in another Springfield. But The Simpsons' Springfield is filled with pollution, deceit and residents who are utter doofuses.

And that, argues Jason Danenberger, is precisely why his Illinois town must be The Simpsons' inspiration.

"Lincoln slept here and there; he worked here and there," said Danenberger, 27, a cook. "But let's be honest. There are a lot more people here who you'd think are related to Homer Simpson than Honest Abe."

The criteria for the contest are still vague, but Fox says it will ship each contender a replica of the lumpy family couch that figures in the opening of every show. The towns are then supposed to include it in a short video that boasts of their Simpson-like credentials, and perhaps trashes the bona fides of the others.

Davlin, who keeps a 5-foot cutout of Bart Simpson in his office, has issued an online plea for help.

The city's Web site,, recently added a pop-up image of Bart's father, Homer, next to the mayor's own picture. There's also a link to an online form that allows fanatics to suggest clues gleaned from the show's 400 episodes that point to Illinois as the locale.

Other Springfields are primed for the contest. In Springfield, Ore., Mayor Sid Leiken scheduled a community meeting to plot strategy for a Simpsons campaign. The big selling point there will be the Oregon roots of Simpsons creator Matt Groening.

But Springfield, Ill., officials insist they've got that all beat. Homer's father is named Abe, just like you-know-who. The fictional Springfield has a rival town named Shelbyville. And lo and behold, there's a real Shelbyville, Ill., not far off from the real Springfield, Ill.

Officials in the real Springfield think their ace in the hole is Todd Renfrow, the general manager of the city's municipal power plant. In the show, the richest and meanest man in town is Charles Montgomery Burns, the owner of the fictional Springfield's nuclear power facility.

Renfrow is being hailed in Springfield, Ill., as a dead ringer for Burns, right down to the long nose and bald head.

Renfrow, 72, admits he doesn't know much about The Simpsons but has lately been hearing a lot about Burns.

"People tell me he has this trap door in front of his desk, and when people come in and ask for a raise he pushes a button and they disappear. Sounds to me like he's got some good ideas."

Bob Secter and Rick Pearson write for the Chicago Tribune.

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