You’re driving down a weird back road. Maybe the interstate was backed up. Or maybe your buddy found an article about some cool diner on a blog and you and your friends got lost looking for it. It started raining. You’re low on gas. But there’s a building up ahead, and as you get closer, a blurry light comes in focus: “The Marvelous Mystery.”
Out front there’s an old McDonald’s automated carousel; the little burger-faced fish beckons. The little kid in your brain wants to go for a ride, but your adult iOS tells you that’s silly.
Inside there is a hum of constant machinery, to your left is a Skee-Ball machine emblazoned with the name “Big Bertha.” The titular Bertha leers a friendly grin, while three or four other ancient arcade games whiz, whir and ding.
Of course, The Marvelous Mystery is not in the middle of nowhere, and most Louisvillians are pretty aware of the store’s ancestor, WHY Louisville, and its goofy uncle, The Lebowski Fest, both projects of the entrepreneur Will Russell.
After a brief stint as an online-only T-shirt shop and a string of successful pop-ups over the summer, Russell and his business partner Lorna-Mae Ward have landed in a brick-and-mortar location on Barret Avenue.
When Insider Louisville visited the shop last Friday afternoon, Ward was behind the counter folding T-shirts, but she emerged to show off the shop’s wares.
“It’s kind of the same stuff as WHY Louisville, but I’m a new buyer, so it’s going to be a little different,” she says. “We’re going with housewares, novelty, oddity, stationery, toys. We have the punching nuns.”
There’s a plethora of other fun items, including masks, magic sets, air-fresheners and horse-head squirrel feeders. Much of the initial stock comes from business connections from WHY Louisville, but Ward explains she’s slowly adding variety.
“I’ve started looking for smaller wholesale companies so we can support creative people,” she says.
She also suggested I run through the short but mighty funhouse in the back of the store, which starts with a dive into large, 9-foot-tall inflated cleavage that belongs to a much bigger Big Bertha. The cleavage dive is followed by a vortex tunnel, then a room with a blue-tinged fortuneteller on a flat-screen TV who looks a lot like Russell in makeup and is possibly inspired by Jambi the Genie from “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.”
Shortly after I emerged from the brief but satisfying funhouse, Russell materialized, eager to show off the store, which he thinks of as a roadside attraction, and discuss its origins.
“The Marvelous Mystery was inspired when I visited Mystery Hole in Ansted, W.Va., when I was 17,” he says. “Since then, I’ve wanted an attraction of my own.”
The specific inspiration for the name of the store came from another attraction: Louisville’s mythic Fontaine Ferry Park had a place called The Marvelous Mystery, which was a “gravity room.” That’s a walk-through optical illusion adventure that — like the Ames room at Russell’s shop — is better seen than described.
“Here’s a scoop for you,” says Russell, leaning just a little bit closer. “We just put a down payment on a dark ride.”
For the uninitiated, Russell explains the old-school fun park rides.
“It’s like a miniature roller coaster,” he says. “You go up a hill, then slam through these metal doors and go through the ride. Buzzers go off and skeletons pop up. That will be in the back parking lot, hopefully by the end of the year.”
With all the sights and sounds in the store, it would be easy to miss the entrance to “Paradise Hall,” a new venue that opens Dec. 7 with a book launch for the artist Yoko Molotov’s “Babes of Louisville,” accompanied by a GRLwood show.
Russell takes me on a tour, and when you step through the entrance, a brick archway, you realize you have only been seeing a little less than half the real estate that Ward and Russell are working with for this attraction.
Picture a bare brick room with 20-foot-tall ceilings, about halfway between the size of Kaiju and The Cure. One end of the room has a small stage, currently home to a drum kit and a 10-foot inflatable gorilla.
Behind Paradise Hall, the building goes back even further. Russell walks me past “the green room,” already adorned with ghosts and lenticular art — it already feels like The Marvelous Mystery. Behind that is a dressing room where Russell has stored some large character costumes. He hopes visiting bands will catch the spirit of the place and wear them while performing.
“You know this place is haunted,” Russell says matter-of-factly.
Whether there are or aren’t actual ghosts in residence remains to be seen, but Russell is right.
The Marvelous Mystery is haunted by a palpable nostalgia for the unknown and odd. It feels like the childhood joy of sneaking down to the TV room to watch a late-night scary movie, or the time you would have sworn Chuck E. Cheese looked at you with just a little bit of murder in his big plastic eyes.
It’s not in the middle of nowhere, but it’s certainly a roadside attraction worthy of the title, and in addition to great Louisville-centric shirts and oddities, it’s just a damn good time.
The Marvelous Mystery is located at 994 Barret Ave. in the newly christened “Paradise District.” It’s open Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The attractions are free.