Stroll into the Minneapolis Convention Center when the doors swing open this morning at 11, and amid the sea of boats arranged bow to stern, elk heads hanging from exhibitor displays, trout swimming in a portable pond and alligators ruminating calmly — hopefully — amid the chaos, just try to find Darren Envall, the cell-phone-to-an-ear orchestrator of the Greatest Show on Earth, the Northwest Sportshow.
OK, maybe not the Greatest Show on Earth. But one of the greatest. And certainly one of the most storied and largest exhibits worldwide whose sole intent is to stoke the dreams of hunters, anglers and other adventurers, while also featuring the occasional offbeat entertainer.
Such as water-skiing squirrels.
“No water skiing squirrels this year,’’ laughed Envall, 44, who is at the show’s helm for the first time, and thus is responsible for filling more than 300,000 square feet of Convention Center exhibitor space, while ensuring that tens of thousands of winter-weary visitors trip the show’s turnstiles.
“But we do have John Godwin of ‘Duck Dynasty’ and the ‘Swampmaster’ — Jeff Quattrocchi — with his Gator Show,’’ Envall said.
As the Sportshow’s head honcho, Envall has big shoes to fill. The annual springtime spectacle has been going great guns since 1932, when F.W. (Nick) Kahler founded it, making the show the nation’s longest-running outdoor extravaganza held indoors.
Headquartered for decades at the old Minneapolis Auditorium before showcasing its wares for three years in the Metrodome while the Convention Center was being built, the Northwest Sportshow is where Rapala fishing lures first tantalized American anglers, where Minnesotans initially stared wide-eyed at Carl Lowrance’s “Green Box’’ depth finder and fish locator, where Alumacraft boats, developed in 1946 in Minneapolis, were first floated and where the Eppinger Dardevle was popularized in Minnesota as a fish-catching machine.
The Sportshow — now formally called the Progressive Insurance Northwest Sportshow — is also where retired Star Tribune outdoors columnist Ron Schara once showcased his wild turkeys, hoping the gangly birds would fly back and forth to a makeshift roost, encouraged by Schara’s peerless calling.
“All went well,’’ recalled Schara, who now hosts the Minnesota Bound television show, “until one of the turkeys was blinded by a stage spotlight, missed the roost and tumbled to the floor. Which alerted one of Tom Dokken’s Labradors waiting nearby, and the dog chased the turkey around the stage in front of the crowd.
“It was a melee.’’
Now owned by the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which bought the show from Dave Perkins in 2004, who in turn bought it from his dad, Phil, in 1985, who had bought it from Kahler in 1967, the show this year features 487 exhibitors, some of whom have traveled from the plains of Africa and the wilds of Alaska to strut their stuff.
“The Northwest Sportshow is real important to me and to my business,’’ said Tom Buckroyd of Alaskan Advantage in Sitka, Alaska. Buckroyd’s fishing lodge (www.buckroyd.com) targets the five Pacific salmon species as well as bottom dwellers such as halibut.
“Minnesotans love to hunt and fish, and about 50 percent of my customers are from Minnesota,’’ Buckroyd said.
Vacation destinations closer to home also are represented at the show, among them Pike Bay Lodge on Lake Vermilion (www.pikebaylodge.com), whose owner, Jay Schelde, says about 80 percent of his customers hail from the Twin Cities.
“A big part of the Sportshow is exposing yourself to new customers,’’ Schelde said. “But it’s also an important place to visit with existing clients. And the show is a good place to network with other resort owners, and to meet fishing tackle representatives. The Sportshow is where we buy our rods and reels each year.’’
On hold with the new director
A week ago, before the Convention Center was home to a single boat or elk head or alligator, Envall and his staff were in high gear overseeing the move of their offices to their temporary Convention Center headquarters.
The show runs five days. But Envall, along with show manager Barbara Ronning and exhibitor relationship manager John Ferguson, will be on site nearly twice that long to manage the exhibit’s three-day move-in and two-day move-out, in addition to the show itself.
Smaller exhibitors can set up and take down their displays at their own pace. But boats, trucks, four-wheelers and campers must enter the big hallway on schedule to ensure the exhibit’s highly detailed floor plan takes shape with puzzle-like precision.
“Before anyone moves in, the entire floor, all 300,000 square feet, is marked off for each exhibitor, and the carpet is laid,’’ Envall said. “Then we stage the boats and tractor trailers in the marshaling yard in the order they will be unloaded.’’
For weeks leading up to the show’s Wednesday opening, Envall’s phone rang nonstop. Two-way radios and golf carts had to be ordered, so the staff could move around the show quickly. Bassmaster Classic winner Randy Howell’s sponsor, Daiwa, needed to confirm Howell’s Wednesday booth appearance and seminar schedule. And delivery of product giveaways from Lindy, Wing-it, VMC, Shakespeare and Sufix had to be scheduled.
A harbinger of spring in the same way the State Fair signals the end of summer, the Sportshow attracts its largest audience when warm weather seems a lifetime away.
“In the best-case scenario,’’ said former owner Dave Perkins, “ice will still be on the lakes during the show. And turkey hunting hasn’t started. So there’s not a lot to do except think about doing things outdoors.
“And the best place to do that is indoors, at the Sportshow.’’
Generations of Minnesota hunters, anglers and adventurers have traipsed through the Sportshow’s dream-filled aisles in the years since Kahler started his extravaganza in 1932.
Now it’s Envall’s responsibility to keep those dreams alive.
About which he’d like to comment.
But he’s on the phone.