Nathan Ziegler made a sled out of a bath towel, and his pancakes root for the home team. With a handful of easy-to-get supplies — and a frosty climate — he has caught the fancy of an international audience.
Ziegler, 38, is a Minneapolis school principal whose lessons on YouTube have drawn more than 10,000 subscribers. His audience, initially amused by his household stunts in subzero temperatures, more recently has developed an interest in his artistry with breakfast food.
In his videos, Ziegler has frozen his wife’s hair, pounded a nail with a banana and created a bowling game out of 2-liter bottles and a watermelon.
Once, he dunked a towel in a bucket of water, furled the front with three side-by-side cans of paint and left it outside for six hours. Presto: homemade sled. Knocking on the rock-solid sled, he proves the series’ tagline: “It’s so cold that … ”
Ziegler, a native of Montevideo, Minn., started his popular Minnesota Cold series in 2007, primitive days for the video-sharing site that now streams presidential debates. This winter, eyeing the milder forecast, he started posting tutorials on how to make Vikings, Gophers and “Star Wars” pancakes.
His stardom grew last year because of a stunt where he froze his backyard trampoline with a layer of ice. A willing friend then jumped from the Zieglers’ garage roof, shattering the surface as shards of ice erupted into the air.
The video drew more than 170,000 views with its pranky appeal that’s much cooler than a science-fair volcano. Ziegler was featured on Huffington Post, NBC News, the BBC, “Good Morning America” and, naturally, the Weather Channel, among other outlets. His footage even appeared on a German news entertainment site.
His backyard and kitchen are his stage. He offers step-by-step instructions for viewers, including students and teachers at Hope Academy, not too aghast to try.
“It’s a fun way to connect with the students because I have way more views on YouTube than any of them,” Ziegler said. “That means something in their economy.”
As for how the videos play outside the state, he conceded: “It probably adds to the stereotype that we are crazy here in Minnesota.”
Zech Ziegler, 12, occasionally appears in the series and accompanies his dad on trips to buy supplies. His sister Eleison, 9, said her dad is “kind of famous.”
“Bundle up,” Zech advised, “and get ready to have some fun.”
On a recent Monday afternoon, a couple of dozen boys marveled as “Mr. Z” whipped up his pancakes in the Hope Academy cafeteria. The middle school boys listened intently for instructions.
Start with the outline, Mr. Z. said, maneuvering a condiment bottle filled with batter. Then, fill it in, he added, holding up a gloved hand to show the second bottle’s thicker tip.
A chorus of “Ooh’s” rang out after Mr. Z flipped his first “Star Wars” pancake. Then the boys were ready to offer suggestions for the next one.
“Can you do Donald Trump!?” one asked to explosions of laughter.
“No,” Mr. Z. responded.
“How about the Apple sign?” prodded another.
As the griddle began to cool, the boys grabbed paper plates for a family-style snack.
Be it of pancakes or a “Minnesota Cold” experiment, the video footage gives the students clean material to watch, said Ziegler, who had strapped the pancake griddle to his bike rack before commuting to work that morning.
“Is this something I would show my students at school?” Ziegler asks himself before posting. “That’s my filter.”
His Web presence has won him points with students, including Jeremiah Rupert, 12.
“To actually know someone who has thousands of subscribers on YouTube,” Rupert said, “that’s interesting. It’s individual and unique.”
A chill principal indeed, Mr. Z. has taught Rupert that he could build a snow cave instead of playing video games. Rupert has considered kick-starting his own series and wants to be an engineer.
“I have to come up with my own idea, though,” Rupert added. “So people aren’t like, ‘Oh, you copied.’ ”
Doing, not watching
As a side project, the Zieglers and friends from a Bible study create videos for an annual film fest. One video shows the men twisting like graceless Gumby for a “broga” exercise skit, and another mocks a reality competition in the spirit of “Survivor.”
For such an avid video producer, Ziegler isn’t much of a video consumer.
“We don’t sit around watching TV,” Ziegler said of his family. “We do stuff together.”
The videos also provide a mental break from the pressures of being a principal.
“This job is pretty demanding,” he said. “I absolutely love this job, but the videos are a way to think creatively.”
His wife, Tennille, is from Oregon, and her whole family “thinks [she’s] crazy” for braving the Minnesota winter. An uncle of hers, however, has asked Ziegler to mass-produce pancakes for his superintendent campaign in Washington. They recently visited Oregon for the holidays, and when it started to snow, they zoomed around the neighborhood making snowballs.
“It is kind of like being a big kid,” Ziegler said.
Even longtime Minnesotans take heart from the videos.
“He definitely has increased my love for the season,” said Tasha Irving, who’s lived in the Twin Cities for more than two decades. “For all the cool things we can do here that others can’t.”
Irving, who teaches art at Hope Academy, posts Ziegler’s videos on her Facebook page to show off a “cool principal who’s willing to do this stuff.”
“He’s willing to think about what kids are into,” she said, “but also put a spin on it, so they can see what they can learn.”
He has no plans to stop singing the scientific praises of winter.
“I love Minnesota, so it would be pretty tough to pull me away from it,” he said.
But if he had to dig out?
“Probably Florida or Hawaii,” he said. “I’ve been there a couple times, and it’s warm there. It’s just nice to not have to shiver.”