‘Pope-apalooza’ inspires a flood of Francis bobbleheads, mugs, even beer

Warren Royal dreamed of a classier bobblehead pope.

The owner of Royal Bobbles is one of the many manufacturers, vendors and artists producing a heavenly host of commemorative baubles — and bobbles — that will surround Pope Francis on his visit to Washington, New York and Philadelphia next month. The multitudes will include papal mugs, magnets, buttons and T-shirts along with popes rendered in plush, plastic and (at one Philadelphia deli) mozzarella.

Whatever this pope’s view of global capitalism, there’s not much he can do about the Papal Industrial Complex busily slapping his name and face on souvenirs ranging from Pope Francis Cologne to “YOPO” (“You Only Pope Once”) beer. The mercantile blizzard has become a standard feature of the pontifical visit, and Francis, in particular, seems to have inspired secular as well as religious suppliers to get in the game.

“He’s one of the most popular men in the world,” said Royal, who had never made a papal likeness at his Georgia-based figurine company.

But Royal aimed beyond bobblehead popes of questionable taste. One version on Etsy features the Holy Father’s visage bobbing between a pair of Rocky-esque boxing gloves, with a cheesesteak in one fist and a soft pretzel in the other.

So Royal and his designers reduced the plastic pontiff’s head by 30 percent (“It’s not so cartoonish, but it still moves well”), vetted his vestments for style and color with Catholic scholars, and ordered him cast in the most substantial resin Guangzhou factories could provide.

“It’s not a just a tchotchke to stick on the dash,” Royal said proudly by phone from Atlanta. “People seem to form a personal connection with this figure.”

He has sold almost 10,000 of them, at $25 retail, in the weeks leading up to the Pope-apalooza and is rushing a new shipment from China. One of the stores on the back-order list is the Catholic Information Center in downtown Washington, where manager Kevin Jones expects the papal visit to double or triple his sales for the month.

“We couldn’t be more excited by the timing,” Jones said. He hopes the papal pilgrims drawn in by the life-size, thumbs-up Francis in the front window will remember the store for their holiday shopping.

Jones had no compunction about ordering bobblehead popes and plush popes to share shelf space with his more reverent lines of books, rosaries and prayer cards.

“We want people to know that our religion is one of joy,” he said. “And the current Holy Father is one who is really filled with joy.”

It’s an article of faith among sellers that Francis, who has achieved pop star status with his populist touch, would approve of the folksy nature of T-shirts that portray him in a Philadelphia Eagles jersey. They say the pope, who has inveighed against global greed, is unlikely to apply that critique to the scrappy sidewalk vendors who will hawk knockoff “I [Bishop’s Hat] Pope Francis” shirts outside the U.S. Capitol while the pontiff addresses Congress on Sept. 24.

“It’s amazing.This pope may sell better than sex sells,” said Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia-based journalist who writes the “Whispers in the Loggia” blog. “You can’t walk within a mile of St. Peter’s Square without people accosting you with T-shirts, rosaries, everything but a vacuum cleaner with the pope’s picture on it.”

As a public figure — arguably one of the most public on Earth — the pope has limited ability to keep his face off the soaps and ball caps and cardboard masks that will soon be for sale on card tables around Washington. Trademark experts say popes, like presidents, have gotten used to it.

“In theory, the pope or the Holy See may be able to try to enforce publicity rights, but de facto it’s as if he’s given up the right to police his image,” said Jess Collen, a property rights lawyer in New York.

And it’s unlikely, Collen said, that the average consumer is going to think the Vatican has officially licensed such products as the toaster that burns an image of the pope into your morning multigrain.

There is an official segment (call it a holy-owned subsidiary) of the vast papal-visit memorabilia market. With permission from the Archdiocese of Washington, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Francis will canonize a saint on Sept. 23, has commissioned several lines of papal-visit souvenirs in English and Spanish.

An island of shirts, medallions and holy water bottles, all emblazoned with a custom logo, already crowds the center of the shrine’s shop. By the time Pope Francis arrives, the inventory will fill a tented pop-up pope shop in the parking lot where more than 150 staff members and volunteers will use iPads to sell souvenir key chains and mugs.

There is a 10-inch porcelain Pope Francis for $59.95. But in this shop, the pope’s heads maintain a stately stillness.

“No bobbleheads, no plush popes,” said retail manager Amy Maloney. “We really want to elevate this.”

For visitor Juana Desantos, buying two $19.95 Francis T-shirts and a handful of medallions for her family in southern Virginia, the objects are more than just mementos of the papal visit she hopes to return for. It’s a connection to the pope himself.

“This is such a good man, such a holy man,” she said with a broad smile. “Just to see his face, it makes me feel close to him.”

That’s a common theme for Catholic tourists, Palmo said, whether joining the crowds at the Vatican or lining up next month to get a glimpse of the papal motorcade on the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.

“Catholics believe in sacramentality, the faith embraces things that are tangible, statues, incense,” Palmo said. “T-shirts and bobbleheads can be an extension of that.”

Even beer. Down the street from the basilica, Brookland Pint plans to offer a specially brewed “No Pope ’til Brookland” draft. A Philadelphia priest recently blessed the bubbling vats of “Papal Pleasure” beer at Manayunk Brewery.

“People are going to have pope parties,” said Anthony Messina, co-owner of South Philly’s Pastificio Homemade Pasta. His shop is offering two versions of Pope Francis molded in mozzarella, one hatted and one without. The mitred pope is far more popular (“You can really tell that one is the pope”), but the shop is having a hard time keeping up with pre-orders for both. Messina expects to sell 700 to 1,000 of them, each weighing a bit over a pound and costing $20. He knows that carving the pontiff will be a challenge.

“On mine, I’ll cut off the shoulder, maybe the top of the hat,” Messina said. “But not the face. I think we’re going to have a lot of leftover faces.”