When one mentions a plan to visit the city of Knoxville, Tennessee to a true Simpsons nerd, the response comes swiftly: “Are you going to visit the Wigsphere?!”
You’re goddamn right I am.
If you’re lost thus far, there’s absolutely no shame in having not watched every Simpsons episode several thousand times. But to catch you up: In the classic season seven episode, “Bart on the Road,” Bart, Milhouse, Martin, and Nelson illegally rent a car during spring break. They soon realize, though, that they have no idea where to go. Milhouse discovers a AAA Guide Book in the car’s glove compartment and reads in awe about the Knoxville World’s Fair and its stunning centerpiece: a tall, golden orb called the Sunsphere.
The only problem is that the guidebook was written in 1982 and the boys arrive at the long-abandoned World’s Fair site fourteen years too late. They ask the proprietor of a nearby wig shop about the Sunsphere. He calls it the “Wigsphere,” explains that it’s now used solely for wig storage, and pressures them into purchasing wigs for themselves.
Today–in the real-life Knoxville, Tennessee–the Wigsphere still stands.
Having both grown up on The Simpsons, my friend Ryan and I always had a Wigsphere pilgrimage on our respective bucket lists. So when we finally had the chance to road trip to Knoxville we put a stupid amount of effort into attempting to color match the wigs that Bart and Martin wore in the episode, and Ryan used his Photoshop skills to mock up a very convincing replica of Milhouse’s 1982 AAA Guide Book, which we trimmed to match the size of a dust jacket for a cheap used cookbook.
As we drove into Knoxville we jammed “Radar Love” on the car stereo, and soon the Wigsphere rose proudly over our heads, gleaming in the late-day sun.
We had little time before sunset, so we scrambled to get some photos of us in our wigs, in the same dejected pose as Bart and his friends:
We found another angle to recreate the moment when the news is broken to Milhouse that there will not be another World’s Fair coming before Friday, and our lovely 1982 AAA Guide Book got its moment in the spotlight.
Finally, we rode the elevator to the top of the Wigsphere (with a mother and young child who politely did not stare or make any comments about our wigs). I hate to break the news to Milhouse, but there is no information desk at the top of the sphere, nor are there 16,000 boxes of unsold wigs. But there are scattered informational placards with details about the city, the skyline, and the World’s Fair. One of them even mentions the sphere’s appearance on The Simpsons.
We did a lap or two around the interior and watched the sun set over Knoxville. In our wigs. It was beautiful.
But we weren’t done.
When Milhouse first read about the World’s Fair, he was particularly intrigued by the promise of a “giant motorized Rubik’s Cube” built by the delegation from Hungary. As it turns out, the Hungarians did actually build a giant motorized Rubik’s Cube for the fair…and it’s on display in the lobby of the nearby Holiday Inn!
The model was built to honor Erno Rubik, a Hungarian architect who invented—and named—the original toy. After the Fair ended, the model was abandoned and sat rusting away underneath an overpass where Bart and his friends likely never would’ve found it. Thankfully it was restored in 2006, and eventually it was moved to a lobby shared by the Holiday Inn and the Knoxville Convention Center.
The man at the front desk of the Holiday Inn happily led us to the Cube without any commentary or judgment about our wigs.
I began to wonder if maybe that one episode of The Simpsons, reran countless times over 20 years, has had the unintended effect of regularly drawing wig-clad nerds to Knoxville, because no one seemed to bat an eye over our non-traditional look, and in fact they seemed to already understand what we were up to. How much of Knoxville’s economy has been bolstered by snickering Simpsons fans? And how much money could I make if I opened a wig outlet nearby…?
We were giddy when we finally saw the Cube, even though it isn’t a true Rubik’s Cube. It’s just three sections, only two of which spin, and the exterior is simply solid colors sectioned off by black tape. For Simpsons fans, it’s a delight to see. But objectively it hints at the reason why people stopped being impressed with World’s Fairs back in the ‘80s.
The Cube normally sits motionless, but the hotel employee offered to turn on its motor, and we marveled at its indolent spinning, knowing that it would’ve knocked Milhouse’s socks off. The giant Rubik’s Cube never appeared on The Simpsons, but Milhouse’s excitement was so infectious we felt like we were living out a dream that he and his friends had tragically failed to realize.
As a movie and TV junkie I’ve always gotten a special kick out of visiting famous filming locations because it’s a chance to step through the screen into a universe built from imagination, and to make contact with something that has inspired a range of lasting emotions.
When you’re a fan of an animated world, though, there is always the heartbreak of knowing that those locations can’t physically be visited. Springfield doesn’t exist. Shelbyville doesn’t exist. You can’t make a pilgrimage to 742 Evergreen Terrace no matter how hard you try.
But if there’s one thing people can definitively say about the city of Knoxville, Tennessee: