As Debbie Pettid, one of the creators of The Rabbit Hole, waited for some 30 elementary school students from Rosehill Enhanced Learning Classroom in the Shawnee Mission School District on a recent Friday morning, she reflected on the whirlwind of the past several months.
In mid-February, Pettid and her husband Pete Cowdin, longtime owners of Kansas City's iconic Reading Reptile, announced they were closing the bookstore to concentrate on nonprofit adventure of building a massive, museum-like environment in which visitors would be immersed in the narrative of children's literature. They described it as "the world's first explora-storium." The Reading Reptile closed on March 12.
And after five weeks of constructing exhibits of papier-mache and paint to create the immersive gallery for Jon Agee’s The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau, the Rabbit Hole was open to the public. The process of fundraising for the next phase was about to begin.
Pettid said so far people were responding enthusiastically to the newly-minted Explorastorium.
“I think that people really like the handmade quality of it,” said Pettid. “It’s not perfect. You can tell that it’s made by hand and people really, really love that. It’s like they’re hungry for it. They love being told that they can touch things. They love have the opportunity to just explore and find little secret things that we’ve hidden around the space.”
The bus pulled into the parking lot and the students lined up for a tour. Exhibit Docent Emily Sloan, wearing a jaunty beret, lead a small group of students into the darkened art gallery where Agee’s story takes off.
The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau tells the tale of a French artist whose paintings come to life, a talent that earns him overnight fame then disgrace as his works quack, erupt and slither all over the streets of Paris.
At story's end, the students were invited to create a cardboard-framed masterpiece of their own.
Nine-year-old Iason Wilson-Brown from Oak Park-Carpenter Elementary School continued to look around.
“It kinda teaches you that a book isn’t just reading,” said Wilson-Brown. “I like it because it shows with not even very many materials and just a bit of focus you can make a prison cell, or a big python, or whatever.”
Pettid asked if there were any questions.
Eight-year-old Greta Kelley, from Holy Trinity School, had been particularly impressed with a waterfall made of blue plastic, light and papier-mache. Pettid explained that a volunteer had found it at a thrift store and donated it to the Rabbit Hole.
“It’s about taking something that’s kind of old and broken, figuring out how to make it work and trying to make it completely different,” said Pettid.
“Recycling,” chimed in Kelley.
“Recycling is right,” Pettid said.
So far, Pettid said, her biggest surprise has been the enthusiasm for buying books. “Literally, every person that went through on opening day wanted to buy a book,” Pettid said. “No exaggeration. We had the (Reading Reptile) book store for 27 years but we never had an event where everybody was like, 'I want the book.' And that’s want you want. You want everybody to have that connection with the book.”
The Rabbit Hole's first immersive gallery is open Fridays from 4-8 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sundays from noon-4 p.m. through May 22 at the northeast corner of 17th and Oak Street in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, 817-247-3360.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.