Roger Conner has sold a local tourist attraction, canceled a state highway project, extended the school year by two weeks and played many other April Fool’s Day jokes on Collinsville residents.
On Monday, the owner of Bert’s Chuckwagon shocked customers by propping a giant Pizza Hut sign outside his storefront on Main Street and announcing that the legendary barbecue and Mexican restaurant would be closing after more than 50 years to make way for a pizza franchise.
“He’s basically insane,” said Ron Woods, 63, of Swansea, a customer since the 1980s. “He’s a great guy, but he’s nuts.”
Roger, 69, of Collinsville, starts thinking about his April Fool’s Day jokes months in advance. Often, they involve fliers or posters with fake news stories and photos doctored by his son, Joel.
“I’m an accomplice by blood,” said Joel, 39, of Collinsville, who owns Verona Coffee Co. in the front half of the Bert’s building.
In 2015, the Conners distributed a poster with a “SOLD” sign on the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle water tower and a photo showing the beloved landmark being hauled away by helicopter.
“We had 200,000 hits on Facebook,” Roger said. “It went viral. There were people who drove down to see it gone, but it was still there. People were calling city hall, concerned about losing the catsup bottle.”
Another year, the fake story was that the water tower had been damaged by mine subsidence, but Anheuser-Busch was willing to pay for repairs if the company could change the likeness from a catsup bottle to a beer bottle. A flier included artist renderings.
“Every year, even when it’s a completely ridiculous story, there are always people who believe it,” Joel said.
This year, Roger came up with his April Fool’s Day idea at the last minute. He borrowed the Pizza Hut sign from Bill Cherry, owner of Monster Vinyl, a collectables and record store down the street.
Longtime Bert’s customer Amy Ferguson, 47, of Collinsville, insists that she is no longer fooled by Roger’s jokes, but she still enjoys them.
“I think it’s hilarious,” she said. “There’s so much drama and negativity in the world. It’s fun to look forward to see what he’s going to come up with.”
“He’s just a wonderful man,” added Paula McDaniel, 51, of Collinsville, a customer for 35 years. “He’s down to earth. He’s funny. He’s just a staple here in town.”
But some of Roger’s jokes haven’t been appreciated by public officials.
In 2016, he and Joel distributed posters with a doctored photo of the newly painted Collinsville municipal water tower with the city’s name misspelled.
“Local officials are red faced by spelling error,” the posters read. “Who is responsible for forgetting the V in Collinsville and who will pay for it?”
Another joke followed real-life news 10 years ago that Bert’s was going to be forced to move out of its classic A-frame building on Illinois 159 because of a highway widening project by the Illinois Department of Transportation.
“Highway plans changed,” read Bert’s message board on April 1 that year. “We’re not moving.”
“I put ‘I love IDOT’ signs all over the place, and we had balloons,” Roger said. “People were calling (Illinois Rep.) Jay Hoffman’s office, and his people called IDOT.”
IDOT engineers didn’t think Roger’s joke was too funny, and they asked him to take down the message.
Bert’s Chuckwagon opened in 1965. Roger began playing community April Fool’s Day jokes in 2002, when he changed his message board to read, “Retiring. It’s been a great 37 years. Coming in August: Walmart.”
“The town went crazy,” he said, noting it was a silly concept because of his tiny lot. “That’s what started it all.”
One of Roger’s all-time favorite April Fool’s Day jokes involved surrounding the A-frame with yellow “CAUTION” tape and posting a sign outside the door that read, “Mine subsidence. Only five customers allowed in at a time.”
“We had people lined up outside the door,” Roger said. “Whenever someone would leave, they would laugh at the people outside because they knew it was a joke.”
That year, a city building inspector called to ask if he should come over and take a look.
Bert’s moved to Main Street in 2010. On his first April Fool’s Day in the new location, Roger made up a story about traffic being so congested in downtown Collinsville that the city was going to tear down his storefront. Servers stood out on the sidewalk, holding signs that read, “Save Bert’s. No eminent domain.”
“There’s no greater joy (than making people laugh on April Fool’s Day),” Roger said. “It’s good, clean, harmless fun.”