Search

Tricks of the Trade Never take off your head in public--and other important lessons I learned at mascot school

Dec. 16, 2002
Dec. 16, 2002

Table of Contents
Dec. 16, 2002

Tricks of the Trade Never take off your head in public--and other important lessons I learned at mascot school

A mascot is someone who brings joy to millions of people and may
or may not be wearing an athletic cup. I learned this my first
day at mascot school. Two of my classmates, a Clydesdale and a
dog, have been discussing violent hockey fans and the need for
protective padding. Clyde the Clydesdale--known to his parents
as Paul Bonds of Tuttle, Okla.--tells the story of an Oklahoma
City Blazers game, during which a young woman walked up to him
and, for no discernible reason, grabbed him forcefully a few
feet north of the fetlocks. Bonds, who's employed as a rodeo
clown when he's not working as a horse, does not appear to be
easily intimidated. Nonetheless, he states gravely, "I wear a
cup every game."

This is an article from the Dec. 16, 2002 issue

Thunder Dog (a.k.a. David Knofflock of Wichita, Kans., where the
two-day mascot class is being held) is nodding empathetically. "I
make appearances around town, and there are neighborhoods I won't
go in without a cup."

Our teacher, Pierre Deschesnes, is listening quietly. A respected
comic mime, he has spent 17 years in the fur, most notably as
Youppi, the Montreal Expos' mascot. But for someone who makes his
living through extroversion and public tomfoolery, he is
unexpectedly reserved. Deschesnes claims he is rarely hassled,
perhaps because he no longer provokes rival fans by representing
a single team; instead, he freelances 175 to 200 times a year as
a red Elmo-type character called Jumping Jack, making
$1,000--$2,500 per appearance at sporting events and trade shows.

Postings on Internet bulletin boards suggest it's not just hockey
fans that a mascot need be wary of. The Donk, writing in the
"Mascot Central" section of Varsity.com, says she's been "thrown
down stairs and punched in the stomach" by Arena football fans. A
baseball fan at a Baltimore Orioles game once pushed the Bird off
an outfield wall, breaking several of his bones.

What is it about mascots that makes kindly, law-abiding citizens
want to brutalize them? Bonds thinks it's the anonymity of a
costume. People can take out their aggressions on a mascot
without feeling as if they're harming a person. Knofflock blames
cartoons: "People are desensitized to violence against cartoon
characters." They see them getting run over by steamrollers and
pushed off cliffs and then hopping up and dusting themselves off.
"They think we're invincible."

Whatever the reason, it's not what you want to hear when you're
preparing to make your debut in a dog suit in front of 9,686
Wichita hockey fans.

The very first mascots didn't have to worry about aggressive
fans. It was more the case that fans had to worry about
aggressive mascots. In the days before animal rights activists
and a preoccupation with liability, live cougars and wolverines
and such were brought to playing fields and hauled around on
leashes. The animals were considered good luck charms rather than
entertainment or generators of team spirit.

The first human mascot for a professional team was a man in a
chicken suit, out of San Diego. Hired in 1974 by a radio station
to appear at concerts and Padres games, Ted Giannoulas and his
Famous Chicken act grew so popular that he decided to go it
alone. He sued the station, won legal rights to the character and
began traveling the countryside in a motor home, earning upward
of $8,000 an appearance.

In the 1980s mascots increasingly amped up their performances by
piloting ATVs through flaming hoops, bungee jumping and
rappelling into arenas. Some NBA teams now pay trained gymnasts
six-figure salaries to entertain crowds with back flips and slam
dunks off trampolines.

In the rush to one-up each other, mascots have on occasion taken
things too far and wound up being slapped with restrictions. New
NHL restrictions prohibit skits that make fun of individual
players. "We can do something poking fun at a team in general,"
says Anthony Gioia, mascot coordinator for the Carolina
Hurricanes, "but not players."

Instead of mean-spirited routines, we're seeing a return to
simple skits and good-natured comedy. Creativity and
entertainment are the linchpins of Deschesnes's craft, and mostly
what he teaches. His textbook includes 74 everyday fan situations
and suggestions for pantomimed mischief--stealing (but ultimately
returning) a fan's popcorn, reading over people's shoulders,
motioning to a man to stop as he descends the stairs to his seat
and then making off with his date.

It is late morning now, in a meeting room off the main lobby of
the Wichita YMCA, which Deschesnes has rented for his class. He
is working with the two beginners now: myself and Debbie Boyd, a
data-processing supervisor at the local utilities board and a
giant frog. Boyd will visit schools and work the board's annual
Clean Water Festival. Right now she's sitting in a chair,
waist-deep in amphibian, one green arm hanging down from her lap.
Before she can pull her arms on and her body up, she has to put
on her gigantic shoes. Otherwise her green belly would get in her
way, and she wouldn't be able to see her feet.

While she and I dress, Deschesnes goes over the cardinal rules of
mascotting. Never take off your head in public. This causes
psychic meltdowns among very young children, who tend to believe
that a big, furry frog really is a frog. Never talk. Never mess
with a woman's hair. "And don't mess with the purse"--lest the
owner decide that $20 has gone missing and blame you.

Deschesnes has other reasons to be wary of handbags. He tells the
story of an Expos game during which Youppi pretended to swipe a
woman's purse. The bag was open, and some of the contents tumbled
out, including a large vibrator, which rolled across the dugout
roof. Without thinking, Youppi picked it up and pretended to use
it as a Q-tip. A cameraman spotted the scene, and the entire
spectacle was broadcast on the JumboTron. The woman gathered up
her things and fled the stands in horror.

Since I have no costume of my own, Deschesnes has lent me Baby
Blue, a cheery, mouthwash-hued dog of indeterminate pedigree.
Like many mascots, the dog wears a shirt but no pants. I don't
know what's up with that. Deschesnes is helping me put on my
head, which clips to the dog's body by way of two silver rings
located more or less at the nipples. I don't know what's up with
that either.

The inside of the head, which is secured by a chin strap, is
similar to a bicycle helmet. Mascots see through their
characters' mouths. The drawback to this is that when a fan
decides to punch a mascot in the mouth, you wind up with a
shiner.

For our virgin run, Deschesnes wants the frog and me to work the
day-care center down the hall. I'm having trouble seeing because
the dog's mouth is too low. In order to look at people's faces, I
have to lean my head back, giving Baby Blue an off-putting sort
of William F. Buckley air. To avoid looking supercilious and
still see who I'm dealing with, I have to keep moving the head up
and then quickly down, up and down, which I'm doing when
Deschesnes says, "Ready? Good! O.K.!"

Deschesnes claps once, then opens the door for us. The entire
staff of the YMCA has gathered in the lobby. Perhaps you remember
the graduation party scene at the beginning of The Graduate, shot
through Dustin Hoffman's scuba mask. That's what this reminds me
of. It's embarrassing and hot and claustrophobic. I imagine this
is what it feels like to be an astronaut in a space suit, minus
the glory and the high-tech cooling system.

As we enter the day care, I select a two-year-old across the
room, being held by a day-care worker. I lope across the carpet,
channeling Goofy, anticipating squeals of delight. The
two-year-old does what any sensible two-year-old does upon being
charged by a six-foot dog with no pants on. He bursts into tears
and buries his face in the neck of his protector.

Deschesnes herds us back to the classroom and goes over the
basics of dealing with children. Most kids will want a hug, but
some aren't sure. You do not force yourself on these children,
because they may freak out and someone may think you're a
pervert. "Right now, a girl is suing a mascot," says Deschesnes,
"because she says he touched her boobs."

It's possible he did. The mascot career attracts some unsavory
elements. To quote a textbook written by Calgary-based mascot
consultant Glenn Street, "Your greatest concerns [when hiring
someone as a mascot] will be to fend off pedophiles or persons
with records of uncontrolled violence."

Both Street and Deschesnes warn against picking up children (as
in, off the ground). Street's book includes a photograph of an
alligator in a Santa hat losing his grip on a small boy. You
can't see the child's face, but a mittened hand is outthrust,
attempting to break the fall. For a mascot this is a
career-ender.

Deschesnes continues giving Boyd and me feedback on our maiden
outing. "Don't be shy, stay calm, take your time." The consensus
is that we were both a little stiff. "Go home," he tells Boyd,
"put on your head and feet, and practice." He instructs me to
show up this evening, with the other sports mascots, at the
Kansas Coliseum. On the drive back to my hotel I pass an exit for
the airport. It's all I can do not to take it.

The Wichita Thunder is warming up for the game. I envy the
players, not for their fame or athletic achievements, but because
they get to perform on a sheet of ice. It's unbelievably hot
inside a mascot suit. How hot is it? Hot enough that 58% of
mascots surveyed in 2001 by Johns Hopkins researchers, for a
study entitled Epidemiology of Injuries Among Professional
Mascots, had suffered heat illness or some other heat-related
malady during the previous year.

Deschesnes has the four of us--two dogs, a draft horse and a
hydrocephalic boy named Kirby--working the gates and the
concession area as the fans arrive. We high-five or shake hands
with the big fans; the little ones we hug and kiss. If all the
politicians in the land were struck mute, this would pretty much
be their job.

I solicit a hug from a passing preteen and her friend. They keep
walking, as though perhaps they failed to notice the towering,
blazing-blue dog standing directly in their path with its arms
wide open. A child's indifference does not hurt like a blow to
the midsection, but it hurts nonetheless.

Shawn Christopherson, who doubles as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays'
Raymond, tells a story about having rushed across town in his
suit for an appearance at a children's cancer ward. He arrived at
the appointed hour, huffing and sweating, feeling virtuous for
making it there on time and being able to bring a moment of joy
to the life of a dying girl. Expecting a brave smile, he leaned
in for a hug. "She goes, 'Raymond? You need to take a bath.'"

Deschesnes has materialized at my side to offer some coaching.

What can I do? I shrug and raise my paws, a la Jack Benny. A man
high-fives the right one.

"You follow them, you improvise something," he says. "You have to
feel you are the king in this building."

I look around. One of my fellow students, a freelance event
mascot called Dazzler Dog, is standing on the concessions line,
tapping his foot and twiddling his thumbs. Why didn't I think of
that? Kirby the kid has gone down into the stands to urge the
fans to clap louder. When he sees someone who's not clapping, he
bends down and slaps the guy's hands together for him. Why didn't
I think of this?

I make my move to enter the stands and begin jiving down the
stairs. Alas, I have failed to enter the size of my feet into the
equation. The blue dog stumbles, but he does not go down, does
not complete his sad trajectory into the nice lady's nachos. But
he is unnerved now. He's lost his mojo, which was small to begin
with.

I make my way back up, to Deschesnes, who is standing with Clyde,
dispensing feedback. ("You could use your nose more unusually.")
I tell them what happened. The horse isn't surprised. "When we
moved to a new arena, I spent four or five hours just going up
and down the stairs, getting used to things."

Deschesnes suggests I stick to level ground, on the concourse. He
leaves to put on his skates for his post-first-period
performance, which will feature a dance performed to YMCA, in
which he does the letters with his legs while standing on his
head. Clyde tells me to watch out for a gang of 10-year-old boys
who followed him around, yanking his tail. (Tailed mascots, you
will notice, are rare.) He wishes me well and walks over to a
garbage can. As discreetly as is possible for a man wearing a
horse head, he bends over and lifts his mask away from his mouth
to drop a wad of chaw.

Two boys appear in front of me. One grabs my hand to shake it and
won't let go. They are grinning, jumping up to pull my ears,
standing on tiptoes to try and peer inside the mouth.

"Hey, what's your name?"

"We know you can talk."

"What are you?"

"He's a bear."

"He's a dork."

To indicate Dog, I lift my leg as though the larger boy were a
fire hydrant. They pretend not to get it.

"He's a dork on one foot."

Suddenly there are three more. They're like those little
sharp-toothed reptiles in Jurassic Park, small and harmless on
their own, terrifying in large numbers. The leader is missing a
tooth, giving him a menacing street-tough demeanor. It occurs to
me later that the tooth is gone not because it was knocked out
but because it was a baby tooth.

I break free and head for the locker room. Darrin Regier, who
does Dazzler Dog, is holding a portable fan to the neck of his
suit, chatting with Paul Bonds. The Clydesdale head lies on the
floor, a disquieting amalgam of a child's broomstick-horse and
that scene from The Godfather. They're comparing notes, recalling
gags that went over especially well. Bonds picks remnants of
Silly String from his sleeve. "How'd it go?" he asks me.

I pull off one head and sink the other in my hands. I'm exhausted
and sweaty, and I can't get the YMCA song out of my head. But
that's not my answer. My answer is that it was--despite the heat
and humiliation--kind of fun. It was a big, fuzzy mess of
goofball fun that I plan never, ever to repeat.

COLOR PHOTO: RON TURENNE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES TORONTO'S RAPTORCOLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO FAMOUS CHICKENCOLOR PHOTO: AL MESSERCHMIDT MIAMI HEAT'S BURNIE THE BEARCOLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH UNLV'S SHARKCOLOR PHOTO: KRISANNE JOHNSON/DAYTON DAILY NEWS/AP REGGYCOLOR PHOTO: KENT HORNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES UTAH JAZZ'S BEARCOLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN OUT OF THEIR HEADS Minding their P's and Q's in Wichita were (left to right) Bonds, Regier, Jeremy Devine, the author and Deschesnes.COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN (2) HEAD OF THE CLASS Deschesnes (far left), a 17-year veteran, put (from left) Regier, Roach and Devine through their paces.COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN (2) [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN (2) BELLY DANCERS Kirby and Baby Blue goof off during a break at the Thunder's game.COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN (2) TAILS, YOU LOSE Bonds is among the few mascots who dares wear a tail, knowing it will be pulled when he ventures into a public place.
One of my classmates is a frog. Right now she's sitting in a
chair, waist-deep in amphibian, one green arm hanging down from
her lap.
The two-year-old does what any sensible two-year-old does upon
being charged by a six-foot dog with no pants on. He bursts into
tears.
Two boys appear in front of me. They are grinning, jumping up to
pull my ears, standing on tiptoes to try and peer inside the
mouth.