Reliving Fond Memories
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Character Story Part 3
Airing Out the Heads
I had worked as a busboy, a bookseller, a landscape technician, but being a character at Disneyland was the one employ I remember. It sure beat working in a bookstore or moving crates in a warehouse while in school.
Character costumes I had worn were Pluto, Pooh, Eeyore, Fiddler, Fifer & Practical Pig, Friar Tuck, Prince John, Geppetto, Brer Fox, Tummi Gummi, The Knight, The Walrus and Mary Poppins Penguins.
Working inside the cartoon personalities gave me a unique perspective on people, what is expected from the Disney experience, how guests react to it (positively and negatively). The company Walt built is such a powerful cultural commodity that people respond one way or another to it. Walts empire is a self-contained culture providing a sense of identification for so many people.
Once at Small World mall, several units were hanging around, playing with the guests. I was in Prince John (PJ) and felt a tug on my toga. There was a little girl who wanted me to go with her. She took my hand matter of factly and led me over to Snow White, who was sitting on the ground by the fence. The little girl apparently wanted Snow White to tell her a story. Snow said she would, but the girl wanted all of Snows friends to listen. She was in the process of rounding all the characters up. When were all sitting in a semi circle around Snow White, the girl took her place on Snow Whites lap. Now she could tell the story
The Robin Hood unit was fun to be a part of since everyone knew the characters. Prince John was a hard costume because the head sits squarely on my own without any support. Friar Tuck was a much friendlier costume. I did enjoy the Sheriff of Nottingham, though technically I was too short. Had a great day signing autographs (Remember April 15th!). Our unit was at the Small World mall, and we had to get to Tomorrowland entrance. Walking sets were hard because everyone wanted to stop for a photo or autograph or just play, and I dont want to hurt anyone's feelings. Backstage, our unit figured out a way: I would tie the hands of Robin and Friar in Tucks rope belt, as if I had captured them. I would lead them off to jail, PJ following behind. Perfect.
So we left Small World mall. As we neared Matterhorn way, the people in line for the Matterhorn began a loud booing. I bowed to them, tipping my hat. PJ waved to the crowd, making motions that it was curtains for Robin and Tuck. Suddenly a group of small children leapt out at us. "Well save you Robin!" they shouted. Some tried to push me away, while the others untied Robin and Tuck. Once Robin and Tuck were free, the children started running "Cmon! Follow us!" The people in line broke into applause. PJ demanded his prisoners back, so I gave chase. We arrived at Tomorrowland entrance with plenty of time to spare, the guests getting a little show besides.
One summer a favorite costume was Mary Poppins Penguins. We chose our own name, so Mary could tell us apart. I was usually Oliver Wendell, or Ollie. Luckily our Mary was inventive and witty, so our Tuesdays were great fun. Mary liked to tell stories, and we would play with the kids. We would hang out at the Plaza Pavilion and wait on the tables. Or try to get Mary to laugh. This was hard, since she knew most of our tricks. But it was a challenge for my penguin buddy and I to find ways to get her to laugh, to break character. She never did, but we did get under her skin, and get a scolding. Many times Ollie had to stand in the corner until he learned to behave.
The Tweedles were prize costumes. Unfortunately, I wasnt assigned them often. But the few times I did were a lot of fun. The Alice characters were great fun because it was no holds. This was Wonderland, after all. As The Walrus I had the pleasure of hearing a small child recite the entire poem "Walrus and the Carpenter" to me. Her dad proudly announced she had watched the movie the night before in preparation for her Disney day. The little girl was bursting with accomplished pride, and Alice and myself applauded long and hard.
The Pooh Unit was a superstar unit. Children of all ages were drawn to them. I spent time in Eeyore, and enjoyed dragging a broken red balloon behind me by its string. Most of the children picked up on it, feeling bad for me because my birthday present had popped. "Oh, Eeyore " was the usual response. One little girl spent an entire set with me, making sure I was happy. Later that afternoon she and her family were passing through. She ran to me to see if I was better. She became distraught and started crying because I wasnt happy. I tried to convey to her that I was happy she was there, but she felt so bad for me. Her parents took her away to get some ice cream, telling her that I was happy to see her again. Hopefully that and a Fire Engine Sundae did the trick.
As part of being a rookie, I was assigned to work a Grad Night. My character was Eeyore (thanks guys!), and I had to walk from Tomorrowland entrance to the Castle Courtyard, where a photo shoot was set up. From ten pm to five am I ran the gauntlet. This was like tying a steak around my neck and throwing me to the lions. Each time I began my walk I heard a chorus of high pitched squealing "Eeyore!!" I turned and there was a gaggle of teenage girls waving their Instamatics in the air, rushing towards me. I had to gesture I was late (pointing to an invisible wrist watch, shaking my head), but ended up running like mad to the photo shoot. Once safely behind the ropes, I had to contend with jealous boyfriends, feeling burned because their date was paying more attention to a cartoon character than to their smooth moves. It was a long night
Being in the Fab Five was a chore. These were the core characters, and very popular. Our instructions were simple (especially for Mickey and Minnie): Find a wall, and put your back to it. That was about as much time you got before the crowds seal you off. As Pluto it is nothing but rounds of photos and autograph signing, making sure everyone gets the attention due them. Children first, then the young adults. The children loved to squeeze Pluto's nose. Pluto was rather boring because my movements were so limited.
I hear nowadays there have been so many complaints concerning quality character time; now there are more and more photo locations. This is good for the guests, but drudgework for the poor characters. It also cuts down on interaction with the children. But the parents want the photos, and the guest is always right
Being hidden inside the yellow dog fur, witnessing the love that is projected on these characters is cathartic. I felt like a hidden celebrity, having this wave of adoration crash over me. Under all the stress and sweat, the unrestrained laughter of children believing they were actually playing with a Disney character is wondrous.
The looks on the childrens face sum it up. No amount spinning can explain the joy of a child looking up at these characters, wanting to meet them, to spend time with them. These characters, designed on paper with red and blue pencil, are alive and have meaning. This is the truest tribute to Walt Disney's genius: that 70+ years after their creation, these characters still generate such delight.
Walt Disney understood power of fantasy instinctively, and he reaped his reward by appealing to the underlying nature of children in adults of all ages. Even in these cynical times, the formula still holds tight.
15 years have passed since I was in costume. The last character was Brer Fox. My back had been slowly going out over the year, and I knew that day would be my last in costume. As I leaned on a stairwell railing backstage with my Brer feet and pants on, below me walked Michael Jackson and his entourage. Mr. Jackson was wearing his trademark fedora, sunglasses and surgeon's mask. He acknowledged me and I returned the wave. I returned to the inside of the building, to the break room where the Royal Street Bachelors were watching a ball game. I put on the rest of the costume, looking about the area through the mesh eyes for the last time. Then I walked down the stairs, past the DEC, and walked backstage to Main Street. I crossed Town Square, shaking hands with some kids, listen to the Disneyland Band play a march, then exited by the Mad Hatter's.
So ended my last set. I was exhausted and couldn't raise my right arm above my shoulder. A nerve had been pinched. I reported to first aid and secured a release. I would see my own doctor next week. Eventually, I would heal.
My service to the Empire ended quietly. I said goodbye to a few friends, emptied my locker and walked. The timing was perfect, since I was near graduation from college, and a career beckoned behind the horizon. I took with me a lot of memories, and the friendships of some very kind humans.
On return visits to the park Ill see (at a distance) the characters playing with the kids, waving to guests who call out their names. It is a parade that never ends, a continuously flowing river. Only the faces change, but the joy is the same. At times it seemed just a job, but mostly it was an insight into this uniquely American institution and its relationship to the world. In a sense it was closure on a part of my childhood. I dreamed of working there, and now the mission was accomplished. I leave it behind not like it was something shameful, but as a promise made to me as a child, and I collected. I step out of the picture, but the movie continues. Now I would rather watch as a fan. Just enjoy myself with some popcorn and go on a ride if I want to.
Which doesnt mean I did that as a character .;)
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-- David Mink
Reliving Fond Memories is posted the third Wednesday of each month.
The opinions expressed by our David Mink, and all of our columnists, do not necessarily represent the feelings of LaughingPlace.com or any of its employees or advertisers. All speculation and rumors about the future plans of the Walt Disney Company are just that - speculation and rumors - and should be treated as such.
-- Posted November 20, 2002