John Cawley
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Frames of Time...

010_04 - Not necessarily smarter than the average bear
Ever since I spent my first day as a Disneyland character (aka mascot or fursuit), I was hooked.

I'd tried doing drama in school, but was always terrified at being "on stage". Eventually my teacher let me do directing. He liked my ideas enough to call me back on occasion even when I wasn't in his class.

But performing in costume seems to make all my stage fright vanish. My wife states I take on a totally different personality in suit. I am proud that I am able to assume the proper personality for the suit. Even at my work, when I've appeared in suit there, folks are surprised to find it is me since they all say my walk, posture and attitude all seem to be a different person.

Imagine my thrill when I discovered a classified ad from our local tourist area, Lake Arrowhead Village, seeking a costume character person. I called and got an interview. I even showed up in one of my own suits to demonstrate my skills in costume. The interviewer was surprised, and told me there was no need for a suit, as they were having one made.

I offered to help in the design of the suit, having done similar work for Disneyland. I was told they had some famous costume maker constructing it. I then asked if they had made sure the feet were going to be waterproof. The interviewer wondered why that would make a difference. I reminded them that Lake Arrowhead got a fair amount of snow in the winter, and rain in the fall and spring. They quickly wrote a note and asked their assistant to call the costume company.

I then asked about what character they had. The interviewer announced they had gone out and had a famous artist design a bear, which they were calling Barnaby. They had begun putting up huge wood carvings of the character all over the Village. I was a little surprised. First off, higher up the mountain is a more famous Bear, Big Bear Lake. I would have thought Arrowhead might have wanted something more individual and local, like a raccoon or coyote. Secondly, Barnaby Bear was already used by a line of toys and educational software.

As we talked, I found, like so many other folks planning costume performances, they had little experience in the field. They felt they could hire someone at a little over minimum wage. In fact, they theorized they could pay less than $7 an hour, since, in reality the employee would only be in costume around 30 minutes per hour. That meant if they had the character appearing from noon to four, it would only be two hours of pay! I told them that they had to pay whether the costumer was in suit or not, just as they would pay any employee on a break.

They then asked what I usually charged. Explaining that since it was a local place, and worthy of my support, and only around a four hour shift, I told them I could do it for my low end rate of $100. They were, well, taken back. I then explained my training, experience and what they should really expect from a costume character. They were impressed enough, and I was interested enough to finally come up with a rate of $50 for four hours.

My first day came and I found the costume to be a typical, professional suit. Which means poorly designed for wear. It is sad that no major costume builder seems to have any performers on staff to assist in little touches that would improve the wearability (and thus the performance) of a suit. The head was large and hard to see out of. The body hung oddly. The feet (waterproof) were decent.

My schedule had been agreed to around 35 minutes in suit, and 20 minutes of break. However, they assumed I could just come back to their office, around a block away and up a flight of stairs from the performance area. I suggested this would make for very short appearances since I would spend most of my time "commuting" to the break area. We were able to find a store near the performance area that let me take breaks in their back store room.

So for a number of weekends I did Barnaby, and had a generally good time. I rotated with a local high school boy. He had worn the costume first, and they said he was so good. He danced all the time. I told them I generally danced when there was music. Using my intuition and people's skills, I wandered into the shops (taking possible buyers with me), shook hands, did (hopefully) funny poses, and focused on interaction. After my first stint, they stated how I was a much more popular Barnaby.

My schedule got super busy, and had to drop the stint after a few months. By then, the costume was begining to show serious signs of damage and wear, mostly due to design flaws. Shortly after that, the Village was acquired by a new owner. Since then I haven't seen Barnaby used much. However, I still have my Barnaby "beanie" doll that was sold at one of Oktoberfests I appeared at. And, yes, I did dance for the German style bands.

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