Frames of Time...
014_04 - Bringing Character to Disneyland
Originally, I planned to become a Disneyland character to learn more about the history of Disney animation. I soon learned that the Park was not a key source for Disney information. However, I had become social with several characters and found the idea of doing costumes fascinating.
In olden days, the Park's characters came from a wide field of backgrounds. Some got the job because they fit the suits. This was particularly true with the smaller suits like Mickey and Donald. Some joined because they didn't know what else to do. Some did it because like me, they liked the idea of entertaining folks in costume.
By the time I had come around, things had changed a bit. There was a growing effort to put the characters into more and more stage shows and parades. Because of this, you needed to attend an audition to be hired. That audition mostly consisted of learning a dance routine. The only other way in was transferring from the parades (like "America on Parade" or the Christmas Parade). It was figured, if you could dance well enough for the parades, you could dance well enough in a show.
I had made several friends in the character department while at the Jungle Cruise. The head of the department was impressed with my drive and desire to be in costume. Since costuming was a fairly hot and rigorous job, many folks didn't take to it easily. So, the manager decided to take a chance and let me transfer in.
My first day was as Chip. I learned pretty much all I needed to know that first day. The two most important things were "heat" and "pacing yourself". It's generally around 10-20 degrees hotter in the costumes than it is outside. If the summer temperature is in the 80s, it is over a hundred degrees in costume. This makes the second lesson the most important. You must learn to pace your energy over the entire session through concentration. Costume performing is not a drag race. You need to keep a constant speed the entire track.
The next most important lesson was about respect. Basically costume characters are the Rodney Dangerfields of Disneyland. They got no respect. Employees (or "cast members" as the Park called them) thought you were sweaty, dirty and stinky. In fact, for a time, there was a move to ban costume characters from the regular break areas and employee restaurants. As for Park guests, characters were only there for their pleasure. Your attention was to be gotten anyway possible - vocal commands, grabbing, hitting, punching, kicking, whatever.
My first time in costume was, to be blunt, horrendous. I felt like I would pass out from the heat. The sweat ran into my eyes so much I could barely see. At times it was like a nightmare scene in a movie where I felt (but could not always see) hands pulling me in all directions. The "Lead" (supervisor) had to help me in from my first "set", what they call when you were performing. To my surprise, my Dale thought I had done pretty well for a first time out. If nothing else, he and others noted, I had staid out the entire 35 minutes. Evidentially some newcomers could not.
As the day went on, I began to get into the swing. My Dale kept a good eye on me. (The Lead had already left to watch other characters.) I learned more about pacing myself through a set. By day's end, I felt I had conquered the beast, and made a fair number of friends in the mix.
Those were my final lessons of the day, friendship and support. The character department was a fairly tight group. No doubt part of this was due to being ostracized by the rest of the employees. (I later learned one factor in my getting in was the supervisor noticing I would actually talk with characters on breaks, whereas most of the other Park employees would not.) Even though the department was mostly divided into three very different groups (old timers, born again Christians and gays), all got along in a "us against the world" mentality.
It was the next week the secret of my background came out. I was to perform as Eeyore at a show with the Pearly Band in the evening. I showed up and was then informed there was a dance routine. Eeyore, Winnie and Tigger danced "Tea for Pooh". However, I was assured it could be learned quickly. After half an hour of being coached and encouraged, I was asked how I got past the audition. I said I hadn't gone through the audition. They then asked if I danced or was a dancer. I said "no". They laughed. Then, to my delight, they did a quick revise of the routine so that Eeyore would be too "embarrassed" to dance and would do other stage business while Pooh and Tigger danced. Again, friendship and support.
I didn't get too many more calls to do shows, though I was one of the main Chipmunks for the "Mary Poppins and Friends" show. We danced to "Let Me Entertain You". I also had to dance for the various parades, like the one pictured. That parade was in honor of the new Mouseketeers, hence the hat design floats and costumes. Eventually, I learned to fake dance pretty well. That is to say I learned how to make my feet and body appear as if I was dancing with everyone. And in reality, many of the costumes did not allow one to be able to dance as desired by the choreographer.
Luckily, I was considered a good animator and won recognition for my performance as Bernard (from THE RESCUERS) and for my summer as Bashful (from SNOW WHITE). My interest in getting the most animation out of suits got me on the committee to re-design suits. As the Park became more interested in street performance (they found they had lots of folks who could dance, but couldn't really act in suit), I was put in charge of a group to develop new training and hiring practices.
The one sad thing about working in costume is the limitations caused by your height. I was never able to become a full time employee since the full time costumes in my height-range were all "filled". The only way one could move from 2-day to 3-day to finally 5-day guarantee work was if someone your height left the department, of if a new costume your height came into the park. I only worked in the department around 5 years.
My many memories (pleasant and painful and sometimes both) are for other days.
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