This is Part I of a two-part feature on Benjamin Hill's experience at the Keystone Mascot Camp in Annville, Pa. You can read Part II here.
"Take ownership of the costume -- you're going to be the one stinking in it."
Remarks like the above can only mean one thing: Keystone Mascot Camp is in session. To the uninitiated, a school for aspiring costumed characters might sound like a ludicrous concept. After all, it can't be that hard to put on a suit and dance around like a care-free fool.
In actuality, it is hard, and this is knowledge that I'm in the midst of acquiring firsthand as a camp attendee. Physical stamina and well-honed live performance instincts are a prerequisite of the job, which should never be taken lightly by either the mascot or the organization he or she is representing. In a section entitled "Mascot 101" on its website, Keystone Mascot succinctly makes the case for the importance of the costumed character:
"[A] mascot is more than a cheap costume. It's the most visible representative of a brand. It creates instant memories. And because mascots have been utilized by thousands of teams, schools and companies for over 50 years, an unspoken standard has been established by a scrutinizing body of consumers as to whether the mascot is effective or not."
Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the world of Minor League Baseball. Constant promotions, demotions, releases and trades make it all but impossible to market specific players; therefore the mascot is the de facto face of the franchise. Quite simply, the mascot and his (hopefully) reliably comical antics often serve as the single most identifiable aspect of the entire operation.
This current session of Keystone Mascot Camp kicked off Thursday at the Paramount Sport Complex in Annville, Pa., and it will culminate in an on-field performance at Saturday evening's Harrisburg Senators game.
I just hope I'm still able to stand up straight by the time Saturday evening rolls around. Please excuse the awkward action verb: mascotting is hard work!
With the exception of myself, a moonlighting (and easily fatigued) baseball writer, the majority of the 11 Keystone Mascot Camp attendees are still in high school. They are under the tutelage of lead instructor Erin Blank and her four-person support squad, all of whom boast extensive mascot resumes.
"We get a wide range of campers," said Blank, who has helped train mascots for 20 of her 30 years as a costumed character. "But the most common camper is a high school student who wants to continue on in college and then as a professional. ... Sometimes kids feel like Superman when they get the costume, ready to run through walls, kiss women and do crazy things to umpires. But we want to provide a more realistic depiction of what this entails."
Therefore, it's not surprising that camp began on Thursday with a query almost existential in nature:
"As a mascot, what is your purpose? What is it that you're doing, and why?"
The campers provided a range of answers -- entertainment, cheerleading, public relations -- and these were supplemented by a range of deep observations from the instructors.
"Stay within the confines of what has historically been done before you," said instructor George Russo, who has suited up for the Miami Dolphins and Florida Panthers. "But don't be afraid to try new things; if it doesn't work, it doesn't work."
"When you're a mascot and interacting with fans, it's like you've entered into a social contract," added Tim Eller, who works as canine mascot Grrounder for the nearby Senators. "So much of the job is simply getting comfortable and getting over your own self-consciousness."
Mascots must go on a long professional odyssey in order to reach such a level, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
It was time to put on the costumes.
It's getting hot in here
While most of the other campers came equipped with their own costumes (representing cardinals, wolves, pink-bellied bears and several of indeterminate species), I put myself at the mercy of the Keystone Mascot surplus closet. My destiny was "Giorgio," a curly-headed man with bushy beard, mustache and eyebrows. His name seemed to suggest an Italian heritage, but no one quite seemed to know where he came from or what he represented. Also, he was lacking pants.
I liked Giorgio immediately, but donning the costume was hard work. It consisted of a paunch-creating "body pod", padded beige pants possessing the same consistency as a thick blanket, oversized blue shoes (complete with yellow laces), a jersey-style shirt emblazoned with "Giorgio" and a head with eyeholes located at the mouth.
Thanks to the patient assistance of the camp instructors, I was eventually able to put on all these items successfully. And my first reaction was predictable -- "It's hot, and I can barely see!" Range of vision is severely limited when wearing a head that is not your own, and the ability to hear decreases due to the copious cranial padding betwixt the ears and the outside world.
The first thing we worked on after getting into our respective outfits were our costumed struts, because as a mute species mascots must convey all emotion through body language. The campers lined up single file, and upon reaching the head of the line, Russo would assign a specific scenario in which to act out.
I was first assigned "You are blindfolded," and after several stumbling steps I received the comment, "Oh, you must be drunk and blindfolded." The scenario repeated itself my next time around, as this time I was told that I was a hobo. I approached that assignment as if I was a blindfolded drunk, and it was suggested that I perhaps instead pantomime the carrying of a rucksack.
I got more accustomed to my pants-less alter-ego as the activity progressed, but the heat was overbearing, and I was more than happy to take off my head. I had only worn the costume for about 25 minutes in an air conditioned gymnasium, but it was more than enough for me. When we broke for lunch I was soaked in sweat. My shirt and shorts stuck to my body and my hair jutted out wildly in every direction.
Thanks a lot, Giorgio.
Bloggerman drowns in foam
Character development was the focus of the afternoon. To begin, the campers filled out a sheet that provided their character's origin story, and at this point "Giorgio" somehow became "Bloggerman." In short, "Bloggerman" is an affable guy from New York City who doesn't take any guff from anyone. He can give and receive high fives from any distance (telepathically), and he and his eight brothers were raised by four uncles after his parents were killed in a jet-ski accident. He is hyper-competitive as a result of growing up in this male-dominated atmosphere but shy and uncertain among women.
After this developmental session, the campers set about applying the mascot's personality in an "emotions" exercise. Under Blank's leadership, we increased and then dialed down various emotions while standing in front of a wall-length mirror. I spent much of this time getting acquainted with my out-of-alignment face. Every time I wanted to cover my eyes, I put my hands on my mouth instead. Because, you know, that was where my eyes were.
And did I mention how hot it was?
The heat and overall fatigue made the final portion of the afternoon not nearly as much fun as it would seem. The mascot camp crew ventured over to a gymnastics area (traumatizing a terrified young girl in the process) in order jump on the trampolines. This might seem fun, but the lack of vision made it difficult for me to line up my body with the trampoline. After a few mishaps in which I landed on the exterior padding, I retreated to something that was even less fun: a spring loaded jump into a deep pit of soft foam bricks.
Accomplished mascots might use such an area as a safe way to practice front and back flips, but all I could manage was a tentative headless leap. Once submerged in the foam, I found it exceedingly difficult to get out given the general immobility of the "Bloggerman" (né Giorgio) get-up. And on that disappointing note, we called it an afternoon.
One day down, two to go. It's going to be a long couple of days, but I'm looking forward to it. After all, there's nowhere to go but up.
That was Part I of a two-part feature on Benjamin Hill's experience at the Keystone Mascot Camp in Annville, Pa. You can read Part II here.