Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Joel Strack: Heart and Soul

This article and sketch have been posted with the express written permission of the interviewee. Analog Artist Digital World takes the privacy and wishes of individuals very seriously.

At Walt Disney World, Joel started as a performer, the he moved on to become a lead, or coordinator,  then he became a character trainer. A trainer has the talents to inspire and motivate others to do the job while not quite being a supervisor. He loved being a trainer. It was a tough job being inside a costume and he tried to set up new hires for success. Being a character could be nasty or joyous depending on your attitude.

It could be difficult because of the brutal heat, and how physically demanding it was, while you can also feel under appreciated. Because of the camouflage of the costume, you can feel like a non entity. Yet you fill a need with your heart and soul.

Joel had a friend who has been a Disney Character for 35 years.  She has changed peoples lives because of her work as Cinderella. She has had an impact in the world. She is a savant in remembering peoples names and relationships. She remembers every kid and family she has ever met. In a parade she would wave to families she had seen years before shouting their names. She is no longer a princess because of her age, but she remains loved and respected among the Disney cast and repeat visitors to the parks.

Their is no set age for when a performer can no longer be a princess. It comes down to body type and  height range that are important in the casting discussion. At a Disney 20th Anniversary parade, a photo was taken by a Sentinel photographer of a princess on a float. The princess in the photo was thick. This caused an internal uproar and it was discovered that the costuming department had been "letting out" the dresses when a performer gained weight. Princesses can NOT gain weight. If you become too old or too fat, you can no longer be a princess.

For some reason so many of the character costumes are designed for people who are less than 5 feet tall or over 6 feet tall. That leaves a big one foot gap in which a performer could not be cast.  So much talent is lost to that gap.

Joel was the casting director for the Hercules parade. He had a really difficult time casting the character of Hercules who just had to be muscular. He had about 20 prospects in mind, but as a performer, Hercules would have to get into a furry character costume after the parade, and the pay was just $12 an hour. Not surprisingly there were no takers. Once it was clear that no one would take the part under those conditions, they brought in a equity hiring agent. They offered $250 a day for just the parade. Suddenly there were men available.

One of Joel's favorite performers, was maybe 4 foot 10 inches and she performed as Minnie Mouse or Mickey Mouse. About two years into her employment she became pregnant. She kept going out into the park to do her job. A guest at some point, said out loud, to her handler that, "Mickey Mouse looks pregnant." He had to pull her in and say, "I'm going to have to pull you out of costume." She said, "No, I can still work." He pointed out that she moved differently now that she was pregnant. She was devastated. She thought for a moment and then said, "An Ewok can be pregnant." He said, "You are absolutely right!" Joel loved his cast.

One time he was performing as Tigger and a little boy came up to him and kept saying, "I love you Tigger, I love you Tigger, I love you Tigger." Each time he said that, he would punch Tigger in the leg. Character performers are trained to bring a child in close when they are being aggressive, much like a rope a dope in a boxing ring. When Tigger reached out to the child he saw the child's eyes grow wide and he flinched. Joel suddenly realized that this child was abused and the only way he could express love was through his fists. He put his paws out in front of the boy so he could feel how warm and fuzzy they were, and he gave him a hug... so the boy could know that love can be warm soft and fuzzy and he would be OK. That moment could have made a difference.

Joel Strack, 59 of Orlando, Florida, passed away Monday, July 15, 2019. His obituary stated, "In the last days of his life, when Joel was asked what he most wanted to be remembered for, it was friendship and love. He wanted that to be his greatest legacy."

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