Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Character Zoo

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.  

Joel Strack grew up on a family farm in Sycamore, Illinois. As a small boy of 6, he and his family used to watch, The Wild Kingdom followed by The World of Disney. During one of those programs Walt introduced the idea of Epcot in Florida. It would be the world of tomorrow. Joel was enthralled. He decided that would become his home. He wanted to be part of the new Disney World.

Joel visited his brother for a week in California and decided to go to Disney Land. As he was walking through the parking lot, he noticed a sign for casting. He thought, "Wouldn't that be a hoot." He walked into casting and went through an interview. He was told he needed a permanent address in California to work there, so he asked his brother if he could stay at his place and that became his address for the summer. He worked on the Submarine Voyage

During his Junior year, Disney came to his school, the University of Illinois, to recruit for the first round of college program students. He had already worked for Disney the previous summer. He understood the culture and what the work experience was like. He was accepted. They were called "The Pioneers". There were 250 students. They lived at a newly built trailer park called Snow White Camp Grounds outside of Kissimmee Florida on 192. It is now a KOA. There were four students per trailer. The water pressure was so low that you had to crouch to get under the shower since the water just dribbled. That summer he was a Jungle Cruise Skipper. Back then The Magic Kingdom was the only park that was open. Every student interacted with guests.

After graduation, he was considering a serious job in public relations, but before starting that career track, he decided to work at Disney. He was still on their list as a casual temporary. He moved into a friends house and then worked on the Jungle Cruise again. About a week into the job he hit a wall, not feeling inspired to go into work each morning. After 4 weeks on the job, he decided to walk into the character zoo. He wanted to work as a Disney Character.

To become a character, you auditioned. He went to his first Disney audition at the Contemporary Resort in the Ballrooms of America. The audition was for the Electric Light Parade. Judy Lawrence was the director running the audition. Joel was nervous. He met Pam Bachelor who performed as Mini Mouse. He asked her for advice. She told him he needed to be a court dancer. The other performers had to lug heavy equipment down the parade route. Dancers had to do a bell kick and skip. He could skip and watched how others kicked. He knew how to waltz. He felt graceful and talented and ended up becoming a court dancer.

Court dancers wore a baroque gentleman's coat with huge sleeves and collars. The tails went down to the mid thigh. The knickers were Pepto Bismal pink. White stockings were covered with gold shoes with white rind stone buckles. The powdered wig was more like a baseball helmet. Inside was a solid plastic shell while outside, fun fur created the hair. Tubes of fun fur created curls down the sides and back of the wigs. The border of the coat and tails had lights. Two battery packs had to be worn around the waste. A switch on your hip could be flipped to light up the costume. Because of all the electrical connections, the costumes were NEVER washed. They wreaked. Cast could use a spray can of disinfectant to try and get rid of the smell which was like stale urine. As you danced, the scent would be re-invigorated. Under all the costuming you wore t-shirts and shorts. You adjusted. The parade was about a quarter mile, down Main Street around the Castle Hub, through Liberty Square, and through Frontier Land lasting about 15 to 20 minutes twice a day at dusk.

Between shows the character actors would spend time together. They might venture out into the park, but mostly they socialized and had a great time in the production center. This resulted in some delightful experiences and friendships.

Character auditions were less about talent and more about your body type and if you could handle carrying the 70 pound or more of consuming. Some performers had a preference about which character they most identify with. Joel loved Tigger, because of his boundless energy and he seemed oblivious to the problems in the world. The costume was fairly light, a bit like wearing a snow mobile suit with a helmet and gloves and boots in the summer heat. It was close fit with no padding. You put it on like PJs or long johns.

In the whelm of characters there was an order of prominence among character performers. One performer could define the way that character was performed by all others. Bill Sikes was THE Tigger. He was always true to the character. He never changed the character's integrity for his own entertainment. He was constantly in motion. He would bounce. He taught Joel how to make the Tigger noise. "Who Who Hoooo!" Only a limited number of sounds could come out of the character. A kissing and sniffing noises were fine. After doing a day as Tigger, your calves would ache from bouncing so much. Tiggers chin was a fiberglass bowl. On a hot summer day Joel would fill the chin with ice to bring down the heat inside his head.When he threw his head back to shout "Whoo Ho Hooo!", the ice and water would splash onto his face and then settle back into the chin.

Every costume came with its own challenges. The other character Joel loved was Baloo the Bear from Jungle Book. That costume wasn't as comfortable. Baloo is pear shaped with the bottom being larger and it tapers towards the top. It was physically challenging because it was heavy. But the bear's personality shined through. He is cool and laid back, living life having a great time. Why worry about troubles. Baloos feet consisted of a pad of leather for the sole of the foot, glued to that was a Brogan work boot which laced up the ankle. In the early days they would cut off the toe of the boot so that someone with size 7 feet or someone who wore size 12 feet could wear the same shoes. If you had larger feet the cut off boot would rub against the top of your foot. If you had a smaller foot your foot would flop around inside the boot with room to spare. Tighter lacing would keep it on. Shoe covers were made of fur. Velcro would hold it in place. You would step into a white pad of thick insulation like a bed duvet, inside there were straps that would snap around as loops to hold 5 large hoops that filled out the shape of the character at different levels to create the pear shape. Fur went on top of all that. The head had the arms connected to it. A metal bracket circled the chest inside the costume. The pad of the costume piece would hang over the shoulders and the bracket held that in place. Two seat belt clips in back, held the head in place snapping into the metal bracket. The head would hang behind you as you got into the costume, Your arms would then slip into Baloo's arms at shoulder level, you would then have to jump and lunge to get Baloo's head over your own. In front, two hooks would snap onto the bracket under the costume. It might take 10 minutes to get assembled.

In the beginning there was no training in the character department. On the first day Joel wore a Goofy Costume, The only training was to be silent, and don't look up since vision for the performer was through the mouth. You would have to tilt your head up to see out of the mouth. So you couldn't talk and you couldn't star gaze. He entered the park and started signing autographs. You are only supposed to be in the park for half an hour and he suddenly realized he had been out for 45 minutes. He had wandered into frontier land lost since he couldn't look up. They had to search for him. In the beginning there was a limit on how long a performer could be in the character department. Two years was the limit. Smaller performers were the exception.

When MGM Studios opened, now Hollywood Studios, Joel was one of 12 performers who started in that park. They had to go through a physical examination. Warm ups were initiated before people got into the costumes. One test, involved a weight machine where you had to shrug. With each shrug, more weight was added. The woman doing the test was amazed. Every time you wave in a costume, those shrugging muscles are the ones used. All the costumes built up different muscles. If you add the heat, the cardio, limited air since you are breathing much of your own CO2, it was a personal work out.

The union came in to represent the character department. One union rep took a thermometer inside the character head. It is estimated that in a character head it is 10 to 15 degrees hotter than it is outside, depending on the costume and how much ventilation it has. On a typical Orlando summer day you can expect the temperature to reach 104 to 110 degrees. A experienced character performer knows how to find shade near a flagpole at noon. You knew how to find a breeze and face into it during a meet and greet. The company developed some cooling units over time. Ice packs could be slipped into pockets on your chest. They were nice but added weight and didn't last very long. A tube cooling system was developed but half the time that failed. As a performer you became like a long distance runner. You knew the physical demands and you hit the window and move through it. At times, when it is over, you collapsed.

Geppetto was a delight to wear since it was just some basic costuming and a rubber head. There was good line of sight since the rubber eye sockets came up flush to your eyes and the breathing hole was hidden by a large mustache. There wasn't even a screen over the breathing hole and your mouth and nose was right by the mustache opening making breathing easy. Children understand fantasy and magic. A little girl came up and shouted out "Geppetto!". He lifted her to his lap and quietly said, "You are the best little girl in the world." Her face lit up and they hugged. He broke the rules by talking in costume but that little girl got a magical experience.

Prints are available for each sketch for $250 and many originals can be purchased for $400. White museum grade shadow box frames are $100 more. You can e-mail Thor at analogartistdigitalworld@gmail.com

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