ME? You think I want to run around on a hot day, dressed as a giant-sized puppet with hundreds of excited children pulling at me from every angle? You betcha!
For the annual WETA company birthday celebration, I agreed to take on the role of Ernie, of the famous Bert and Ernie duo--those lovable puppets of public television's popular children's series "Sesame Street."
The day of the festival, the weather was sunny and warm. As I strolled toward my assigned tent, I saw parents with armfuls of children already seated near the stage waiting for the show. There were no signs of activity around my little tent, which was nestled behind the stage, back toward the trees. Peering through the flap, I found the tent empty except for a few chairs and two large garbage bags containing the Bert and Ernie costumes.
I took Ernie's parts out of the bag and tried on his oblong head with its huge red nose, wide eyes and red mouth. I could see through the red mesh of the mouth, which ran the two-foot width of the face. There were three layers to my costume--the underpadding that provided Ernie's fat, the tan soft cloth that was the skin covering (Ernie in the nude) and Ernie's complete wardrobe: overalls, a striped sweater, and huge, red tennis shoes. When you wear a Size 6 1/2 shoe, anything over a Size 7 is huge, but these were enormous--closer to a Size 14. Having maneuvered into the outfit, I now stood 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide.
I removed Ernie's head and placed it on my lap as I sat patiently waiting for my assistants to come and escort me out to the stage. Now arriving were the actors from "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood." Bob Dog put on his ears and painted his nose dark brown. After applying all his makeup, he sneezed and had to blow his nose. Off came his carefully drawn dog nose; it's tough to be a dog during ragweed season.
The flap to our tent opened and in rushed our assistants, declaring that our fans were waiting. My assistant attached my oblong head, which felt as awkward as my big feet. Keeping balanced was a bit of a problem, but by the time I walked over to the steps behind the stage, I had all the parts of my body moving in the right direction. I had mastered my character, so to speak.
On stage, I looked out into an audience that seemed to have quadrupled since last year's festival. Industrious tots were climbing onto the stage while others timidly peered out from behind their parents, not knowing what to make of us. Once Bert and I began to move our mouths and bodies to the words and tunes on the records being played, the children sat mesmerized. We hadn't the time to rehearse together before the show, and the awkwardness of the costumes made it difficult to see what the other was doing. But somehow we managed to pull it off.
As I walked through the crowds, parents with their children huddled close. "Kiss Ernie, Eric, kiss Ernie." "Go ahead Michael, kiss Ernie." "Rena, sweetheart, kiss Ernie." Kisses, kisses, kisses. At one point, I was looking at a sea of 3-year-olds' lips pressing against my facemask.
I hugged, patted and kissed hundreds of children, a few parents and even a dog. Little hands reached out to touch. The look of sheer delight as I hugged them made me want to reach out, too. One touch and they glowed with happiness. It was addicting.
"Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Ernie shook my hand! I love Ernie soooo much. Ernie, do you love me?" I nodded enthusiastically. As part of the agreement with Sesame Street Live for renting the outfits, Bert and Ernie were not allowed to speak. I compensated with nods, shrugs and gentle handling.
The frustration I felt when I could not get to them all! They were all so small and some so very shy--I just wanted to have a little time with each of them.
But there were some negative aspects. Unfortunately for me, some parents wanted more for their children than a mere touch or hug. Some placed their children in my arms so they could photograph the two of us. Now, I weigh about 100 pounds. I was wearing a three-layered suit weighing about as much. On a hot day in the middle of an uncontrolled crowd, and after holding about twenty 50-pound kids, with hundreds waiting, the photograph idea got old real fast. I made the mistake of holding one little guy who decided he was going to be a permanent part of costume. It seems he had lost his mother and decided I was the next best thing.
At one point, I overheard a conversation between a child and his father.
"Daddy, is that the real Bert and Ernie?"
"No, they are people dressed up like Bert and Ernie. Bert and Ernie are really puppets," explained the father.
Confused, the lad asked, "What about Susan and Gordon? I see them on 'Sesame Street' and now they are on the stage. Are they real?"
"Yes, that's really Susan and Gordon, son."
"Are you sure Bert and Ernie aren't real, Dad?"
I'm not sure the child was convinced I wasn't the same character he watches every day, but he did have a lot to think about.
As the afternoon came to a close, I gave farewell hugs and headed for the tent. Bert and I were exhausted. The hot day had melted us away. What a liberating feeling to get out of those heavy, confining costumes! Bert and Ernie went back into their bags and were carried out the back of the tent to a truck headed for New York.
I gathered my things and walked out the front of the tent to find children still waiting to see Bert and Ernie leave. They looked past me, anxiously hoping to catch a glimpse of their lovable friends inside. Just a few moments ago I brought excitement and delight to their faces; now I could do nothing for them. They would have to wait until next year.
I walked away--anonymous once more--having enjoyed my day immensely.