“You’ve got to pull from something that’s withinside of you,” Dave Raymond tells me after I shufﬂe into the studio.
I wish he would be more specific. What does that even mean, Dave?
As I stand here on my first day of mascot boot camp, dressed in a full-body, brown-and-tan bull costume, the only thing “withinside” me is crippling insecurity.
“Little bit of attitude to this song,” Dave says, after he ﬂips the track to Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” “You’re supposed to be discovering what you like about your movements, so don’t repeat a movement over and over again, okay?”
I face the wall-length mirror. I am between a dog in a gingham shirt and a wizard with a Dumbledore beard. Dave is teaching the dog to spin and sway. Me? I’ve got nothing. Because I am not a mascot. I’m just a reporter, and they didn’t cover sick beats in journalism class.
I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to Iggy Azalea for what happens next. Your song deserves better.
It’s early April, and I’ve been dispatched to Dave Raymond’s Mascot Boot Camp in Kutztown, Pa., about 20 miles from Allentown. Nine of us are here for the three-day workshop, including Chris Hall, a freelance mascot on his third boot camp. You can see his work on “Behind the Mask,” a Hulu documentary series I binge-watched in preparation for this weekend.
Sitting behind him are Christian Gonzalez and Tyrell Bradshaw, performers on Kutztown University’s Avalanche mascot patrol. Across the aisle is Aaron Croom, who works three mascot gigs. He’s next to a 24-year-old whose identity, I’m sad to report, must remain a mascot camp secret. No kidding. I can’t even describe his costume in great detail. For the purposes of this story, let’s call him Gary.
The wizard is Jason Friedman, a 21-year-old from Rhode Island. Next to him is John-Printes “J.P.” Davis, a backup mascot for the Texas Rangers. “It’s kind of like the most selfish job,” he says later, “because you’re giving happiness, but you’re also receiving it.”
Dave Raymond, 60, is in front, blue polo shirt tucked into his workout pants. He’s affable and lively, with an animated face and effortless charm. He has run this camp for more than 20 years. There is perhaps no one more qualified. Dave was the original Phillie Phanatic — the first to inhabit the green costume in 1978. In the mascot community, he is something of a founding father.
In the coming days, Dave will teach us to wordlessly express emotions, to develop skits and character backstories, and to behave like professionals, even if our job is to wear an oversize bear costume. We will leave with a book of mascot tips more than 80 pages long, printed almost exclusively in Comic Sans. And we will learn to always keep our costumes clean, and to never, ever, buy off-brand Silly String.
We ﬁrst meet out of costume at the Kutztown University student recreation center. The boot camp, which costs $399, serves all levels of experience. Dave has a slide presentation, which looks ofﬁcial, with acronyms. When he started as the Phanatic, he says, his boss, Bill Giles, told him to just have fun, and that was all Dave needed. If he had a class like this then, he says, he would have realized he had “natural skill sets,” too.
We watch a highlight reel of the Phanatic rollerblading and ziplining. “Your mascot can go anywhere,” Dave says, citing appearances at a church service, a General Electric convention and even a funeral. “The Irish,” he says. “They know how to party.”
But we both know you’re here for the costume stuff. So I’ll jump ahead. As you may have surmised, I was garbage.
If you’re wondering: Yes, it was hot in my costume, which Dave had recommended and which cost $67.20 online. It’s about 18 sizes too big, with puffy hooves, a nose ring and outrageously large eyes. It’s not my personal aesthetic, but I made it work, as they say.
At one point I ask Tyrell about dancing in front of other people. I’m looking for an ally, someone who hears my internal screams.
“I enjoy it, actually,” he says.
Tyrell, you are killing me.
As “Fancy” blares, Otto, dinosaur mascot for the Spokane Indians, drops and swerves as if in a dino lip-sync battle.
“Now turn around,” Dave says.
Otto spins while I stop and stare at him. I realize how far the water is over my head, that this is not communally awkward for all of us, but singularly so, for just me.
Dave — perhaps noticing my emotional turmoil — leads me forward. We start small, bouncing up and down, moving just our knees. Then we throw our arms up and wave them in unison to the beat.
We all work on expressing feelings. Okay, so think of how happy you were during the happiest moment of your life: your wedding, the birth of a child, that time you saw Taylor Swift at Nats Park. Now think of how happy you were to catch the bus on time this morning. Different feelings, right? Mascots have to cover that spectrum and understand the rhythm and progression of an emotion. And they must do this through movement and dance.
“I want you to dance angry!” Dave says, as I stomp my hooves to “Moves Like Jagger.”
I try to escalate my tantrum, but there are only so many anger-related dance moves. And I’ll be honest, when I’m at my angriest as a human, I usually just cry. That’s not an option here. For one thing, there’s no way for tears to ﬂow. But also, bulls don’t cry. They just gore someone, and I am pretty sure that is off the table, too.
Afterward, I ask Dave to evaluate me. “Well, I think that you had struggles, like any person who’s never been in costume before, where it’s hard for you to recognize that you have to become part of your character,” he says. “You were Sarah in a bull costume. That you bought online.”
He gives me a C.
Dave lines us up on either side of the room and tells us to barrel toward the person opposite us, get close and scream.
I’m across from J.P. On a regular day, I’d probably take a hard pass on screaming in his face. But I do it, as he towers over me, doing the same. When Dave says to stop and stare in silence, I get through it by thinking about death, a little trick I picked up as a kid with a knack for laughing at the most inappropriate times. (Still works!)
We practice expressing more feelings: happy, shy-but-ﬂirty and sophisticated. What does sophisticated look like? Kim Kardashian, maybe? She always puts her hand on her hip, at least.
Aaron helps me with my dancing. The room is bumping: There’s J.P. and Christian, wiggling away; Gary and Jason, runway strutting; and Tyrell and Chris, thumping to the beat. And, guys, you should see Aaron dance. I promise: I’m not just saying this because he taught me to find the beat. You know how a song comes on and you move your shoulder or tap your foot, because This. Is. Your. Jam? Every song is Aaron’s jam. His heart beats to the rhythm of Rihanna. Aaron will be a famous mascot someday, I believe. You just won’t know it’s him.
Not that he does it for glory. “I love my job,” he tells me. “There’s nothing that beats it.” On the ﬁrst day, he tells me about signing autographs at a game once, in costume. A father leaned down to tell his son he came to see the mascot, too, when he was a kid. Weeks from now, I’ll probably forget how to dance in a plush bull suit, but not Aaron’s story.
We all develop signature moves. (I know, right?) A golden bear shakes his belly and points. A seal does the worm. My bull picks its nose until it sees the audience and dashes off in shame.
(Just to clarify: Out of costume, this is in no way my signature move.)
Afterward, I realize I don’t feel awkward or embarrassed anymore. This is true freedom, like jumping off the swing set. And I am grateful for every second of it. Weeks later, Dave tells me that he loves when people come to camp and connect to “a certain part of themselves that could be powerful.”
Is that what happened?
The last day, we present group skits. In mine, the bull is comically enraged at being left out of a card game, flips a table, runs around like a maniac, then, for the grand finale, sits on a whoopee cushion. It’s very high concept.
All you need to know is I crush it. My acting is impeccable and my timing, ﬂawless, except once when I can’t find my chair. This is unfortunate for me and J.P., who’s tasked with helping me land on the whoopee cushion.
Whatever. There is a fart noise at the end, and that’s all that matters.
Later, at graduation, Dave cues “Pomp and Circumstance” and calls us up one by one.
When it’s my turn, he announces he’s bumping my grade to a B-minus, then a B, and I jump in the air.
He names Chris a mascot general, on this, the occasion of his third boot camp graduation. As it happens, the march winds down just as Dave wraps up. “Look at this!” he whoops. “The end of the song! It’s the first time I’ve done this.”
And we all clap as he takes a bow.
Sarah Larimer is a general assignment reporter at The Washington Post.
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