When she spotted President Theodore Roosevelt at a party, Ingrid Crepeau could tell he was having trouble working the room.
“Teddy had a really badly broken frame,” she recalled. “Poor guy, he could barely see.”
This “Teddy,” you see, was one of the Washington Nationals’ Racing Presidents, the short-legged, long-torsoed, towering bobbleheads that run around the ballfield at every home game. When Crepeau met him at that Boys and Girls Clubs of America holiday party six years ago, she could see that the frame strapped to his back and holding up his oversize head was improperly balanced and hard to maneuver.
But after decades of building larger-than-life puppets for children’s theater, Crepeau told Teddy that she could get him back to his crowd-pleasing antics in no time by replacing his frame with one made of airplane aluminum, which is much lighter but more durable than other metal. And the Nats hired her to do it.
A year later, the Nats asked her to replace frames for all of the presidents and to make five baseball caps for them. By the third season, Crepeau was customizing 27 mascot shirts — no small feat, given that each is as big as a pup tent, requiring six yards of fabric.
This year, Crepeau flexed her design skills when she teamed with the Nats to build entirely new costumes — top secret until Sunday — for the mascots to wear at the “Star Wars Day” game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Her old friend Teddy — looking fit and vigorous, his posture better than ever — was Chewbacca.
That chance meeting with Teddy launched a lucrative side business for Crepeau. In addition to the Nats’ executive suite of racers and the bald eagle mascot, Screech, she has worked with nearly every professional sports mascot in the Washington area. In the nation’s capital, that means repairing a lot of bald eagles, including Talon of the D.C. United soccer team and Slapshot of the Washington Capitals hockey team. For the basketball teams, she has made a new suit for the Wizards’ blue blob G-Wiz and stitched up the Mystics’ Pax the Panda. She has even worked with Topspin and Slice, the bright green balls that cheer on the Washington Kastles in World Team Tennis.
Getting into the mascot-maintenance business wasn’t a huge leap for Crepeau. For 30 years, she has run the children’s theater company DinoRock Productions out of her Silver Spring home, with her wife and business partner, Michele Valeri. Crepeau builds and animates the dinosaur puppets, while Valeri sings and plays guitar and banjo. Mascots “are just another form of puppetry,” Crepeau said.
Crepeau stands about 5-foot-11, and her big, brown eyes are made even larger by round, wire-rimmed glasses. At 66, she still wears her salty-gray hair in pigtails. Crepeau has never had any trouble connecting with the kids that she and Michele have performed for, carting their paleontological creations across the country in a big truck. “I love children’s laughter,” Crepeau said. “That’s the best sound in the world, isn’t it?”
Crepeau builds giants and imbues them with life. But a Dr. Frankenstein she is not. Rather than strange science and a mysterious spark, she uses PVC pipe, an industrial-grade glue gun and faux fur. Instead of vengeful, nameless monsters, she brings to life creatures of the jolly variety.
Inside her red-brick shoebox of a house, a gargantuan Tyrannosaurus rex head looms on a pole above the cluttered table in the dining room. A billowy tunic that would dwarf Goliath hangs in the corner by the kitchen, and the beginnings of a pair of patent-leather wingtips perhaps a smidge too large for Bigfoot take up prime real estate in the living room.
Make-believe, Crepeau said, is her way of recapturing the fun that she missed out on as a child. Born with a bad kidney, she was in and out of hospitals for much of her formative years. “I lost a certain amount of play because of that,” she said.
In Germany, where her father’s Air Force career had taken the family, she attended her first professional puppet show and captured the attention of the puppeteer, Herr Englisch.
“I was 11 and heads taller than everyone else,” she said. “He noticed me get in line for the second show, and he comes up to me and says” — she assumed an over-the-top German accent — “ ‘You know ’dis is the same show?’ And I said, ‘Yes, but I just love puppets.’ ” For the third show, he asked her to handle the feather duster that served as a chicken puppet.
“I stuck it up and went, ‘Bock bock bock bock bock,’ ” she said, puffing her cheeks and flapping her arms. “Got this huge laugh.”
Englisch apparently hadn’t been using American barnyard sound effects, so some jokes were falling flat with the military-base kids. Every Saturday thereafter, Crepeau taught Englisch what the dogs and cows say in America, and he gave her puppet lessons.
“He said: ‘I won’t teach you how to make the puppet; you have to figure that out yourself. But I will teach you how to make the puppet breathe,’ ” Crepeau said.
Constructing puppets came easily to Crepeau, who grew up around rural Minnesotans capable of tackling their own house repairs and maintenance. “Country people don’t call the plumber, because there isn’t any plumber,” she said. She picked up engineering from her father and learned how to paint and detail from her mother.
Over the years, Crepeau has engineered a small population of puppets — from hand puppets such as a freshly hatched baby dino to the colossal remote-controlled head of Momma T. rex, which peeks out from behind 13-foot walls. She also designs wearable body puppets. Her favorite is the 85-pound Stella Stegosaurus. “She was the first four-legged puppet I ever did,” Crepeau said. “I went to the zoo and watched elephants to get the best idea of how a stegosaurus would walk.”
So it wasn’t a big stretch to start building mascots. “An advantage I have over a lot of mascot makers is that I’ve worn all this stuff,” she said. “I know what it is to be really, really hot in some of these things.”
There are a few key differences. Mascots, she said, come from the clowning tradition, in which performers cover their skin (with faux fur for the mascots and with paint for the clowns), and they express themselves through movement and gestures rather than words.
Plus, most professional mascots adhere to a rigid code of secrecy: The person behind the mask is never identified publicly, and the creature is treated like an autonomous being. Crepeau refers to the costumes by proper nouns: She has to make several pairs of glasses for “Teddy” (by pressing a heated plastic rod into a large figure-8 mold), and “Screech” is getting a new pair of fancy shoes to go with his tuxedo.
It’s grimy, physical work: sewing seams, bending metal to make helmets more comfortable, replacing (or “re-furring”) dirty fur. Dirt is the No. 1 enemy of a mascot costume, she said — that along with sweat, which she washes out with vodka. (“The cheaper the better.”) The fun comes when she gets to make her pals something new, such as for “Star Wars Day.”
She arrived at Nats Park Sunday with a mascot first-aid kit — finger-size safety pins for emergency repairs — as the Racing Presidents made their way to the center field plaza to greet fans: Washington as Darth Maul, Abe Lincoln as Darth Vader, Teddy as Chewbacca, Taft as Boba Fett, Jefferson as Princess Leia and Coolidge as Luke Skywalker, his golden hair made of 33 yards of yellow paper ribbon.
Crepeau beamed as kids in Leia buns and Obi-Wan Kenobi hoods lined up to snap photos with their favorite character. “I saw one little boy jumping up and down going, ‘I knew it! I knew it! Darth Vader is here!’ ” she said. “It made my day.”
After the first pitch, she was shuttled with the presidents into the tunnels beneath the stadium to wait for their race at the top of the fourth inning. Coolidge and Washington practiced sprinting and wielding lightsabers while Crepeau fluffed the fur on Teddy’s Chewbacca coat. Did he like the new duds? The mascot wrapped Crepeau in a silent hug and pointed two thumbs up.
“I feel like it’s my opening on Broadway,” she said, watching the race on a screen in a holding area beneath the stands. “In order to perform for children, more than any other kind of performance, you have to be so there. It’s a feeling of being so alive, and it’s also pure pretend. It’s the joy of pretending.”
It was over in a flash. Six weeks of work came to a close as Washington won the race. Walking back to her seat, Crepeau seemed subdued as 40,000 fans above her turned their attention back to baseball.
But rounding the corner, she came across all six presidents posing for a photo, along with Screech as Obi-Wan and Little Screech as Yoda. They beckoned her over with silent waves, and putting her arms around the fuzzy creatures on either side of her, she gave a big grin. She was with her people.