A young mother clad in a one-piece bathing suit was fast-pushing a stroller toward Bert and Ernie when she was intercepted by a uniformed official.
“Bert and Ernie have to go take a nap,” I informed the woman and her young child, my black shorts, yellow polo and Sesame Place name tag projecting authority. “You’ll need to come back later if you wish to meet them.”
As Bert and Ernie’s bouncer (official name: walk host), I was charged with managing crowds of parkgoers who are quick to tear up and melt down. I had to be assertive, sending people away at the end of the meet-and-greet with the “Sesame Street” characters, but also conciliatory, offering an apology and an alternative, such as Big Bird over at the 1-2-3 Smile With Me! location. Basically, I had to dash dreams, then build up new ones.
“Tell the people in line that the character needs to rest or have lunch — something kids can relate to,” said Kelly Adams, an assistant manager of entertainment who helps manage the character photo ops. Before sending me out for a trial run with Telly Monster, she warned, “Some people will be mean.”
Such are the occupational hazards of working at the Langhorne, Pa., kiddie theme park: crying youngsters, ill-tempered parents, unbearable heat, unflattering uniforms. Yet during the park’s May-October season, the 1,600 employees never seem to let their smiles turn upside down. Not to be overly sentimental, but a child’s giggle has amazing restorative powers.
“If you don’t like kids, it’s kind of hard to work here,” said Michelle Hunt, the park’s public relations manager and my boss for the day. “You need to be willing to overcome a tough day and be happy with your work.”
Sesame Place, open since 1980 and a licensee of Sesame Workshop, is stocked with the same characters who have engaged more children than Count Von Count could ever enumerate. When I first approached Hunt about the possibility of working a shift at the park, I’d hoped to inhabit the furry or feathery body of a Sesame Streeter, curious about life inside the giant puppets. I wasn’t picky: I’d be Big Bird, Grover, Murray Monster. Anyone really, except Elmo, whose falsetto voice feels like broken glass shards to my ears.
But that request was turned down: You need serious training to play a character. The performers have to know how to dance, act and emote (the figures never speak), plus possess extraordinary respiratory capabilities (the costumes are equipped with neither fans nor air conditioning nor misting stations). However, I was well suited for a number of other positions, including many that require the same skill set as babysitting. Basically, keep the kids — and by extension, the parents — happy and amused, even if you yourself want to cry.
“Who gets to wear the blue shirt and khakis?” I asked Hunt hopefull as we scanned the uniforms in the wardrobe room.
Supervisors, she responded, and directed me to the rack of ungainly black shorts. To complete the outfit, she handed me a black military-style belt and a polo shirt the color of processed American cheese. For an accessory, I placed my name tag opposite my heart. In this uniform, I was able to float between departments, sartorially fitting into merchandise, entertainment and operations. Typically, only the character actors change up their furs and felts. Justin Fortmeier, for instance, plays Telly Monster, Oscar and Cookie Monster. “It’s an awesome experience to feel like a celebrity every day,” said the recent college graduate as he peeled off his shaggy purple Telly suit.
The Sesame personalities perform in shows and also interact with guests during the special dining experiences (you eat; they watch and interrupt) and the half-hour photo ops held throughout the park. (Only Elmo, Abby Cadabby and Big Bird have fixed positions at 1-2-3 Smile With Me!; having them traipse through the crowds would be akin to letting Justin Bieber walk unguarded through the halls of a high school.) They mug for cameras, cuddle with children and fend off unwanted advances. “When I play Cookie Monster, people try to shove cookies in my face,” said Fortmeier, a seven-year employee. Considering that the actors often use the mouth opening for their eyes, a pushy cookie could cause temporary blindness.
“If you didn’t see this part of it, you could really think, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s Elmo,’ ” said Hunt of the dressing room scene. But staring at disembodied heads on shelves and headless bodies hanging on hooks, I felt a bit of the magic disappear.
Twice a day, the characters reunite, block-party style, for the parade. A few hours before the events, balloon-sellers ply the Street, a replica neighborhood lined with faux storefronts and the place-holding towels and chairs of Type-A spectators.
I picked up my supply of balloons from a dark cubby hole where I could barely find Kevin Hanlon, the unit supervisor of vending, through the dense cover of helium-filled shapes. Hanlon prepped me for the task. He showed me how to fill up the balloons at the helium tank, allowing me to practice on an Abby Cadabby, whose arms, in my opinion, felt a bit limp to the squeeze. He ran down the prices — $10 for a full body, $8 for a head — and handed me a $50 bank in a waist apron. He shared state secrets, admitting that while the Elmo and Cookie Monster heads are the biggest sellers, he likes to push the underdogs, such as Super Grover and Oscar. He demonstrated how to hold the balloons (high and behind) and make change without releasing the entire cluster.
Then he handed me 28 balloons that, once tethered to my hand, felt like a giant cumulus cloud I couldn’t shake. “Because it’s your first day, it’s okay if you lose a few,” he said supportively.
Minutes into my shift, I “freed” my first balloon — an Abby Cadabby — during my inaugural sale. The scene is something of a blur, but I faintly remember a woman asking for a Cookie Monster face, and me unraveling the tangle of white ribbon wrapped around my palm like boxer’s tape. I recall pulling out her balloon, then looking up to see Abby sailing up, up, up. I watched until I could no longer make out her pigtails.
For 90 minutes, I walked back and forth along the parade route. Thankfully, I had an assistant, Nicole Clutts, who helped me juggle the cash, the balloons, my cup of water and the monotony. She told me that the two questions she’s most frequently asked are, “Do you have a Zoe balloon?” (no, she was phased out) and “Where’s the nearest bathroom?” (near TwiddlebugLand). She said guests often ask her whether she’ll float away holding all those balloons; she advised me to chuckle as if I’d never heard that joke before.
I experienced a rush of business once the guests started settling along the sidelines. Nicole had to run back to the kiosk to replenish my Elmos, Cookies and Abbys. Balloons waved at me as I walked down the route the final time.
I handed my wad of cash to Kevin, who conducted an audit. Based on the number of balloons that remained of my total 37, I had sold $222 worth, an impressive tally. Yet I quickly deflated when Kevin informed me that I had only $194 in cash. Tragically, I had lost one head and two bodies.
I picked up Ernie and Bert a few minutes before their 4:30 appointment. They were all ready to go, dressed in their striped T-shirts, their hair sticking up like dark patches of shrub. I escorted them from the dressing room to the Street, arranging them near the hopscotch, where the kids could one step, two step, hop, hop, hop over to the BFFs. Across the way, I glimpsed Cookie Monster embracing a little one with his big blue paws.
From morning through evening, the park offers photo ops with the characters. For example, at 11:30 a.m., guests could mingle with Bert and Ernie, Abby and Big Bird. A number of Berts and Ernies were on-site that day, so the duo could show up in multiple places at once. (In other words, you are not hallucinating.)
The escort’s main responsibilities are to maintain an orderly line, to prevent any cutting and to keep the characters informed of the passage of time. You also need to give them a heads-up if a guest is outside their limited field of vision; if, for example, a child bolts from deep stage left, man your defenses.
For 25 minutes, I ushered families to the characters, watching them fill the gaps between Bert and Ernie’s arms and legs. I listened to camera-wielding parents call out to Bryce, Braden, Jaden, Sophie and Melanie to look at Mommy and say “cheese.” Sometimes I was the one behind the lens, cajoling unfamiliar children in familial tones to look up and smile.
Five minutes before the session’s end, I walked to the back of the line to start turning people away. I remembered to use my kid-friendly reasoning, skipping the truth — Bert and Ernie are two sunbeats away from passing out — for a softer explanation: They need a sip of water, because like you and me, they get thirsty, too.
Though it was tempting to slip in just one more family, I stood firm. I looked into those rosy faces brimming with anticipation and explained the situation, hoping the parents would relay the message to their kids. I didn’t want to break any tiny sparrow hearts.
When the half-hour was up, I returned to Bert and Ernie’s side and followed a few steps behind them, just as I had seen Britney Spears’s bodyguards array themselves. Right before we reached the employees-only gates, an opportunistic family jumped next to the pair for a quick picture. B&E obliged, their mouths hanging open in their approximation of a smile.
Once the characters were in the dressing room, the handlers rushed to undress them as quickly as possible. Sarah Morrisette, a dance captain, challenged me to a costume-removal contest. Before I could even find the snap that attached Bert’s head to his shirt, Sarah had Ernie fully unzipped and was moving on to Bert. Minutes later, I noticed an elfin girl and guy quietly sitting on benches, their previous identities tucked away for later.
This year, the park has introduced a new parade, the Neighborhood Street Party, calling in a Miami choreographer to spice up the old spectacle. The stylized routine lasts 22 minutes and revolves around three themes: learning your ABCs and numbers, exercise, and friends and family. In addition to the Sesame stars and 11 floats, dancers prance around as different members of a community, such as sanitation department workers, firefighters, housekeepers and the resident fairies.
After the blow of not being able to play a character (though they did allow me to crawl inside Big Bird), I found solace in the idea of participating in the parade. Though my dance training is limited to my high school prom, Michelle told me that if my moves did not impress, maybe I could carry the Sesame Place banner. I felt confident that I could hold a sign and walk simultaneously; maybe I could even toss out a smile and wave.
Sarah, now in her fifth season at the park, led me outside to an alley where we could rehearse some of the choreography. She was going to teach me the three-minute set performed during Travel Loop 2, the second segment of the parade. Tall and athletic, she swooped her arms and glided across the asphalt like a ballerina at Lincoln Center. I bumbled like a wind-up doll abandoned in a toy chest.
“If you feel like a goofball, you’re probably doing it correctly,” she said encouragingly, as I attempted to step like a pony and rotate my arms like a windmill.
Some moves, I have to admit, I nailed. “Meet me right here at Sesame Place,” for example, which requires opening your arms, pressing your hands to your chest, pointing down at the street, then a double-fisted pump. Set to the music, it’s stirring.
After we wrapped up, I went into Sarah’s office for a critique. Reminding me that the 37 performers in the parade had three months of practice, compared with my 30 minutes, she said I’d done very well. My weak points: I needed to straighten my arms and focus on cleaner lines. I also had to smile, learn to lip-sync, keep my head up and acknowledge the spectators watching this spectacle. Instead, I was performing for feet and ants. She then showed me a binder filled with complex instructions involving blocking and props. I would need to learn all of that in the next few hours. I knew it before she said it: I was not going to be in the parade. I wanted to crawl inside Big Bird and hide.
As a consolation, Sarah allowed me to don the costume of a Jump Rope Kid and warm up with the rest of the crew. I would have to stop, though, once the parade started.
An hour before showtime, I pulled on pink spandex shorts and a matching short-sleeved mock turtleneck, a frilly miniskirt in yellow and orange stripes, and a tank top with a sunburst on the belly. On my feet, I wore pink scrunchy socks and pastel-colored Converse sneakers. I could duck behind a roll of Smarties, and no one would ever find me.
For hair and makeup, I had to channel a first-grader. I pulled my hair into a high side ponytail, which made me look like a drunken unicorn. Sarah cemented it into place with hair spray. She then painted my face with purple eye shadow, pink blush and lipstick swiped with shiny gloss. I felt like a child beauty queen and a pageant mother all rolled into one.
Once everyone was dressed, the characters loaded into scooters and were driven on back roads to the parade entrance. Those of us wearing our own heads walked to the meeting point.
Ten minutes before the start, we formed a circle around Sarah and a “fireman” for the mandatory stretch. I wedged myself between a fairy and a cop. All together, we rolled our heads, yanked our arms to the left and right, and touched our toes, or thereabouts.
Now fully flexed, the performers lined up in order of appearance. I stood beside the gate and, squinting through a crack, watched the first float roll onto the route. I followed the parade until a lifeguard showed up as my escort. We walked past darkened attractions to the empty dressing room, where I turned in my costume. Then I returned to the park grounds to catch the end of the parade with the other guests.
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