I entered the world of theatre as a cartoon character, Ranger Smith, a sometimes nasty often bumbling park ranger. I wore a green ranger outfit with a ranger hat, but instead of living in Jellystone Park I lived in a tiny hut with a thrust stage attached, deep in the bowels of Canada’s Wonderland. Instead of constantly harassing Yogi and Boo, I was stuck in the “Mystery of the missing Picnic Basket” with a cast that included Yogi, Scooby Doo, Huckleberry Hound and myself…but no Boo Boo. This show would play itself out for twelve minutes, eight times a day, seven days a week.
I enlisted in the fast paced life of theme park entertainment through a something called a cattle call audition. It’s where a company posts an audition call, time and place, and anyone interested shows up on mass without a specific time. You are then herded together, branded and basically treated like a piece of meat, hence the word cattle.
I had never attended a vocal auditioned before and was naive to the process. I could sing, but was movement challenged and did not possess an ounce of acting talent. Still, it was a simple matter of elimination. As talentless as I was, joining the stable work force of the entertainment business was sadly, at the time, leaning towards my strengths. I was not academically minded, physically gifted or even or good with my hands. I had spent my teen years working for my father and in the end did not absorb one usable skill. So my singing voice was all I had. I had been told about the auditions and given the information on what was required…two songs. My previous experience with auditions amounted to one experience at York University where they required a monologue. I looked up the definition of the word monologue in the dictionary and somehow thought that reciting a poem I wrote myself was good enough. I learned quickly that this was not what they wanted and walked out of the audition humiliated as they did not try to hide their laughter while telling me to recite my poem while pretending to do various activities at the same time. This time though, two songs, I could do. I did have training in voice and deferred to one of my conservatory pieces. I then thought, hey, they don’t know me, or where I’m from, who the hell knows where Kapuskasing is? I’ll just list a slew of musicals I have done and even though I have never heard of half of them I managed to get a friend of mine who was a musical fanatic to tell me who the leads in the shows were and I put them on my resume. Then, in a rare moment of forethought, I decided to learn just one of the pieces from one of the shows as my second song, Oklahoma. Finally after waiting about six hours I went into the audition room and wowed them with the most inane boring piece of shit they had yet to hear all day. Stopping me half way through, strangely enough, they said, hey, you’ve done all these musicals, referring to the piece of fiction they had before them, title…my resume. Why, they continued, don’t you do a piece from one of those shows? Why indeed, and before they could suggest a piece from one of the many solos I must have done, I quickly started to belt out Oklahoma, finished and stood there, praying they would just let me leave. They pointed me to the door and said to pick up the two pieces I would need for my call back. They fell for it, or felt sorry for me. I didn’t care; I picked up my pieces and headed home with an underserved feeling of accomplishment.
The call back required something called dancing, a form of movement that apparently follows this thing called rhythm, my feet were confused. An angry person called a choreographer screams numbers at you and after a short period of time tells you to leave.
A few days later they called me and asked me if I wanted to play the part of Ranger Smith in their children’s show, “Yogis Picnic.” I really didn’t understand why they were offering it to me, but I needed work and this seemed close enough.
My memory of rehearsals offers only one brief scene and it has nothing to do with rehearsing. It was the first flash of what was soon to be called AIDS. I remember getting picked up at the Kiss and Ride tentacle of Wilson subway station. While waiting for my Wonderland shuttle I noticed a large mess of white flyers littering the shelter. I picked one up and it read, “Beware of Homosexuals!” it then advised anyone who knew a homosexual to keep their distance. Apparently God had sent a plague to rid the world of homosexuals and it was extremely contagious, which in my mind seemed a little suspect and even made God appear a little…you know, sloppy. The rest of the paper read like a technical manual on how to avoid this toxic virus, this virus being housed in all gay men.
Well, this seemed more fiction then fact and barely dented the nervous vibe I was exuding, but, obviously enough to be remembered.
I was assigned the role of swing performer, meaning, I would learn all the parts and sub in for different performers each day. There were, in fact, three Ranger Smith’s; One super hyper guy who talked so quickly I would simply nod and agree to what sounded like a buzzing noise, and his polar opposite, the other ranger who was mellow to the point of melting. I was starting to get excited. They offered dance lessons and gave us all free passes to any ride in the park all season. I wanted to see us as one big family, kind of like summer camp. We would bond, sharing our talent and stories…our dreams. I would take turns being best friends with each of them. Making sure I didn’t get too close, since, after all, we would all soon part in the fall to our new and exciting lives, now, just blossoming, as potential thespians.
Well, the blossoming was more of a pruning. What few brave new appendages I had slowly been able to grow since my descent into the city were about to be removed, and not in the interest of future flowering.
The cast included two types of performers; character performers and singing performers. Singing performers played the Ranger Smith character who sang live to a pre-recorded tape with a pack microphone. Character performers are the people who play the part of animals, mostly, cartoon characters such as Yogi, Huckleberry hound, Scooby Doo…etc. This involved putting on a white jumpsuit and slipping into a claustrophobic fully suited replica of the character itself. The feet were usually huge and extended a good six inches beyond your actual feet, perfect for “accidentally” kicking little bratty children. Putting on the body of the outfit was like wearing a fur coat, nice and comfy for what was going to become one of the hottest summers ever. Then there was the head of the creature. It was a huge helmet enclosed object that hooked up on the back of the collar and sat on your shoulders. For visual aid a one way screen was provided in the neck of the head attachment. It was a guaranteed twenty degrees hotter in the outfit, without movement. When you took the costume off you basically peeled the white transparent sweat soaked jumpsuit off immediately after. The costumes were washed once a week and judging from the smell, it wasn’t enough. While in the costume you quickly learned to figure out basic non-verbal childish expressions by overextending each arm to find your eyes and mouth. The typical gestures were, hand over mouth, which was, inside the costume, hand over forehead. This was usually accompanied by an up and down movement of the body to indicate laughter. Then, of course, with kids, you always did hands over eyes, which in the costume meant arms fully extended, reaching up and covering somewhere up there. Then there were the very broad physical movements like the one foot up, about to run pose or the hands on hips toe tapping impatient pose…and so on. After the show, Ranger Smith and the “gang” would go out of the hut and mingle with the audience for about fifteen minutes. Ranger Smith’s job was basically, to protect the characters from the children… and sometimes the adults. Since every character except Ranger Smith was pre-taped, the people inside the costumes were not allowed to speak when subjected to direct contact with the audience. The standard comment by Ranger Rick regarding the non verbal Yogi was that he was saving his voice for the next show, and Yogi, to aid this explanation would cover his throat and shake his head. The most frequently asked question was “where is Booboo?” by the end of the summer my hate for this show and even the children who watched it grew to such a point that my standard come back was, “He died in a forest fire…now remember, don’t play with matches.” I would a gather a molecule of satisfaction from their shocked faces but it would only temporarily placate my need for evil stimulation.
Now, this decline into dark distraction didn’t happen suddenly, I was in the beginning, as I said, excited. I viewed us as one big family, but apparently the lines had already been drawn, and if we were one big family I was the adopted brother that no one wanted to know. I was stuck in this in between area of not quite a character and not quite a performer. The character performers in the show treated me with relative kindness, but they seemed to know everyone else who was a character player, the ones who wandered the park with an escort greeting people, they had their own “club house” close to ours and the character performers spent most of their time there. One of the Ranger Smiths was a performer in one of the big shows the year before and spent all of his time associating with the elite. The other Ranger Smith seemed to disappear to his own business, furthering his career.
I was hut bound and about to learn the Wonderland caste system. As it turns out, even Wonderland had its “haves,” and its “have nots.” These categories were sub divided by career choice, or, shit job selection. There was a category for ticket takers, ride operators, administration, food servers and of course, performers. I was at the bottom of the performer food chain. I was viewed as an extension of the character players by the performers and a wannabe performer by the characters. There was a small town mentality exuding from the character performers, a bit of a “who do you think you are?” attitude that was not only disheartening, but at times, vicious. I kept my distance and eventually carved out a little caste of my own. I called it the f**k you caste. I would take advantage of this opportunity regardless of my limbo land label. I would fight to become a better dancer…or really, someone who can at least understand that my feet can move without staring at them. I would embrace the principles of a good performer and focus on my craft, or at least, that was the plan.
Unfortunately, self imposed isolation takes its toll. Every time I would join in with a group event there was always something, usually someone, who would turn me further inward. I remember sitting after a dance class listening to one of the pirate acrobats explain to a young (they were all young, high school, actually) character performer the reason it wasn’t safe for him to be around homosexuals…yup, the gay thing again. He said…in all his homophobic wisdom, “I’m an easy target because I’m small.” As if gay men went around searching for tiny people to pounce on and rape. Being gay myself, I wanted to inform this idiot that even though I wasn’t much taller than him I wasn’t the slightest interested in cornering him and removing his cherry. In fact, the only thing I did want to do to him at the time was something more akin to the removal of a major body part…slowly. Then there was the one character performer in the show that always wanted to include me in the character festivities. She meant well, but failed to acknowledge the separation in age. It may not seem like a lot, in years, but it was decades in maturity. Here I was struggling to make ends meet on my own as a young adult in the big city and they were still in high school, living at home. I would be invited to this or that, than when I screwed up enough courage to go, I would be ignored, in an almost hostile way. Over time, this eroded my self esteem to the point where all I looked forward to was the end of the season.
By mid season I had reached a semi-loner status I was comfortable with. Yogi and I had become part time friends, sort of, and we amused ourselves during the show by playing immature games. Games involving spontaneous pain and humiliation…fun! I loved hearing Yogi yell in pain from inside his costume during the show, you know, breaking down that fourth wall. This kept me entertained for a while, but boredom and depression set in again, and since I couldn’t seem to change my inner status I decided to cut all my hair off and change my outward appearance, it was something I could actually control. This pissed off the administration and I was called in to be reminded of my contract to “not” change my appearance. Fire me, god please, fire me. But they didn’t and probably didn’t really care if I dyed myself blue; it was all just part of the process.
Near the end of the summer I accidentally put my hand through a window and cut the nerves and tendons in my right index finger. The hospital had to put a plastic cast on and told me I must not bend the finger backward or the repair to them might not be workable. I continued in the show with a renewed interest in freaking out the children. When the parents pushed their child toward me and demanded that I shake their child’s hand I would hand them my plastic hand and hear the child scream, he’s a robot. Ah…the dumb ones were so much fun. Then there was the time when I lost my head as Huckleberry Hound. The stunned looks on the horrified toddlers was priceless… I guess it wasn’t all bad.
Well, the season did eventually end, and so began my decade long performing stint as a bottom feeder in the world of entertainment.
You might remember me as, oh… who am I kidding.