My mother worked at a doctor’s office while I was in sixth grade. She would bring home syringes with the needles broken off for us to play with. Draw up a few cc’s of water and it’d shoot like a squirt gun. I guess, looking back on it, a used syringe doesn’t seem like a good toy for a child. It’s medical waste today, a repulsive, deadly thing that if washed up on a beach, means no swimming for a while. But it was the 1960’s… so I took ‘em to my elementary school to sell.
They really caught on. I got ten cents for a three cc, and twenty five cents for a ten cc. Mom brought home a handful every day for a week or so. Then I was called to the principal’s office where I had to explain why half the kids in school had syringes in their pockets. I thought I could keep the operation going on a more discreet basis, but the principal also called my mother. That was the end of the squirters.
Eight years later, it was July 1977, Dougie and I were new to St. Louis, we didn’t have jobs, and we didn’t know anybody. I was nineteen and he was fifteen. We spent a lot of time goofing around in the house and were kind of into a very popular science fiction movie that was out at the time. Just for laughs I decided to make an exact copy of this particular “villain character???. Maybe if it turned out well, I could wear it for Halloween or something. I’d learned how to handle fiberglass when I painted motorcycles and cars just out of high school and could also mold plastic on a home-made plastic molder we had. The mask turned out pretty good. Dougie took it to school the next day and sold it for $10. Not bad for a quarter’s worth of plastic. Dougie had more customers lined up so I made him a pile for the next day. They sold out and I made more. Doug, apparently, was a natural salesman. We’d gone from aimless slackers to copyright-infringing entrepreneurs in a single week.
Not that I was an entrepreneur. I was still a slacker, but I’d drifted into this business, however shady it was, to get some easy money. While Dougie was at school, I made masks and other plastic costume stuff in the basement. For lunch, I’d eat a whole bag of Ore-Ida french fries washed down with a quart of Coke in front of the TV watching “The New Mickey Mouse Club???. I watched “The New Mickey Mouse Club??? so much I became a “New Mickey Mouse Club??? connoisseur. I knew all the performers’ names, their special talents, and those whose solo numbers were “don’t miss??? attractions. No matter what, I didn’t miss my show. My firm philosophy was, you gotta have a life outside of work.
Pops was a kind of backwards cheerleader for our little enterprise. He hated the business, for some reason. He would come downstairs once in a while to discourage us. Pops would say a few mean things about how it would never go anywhere, blah, blah, blah. Pops had wanted to be a jazz musician when he was going to college. That dream didn’t carry him very far, and he hadn’t finished college. I found his college transcript. His grades were pretty bad. He’d spent too many late nights in the 1940’s playing that trumpet. He was finished with jazz by the time I was born. Pops didn’t have much to carry him in the working world without college or connections. He just didn’t want us to be like him.
Dougie got a job at Six Flags wearing costumes. He brought home a giant pair of shoes and told me they paid $600 a pair for them and that the hot asphalt wore them out really quickly. This just seemed like unbelievable money for a pair of vinyl shoes. I said, tell Six Flags we would make the same shoes for a hundred bucks. We made dozens of shoes for them. Whenever anyone called Six Flags to ask them where they got their costumes, the Six Flags people sent them to us. Next thing you know we’re in the mascot costume business.
Later Dougie saw a good one-man puppet show at Six Flags and took me out to see it. Two weeks later we had our own puppet and a stage, and booked our first show. Between the copies of the masks, the copies of the shoes and the copy of the puppet show, we were getting a reputation. People said we were “the creative type???. As wrong as that was, it felt pretty good.
We built ourselves a couple of big costume characters like you see at Six Flags. There was a big pink hippo named Harvi and an alligator named Grouchie. Somehow, Doug managed to wrangle bookings for us, dressed in the costumes. The first one was waving at cars as they drove by the Nautilus Fitness Center. There wasn’t a connection between an obese pink hippo, a talking alligator and a fitness center, as far as I knew. However, we were getting paid to wave at cars, not to make sense. We sweated, got bored, and picked up a check for three hundred dollars after four hours. This was just the first of many gigs where I quickly decided that the person who arranged to include costumes in their promotion was out of their mind.
The costume making, the promotions and puppet shows encouraged Doug. I wasn’t so sure about getting too committed to it, but I went along. I didn’t want to leave my brother high and dry at a time when he seemed to have a vision. Knowing I would feel guilty if I left the business and got a real job kept me roped in. We leased space in a building so we’d have more room to work. We went on growing for several years and hired a few helpers. Eventually we had a crew of people sewing for us, but I was the guy who made the costume heads, their big bodies, and the puppets. I also did all the designs and patterns, and did the shopping for the materials, and was in charge of keeping the equipment going.
As the business grew it started to take charge of my life. I got too busy to go to college so I dropped out of engineering school. I headed into work at 7 every morning, and left about 11 or midnight, seven days a week. If I slept more than 7 hours, I was angry at myself. I would be so upset that I had slept “late??? that I would usually get a two or three day bellyache from the tension soon after. I didn’t drink alcohol, I didn’t go to parties, I didn’t do drugs, all I did was work. If I didn’t, we couldn’t pay the rent, the payroll, the bills for power, etc. That’s the strange thing about it: I got into the business because I wanted the money for college, but eventually we were in so deep I had drop out to keep the business going. The tail wasn’t just wagging the dog, it ate the dog. Now I really was tied to the business.
A few of our customers were major league sports teams. We loved that kind of high-profile customer, and figured that once we had some good ones, that referrals to other teams would follow. This one team really loved their costume. They’d had it for almost a year but hadn’t actually gotten around to paying for it. They had no intention of paying us, I suspect. We’d been invoicing them for nine months and got nothing out of it. Dougie and I figured hiring a collection agency would make an enemy out of them. We knew the guy who wore the costume, Steve, took it home with him, so we called him and asked him to bring it in for a cleaning. Once we’d taken the costume captive, we called the team and told them that if they didn’t pay for it pretty soon we’d have to take it back. We figured when they heard they’d call Steve and tell him to lock up the costume somewhere, and then he’d tell them we already had it, and then they’d take our invoice a little more seriously. We put our hostage in the washer and waited for the phone to ring. Within a day, they had a check waiting for us at their office. And they got a free cleaning out of it.
Another time we had a customer buy eight costumes for a live show in a restaurant. They told us they wanted cheap costumes for the opening of the place, but after they got established they’d buy the top-of-the-line costumes we wanted to sell them. That got us on the hook. The fact that the principal owner was apparently high on coke the whole time didn’t slow us down. But after we’d gone half a year without getting paid, we were in a dilemma. We didn’t want to blow that future business by getting too pushy about being paid, but we needed the money. Before the actors showed up one afternoon, I snuck backstage and sabotaged the costumes so they’d fall apart during the show. Heads fell off, feet fell apart, that sort of thing. That worked, too. We got a call the same day to fix them, and I told them we’d be happy to fix them for free immediately, but we just needed to get paid first. It worked. We were still in good graces, and might have eventually gotten that order for the expensive costumes, if the company hadn’t gone bankrupt a few months later.
We did parades all the time for the free advertising. We had a little gas-powered golf cart to ride on that we’d painted up with zebra stripes. Just the same, if you had a costume on, you were expected to walk, so you could shake hands with the kids. A summer day in St. Louis can be a humid 100 degrees. Inside a costume it can be 140. I used to hear the people in the audience have these little conversations while I was in there. “Isn’t he hot in there???? “No, don’t worry about him, he’s got air conditioning!??? Man I wish that were true, but nobody’s ever developed air conditioning that good for a costume. I had a vest filled with ice packs, and that not only warmed up in a short time but also added weight. It didn’t work past a half hour. Once the ice was melted, the vest made you hotter. More than once, I almost passed out in my damp, steaming hot alligator costume.
And some other people who worked for me had it worse. Neal Wayne was dressed as a giant chicken in one really long parade and got so overheated he fainted. We were just around the corner from Barnes Hospital so we threw him onto the parade car and drove him there. The ER staff laid the giant chicken out on a table and stripped off his feathers. They said he had heat stroke, which could have easily killed him if he’d baked a little longer. Luckily the ER doctor basted him with an IV of fluids. In the next parade, our parade car caught on fire. Luckily Neal the giant chicken was walking at the time. He would have roasted if he’d been on that car.
Pops had been on the decline for a while. He’d been laid off from his job at Chrysler, then went to work for Subaru. At Subaru he wrecked three company cars in a row and they fired him. Pops’ drinking got worse, but I could convince myself he wasn’t a drunk because he hid it so well. He had bottles of booze in his car, the dresser, the toilet tank, anywhere but where we could see it. Finally, the night of my twenty-first birthday, I came home and found Pops staggering around the mailbox trying to paint it. I though he was having a heart attack until I realized he was drunk. Mom and I helped him up the stairs and put him in bed. That was the night I realized that Doug and I couldn’t depend on Pops any more for anything. It put on more pressure to keep the business going…. we needed it to survive because it was the best money I could make without my lost college degree. This wasn’t the life I wanted for myself but here I was. And I felt I couldn’t let Doug down by looking for something better.
Somebody called us one Christmas to see if we could provide costumes for Sally Jesse Raphael’s TV show. We provided Christmas characters to stand on the set while she introduced holiday gift ideas. I was Mrs. Snowman, my brother Dougie was an elf, and Neal Wayne was Mr. Snowman. Neal was about six three, two hundred fifty pounds of black guy in an even larger snowman suit. He was huge in that thing. We had to walk onto the set during the intro. On his way out, Neal tripped over something. The giant Mr. Snowman toppled onto his back. His big, round white head flew off and rolled. Now the snowman had a much smaller, sweaty black face. He laid there and waved his arms around until some stagehands put him back together. The crowd busted out laughing and had a hard time stopping. Sally lost control of the crowd for a while. Watching the tape of this show today, you can’t see the fall but you can see the puss on her face when they came back from the commercials. She didn’t like being upstaged by a pile of fake snow. That was the last time that show had us on.
Working big crowds at festivals was the worst thing you could do in a costume. I was dressed as Grouchie Gator in a big crowd at a 4th of July Fair and suddenly I smelled stale beer breath. I looked up and there was this huge mean looking biker dude up in Grouchie’s face. He pulled back his fist and punched Grouchy in the nose, really, really hard. Too bad for him Grouchie’s nose had a metal frame under the thin rubber skin… clank! All his drunken friends laughed their asses off as the guy jumped around rubbing his hand. The impact had just about snapped my real head off, but it was worth it. What kind of jerk hits an animal, anyway, especially an endangered species?
For a while I had a contract to do a few puppet shows in tough parts of town. During one evening show, I could see police lights flashing outside the community center where I was doing the puppet show. When I came out, the cops were already gone, but there was a chalk outline of a body right next to my car that I had to step over to get in. I didn’t know who that guy was, but I was glad it wasn’t the puppet man. After the next evening show I walked out to my dad’s car in the dark. A car with six guys in it drove past, then stopped abruptly down the street. The reverse lights came on and the car started coming back. All I could think of was that I didn’t want to pose for a chalk body outline. I ran to the car clutching my puppets, flung the puppet stage on top of the car and jumped in. I hightailed it out of there trying to hold the stage on the roof with one hand.
A little later on a friend of mine that I hadn’t seen for seven years, Dan Turner, showed up at my shop. I was so happy to see him. We talked for two hours and made plans to get together. A week later, I read in the newspaper that he was killed in a car wreck. I was stunned. Dougie told me that could have been anyone, including me, and asked me “are you living your life now or saving it for later???? I had to stop and think. I’d been waiting for something, some outside force, to push me out of the business, because on my own I’d always talk myself out of it.
Within a few months, I registered for college to finish my degree. I cut back on my hours a little and saw that things didn’t collapse without me. Oddly, when I delegated some of the indispensable work that I’d done to other people, they got it done as well as I would have. For over a decade I’d worked punishing hours thinking that the business would collapse without me. When I finally tried letting it go a little, that didn’t happen. When I graduated I told Doug I was leaving the business. He asked for a year’s notice. That gave him a year to find ways to run the company without me, and gave me a year to cut the strings of guilt.
A year later, I was about to leave the business for a real job. Dougie had been wearing the Rolex watch that Pops had left me to flash at business meetings. I told him he could keep it to use as a little emergency fund that he could wear on his wrist. My entanglement in a life as a puppet man was over. It was a tremendous learning experience, a real school of hard knocks on managing a small business. The final lesson was when I finally learned how to live own my life.