See a slideshow from mascot camp.
Saturday morning around eight, merely a handful of hours after my Friday night had ended, I was standing next to the administration entrance at the Toyota Center with a group of high school and college mascots, their parents, and a few other assorted costumed campers.
Admittedly they were more bright-eyed then we could ever possibly be at such an early hour on a weekend. They all came packing their respective characters in huge Rubbermaid containers or in giant zippered bags. Some carried their horse and eagle heads under their arms, breaking one of the biggest rules in the mascot industry.
Never let anyone see pieces of your costume out of context or not on you. That's akin to a child seeing a beardless Santa Claus hunched over his taco salad in a mall food court or spying Batman washing his tights in his cowl in his bathtub. It's a no-no and it destroys the already fragile illusion.
Seeing Toyota Center devoid of people and lights is eerie. Everything echoes and the A/C is turned off except where it's needed. It costs almost four grand a day to cool the complex
during peak usage times. We didn't get to visit the main floor, as it was being refurbished for the coming Rockets season.
This is the first year that Robert Boudwin, the man who has played Houston Rockets mascot Clutch the Bear for 16 years, has opened his breadth of knowledge to a group of young aspiring mascots. For eight hours he would tell us the tricks of the trade, from costume care, war stories, to the fundamentals of silent communication.
One camper, a 12-year old professional child clown, came from Oklahoma for this class. He's the mascot for his town's high school team. Another kid came from Pearland, our own hometown. Seeing him unpack the famous Oiler character brought back memories of our botched mascot heist. We are saving that story for a later date.
Boudwin started the class by having us don a Clutch mask and asking us to each hype up the class with our own routine. To the strains of Gary Glitter's "Rock & Roll Part II," I did this
off-the-cuff six-shooter thing before proposing marriage to a crowd member and giving her a free camp shirt. It was not even 10 a.m. and I was already plotting some way to get the Houston Press to buy me a mascot outfit.
Boudwin schooled us on the dos and don'ts of mascotting. Remain active; you are a live-action cartoon. Every movement should be exaggerated and massive. Always stay in costume and character around your audience, and hide all superfluous communication. Be sure to stay rested and hydrated and drink as much water as possible. This isn't a job for drinkers, obviously.
A kid asks about a tip he had heard about not wearing deodorant, which is quickly laughed off. Another inquires about cooling mechanisms, like fans and ice vests. True pros don't use any sort of cooling system; it's just a part of the job. That's for amateurs and people on street corners handing out coupons for tacos, says Boudwin.
As for having to pee while in the suit, if you are doing your duty entertaining folks and sweating it up you will never have to stop and drop costume to do that. All your liquids will come out through your pores naturally.
There was an intensity to these performers that is hard to quantify, a sort of mixture of eye-of-the-tiger athleticism and show-business wonder. Depending on the size of your costume, you are flying half-blind, mostly deaf, and encumbered by a sweaty and restraining suit. Never again should you poke fun at Junction Jack or Toro while they are toiling on the field of stands at Minute Maid Park or Reliant Stadium, especially during the hottest times of the season.
These people work as hard as some of the players do. The only difference is that you will never recognize them on the street, nor do they want you to know what they look like. For the high school kids who are mascots, the job is no different or less important than the star varsity quarterback or the hotshot running back.
If you are a good mascot and love the craft enough you can make thousands upon thousands
of people happy they way Boudwin does year in and out. He's already been inducted into the very real Mascot Hall Of Fame, an honor he received in 2006 during his first year of eligibility. In the industry, he's a seven-foot rock star with a 92-inch waist.
After lunch time, all the campers were told to get in their costumes for a group photo. Slowly we started seeing all manner of animal taking form in our midst. A blue jay sat in the corner next to horse. A viper hugged a cow. Shasta and Sasha, the cougars from the University of Houston, were also present. It was the scariest thing in the world, and also the most comforting, mainly because we didn't have to wear one of those furnaces. We did sneak the Oiler head on for nostalgia purposes.
We got a handful of furry remarks from our friends when we sent them cellphone pics. No one brought up this aspect of the mascot game during the course of the camp. That's just a tad creepy.
All told by noon I was in the midst of two full-size Chick-Fil-A cows, wolves, horses, a cotton ball, a handful of tigers, a few generic wildcats, a monstrous lion from St. Thomas University, and a few unclassified mammalian creatures. It was the stuff of a vicious acid frenzy.
Around this time Clutch made his first appearance, all seven-feet of him, to perform a magic show for us with the help of Rocket Ranger Dominic, who has been his assistant now for a decade. Clutch is shadowed by Dominic at all events, a sort of bodyguard in case crowds get unruly or he needs special assistance. Mike Gonzales is also on the Clutch team. Houston being the small world it is, I found out that he actually grew up playing Little League with my
uncle in Pearland.
replaced (see comments below) the team's previous mascot, Turbo, before the 1995 season. Boudwin says that owner Leslie Alexander was looking for something a little cuddlier and interactive than Turbo.
The aerial performer wasn't exactly kid-friendly, seeing that it was a man in face-covering full-length tights. A teddy bear fit the bill, but it was the way Boudwin portrayed him that sold the character to people off all ages, and not just the kids.
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The past few years Clutch gained a sidekick in Mini-Clutch, currently played by El Campo/Louise-area native Brandon Schoeneberg. When he's not donning the Mini-Clutch costume, he works in the oil-field industry. The previous Mini-Clutch took a job in Denver and Schoeneberg was a perfect fit.
The day winded down with a visit to Clutch's Cave, ensconced in a sizable supply cage in the bowels of the Toyota Center, not too far away from the team's locker room. Every costume Clutch has worn resides here, as do his props. Massive bowling pins, his trademark size quadruple XXXL, a plethora of costume choices, and an arsenal of silly string cans. We can see how seeing a disembodied Clutch would bother a child now. His feet lay in one corner; torsos hang on a clothes line. Two or three heads are on sticks drying out.
Leaving Toyota Center on Saturday with a bag full of Clutch goodies, I had a new respect for the
people who strap on these massive suits of fur, fiberglass, and elastic. Their jobs are among the most vital in the sports industry, from high schools to the pros. They can bring a team and its fans up when the chips are down or bring comic relief when the team is in a devastating
I also really miss Orbit, the Astros old mascot from the Astrodome days, something fierce now.