Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Cheesy Like Me

Or, How it feels to dress like an inflatable dinosaur for three days
By Carl Kozlowski

I admit, I’ll pretty much do anything for money. And make no mistake, it was all about the money. Two hundred and fifty dollars a day. The price for five hours of humiliation. It seemed like a fair deal.

The assignment was simple: find out what it was like to be an actor trapped in a humiliating costume, like the gorilla-man who handed out flyers for Gold’s Gym, or the people who swelter inside giant Mickey Mouse outfits at Disneyland.

For me the challenge was, for four days, to play Cheesasaurus Rex - the cheese-colored cartoon dinosaur used to foist Kraft Macaroni & Cheese on America’s children - and pocket the equivalent of two weeks of my normal pay. In the entertainment business this is known as “suit work,” the option of last resort for aspiring actors and out-of-luck comics such as myself. Just step in a costume, act like a goof, and deposit the dirty little check.

“I’ve done Popeye, the Ninja Turtles and Elvis. The one good thing about suit work is that it builds up your tolerance for humiliation and shit-eating, which is really the key to success in show business anyway.” - Tim Joyce, comedian

DAY ONE, 6:30 AM By accepting my talent agency’s mission to play the purveyor of cheese-flavored powder and pasta, I agree to operate under orders straight out of a spy caper. I will arrive at a neutral location in Chicago, climb into a rental cargo van driven by a Kraft public relations intern, secretly don the dinosaur suit while riding to the morning commuter rush at Chicago’s Union Station, inflate the outfit and march out to confuse and disarm the masses. Standing in the chilly predawn air, I look forward to the challenge as the van pulls up.
6:45 AM Everything has already gone horribly wrong. The Cheesasaurus is a horrible, complex beast, rife with metal poles, battery packs and timed fans which, ostensibly, both inflate the suit and keep the actor inside from sweating to death. The outfit also comes with an instructional video for assembly that the two women from Kraft - the intern and an accompanying account rep - have, conveniently, forgotten to watch. Fearing that improper assembly of the suit could lead to a bizarre and undignified death, we turn the van around and head to the account rep’s apartment to fire up the VCR.

7:05 AM Following along as the video’s incredibly bad actors pretend that donning the dino suit is simple, I alternately laugh at my reflection in the mirror and wince from the crushing burden on my back. Finally, we force the dinosaur’s head on and manage to zipper me up. I knock two wires together, wait for the fans to switch on and warn all women and children to flee the vicinity. When fully inflated, the Cheesasaurus tops out at seven feet tall and three feet wide, with a tail the size of Toledo. My Kraft companions can’t stop laughing.

7:15 AM
We sneak down the back staircase and hustle to the van as commuters whiz past on Chicago Avenue. Just one problem: how to cram a seven-foot, fully inflated plastic floatation device with a tail into the cargo van. I curl into the fetal position and soon find myself sliding across the floor each time we stop, start or turn - tumbling around like a sack of potatoes amid the suit’s ample belly area. At this point, the Kraft women are laughing so hard they’ve begun to cry. If I could only get my arms free, I would unzip the suit and flee.

8 AM
I, Cheesasaurus, have been lumbering through the streets of Chicago for a full half-hour, peering out of a mesh-covered hole in my cheese-lovin’ chest. My arms have already sustained ligament damage from the constant waving, while the Kraft intern hands out flyers inviting passersby to bring their children to a Kraft Macaroni & Cheese anniversary party Saturday at nearby Navy Pier. Youngsters scream with excitement from the windows of passing school buses. Drivers honk in amusement. A carload of young men sharing a readily visible bong seem downright confused by the sight of me.

8:55 AM Back at the van for a two-hour break, the suit is unzipped to the disgusted squeals of the Kraft intern - the fan’s batteries ran out ten minutes earlier. The result is a grotesque, shriveled plastic skin with feet that feel like sandbags and the internal temperature of a blast furnace. Lesson one learned: keep an eye on the time - each battery lasts only 90 minutes. Three-and-a-half days to go.

“I wanted to make a living as an actor, and I figured if I was performing and getting paid, I was still pursuing my career goals. But every time I suited up I knew exactly how Billy Barty felt doing Sigmund the Sea Monster.” - Scott Vinci, actor and stand-up comic

DAY TWO 9:45 AM Brad Pitt wore a chicken suit.
As I arrive during an obscenely cold morning to again strap on my tools of ignorance, I remind myself that even one of Hollywood’s top dogs suffered the indignity of suit work before hitting it big in “Thelma and Louise.” It’s a comforting thought, and having managed the timing of the fans the previous day, I manage to make it through the morning. The week’s greatest danger, however, appears as I trudge back to the van for my break: we are spotted by a field-tripping group of Chicago public high school students.

I beg my Kraft partner to travel another route back to the van. She assures me I will be fine - besides, meeting and greeting is what the job is all about. Having been raised, as a good Catholic, to offer up the little pains life gives us and thinking of the suffering Jesus endured carrying His cross, I trudge toward my own modern-day Golgotha.

“Hey, it’s Barney’s retarded brother!” yells one witty lad right before he plants an elbow in my sternum.

“Let’s see if we can find the guy’s face!” hollers another, as about twenty hooligans proceed to poke and prod every apparent orifice on my shiny plastic outfit. By the time the Kraft intern realizes I’m getting the cheese kicked out of me, it’s too late to escape. To make matters worse, since the Cheesasaurus suit sports only four fingers on each hand, I can’t even flip them the bird. (The suit’s creators must’ve known that a middle finger would surely be used to provoke lawsuits.) When I try to turn and waddle away, a warden-like teacher demands a group photo. In the name of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, I am compelled to stop. Somewhere out there exists photographic evidence of this brutal group assault.

“The biggest perk of being a Ninja Turtle at kids’ parties was every weekend I got punched in the nuts for free. The average three-year-old’s head was at crotch level and when they threw a punch, it was at that level, too. I finally wore a cup.” - Tim Joyce

DAY THREE, 7:10 AM Fearing more trouble, I study a Kraft memo I’ve been handed entitled “Answers to the Tough Questions.” For instance, to the query “How can you promote a product that has so much fat and so little nutrition?” the seven-foot plastic beast’s keeper is to reply: “I am not a nutrition expert, but I would be happy to put you in touch with one. I can tell you that I grew up eating Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, and I feel good knowing that my children will enjoy it as part of their balanced diet, too.” Most other confrontational queries were to be brushed aside with the claim that “no one else has complained yet!” I shudder.

12:15 PM My morning as Cheesasaurus was more of the same: waving, hugs, taunts, ,sneers, and countless photos with foreigners. During lunch hour, however, I’m asked to work the sidewalk in front of the Equitable Building on Michigan Avenue - the building in which I work a normal day job where my only costume is a tie. Imagine the slow-boiling rage of doing something incredibly stupid and then having your respected coworkers mock you for sport. Granted, none of them knows that the poor fool in the suit is actually good-natured Carl. But for 90 minutes, I watch through my stomach-spot eyehole as dozens of officemates walk by and hurl scorn.

“You couldn’t pay me enough to do that,” is the most common abuse.

There are others: “I bet that doesn’t even require high school.” “Wouldn’t you hate doing that?” “I wonder if he feels stupid?” The Kraft intern also notices a profuse number of spit globs landing around and on top of me, wafting from the open windows. My peers are lobbing hockers at my head.

Finally, I understand the destructive effects of prejudice first-hand: I am being judged not only by the color of my mottled orange skin, but by the grotesque size of my character. Saturday’s morning’s party - a.k.a. my final day in hell - can’t come fast enough.

“One time I had to dress in a dog outfit for a job and walk five miles to the gig along a busy road. The sidewalk was full of broken glass and the costume’s feet were paper-thin. I was boiling. My feet were shredded. But the cars that passed me by just saw this big, goofy dog with a stupid grin on its face. I was suffering - but when they honked, you had to wave. When you’re in the suit, you can’t not wave.” - Mary Jean O’Connor, actress

DAY FOUR, 10:45 AM The Navy Pier’s garish Crystal Garden is a marketing fink’s wet dream: Hundreds of aspiring child actors swarm the floor, amid an enormous birthday cake and a gigantic wooden birthday card honoring the anniversary. There are three gigantic wooden mockups of Mac’N Cheese boxes, with holes in the center for kids to stick their mugs - Polaroids of the tots will be added to a nationwide search for twelve perfect faces to adorn special anniversary boxfronts. Next to the boxes is a small stage upon which I will endure my greatest humiliation: leading children in a line dance called the Cheesasaurus Shuffle.

I gaze out at this surreal scene from my secret dressing room (actually, the freezer of a nearby restaurant.) Finally, the host calls for us to emerge through the crowd and take my rightful place on stage. As I waddle my way through the throng, the smug DJ begins playing “Stuck in The Middle With You,” the song from the infamous police-torture scene in “Reservoir Dogs.” At this moment, I think I would prefer being tied to a chair looking at my sliced-off ear.

Suddenly, I can’t even move. Like Gandhi, Elvis or Pope John Paul II, I am swarmed onstage, by children who want nothing more than to touch Cheesasaurus, hug Cheesasaurus, and tell Cheesasaurus how much they love him. It’s creepy. Countless tiny hands grope my dino butt and crotch. Leading the crowd through the Shuffle, hoping to God that I don’t sideswipe a kid with my dino tail, I pray for the agony to end.

After the show, as I watch children grab box after box of macaroni from the display tables on their way out, i take stock of the many lessons I learned this week. One, it’s not a good idea to sneeze, cough or flatulate while encased in a suit you cannot unzip. Two, small children will continuously hug anyone in a plastic suit. Three, Brad Pitt might not be as much of a wuss as I always thought he was.

In the months since Cheesasaurus, I’ve devoted myself to recovering the deflated sense of dignity and self-respect that comes with an inflated bank account. The photos of my time in the suit haunt me. I’ve held onto them under the principle that, as Santayana taught, if we fail to remember our past, we’re condemned to repeat it. And I want not only to protect myself from the torture of suit work but to also protect my future children and my future children’s children.

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