Frankly, I’m not mascot material. My only real qualification for being the Phoenix is that I was a Pterodactyl once (and I think that should count for something). I sometimes walk across the athletic fields because it’s shorter than going around, and I’ve been to the gym a few times, but that’s about the sum and substance of my interaction with the glorious Garnet. So when someone at a Daily Gazette staff meeting (possibly myself) suggested that we should send a reporter to compete and write about the contest, I seemed like the natural (read: funniest, in that wonderful ironic way) choice.
I ignored my sense of wounded dignity and fired off an email to Kyle White, the organizer, telling him that I was interested in competing. I made sure to mention that I was a senior and only doing it for the article, because I didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea and think I was being serious about this. He got back to me quickly and said he thought it was a great idea. He also informed me that the contestants were meeting on Sunday, and that I should think of a talent to perform by then.
Talent? An email the next day mentioned an obstacle course and a pep section. What had I gotten myself into? Oh, how I wished I had listened to the inner voice of dignity! But I have my pride, and by golly I was not backing out at this point, if only because it’s hard to maneuver when you’re in over your head.
I missed the Sunday meeting, so Kyle started sending me reminder emails that I think were meant to be reassuring. “Don’t think of this as a serious talent competition,” he said in one. “Someone is doing roller-blading ribbon dance.”
Now, where I come from, anything involving roller blading is a pretty serious talent, and the ribbon dance pushes it over the edge into mad skills territory. I was not reassured in the slightest. For several days, I was torn between finding talent and preparing for an upcoming job interview.
The first time I met anyone from the event was on the Monday before the show, when Dan Hodgson and I met with Kyle to be interviewed for the video segment that was played at the start of the show. I was impressed: Kyle had a rugby shirt and a handshake that could maim, and Dan had trackpants! And sunglasses! I was seriously outclassed, and it was still only Monday. Kyle gave us pieces of paper with ominous diagrams on them: a list labeled “Needs”, dots and numbers and lines pointing this way and that.
“This,” he told us, “is a map of the obstacle course.” Dear god. “You’ll start here and run through these cones holding an egg in a spoon…but it will probably be a tennis ball or something….”
He continued on, calmly describing the hurdle-jumps and forward rolls and pushups and rope-jumps that we were going to be doing. I think he was making some of the numbers up on the spot, and if it weren’t for the fact that he had clearly put thought into it I would have suspected that he was making up the whole thing on the spot, tweaking it for extra diabolicalness. When he got to the bit about doing five star jumps while someone threw bean bags at us, I decided I must have gotten confused somehow. “Sorry,” I had to ask, “but we’re trying out for the mascot, right? Not the S&M team?”
Kyle and Dan laughed, but I think they were just covering up their dismay that I’d discovered the secret.
I spent most of the week disturbing people by mentioning my plans for Saturday night. When I told my mom I was trying out to be the school mascot she didn’t believe me. Actually, she laughed out loud. But people at Swat were a little more supportive after they got over the initial shock, and the confused enthusiasm was a reminder that I was doing this to have fun. And for journalism, of course.
On the day of the show we all met in the afternoon to do soundchecks and get oriented on the stage. This was when I met all the other contestants, including fellow senior Scott Storm who I hadn’t realized was trying out. I met our stage manager, Ali Flamm, who, along with the rest of the stage crew, deserves an award for doing so much work and putting on such a great show. She was also very accommodating of my crazy whims: when I actually got within sight of the stage, performance anxiety set in and I decided that my original act – I had planned to perform a tragi-comic romance with puppets – was not going to work out, and I’d much rather sing a wee song.
We got a crash course on how the show was going to work and where we would enter and exit. I got to get a glimpse of what other people would be doing, but in the end the only time I saw the full versions was on Saturday along with everyone else. If the other contestants were like me, it might have been the first time the full acts were performed. I know I didn’t get around to rehearsing anything. I did in fact work on taking my jacket off and putting it back on again, while standing in the middle room in Sharples; that got some very interesting looks.
The main event was Saturday night. My entire Saturday was devoted to being nervous about the show, so by 7pm I was in a state of pure nerves. As we were all hanging out backstage I peeked into the room on the side of the stage where the actual mascot outfit was hanging out. I was pleasantly surprised by how cool it was; I was expecting a rather lame attempt, but the bird costume actually is very professional and well done. I give it my official non-athlete stamp of approval.
While Dave Raymond, former Philly Phanatic, hammed it up in the suit backstage, techies milled about, mostly ignoring us. I noticed on the pre-show checklist an item that reminded the crew to “check panicked” and asked Flamm whether that meant us or them. I was informed that it was a technical term that had something to do with lighting. Oh. Of all the people involved in this, we (the contestants) were definitely the most clueless about what was going on, so again, thank God for the stage crew, without whom we would have embarrassed ourselves more than we already did.
At last, 7pm rolled around and I was shooed onstage in my coat and scarf to sing songs about goats. And at that point it was way too late to be asking questions about what I was doing or whether it was a terrible mistake or if I would ever be able to show my face on campus again (and really, this is Swarthmore; let he who is without awkward moments cast the first beanie baby). By midway through the show I was sort of enjoying myself, and when people asked me how it when afterwards I generally responded “embarrassing, but in a good way.”
In all, I was really impressed by the amount of work and planning that Kyle White and others clearly put into the entire event. Lots of people at Swarthmore find the idea of this much money and energy being put into a mascot, of all things, is kind of silly, but I admire the dedication of anyone who stands up to the naysayers and makes something like this happen. When I saw the costume for the first time I felt an indescribable urge to put the head on and start dancing around.
But that privilege is for someone other than myself. I did not make the final auditions, and would probably have turned the role of mascot down if it was offered. So to those who did make the cut, I offer my hearty congratulations (they’ve certainly earned it), and a sincere wish that they never burst into flames.