Costume Character Advice Forum

Kenny Brechner - February 26, 2015

We are all aware that to better ourselves as booksellers, and as human beings, we need to try new things, to have different experiences. 20thanniversarypartyThe opportunity to follow that well-trodden wisdom presented itself to me with the offer of having a costumed character for a Children’s Book Week event. The world of costume character events is a blank portion of the map for us. True, we had done elaborate costume events for Harry Potter releases and we had all dressed as literary characters for our 20th anniversary party. Still, I’m fairly certain that everyone at the anniversary party grasped that I wasn’t really Jeeves.
The first thing to do though was to determine if any of the characters on offer made sense to us. The first one on the list that caught my eye was the Pout Pout Fish. This was intriguing because it could give me the opportunity of putting my Macmillan rep, Ellen Pyle, on  the spot. Pout-Pout-FishEllen is a huge Pout Pout Fish fan and it occurred to me that I could challenge her to back that up by wearing the costume. After closely considering that scheme I decided against it, largely because she might have said yes, something that was guaranteed to be memorable but also possibly a health risk.
Our deliberations were trending downward when one of my staff, Nicole, a college student who is very adult oriented in her literature reading, announced that The Poky Little Puppy had been a favorite book of her childhood, and that she was ready to step up and represent. That had been my top choice too. We were in.
I have a lot of questions about the whole thing, though, and I’m hoping that those of you who have costume character experience will chime in and answer. Are the costumes humane to wear? Could someone in a costume read a book to kids, or participate in a read aloud somehow? What are some of the best and worst experiences you’ve had with them? Tips, cautionary tales, avowals of personal growth and character development? Lay them on us!

5 thoughts on “Costume Character Advice Forum

  1. Heather Lyon

    Our only experience was not consummated. We signed up to have the brother and sister Berenstain Bears, with a plan to wear them at a local baseball game. Two of my staff members reluctantly agreed to wear the costumes. The Berenstain Bears arrived in a large box that looked very much like a coffin. Also, very much like a coffin was the odor upon opening. Like a dead body. Like the smelliest socks in the world. Like a dumpster behind a butcher shop. I looked at the grubby costumes without touching them, and then closed the lid and backed away slowly. The temperature that day was over 100 degrees, and I didn’t want anyone to die. The insult to injury was the $200 invoice for shipping our “free” costumes. Yes, the costumes were free, but the coffin delivery was not. I haven’t risked a second experience with costume characters.

  2. Maya

    Oh man — we have had a panda mascot costume but have not used it for several years, probably because no one who has been in that thing wants to do it again. If you are renting, definitely ask about how often they dry clean those things.
    This was a costume with a really big round head. Visibility was crap, so reading a book was out. In fact, a “handler” was required to make sure you didn’t fall down a flight of stairs or step on a baby or something. It was sorta hilarious though — you’d see a small person running at you full tilt; they’d leave your field of vision, and a couple seconds later you’d feel the impact of a full-force hug to the pelvis.
    That’s something else to prepare for: younger kids will not be certain on your status as an animate vs. inanimate object. This can mean lots of punching, pulling, and roughhousing. Another good reason for a handler.
    Lastly, it gets crazy hot in there! You can breathe, but it will feel like you’re running out of oxygen. I recommend giving whoever’s in there a break after 15 minutes, and definitely dress light before donning the gear.
    Ha! Not super encouraging I know. I am looking forward to other anecdotes. There is the rare individual who LOVES being in the costume. Bless those guys.

  3. Spellbound

    We have done many costume character events over the years, and we love them! To poorly paraphrase something Maurice Sendak said in an interview some years ago, kids under a certain age usually don’t grasp the concept of an author. (His excuse for not doing more book signings, I believe.)
    To the wee child, the prospect of meeting the “actual” Biscuit or Curious George or whoever is much more magical. Just recently a customer, now in high school, reminisced fondly about meeting Curious George in our store when he was knee-high to a monkey [costume]. He was so besot with George that he wouldn’t leave the store until he saw George walk away.
    Which leads to my first bit of advice: try to maintain that belief as much as possible for the youngest ones. Yes, you definitely need a handler to help your character navigate the kids and the furniture. The handler is also the communication bridge between child and character. Every so often, the handler will need to announce to the kids that the character went to get some water (or something) and will be right back. We usually agree on a signal the costumed staff can give to indicate dire need for water/fresh air/bathroom break. Have activities ready to distract the tots.
    Young healthy college students are probably best when it comes to being the character. Some costumes have fans inside the heads, which makes it much more comfortable for the wearer, but he/she will have a harder time hearing the handler, to answer questions with nods or otherwise play along. Be kind to your costumed staff and turn the air conditioning on, no matter what time of year. Even if you don’t have a back door, when the event is over, say that the character is leaving by the back door so that he/she can escape to the privacy of a store room, etc. to get out of costume. Unless you have a child who refuses to leave, in which case you may have to let the character go out the front door and walk around the block or duck into a neighboring business to hide until the coast is clear. Consider all contingencies.
    We’ve had good experiences with Costume Specialists. Most costumes are designed to fit fairly petite people, so be sure to confirm maximum height and weight beforehand. Also, I find it’s best to pad your reservation with an extra day on the front end, just in case something is missing from the trunk, or in case the costume doesn’t fit and you need time to find someone else to wear it, etc. Some costume trunks will include stamps for the character to use to “sign” books. If not included, you can usually find various paw print stamps at your local craft store.
    As far the character participating in story time/read aloud, do a dry run before the event to determine how much the person in costume can hear and what motions he/she can make to act out or accentuate the action of the story.
    Good luck with this brave new adventure!

  4. cbd

    Professional mascot here.
    Yes, the costumes are entirely wearable, even on a very hot day – but they get *very* hot, even when everyone else thinks the weather is pleasantly cool. Even an experienced sports mascot will need a break every hour or so under the best of circumstances; for those not used to it, assume half an hour tops. If the character is outdoors in high heat or is involved in high-energy activities (like when I’m dancing up a storm at my intro every game), they’ll need their breaks more frequently than that. Expect them to go through a pint of water every hour at the very least. (Doing sports work I’d say my minimum is twice that, and most nights it’s even more.)
    If at all possible, find somebody who wants to wear the costume; they’ll give a more engaging performance. The wearer should be reasonably fit, meet the height guidelines that come with the costume (or at least not be outside them by more than two inches), and understand the nature of their role for the day. Have them wear gym shorts and short sleeves (ideally underarmor or a similar smart fiber, but a t-shirt is fine, especially if they won’t be in the costume for more than a couple hours) under the costume.
    Costume characters should never talk or read aloud. The voice will be wrong for the character, it will be muffled, and the character’s mouth won’t move anyhow. Keep ’em silent. That doesn’t mean a character can’t participate in a read-aloud session; my favorite approach would be for them to either be introduced with great fanfare right after the reading is done (to keep them cool), or have them stand next to the reader and mime all the actions their character takes during the story.
    Costume characters should change out of sight of children and ideally of adults (adults, and honestly most kids above about age four, know it’s just a person in a costume, but still often think of the character as though they were real) – don’t ruin the magic. This means there should be a designated space for them to change that is private but accessible, and they should be able to go there for water breaks also. They should never remove any part of the costume in public or allow any part of the costume to be seen except when it is being worn in its entirety. (Emergencies are an exception, but short of being on fire most emergency situations still give you time to get to your designated break area.)
    Costume characters should be assisted at all times by somebody out of costume who can be their voice, calm children down if they are mobbing the character, and check in with the character about when they need a break.
    Have fun!


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