D21: Behind the Masks

I was once a mascot.

It was my senior year at Florida, I was on the varsity cheerleading team and there was a Saturday afternoon women’s basketball game. The JV team cheered at women’s basketball, so I had the day off. Then I got a call from our coach. Alberta was sick.

At Florida, there are two mascots, Albert and Alberta Gator, a husband and wife. I think. I’ve never confirmed there was an official ceremony. (They were, however, at the wedding of two of my friends, one of whom was a Florida cheerleader.) That day, the girl who performed as Alberta had come down with the flu and the athletic department needed to find a replacement. So I agreed to fill Alberta’s very large alligator shoes. I remember a few things distinctively about that day.

We were inside the O’Connell Center, the basketball arena, where it is cool and air conditioned, yet it was unbelievably hot inside that getup. My head throbbed, I pounded bottles of water and I could not fathom how anyone suited into this costume on football gamedays, when it was often 100+ on the field.

The suit was built for someone who is 5’6″. I am 5’3″, so I held my shoulders in a constant shrug in order to keep the head from dropping around my arms like a straight jacket. Which added to the stiff neck and headache.

Although I was fully hidden inside the costume, I found myself smiling through the sweat and the pain when people leaned in to take a photo with Alberta. Why was I doing that? Why couldn’t I stop?

But what I remember most is how much fun I had acting like a complete goof. I knew the cheers and the dances, so I joined the cheerleaders on the floor. I danced around in the stands, did a few flips and stunts with the JV guys and enjoyed the freedom of the anonymity that comes with wearing a giant alligator costume. If I remember correctly, Alberta was wearing a Florida cheerleader uniform, so I felt extra at home.

I tell this story because this week on Hulu, the Hulu original series Behind The Mask debuted. Hulu sent me a password so I could watch the first three episodes, which I did just now, back-to-back-to-back. It is Halloween. I am in New York City. I have a story due in the morning. Yet that is how I spent the past hour and a half. Binge watching a show about men in penguin costumes. On second thought, maybe it was the perfect way to spend a couple of hours on Halloween. Still, it says something about the storytelling in this series …

Rarely is the public able to meet the people behind (inside?) the mascots, let alone get to know them on a personal level and peek into what it’s like to entertain hundreds, thousands or hundreds of thousands of people every week. But that’s exactly what this series does. You meet a high school mascot from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, Hey Reb from UNLV, the Penguins AHL mascot and the 2010 NBA Mascot of the Year, Bango the Milwaukee Buck. Highly recommend watching it. That is, if you have a couple hours to spare.

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