I was a teenaged reindeer . . .
I always wanted to be Santa Claus. When it’s Christmas and you’re in the dressing-up in costumes business, who doesn’t want to be the big guy? But as a gangly teenager — six foot two and maybe 170 pounds, even covered in costume fur — I was definitely built more like Rudolph.
My costumed adventures started when I was looking for my first job out of high school — something impressive, something that suited my skills — and I spotted this classified ad. The perfect job. Singing telegrams.
I arrived at the office of a company called Big One Fantasy and the place was filled with helium tanks and helium balloons and a whole bunch of oversized cartoon animal costumes.
I was in love. I wanted this job.
The guy at the desk who looked a bit like Jimmy Cagney barely glanced up. “Who are you?”
“I’m Mark,” I said.
“Mark, have you ever been a gorilla before?”
Then Cagney jumped up, told me “This is what gorillas do,” and proceeded to dance gorilla-style around the room occasionally stopping to scratch his armpits. “And if you really want the crowd to go crazy sniff someone’s pant leg. And if you see a bald guy, rub his head. Slays every time.”
“Got it,” I said.
“And if the bald guy’s wearing glasses take the glasses and put them at the top of his head. Never fails. I need you downtown in 15 minutes. Just remember one thing — gorillas do not talk. Ever.” Then he handed me the costume and a bouquet of balloons. “Give these to Gary and sing Happy Birthday to him.”
“But I don’t talk.”
“But I do sing Happy Birthday.”
“You got it.”
I grabbed the balloons, hopped in my car, raced to the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Vancouver, went to the bathroom, put on the gorilla suit, and ran into the ballroom, where I hit the trifecta. Gary was bald and wore glasses.
I jumped around the room, I sniffed some pant legs, I rubbed the birthday boy’s head, then topped his cranium with his glasses. The crowd went wild.
Gary was thrilled with me. But when I got back to the office the tall blonde surfer dude standing next to Cagney wasn’t. “I’m Marc,” he said.
It turns out I was not the Mark they were looking for.
The other Marc was a seasoned gorilla and he showed up 30 seconds after I ran off with the suit. So I not only had a new job, I had a new nemesis.
That summer Marc and I both worked almost non-stop.
I was a gorilla, a bunny rabbit, a chicken, a bear, a valentine. And the job was so much fun — and paid so well — that I stuck around after summer was over and I was still dressing up when it was time for the Stanley Cup finals of the costumed critter: Christmas.
This was a few years ago and back then I was maybe 170 pounds, soaking wet, in a gorilla costume, so I knew I was too svelte to play the real Christmas star and too tall for elf-hood, so Cagney handed me the costume for one of Santa’s bigger helpers. Frosty. “Snowmen can talk,” he said.
I waded out into the crowd at the Bayshore Hotel and a bunch of little kids who were going to get everything they wanted for Christmas. One of the adorable little tykes who looked like a ten-year-old Jimmy Cagney came over and said, “Hey Frosty, sing us the Frosty song.”
I hadn’t heard the Frosty song since I was this kid’s age, so I said, “Maybe we can sing it together.”
The kid looked up at me, sneered. “No. You sing the Frosty song.”
Great. “Uh . . . Frosty the Snowman was a very jolly soul. With a corn cob pipe and a button nose and two eyes made out of coal.” Yes!
“Keep going,” he said.
Now there’s a crowd gathering, a Christmas posse.
“Frosty the Snowman was a really happy guy. With a carrot nose and a stovetop hat, and two corn cobs for his eyes. Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say, ‘Frosty, with your nose so bright, would you guide my sleigh tonight.’”
Which is when the kid declared “That’s not Frosty,” and the crowd disappeared to poke Santa’s belly.
So, I was not exactly thrilled when I found out my next Christmas gig was at a downscale mall on Vancouver’s east-side. These kids were not gonna get everything they wanted for Christmas.
This time I was set to play Rudolph. The good news — I knew the Rudolph song. But just as I was getting ready to walk into the mall, Cagney came over to tell me, “Reindeer don’t talk. Santa doesn’t want to be upstaged.”
The other thing reindeer couldn’t do? See.
The mask had no peripheral vision.
I stumbled out of the dressing room, into the mall, trying not to bump into anything and just as I reached the Christmas Village, I felt something grab my leg.
I looked down and saw this little three- or four-year old ball of adorableness. And he looked up at me and shouted, “Rudoff!”
What could I do? I couldn’t say anything. I could barely move without accidentally punting my pint-sized admirer. The only thing I could think of . . .
I knelt down and let the kid hug me.
As soon as the kid let go, I was starting to get up and —
And they were all at exactly that age when they still believed in Santa and were willing to believe in reindeer too, just to be on the safe side.
Finally, it was time for my break so I got up and made my way back to our dressing room, glowing with Christmas cheer. But when I finally removed my mask, Marc and Cagney were furious. Not only didn’t they like the little kids hugging me, they weren’t particularly keen on kids.
After promising that I wouldn’t let anyone else hug me, ever, the mall manager stormed into the dressing room shouting, “Where’s Rudolph?”
The other two guys looked straight at me and I knew what this meant: I was so fired. And that’s when the mall boss said, “Get back out there! All the little kids are asking for Rudolph!”
I put on my Rudolph head, stumbled back to Santa’s Village, knelt down and let the little kids climb all over me. And that afternoon I knew just what it felt like to be Santa Claus.
Mark Leiren-Young blogs, sometimes in costume, at leiren-young.com.