Naked madness worn beneath mask

Not all my time has been spent as law enforcement’s arch-nemesis. Indeed, the world once knew me as “The Dreammaker,” and I was responsible for spreading joy throughout the land.
My job with the Character Crew entertainment company was the most superhuman of the many I’ve had. At more than 250 birthday parties and special events, I was responsible for holding the attention of eight to 10 hyperactive four-year-olds by performing shows in costumes. I portrayed anyone from Batman to Barney, working both ends of the masculinity spectrum.
Because of the great pressure exerted on the parents by their own inflated expectations, there is little tolerance for imperfections. Granted, only three of my performances failed, but they did so miserably.
The first incident happened to Mickey Mouse.
The “party,” to use the term loosely: A one-year-old, crying in her mother’s arms; a four-year-old, under a table, pouting; and me, inside a big plastic Mickey head, red shorts and suspenders, wondering how to fill the hour. I began desperately dancing the Mickey mambo, as the mother tried to engage her brats.
A typical birthday party has eight or more children creating frenzied excitement. There’s always some kid choking another or some other entertainment, but this house was quiet with boredom. The older child cared not one whit for Mickey, thoughtfully calling me “stupid-head.”
I can’t say I blame him. What was his mother thinking? Four-year-olds get Batman or a Power Ranger, not icky-Mickey!
Sitting under the table, the child glared out at his mother and me like an angry stray cat. Trying to amuse him, I took out a magic wand and tapped him on the shoulder, while his mother laughed encouragingly. Finally, he came out of his hole and made a half-assed effort to enjoy himself.
After the mother’s lack of foresight had led to this debacle, she had the nerve to write to ask for her money back, pointing her metaphorical, crooked finger at me!
“I looked on in horror,” she wrote, “as Mickey Mouse took out his wand, and started whacking at my child, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.” Luckily, my boss agreed she was a kook.
At another party, the birthday mom began whining and griping because Mickey had forgotten the music. I deserved her venomous attack, although there were other tapes we eventually played. The problem was that she abused “Mickey” in front of the children. I was looking down at the ground, where I could see the shadow of my enormous mouse head, as I thought of how to respond in that high, squeaky voice.
Once I played Aladdin at a large ranch compound, with dirty, communal children running around. I wore a two-bit costume consisting of a felt loincloth and ankle straps. The parents thought I was an entertainment fraud, and as I took their money, I think they were rounding up a lynching mob. The costumes like Batman afforded more covering and provided a better disguise.
Usually I parked a block away, so the kids wouldn’t see my mode of transport — I didn’t drive no Batmobile. Once I entered the house, I immediately became responsible for the success of the party.
I would lead the pint-size party-goers into the living room or the backyard, where I would make balloon animals while talking of Robin’s latest escapades and the Joker’s capture. Once everyone had an inflated wiener dog, it was time for “Batman Says.”
Simon’s “game” was less a game than a power trip for Simon, who would stand in front of a crowd and issue commands, ordering the player to do some pointless task, like touch one’s knees or jump up and down in place. I chose to emulate Simon when he was at the end of his life and issued more deranged directives.
A parental favorite was, “Batman says, slap yer face,” which had the kids following my lead as we all gave ourselves a good wake-up smack.
Then I would paint the children’s faces or hands. But instead of asking what they wanted, I told them I always drew balloons or Batman symbols. Other people in the Character Crew painted elaborate designs on the kids, but not me. On occasion, a kid would ask for a tiger or a dinosaur, and I would make a mess of his hand. Then I’d send him to show his parents, who would insist it was a dinosaur, even if the kid thought it looked like shit.
After a few magic tricks, we played “Eat / Don’t Eat.” I would say, “Macaroni and Cheese,” and the kids would yell, “Eat.” I would hand one a sticker. Then I would say, “Old shoe,” and the smart ones would say “Don’t eat.” To confuse them, I sometimes said they were wrong, and that one actually should eat a bunch of rotting worms, especially if one were very hungry.
Then the parents took some pictures and it was time to open presents or eat cake. After getting the kids situated, I would make my exit, but not before collecting the payment and often a substantial tip.
Occasionally I was hired to appear at a day care center or some store’s grand opening. One year, I went to an office Christmas party at a country club in the woods.
I arrived in a high-quality Santa suit and began wandering around, wishing people a Merry Christmas, a Ho-Ho-Ho and all that shit. After 15 minutes in the relatively small bar, everyone was blowing me off, bored with Santa’s schtick!
Since there were no children around to disillusion, I reinvented the fictitious character, making him a grumpy, drunk, gout-ridden curmudgeon.
Lurching around, I grumbled, “Mrs. Claus don’t like me no more … And I’m fat … And I’ve got big boots.” The crowd’s interest was piqued. They began interacting with me again.
I gave out the random presents in a tricky way. If I gave a man a big box that rattled seductively, I would say, “Whoops, that’s not for you.” I’d take it back, and hand him a big, squishy package that was probably a giant doily. “I’m jolly,” I yelled bitterly.
By the end of the night, I removed the costume and enjoyed the buffet. I also received a $20 tip from the company president, who asked me back the next year to do the “drunken Santa” routine again. God bless those with good senses of humor.
Eventually I got tired of doing three to four shows each weekend — especially the hot costumes, the hurried pace and the gas station bathroom quick-changes. I quit and began working at the Daily, which only requires the latter two.
My Character Crew experience led to embarrassing photos and the development of some entertaining skills. But perhaps the most rewarding thing was the chance to interact with little kids.
They say some hilarious things, and it’s fun to mess with their heads a little, as long as you don’t warp them too much. Hopefully none of those birthday party attendees actually began eating worms or “chunk o’ metal” just because Batman told them to.

Brian Close’s column appears on Thursdays. He welcomes comments by e-mail to [email protected]