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Lee Bowen pats the head of an inflatable Chester Cheetah, the official mascot for Cheetos, hitched to a high-pressure blower. It’s parked amid a fleet of a dozen identical suits on a patch of fake field turf inside his factory near downtown Omaha, all lined up for leak inspection. He chuckles as the cat’s noggin wobbles up and down like a giant bobblehead. “See, a fuzzy mascot is a lot like a mime. You have to have talent,” Bowen says. But his WalkArounds are different. “You can take a person that’s never been in it, and they can do something funny. Everything is just so big that it seems exaggerated.”
Because WalkArounds rely less on performer athleticism than the use of built-in stunt capabilities, Bowen now sells costumes to a wide cross-section of groups in need of easy, quality entertainment. (Texas Corral cowboys and fez-wearing Shriners are quite popular.) And because the suits look more cartoonish than other mascots, they also capture the audience’s attention longer. “Most people don’t think about the fact that there’s someone inside of them,” says Scott Bowen, Lee’s son, who helps run the company. “They just think about them more as a character than someone dressed up.”
But it’s not just audiences who react in a different way to the blow-up suits. Performing in a WalkAround, it turns out, can be a transformative experience.
In 2005, Lee Bowen went to a firefighter convention in Indianapolis to hawk blow-up suits and fire safety programs—a side business that had evolved out of the mascot thing. Bowen needed someone to demo a suit, so he asked a custodian named Sherri Hughes if she had a kid who might want to make a few bucks. Hughes agreed, but her youngest son bailed. Instead, Hughes showed up with her son Joe, an 18-year-old who was, as Hughes put it, nonsocial. “He won’t look at anybody or approach anybody,” she says. “All he does is look at the floor and mumble.” But Bowen needed that demo. They decided Joe would give it a try. “You wouldn’t believe it. This kid was fine,” Hughes says. “He started running up to people and tapping them on the shoulder. I started crying. It is the only time I’ve seen my son having a good time and reaching out to people. He told me, ‘Mom, when I’m in the suit, I don’t need to be afraid no more. I can be with people.’”
The Bowens were stunned. After Joe Hughes repeated his performance at the same conference for two more years, they called in Keith Allen, a psychologist at the Munroe-Meyer Institute for Genetics and Rehabilitation at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Allen asked if Hughes was autistic, and it turned out that he’d just been diagnosed with Asperger’s. So the Bowens shipped a suit to Scott’s sister Beth, who works with special education students in Pinetop, Arizona. She saw the same thing—an autistic high school student seemed to come alive in the suit. “At first, I was wary,” Allen says. “It seemed like they had the idea these suits might somehow be therapeutic. I don’t know what they really meant by that. Like, are you going to put someone inside one of these things and they’ll come out less autistic?”
Allen suggested a more testable hypothesis: The costume might simply help autistic people become pretty good mascots. The payoff would be small but important. “People who are employed have a greater sense of independence and well-being,” Allen says. But up to 90 percent of adults with autism don’t have jobs.
The Bowens still needed a way to measure mascot performances. Gauging crowd response wouldn’t work; audiences cheer or boo too variably. Scott figured the most important aspect was that each mascot appear “lifelike,” engaging the audience by trying new actions. He’d developed a video to show how to use the straps inside a costume to do eight different moves, from an eye wink to a full-body shake. Bowen divided performances into 15-second intervals, and the team would count the number of intervals in which a performer used at least two of the actions in the video. A “good” show would be one in which the performer was in motion about 30 percent of the time. “It’s just kind of intuitive. You want them to move,” Scott Bowen says. “But you also don’t want them to focus on a single aspect. If someone is standing in a corner and waving at you over and over, that could get a little weird.”
In 2008, Allen, Scott Bowen, and Ray Burke, a psychologist who was the Bowens’ partner in the fire safety business, recruited four high-functioning autistic teens and young adults to play a giant Rocky the Raccoon at a Sam’s Club. Each improvised for about 10 minutes. They all bombed—not unusual for any performer with no direction. Afterward each watched the training video and tried again. After two rounds, all four were “lifelike” more than a third of the time. And everyone retained their skills, doing nearly as well in a follow-up gig.
Allen has a guess about why it works: “The costume itself is sort of an insulator,” he says. The white noise from the blower cancels out distractions, one-way windows dim lights, and an air buffer limits physical contact. “It is easier to socialize when trained in the costume, because it’s a little bit safer environment.”
It’d be hard to measure long-term outcomes of wearing the suits. You’d need more data, more people inside them. “That isn’t really going to happen,” Allen admits. Which is fine. The suits don’t have to be a cure. The Bowens’ training videos already conform to a teaching technique often used with autistic people called video modeling; it’s supposed to be more successful than a lecture or one-on-one tutoring. Educators generally couple video modeling with role-playing, offering viewers the chance to try out a multitude of responses in a safe environment with lots of personal direction. It can take weeks or months to be effective. Once inside an inflatable suit, though, people seem able to skip the repetitive test phase and jump straight to gigging.
Inside the Walmart Supercenter in Fort Scott, Kansas, a crowd has gathered to gawk at a giant inflatable Chester Cheetah. A dozen shoppers stare at a 9-foot-tall version of Frito-Lay’s orange and black cartoon mascot, complete with spindly (air-filled) legs, a paunchy (air-filled) stomach, and a pair of sunglasses. And the cheetah is skipping. Flanked by an assistant in a black polo shirt, Chester steps around an equally towering display of Cheetos, pounding his stomach. Chester cannot get enough Cheetos.
A little girl rushes up to hug Chester for a picture. He puts one paw around her shoulders, pressing her body against his ample belly, which deforms inward slightly at the impact. After her parents snap the pic, Chester lets go and his gut puffs back out, bouncing the kid merrily on her way. And then Chester bends over and eats her.
For real: Chester plops his big muzzle down on top of her. His mouth engulfs the girl’s head as she shrieks with joy. Standing about 15 yards away near rows of beeping check stands, Scott Bowen smiles. “Way to go, Chester,” he says, chuckling. “I’m impressed.”
Not everything is a hit. Chester’s deployable foot-long tongue isn’t unrolled at every Walmart. Elderly shoppers had complained it was disgusting.
When Chester’s gig is done, he heads to a fitting room to change. Out steps 18-year-old Hunter Huse, who is autistic. Inside of the suit, Huse was Chaplinesque, performing exquisitely timed physical comedy. Outside of it, he fidgets and has trouble making eye contact. During a stream-of-consciousness monologue that covers everything from statistics about his disorder to how he came up with that impromptu head-munching, Hunter finally describes what wearing the suit feels like: “It was a blast.”
Of course, not everything in Scott Bowen’s road-tripping Walmart field tests goes exactly as planned. At one stop in Parsons, Kansas, an autistic 26-year-old ignores directions to dress in a fitting room, opting instead for a handicapped bathroom, only to become increasingly frustrated that he has nowhere to sit down. Every time he tries to get into the suit, he accidentally sets off an automatic hand dryer, making things even more stressful. “I don’t want to do this,” he tells Bowen, who eventually gets him calmed down, inflated, and through the narrow bathroom door.
Even Hunter Huse’s performance in Fort Scott had a hiccup. Before he took to the aisles, Huse noticed that a set of written instructions for hooking up the power belt differed slightly from the video tutorial. It caused a minor freak-out. “You aren’t doing it right!” Huse told his dad, who was helping him get suited up. For Bowen, such feedback is invaluable; all of those issues can be fixed with clearer preshow instructions.
In total, 74 of 76 performers complete their four-hour gig and get paid for it. Bowen places nearly all of them on his roster of vetted performers. “It’s a good chance for them to get more part-time work,” he says.
Three months later, Burke, the psychologist who helped come up with the fire safety program, sits in the back of an elementary school gym amid 45 giggling kids as a 10-foot-tall mustachioed Freddy the Firefighter takes the stage. When Omaha Fire Department captain David Mann purchased the character and related materials two years ago, Burke and the Bowens suggested he hire a local guy named Doug Egger, a 29-year-old autistic man who did well in early Chester promotions. Mann agreed. Egger has since done eight shows, pulling off 63 different moves that include things he would never do without the suit on—like responding directly to Mann’s questions with some action, reacting to the audience, and initiating independent actions without being cued. Today, Burke has come to check up on his progress.
The show begins. Egger doesn’t speak—the blower is too loud. Instead, he mimes whispering into Mann’s ear, wiggling Freddy’s upper lip conspiratorially. Mann relays his ideas to the audience (“What’s that, Freddy? You want to play a game?” and so on). Cuing off Mann, Egger has no problem going into the audience to pick out volunteers for a skit about how to escape a burning house. Toward the end of the show, another inflatable, a dalmatian piloted by a local high school student, trots onstage to join the two presenters. “Hey, Freddy, aren’t you happy to see your dog, Spanner?” Mann shouts. Egger runs over and gives the other character a long hug, drawing cheers from the audience. “That isn’t part of the show,” Burke says later. “But it should be.”
The team is thinking up an even more user-friendly design. They recently introduced an in-suit prompting system—basically, an iPhone mounted at eye level with texts like “Wiggle mustache” or “Get three students.” Lower-functioning autistic performers could follow spoken cues via radio. Bowen figures even non-disabled performers might eventually use the aides.
Last summer at Arvest Ballpark, home of Minor League Baseball’s Northwest Arkansas Naturals, Huse showed up for his first Chester gig having made a few tweaks to the costume. He had hung a sweat towel from the belt that holds up the compressor and was wearing a CamelBak backpack filled with water. It gets pretty hot in those WalkArounds, after all. When Scott Bowen hears about this, he laughs. They’re the kind of improvisations he knows would impress his dad.
This was an exerpt of the original article which can be read/viewed in its entirety here: http://www.wired.com/playbook/2012/07/ff_mascots/all/?pid=785&viewall=true