Sometimes unpleasant things happen, even in the most magical of kingdoms. Toward the end of the Pinocchio unit's Village Haus set, when we were all doing our walk-over to get back to the Egg House Break Area for lunch, we ran into a little situation.
It was the end of that long breakfast set. The Pinocchio unit was heading towards the exit of the Plaza Inn, like coal miners trudging back toward the light of day. Our cranky lead, Roxanne, had just given us her version of the character "break-time" sign. This was usually done by flashing a surreptitious hand sign based on the ASL motion "to break." However, "The Red Queen's" break-time sign was a bit more colorful, imaginative, and graphic.
It was about halfway through our first Plaza Inn breakfast set, and I was over at one end of the restaurant near the windows, working the room in my baggy cat suit, walkin' and wavin' with Pinocchio, when we got waved over by a large group of very friendly and talkative Italians. One of the younger women, who could speak English, asked for Pinocchio's autograph on a paper napkin. I waited my turn to sign and watched as Pinocchio obliged and a smile of recognition passed across the woman's face and she said something to the group, which got a really positive reaction. I signed my autograph: G-I-D-E-O-N in a large script, quite easily with my gloved hand instead of the usual three-fingered furry mitt. But when she read it, she frowned and passed it along. When I walked down one side of the table, the formerly friendly Italians kept saying "Bad kitty, bad kitty" to me and shooing me away.
As a performer, I take my character work seriously. Really. No matter who the character might be.
On that magical Main Street USA, a model of a town that never was, an avenue without dirt or debris, where the streets were always clean and there were never any homeless people to step over, I would encounter many Europeans who had been told the original versions of these fairy tale stories in their native tongues by their grandparents who had heard them in turn from their own grandparents and so on back to before the founding of our own optimistic, if woefully na�ve, nation. Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, King Arthur. These were their stories. But I had been shown a bigger, brighter, shinier version of the real thing, and I had bought into it with every fiber of my adolescent being. The castle in the heart of the Magic Kingdom had always seemed more real to me than any outside of Orange County. But I was beginning to see the difference between the pixie-dust-soaked tales of my youth and the darker more grim stories that the rest of the world knew to be true. For example, I knew that the character costume that I was currently walking around in, Gideon the cat, was supposed to be a bad guy. But as far as villains go, I thought he was pretty tame, even by Disney standards. I had forgotten the original.
Think of a curtain on the stage of a big Broadway theatre. You cross the threshold and the darkness backstage gives way to a blinding light, and when the spotlight hits you, bang! At least, that's how it all seemed to me in my ludicrous cat suit. By walking onstage in costume, as a member of Pinocchio's cartoon family, I was an actor putting on a show! I was part of that magic.
I arrived in the character Head Room just in time. Jerry, the ever vigilant, always punctual lead, glanced at his watch and frowned. Realizing that he couldn't write me up for tardiness, he gruffly handed me an oddly shaped little piece of paper. It was my new Pinocchio unit set schedule. He said in a hushed voice with no hint of irony, "Guard that paper with your life."
The three guys playing the Three Little Pigs were all ex-marching band geeks themselves, fans of the Three Stooges and quite accomplished choral whistlers--a skill that they practiced out on set, in violation of the Disney-ian edict against making noises of any kind in costume. But they did it anyway and had amassed quite a repertory of whistle tunes and would often take requests. My personal favorite was Roger Miller's "Whistle Stop" song from the animated Robin Hood film. The one they did most often was their own rendition of "Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho" mixed with the theme from the Bridge on the River Kwai. They'd been working together since the 1970s. James, Carl and Derek all had faces that, although pimple-free due to their advanced age, were probably best left hidden from the public behind thick layers of Fiberglas in those old big-headed costumes. They were lifers, happy to be under huge smiling pig heads, and they took pride in the fact that they would never have to show their actual faces in the park. But they also knew that their days as pigs were numbered, which could account for their current crankiness.
Now that I was an ex-Pluto, I had to scramble to "pick up" shifts. Having no seniority or status, I was at the mercy of the idiosyncratic set schedulers up in the Entertainment office. I was back to calling in my availability each morning, with a tone of desperation creeping into my voice. I was just a name and a height to them. How often I worked and what character I played was determined by the number of empty costumes in my height range.