Since my expensive taste was so happily married to my spending habit, I was forced to take a job in college as a singer of telegrams for a gift/dance shoe shop in Jackson, TN. When I wasn’t in class, studying, at a fraternity function, or rehearsing, I performed in public places to an unfortunate friend of a customer as either a gorilla, a grim reaper, something called a Kissing Bandito, and many other characters.
Performing singing telegrams to strangers isn’t glamorous. I know this. But can you imagine getting paid for literally being applauded for a job-well-done, being a goof, and introducing joy and happiness into the day of everyone you encounter? The gigs paid well, but the real money was dressing up as a character and performing at children’s parties.
On a humid Saturday afternoon in September of the mid-1990s, I was commissioned to appear as a popular, singing dinosaur at a birthday party held in the back yard of a house in a prestigious neighborhood of lawyers, doctors, and business executives. Due to licensing and copyrights, the shop called this character Burnie the Lavender T-Rex. It’s not the gift/dance shoe shop’s fault that the customer’s always referred to it as Barney for some reason.
My handler and I knocked on the door of the residence. Each of us clutched a bulging, black garbage bag. One bag contained the body of Burnie; the other bag, its head. It was easy to imagine the two of us as hit men, bearing the corpse of our latest assignment. Our client greeted us at the door with a smile before allowing us in to execute our job. She never asked us what the bags contained.
The handler was a cashier in the shop and a requirement for full-body costume gigs, both to help wrangle the fan-freaked children that may want a piece of the lavender dinosaur for their celebrity scrapbook as well as to help guide me as the head of the costume severely restricted my periphery vision. She wasn’t as enthusiastic about interrupting her Saturday afternoon shepherding pre-schoolers while I entertained them for two hours with singing, dancing, and games.
I prepared for this role like any other: research. Yes, I watched multiple episodes of the lavender dinosaur’s show to study and mimic its movements. Yes, I practiced sounding like the T-Rex in the bathroom mirror most mornings. Yes, a tape of this character’s songs played on my car stereo everywhere I went so as to memorize them. I was determined to be the best lavender, bipedal dinosaur those W.A.S.P.y parents could buy. But, for the record, all efforts were in preparation for the possibility that someone at the party requested a Barney song and dance, because, after all, licensing and copyrights dictated that I was Burnie.
Nothing is as fun to watch as a throng of pre-schoolers losing their shit when a scrawny man dressed as a lavender tyrannosaurus shows up at your party. I assume half cried over finally meeting their favorite television personality; the other half, I imagine, wailed in unabashed fear because a fucking lavender tyrannosaurus walked among their reality. When the crowd began to settle, I almost gave more hugs than my third cousin with Down Syndrome did the first time I met him at a family reunion thirteen years ago. Almost.
The backyard spread was so extravagant that while I opened with the essential “I love you; You love me” (upon request, of course), I couldn’t help but pretend I was entertaining the children of mafia leaders. This made the job more exciting. If I did a good job, would I be “in”? Or would authorities find my costumed body at the bottom of the Hatchie River if I didn’t impress them?
Since the only ventilation provided to me was nothing more than black mesh that covered the creepy, open-mouth smile frozen on Burnie’s face, the temperature in the costume progressively rose with each passing minute. This caused Burnie to appear a bit tipsy near the end of the first hour. My speech became slurred from exhaustion, and my simple choreography was becoming half-assed and clumsy. When my handler began to notice this, she strongly suggested a quick break inside.
When the over-sized Burnie head was removed like an astronaut helmet, the rush of cold air was almost a shock to my system. I greedily inhaled the fresh air as I perched upon a bar stool in the kitchen.
“Oh my God,” the mom of the birthday boy exclaimed when she saw my head and face drenched in sweat. “Are you okay?”
Of course I wasn’t okay. Anyone with a shred of common sense would be able to ascertain by the combination of me gasping for air and the fact that I appeared to have been snorkeling that I was not okay. However, I was still in my people-pleasing phase in the mid-1990s, so I nodded my head and asked for water between gulps of air.
As Birthday-Boy-Mom retrieved a bottle of Evian, my handler gave me a twisted expression she would call ‘concerned’ and asked, “You don’t look so good. Are you sure you can do this?” The possibility of offending her with the list of sordid activities I would accept for as much money an hour as I was being paid to dress up like a singing, homosexual dinosaur in a heat index of 100 degrees was too high, so I scoffed and said, “Sure.”
Upon returning to the second half of my assignment, I soon noticed that children are a fickle audience. Gone only ten minutes, and they were already on to the next, newer thing. My handler attempted to gather some kids for my performance of “The Wheels on the Bus,” but most were more interested in playing with the birthday boy’s opened presents. I suddenly knew what Tiffany meant when she sang, “I Think We’re Alone Now.” And, also like Tiffany, nobody would have anything to do with me.
I found myself growing increasingly irritable. Not only was I frustrated by my alienation, but the heat exhaustion was beginning to settle in again. I stumbled from one cluster of kids to another, vying for their attention. If memory serves me correctly, while entertaining a few of the boys with a new toy plane, one little asshole snatched it out of my purple, mittened hands and said, “No, Barney. You’ll break it.” Lil’ fucker.
I mouthed the words “Fuck you” inside of my purple head and wandered off to find another group of kids in which I would try to fit in. Halfway through my trek across the back yard, I came upon a long, narrow path between two rectangle tables. I blame the hazy mind of heat exhaustion for my decision to squeeze between them. As I turned to shimmy through sideways, I noticed a swarm of screaming children running towards me. This was followed by another swarm, and then another. Thinking they wanted to play again (finally), I quickened my pace, shuffling sideways between the tables. I noticed a few parents were running towards me as well, their arms stretched out as if asking me to halt. I didn’t give their desperate gesture much thought until I exited the other side and turned to see that my dinosaur tail swiped a table of birthday cake and cups of juice onto the ground.
Before this angry mob of children ripped Burnie to shreds, my handler guided me back inside the house through the sliding glass back door. I staggered by her side as if being drunkenly escorted out of a bar after last call. Birthday-Boy-Mom, slid the door’s blinds shut as the handler removed my head.
“I am so sorry,” I immediately said to Birthday-Boy-Mom. “I didn’t see the table.” This was supposed to have been a direct jab at my handler’s failure to handle me, but she either didn’t get it or didn’t care.
Birthday-Boy-Mom gave me a dismissive scoff punctuated with a flick of her wrist. “Don’t worry about it. They didn’t need all that cake anyway.”
After changing back into my normal clothes, I handed the body of Burnie to my handler who immediately began wiping cake icing from its tail with a damp paper towel before stashing it back in the black garbage bag. Despite single-handedly enraging over thirty children at a pre-schooler’s birthday party, Birthday-Boy-Mom slipped me an extra $10. I didn’t feel right accepting this tip, but I did. I had an unhealthy spending habit, after all.
Because of my unintentional act of vandalism, I feel chances were pretty high that most of those kids went home and burned their Barney DVDs. No macrocephalic, discolored, prehistoric creature was going to get away with destroying their birthday party. They probably even went so far as to bad-mouth Burnie to all of their playground friends, fueling the popular television personality’s disdain among his target audience. So let this be a lesson. This, dear reader, is why companies come down hard on character-likeness rights violations.
by Cary Vaughn (2014)