master of puppets

 Words: Mike Rubin

Photography courtesy of Harrison/Erickson

Bonnie Erickson may not be a household name to most sports fans, but she’s probably done more to change fans’ ballpark experience over the last four decades than anyone besides landmark free-agency litigants Curt Flood and Marvin Miller. With her husband and business partner Wayde Harrison, Erickson added furry frivolity to the stadium landscape beginning in the late 1970s, eventually creating 16 mascot characters in all four major North American professional sports leagues. Harrison/Erickson’s mascots weren’t baseball’s first—that honor probably belongs to Mr. Met, who dates back to the early 1960s—nor were they the most famous; it’s hard to top the notoriety of Ted Giannoulas as the San Diego Chicken, the fowl-feathered rapscallion whose anarchistic antics in the 1970s and 1980s induced numerous on-field run-ins with players and managers (as well as several off -field law-suits). But the Harrison/Erickson menagerie are among the most beloved of all mascots—both the Phillie Phanatic and Youppi! have been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame— and are certainly the most ubiquitous.

Bonnie Erickson with Statler, one of her Muppet creations, 1974

Bonnie Erickson with Statler,
one of her Muppet creations, 1974

Chicago White Sox mascots Ribbie and Roobarb, 1981

Chicago White Sox mascots
Ribbie and Roobarb, 1981

Contemporary mascotry has combined a proven staple of children’s television—a performer in a ridiculous full-body suit with the gentle tomfoolery of clowning, the silent lucidity of mime, and good old- fashioned hucksterism, creating a new performance genre: corporate vaudeville. Although team mascots flourished on the high school and college level in the years BC (Before Chicken), the costume craze didn’t really take off in the pro ranks until 1974, when Giannoulas wore a chicken suit to a San Diego Padres game for a radio promotion. Over the last four decades, mascots have multiplied like rabbits, although few of Harrison/Erickson’s giant creatures belong to any recognizable phylum. With ever-increasing ticket costs, the onus has been on sports franchises to provide not just a competitive contest but a full-fledged entertainment experience: hence the proliferation of enormous, silly-suitedcheerleaders who not only kick sand on umpires and dance to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part II” but also act as goodwill ambassadors, visiting schools, hospitals, and the like. In the last year alone, the Phillie Phanatic made more than 700 promotional appearances, ranging from charity walks and bar mitzvahs to a cameo on the ABC sitcom The Goldbergs and the inauguration of Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf.

“Baseball been berry, berry good to us,” says Erickson, sitting in the couple’s spacious Brooklyn Heights apartment, paraphrasing the classic Saturday Night Live character Chico Escuela. An original Charles Schulz sketch of Charlie Brown in pitching gear hangs on one wall, near a framed drawing from Maurice Sendak, sent as a thank you for Harrison/Erickson designing a set of Where the Wild Things Are toys. Erickson recently organized the mementos of the couple’s prolific career into 20 archival boxes, stuffed with sketches, fabric swatches, construction specs, and slides. It’s remarkable how consistently each finished product reflects Erickson’s initial freehand drawing, no matter which medium she’s working in. “Storytelling is the most important part of everything,” says Erickson. “It’s how we communicate with each other. Whether you do it with a sock or a very complicated piece of puppetry or a costume, that’s really what it is. It’s just an assistance to help you tell that story.”

Raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, Erickson took art school classes as a teenager, crossing the river to Minneapolis each week to pick up the latest copy of the Village Voice. Entranced by the Greenwich Village she read about, in 1961 she left the University of Minnesota after her sophomore year to spend a summer in New York City and never came back, getting an apartment on MacDougal Street. When a folk-singing pal from Minneapolis’ Dinkytown neighborhood named Bob Dylan came to town, Erickson went next door to the Gaslight Cafe to see him play. “We went out back to have a J,” she recalls, “and promised each other we wouldn’t tell anybody we’re from Minnesota.”

Though she initially harbored plans to be an actress, Erickson soon focused on costuming. Beginning in 1963, she spent seven years working in Off -Broadway (and occasional Broadway) theater. In 1970 she heard from a friend that puppeteer Jim Henson was looking for a costume designer. Impressed by Erickson’s life-sized muslin female figures in vintage clothes, Henson offered her a job on the 1971 Kermit the Frog special The Frog Prince. Under the tutelage of Henson’s master puppet builder Don Sahlin, Erickson learned to make costumes to hide the puppeteers. She carved figures out of blocks of foam, sculpting their features with scissors, then smoothing everything down with a belt sander. Eventually she became head of the workshop and part of the original team for The Muppet Show, designing such characters as porcine diva Miss Piggy, balcony hecklers Statler and Waldorf, and kind-of-blue saxophonist Zoot (based on Argentinian jazz musician Gato Barbieri).

Before The Muppet Show was picked up for production by ITV in England, Erickson became romantically involved with Harrison, a Sloan Kettering cancer researcher whose true passion was photography. When Erickson and the Henson team relocated to London for the first season ofThe Muppet Show, Harrison left his job and went with her. A year later, the pair returned to New York to start their own business. Setting up a studio on the corner of 17th Street and Fifth Avenue, the newly christened Harrison/Erickson firm designed puppets for use in TV ads, as well as toys, before they got an unexpected call-up to the big leagues.

Clockwise from far left: Bonnie Erickson, Jerry Nilson, Jim Henson, Dave Goelz, 1976

Clockwise from far left:
Bonnie Erickson, Jerry Nilson,
Jim Henson, Dave Goelz, 1976

The promotion department of baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies had approached Henson, looking to create a new mascot. Henson steered the team to Harrison/Erickson, who turned a short-term promotional campaign called “Be a Phillie Phanatic” into a gig that’s lasted for 37 years and counting. Erickson, who wasn’t really a sports fan at the time, insists she was unfamiliar with Giannoulas’ Chicken. “I wasn’t aware of the game as much as I was aware of the fact that they must be coming to us for entertainment,” she says. “When they told me mascots, I went ‘Oh, really? I don’t know that I want that. That’s not what I want to do.’ But then I realized what kinds of crowds would be seeing this.”

The Phillies gave Erickson carte blanche, and she drew on her experience developing toys for Henson to design a mascot with product licensing in mind. Building on the notion that a sports fanatic would need a megaphone, Erickson gave the creature a long snout with a protruding tongue, as well as a backstory that the Phanatic hailed from the Galapagos Islands. “I love doing the abstract characters where you couldn’t identify it as a particular animal,” says Erickson. “I just like thinking of something more fantasy.”

A young Phillies front-office intern, Dave Raymond, was chosen to fill the Phanatic’s oversized shoes; his mother was deaf, says Erickson, which helped make him particularly adept at gesturing and performing. The Phanatic was to be the alter ego of the average fan; like a superhero, the person in the costume was kept anonymous. “We wanted to try to suspend disbelief that there was a human being in there,” says Harrison. “We want the Phillie Phanatic to be the Phillie Phanatic. We don’t you to think, ‘Hey, there’s a guy running around in a big green costume.’”

Phillies brass warned the couple that City of Brotherly Love fans were a tough crowd, having once booed the Easter Bunny, and, in the very same stadium, thrown snow- balls at Santa Claus. After debuting on April 25, 1978, the Phanatic became a surprise success, in terms of popularity and products, including T-shirts, jewelry, and even a Phanatic comic strip that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Phanatic brought $2 million in merchandise sales the first year of licensing alone. This was especially fortuitous for the fledgling company, because Harrison/Erickson owned the costume and leased it to the Phillies. They kept the licensing rights, received the merchandising money, and paid the team a royalty. They had offered Phillies executive Bill Giles the choice between paying $5,200 for both the Phanatic costume and the character’s copyright, or purchasing just the costume alone for $3,900. Giles opted for only the costume, a move he would describe in his auto-biography as “the worst decision of my career.” Five years later he paid $250,000 for the Phanatic’s copyright.

Youppi! (French for “Yippee!”) followed in 1979, and the Montreal Expos’ mascot quickly became the only untouchable on that club’s payroll. The cost-conscious team may have dealt away future Hall of Famers like Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, and Pedro Martinez, but their seven-foot-tall mascot with his couch-potato belly and wildfire-orange fur outlived the franchise itself—after the Expos moved to Washington, DC, in 2004 to become the Nationals, Youppi! became the first free agent mascot and joined hockey’s venerable Montreal Canadiens.

By the early 1980s, Harrison/Erickson’s work was in high demand, and their roster of fuzzy friends expanded dramatically. “It was really fun to see all of this happen,” says Erickson. “Then we started to get more and more teams, and it started to be hard to really oversee licensing or the legal parts. That became a whole other job in itself. So when people were interested in buying the copyrights and using us to set them up, to consult with them as they needed, that was the better way for us to work.”

The first mascot they sold was Youppi!, which led to the payday with the Phillies. “After that, we sold them all up-front,” says Harrison. “If you hired us, you bought everything all in a pack.” Harrison/Erickson maintained complete creative control, designing the costume, choosing colors and fabrics, auditioning and training performers, even providing designs for the flyers announcing promotional events. They created owner’s manuals on how to assemble and care for the costumes, illustrated with Polaroids. A Harrison/Erickson costume took 12 weeks to make, including four weeks for design, meeting with team officials, and auditioning and training performers. Among the criteria for performers was an understanding of the relevant sport, dancing ability, enough strength to handle and wear the costume, a talent for creating a character, no criminal record, and a driver’s license (for traveling to appearances). “We also preferred people who didn’t smoke,” says Erickson, “because you just don’t want that in the costume.”

Youppi! triumphant, 1979

Youppi! triumphant, 1979

Costumes were constructed from fake Icelandic sheepskin fur, foam, feathers, yarn, spandex, fleece, and plastic (in the early years, eyes were made from L’eggs egg-shaped pantyhose containers). Each costume had to be flexible enough to allow a performer to express himself, durable enough to hold up through at least 81 home games plus promotional appearances without any major repairs, yet be as light and cleanable as possible. Even so, the suits ended up weighing 35 to 40 pounds, and tended to get pretty stinky. (Harrison recommends spraying suits regularly with cheap vodka to fight the funk. “It takes out the odors,” he says. “Free tip. We’ve done some research!”)

The production values that Henson had demanded proved to be an advantage. “Jim really inculcated everyone who worked there with a very high level of expectation,” says Harrison. “I think we brought that to this mascot idea. We just said ‘it doesn’t have to be this, it can be this.’ We created what has become the modern mascot world rather than papier maché heads on people with pajamas. We made characters that had lives and performed and were made into real merchandise.” Their influence in the burgeoning field was enormous. Some of their former staffers went on to design other mascots, like the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Parrot, while many of the Phanatic’s evolutionary descendants borrowed the pear shape that Harrison/Erickson favored. Besides the shape’s practical advantages—it keeps the performer cooler by moving the suit away from the body, allowing air to circulate—Erickson points out that it has comedic value as well. “It’s so funny when it moves. It’s just hilarious. You can’t walk without having it look funny. It just does its own work for you.”

Despite their successes, however, they suffered their share of defeats. “You don’t always hit a home run,” says Harrison. Indeed, Erickson’s boxes reveal an alternate history of mascotry, with binders containing preliminary sketches of unfulfilled mascots for the Minnesota Twins, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres, and Chicago Cubs. One proposal, a giant rodent called Rink Rat for the New York Islanders, is fully fleshed out. “We made the whole presentation and they signed a contract to build the costumes,” says Harrison. “Then the team got sold and the new owner didn’t want one.” As Harrison/Erickson see it, three elements determine the success of a mascot character: “A good design, a good performer, and the support of the team,” says Harrison. “None of those three things is easy. Nobody really executed the program as well as Philadelphia. The Phillies, they got it 100 percent.”

Other clubs proved to be somewhat less supportive. In 1981, Erickson presented the Chicago White Sox with two different characters, figuring they’d pick between them. Instead, the White Sox chose to go with both. Thus were born Ribbie and Roobarb, who lasted for seven turbulent years on the South Side; the duo were never accepted by White Sox fans because they had unseated the team’s unofficial mascot “Andy the Clown,” who had performed in the Comiskey Park stands since the early 1960s. After considerable abuse, much of it from children, Ribbie and Roobarb were given their unconditional release in 1988.

06-yankee-mascotThere were other extinctions: the Philadelphia 76ers’ Big Shot, the Houston Rockets’ Booster, and the New Jersey Nets’ Duncan of New Jersey. One NBA team met with Harrison/Erickson, then used their presentation sketches to fashion a mascot without the couple’s participation. But by far the most unpleasant experience was their three-year stint working with the New York Yankees.

In the wake of the Phanatic’s instant success, the Yankees wanted to bring a mascot to the Bronx. Yankees front- office executives approved Erickson’s mascot design, but warned they’d need to show it to owner George Steinbrenner in person. Unaware of the owner’s tyrannical reputation, Erickson argued with the Boss about the color of the mascot’s stripes. When they came out of the meeting, says Erickson, they were told, “‘You shouldn’t have talked to George like that.’ We thought it was over and that was the end of it.”

Surprisingly, the Yankees commissioned a costume, but the club soon made the unfortunate decision to hold a fan contest to name the character; the “winner,” alas, was Dandy. Then on July 10, 1979, shortly before Dandy was to debut, Yankees outfielder Lou Pinella took umbrage at the onfield antics of Seattle Kingdome guest star the San Diego Chicken, threw his mitt at the bird, and fumed to the press that mascots shouldn’t be allowed to “clown around out there where the players are trying to make a living.” In the days that followed, Steinbrenner defended his player and echoed those sentiments, “knowing that the next week his own mascot would be debuting at Yankee Stadium!” Harrison says.

Erickson had designed Dandy as “an old-fashioned character with a handlebar mustache,” but the mascot’s resemblance to walrus-mustachioed Yankees catcher Thurman Munson, who died that season in an August 1979 plane crash, may have further unsettled team officials; for whatever reason, Dandy was banished to the upper deck. “We’d go to games and we never even saw it ourselves,” says Erickson.

The Yankees wanted to renew the three-year lease, says Erickson, but the couple would agree only on the condition that a safety officer accompany the performer around the rowdy stadium. When the Yankees refused, citing cost-cutting concerns, Harrison/Erickson benched Dandy. “There was no way I was going to put somebody at risk in that costume,” says Erickson. “There were people who were very violent at those games.”

The costume was kept in storage for a while, but in 2000 the couple finally decided to dispose of Dandy. Simply throwing it away risked having a dumpster- diving “furry” find it, however, so they destroyed the costume by cutting it to shreds themselves, an experience Erickson describes as “terrible.”

After 15 years of relying on the often-fickle devotion of team executives, the couple opted to become their own bosses. In 1993 they joined with Dave Raymond, the original Phanatic performer, and formed a spin-off company called Acme Mascots. The idea was that their new character, Sport—a raffish entertainer in a plaid jacket—would be able to perform at a greater variety of venues because he was unaffiliated with a specific team. It was a stab at free agency, but Sport could only get bookings to perform at minor league stadiums. “We did that because we could make a living doing it,” says Harrison. “It reallywas never the goal of working the minor leagues, it was just a way to get from one place to the next. Unfortunately it didn’t work.

Pete Rose and the Phillie Phanatic, 1980

Pete Rose and the Phillie Phanatic, 1980

The small-town barnstorming continued for a few years, but then the couple parted ways with Raymond, and Acme Mascots came to an end. (Raymond still works in the mascot world, consulting and coaching via his Mascot Boot Camp). Sport is the one mascot character the couple still own, though the costume is currently boxed in storage. “There are about 100 professional sports teams in the United States and Canada,” says Harrison, “and by the year 2000, all of them who wanted to have a mascot had one. If they didn’t have their own, they didn’t really want one. That was pretty much the end of our market.”

Erickson was fine with the timing of the end of their mascot career. In the late 1990s she was working as a consultant to Sesame Street, serving as creative director for product development. She and Harrison decided to give up their Manhattan studio.

Erickson has spent most of the last decade as the executive director of the Jim Henson Legacy, the organization founded after Henson’s death, setting up Muppet film retrospectives, arranging exhibitions, and preparing for the upcoming opening of two permanent Henson installations: one at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, and the other a new wing at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. As far as mascots go, Erickson and Harrison still consult with the Phillies and help the team take care of the Phanatic costume, but they’ve taken down their website to avoid getting offers for new work.

According to Erickson, seven of their creations are “still running around” in MLB (the Phanatic), the NHL (Youppi!), the NBA (Washington’s G-Wiz and Orlando’s Stuff the Magic Dragon), the NFL (Jacksonville’s Jaxson de Ville and Kansas City’s K.C. Wolf), and Japanese baseball (Slyly of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp).

“It’s amazing to me though, that any of these characters that we did have lasted as long as they have,” says Erickson. “I did a lot of them and I’m proud of the work that I did. I still find it funny that I go places and people say ‘Here’s Bonnie Erickson and she did Miss Piggy and she’s done blah blah blah’ and people say, ‘Didn’t I hear that you did the Phillie Phanatic?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I did,’ and they say, ‘Oh, that’s awesome.’ I think if you can make people laugh and you can entertain people, how much better could life get?”