April 14, 2010

Taking Off the Costume

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To this day, the Big Red does not have an official mascot. However, bears have long been associated with Cornell athletics.

In 1916, the football team bought a black bear cub named Touchdown to serve as a mascot. Back then, professors used to grapple with Touchdown before games. A few live bears served the position, until around 1939 when a costumed undergrad assumed the role of the Big Red Bear.

Now, the Big Red Bear Club coordinates the mascot, which appears at three to four events per week, according to Stephanie Segien ’10, the bear who has been there the longest. “It’s an informal group of students who enjoy being a bear,” club member Tom Washenko ’11 said.

According to Trevor Ertel ’12, the club tries to do one game for each varsity sport (both genders) each season. “It’s not a huge time commitment,” Ertel said. “We have lots of people so we bear once every two weeks on average. I do more because I like it.”

“It’s a creative license to be a cartoon and have a good time,” Ertel said. “It’s a lot of exercise, too. The bear runs around, high fives, hugs and fist bumps.” “A good mascot has no inhibitions, must be enthusiastic and happy and likes to be the center of attention,” Segien said.

A mascot must also have a very good sense of direction and orientation because it is difficult to see through the suit, which weighs about 40 pounds —and the temperature inside it is 30 degrees warmer than the outside air, so heat endurance is important, too. Also, the bear’s eyes and ears are high. “Wearing the suit feels like being wrapped in a carpet,” Ertel said. Since the suits only gets washed once a month or so, people like to say things like, “The Big Red Bear needs a shower,” or, “The Big Red Bear needs to do some laundry,” according to Segien.

The biggest challenge is transporting the suit, especially without a car. The club has gone through a few suits in recent years, since one literally got lost in the mail at an airport and the costume gets a lot of wear and tear at events, Segien said.

Bears must audition to be part of the club.

“The audition is hilarious. Potential bears get in the bear suit and run around the Arts Quad. If auditioners like it you’re a bear. During my audition I tried to steal cookies from the blood drive, but they wouldn’t let me,” Ertel said.

“They weren’t taking bear blood either.” The official personality of the bear is a jock. He’s laid back, swaggers when he walks and is kind of a ladies man. Members of the club work to master the expressions of the bear. “We spend time practicing and train people to walk with the bear’s bouncy swagger,” Washenko said.

“When you move, you have to pretend that you’re in a bubble and every move has to pop the bubble,” Ertel said. “You can’t just walk. You have to seize every opportunity to ham it up.”

“The way students interact with the bear is different from person to person,” Washenko said. “It’s an exercise in nonverbal communication.”

Whenever someone asks the bear his name, Ertel mimes scoring a touchdown. “At all times you have to be doing something goofy because someone’s watching,” Ertel said. “It’s fun to sneak in between couples.”

According to Segien, mimicking people is a funny way to get attention. For example, if someone is reading the newspaper it’s funny if the bear sits down next to him and pretends to read the paper.

“Each event has a personality,” Washenko said. “Football games are fun and easy,” according to Ertel.

There is a lot of space, cooler weather, more people and more props. The cheerleaders and pep band are there, too, so they can interact a lot.

“It’s fun to work with cheerleaders,” Ertel said. “I like to take their pom poms.”

Washenko is also a trumpet player in the pep band.

“I used to be a conductor, so sometimes I go and conduct in the bear suit. The pep band likes it and knows who it is.” Segien enjoys hockey games because they are the most fun and even skates between periods.

According to Ertel, alumni events are fun as well. For alumni events the bear dons a super-sized suit and tie and goes around shaking hands. “One great time to be a bear is homecoming, probably because the students are all really drunk,” Segien said.

She once went into the Greek tailgate party and got picked up by frat boys and carried to the field. A bear watcher, or another mascot in regular clothes, guides the bear at events to keep the bear out of fights, take pictures and handle birthday requests. At events, people constantly request to take pictures with the bear.

“When I get caught in a picture vortex, I take a few regular ones and then I start changing poses before I move on,” Ertel said.

According to Segien taking pictures is relatively boring.

“The most fun part is when the bear goes and does random things, like run through the libraries during finals week.” Segien recounted stories, such as the bear trick-or-treating around Donlon — dressed as Dracula and distributing candy. The bear ribbon-danced at a gymnastics tournament. At a polo tournament, the bear freaked out the horses and had to remain high up in the stands.

In Okenshield’s, the bear accidentally touched all of the bananas and had to apologize. The bear has also made appearances at weddings, children’s birthday parties and in an alumnus’s backyard.

“We did a photoshoot for this guy once. He was a Cornell alum living in the area and he told his grandchildren that the bear lived in his backyard so we went there and he took pictures of the bear in the suit.”

“Entertaining things happen when I wear the suit,” Washenko said. “Once I traveled to Penn with the cheerleaders and pep band. We were at the Philadelphia Cornell Club beforehand and I told someone on the pep band to let me know when we were leaving to go to the game, but he forgot me, so I walked across Penn’s campus alone in the bear suit.”

Luckily, a Cornell graduate student came to his aid. Ertel said, “At club fest the tae kwon doe person had a “kick me” sign on his back, so I kicked him lightly and the guy knocked me over.”

Ertel also said that he was almost knocked over by an NCAA basketball player. Washenko sees the bear as another representative of Cornell because it is part of what other schools see at sporting events. When another mascot is present, the bear is more ferocious, while he is a happy and bubbly bear around Cornell.

“The majority of people are super-excited to see the bear, but sometimes small kids are terrified,” Ertel said. “Some do love the bear, though, and for some reason kids really like to touch the bear’s teeth.”

According to Washenko, it is inevitable that friends find out that he bears. “In general, people at events don’t know who the bear is. The bear is his own person (or bear) and we keep it that way.”

“It’s funny because some people think that the bear is the same bear at all times. A kid at a football game once asked if I remembered him from two years ago.” Ertel reminisced. Club members say that being the bear is like having a whole other identity.

“It feels different in the suit. I become another person who’s not afraid to get up and dance on tables,” Segien said. RLD

Original Author: Laura Shepard