Humphrey B Bear and I
The day I left acting school, I was 21 and ready for a serious career in film and Television. To be fair, everyone who goes to acting school thinks they’re the next Anthony Hopkins or Meryl Streep.
Looking back, I was probably much less talented than I thought I was. At the time, it didn’t stop me trying to get the best agent, go to as many castings, auditions and go-see’s as possible.
I was going to be one of the 1% who made it. I was going to prove myself and be the best actress around …
YAAWWWWWWNNNNNN …. Yup, heard it all before right ?!?!
Nothing original here. Just one of the many thousands of aspiring actors with too much time (waiting for the phone to ring) and an ego larger than a blue whales penis (seriously, check them out !! They range between 8 to 10 foot long)
Anyway, on another regular day where I was enjoying my pot noodles (gag), waiting for my phone to ring and spending the day in complete panic about not being able to pay rent, a friend mentioned I should look at doing kids shows.
‘HOW DARE HE??’
‘SON OF A BITCH’
‘WHO DOES HE THINK HE IS??’
‘I DIDN’T PAY FOR YEARS OF ACTING SCHOOL TUITION’ (my parents paid it)
‘TO BE TOLD I SHOULD DO CRAPPY OLD KIDS SHOWS’
‘WAY BENEATH ME’ (even though I went to a pretty crappy acting school to begin with)
The thought of chasing around furry critters, singing crappy kids songs did NOT sound appealing.But the thought of being homeless appealed even less.
And so it began. A 20 year career doing something I was horrified about to one of the best decisions of my life.
I called my agent. She called a few people. BAM ! My first audition.
As is usual with kid’s performers, I was asked to prepare a song, a monologue and there would be a dance routine to learn and perform if I got through.
The first thing I remember is walking into that room and being astounded at all the professional dancers warming up and stretching, the singers warming up their vocal chords, and me having absolutely no idea what I was doing. It felt like something out of Fame, the movie.
My first experience of learning a full choreography in 5 minutes didn’t really go as planned. Although I was a natural dancer, I hadn’t had much professional training at this point. I forgot every single move and felt like an absolute dickhead. I still struggle to learn choreographies as fast as anyone else.
Singing was pretty much the same. Actually, it was worse … MUCH worse!
But somehow, I got through. I believe it was more my bubbly personality and confidence than anything else. Actors are terribly cocky.
I had no idea what type of work I’d get, if any. But I was secretly excited that I was embarking on a new adventure. Maybe this kids show business wouldn’t be as bad as I thought and maybe, just maybe I would make enough money to make my own roast dinners and pay my own rent.
I will point out here that I’m now 44 and still struggle to pay my rent. I do live in Sydney after all 😉
Pretty soon I wasn’t just waiting for my phone to ring because it was actually ringing. This was before we all had mobiles so in those days, it was really important to have an answering machine or never leave the house in case your agent calls.
My first call would be for Suit character work. I was going to be performing in an Alvin and The Chipmunks show throughout major shopping centres in Sydney.
Many years ago, it was very common to have elaborate setups in shopping centres for kids shows. Over the years it has become far too expensive and sadly, this type of work is now becoming extinct.
My character was Alvin. This was a brave decision for the entertainment company considering it was my first gig. I was surround by dancers who had been training since the age of 5 but I was determined to give this my best shot.
I absolutely loved it! The atmosphere was vibrant and full of quirky performers who I adored. Rehearsals were learning the routines without the actual suits on.
As I’d only ever worn one before (a purple fish which had my face showing and I was required to run around, handing out flyers for a Fish & Chip shop), I was secretly pleased I’d get to learn the choreography first and tackle a very heavy suit once I’d mastered the dancing.
Our main routine was a Michael Jackson number which was full on kicks and moon walks. Somehow I managed to get it all down pat before my first paid gig.
Next up was trying on the costume. Now if you’ve never worn a suit, here’s a description…
IT’S FUCKING HOT, SWEATY, FUR GETS ON YOUR MOUTH AND DOWN THE BACK OF YOUR THROAT, YOU WANT TO DIE OF SUFFOCATION, YOU CAN’T BREATHE, YOU WONDER WHAT IN THE HELL POSSESSED YOU TO GET IN THIS RIDICULOUS FURRY ANIMAL IN THE FIRST PLACE.
And that, my friends, pretty much sums it up.
The great part was the money. At that time, it was a few hundred $$ for three half an hour shows. I was going to be rich. Well, I was going to have dinner anyway.
Something that you may not realise is that kid’s entertainment is very serious business. It’s certainly not all silliness and fun. Entertainment companies need to make money as they have huge costs with licensing, costumes, paying performers and a tonne of other stuff.
For a performer, work is competitive, sporadic, and incredibly physically taxing work. You DEFINITELY can’t be claustrophobic, lazy, conservative or boring. If you’ve ever seen those suit characters that stand and wave at you on the street, this is NOT what suit performing is all about. You have to be able to bring a character to life.The face you’re wearing doesn’t move so you need to be able to convey emotions through your body movement. This is not as easy as it looks and as I was about to find out, it took me years to master it. You also have to be very careful not to scare kids (which happens anyway) as well as be very strong to haul these suits around on your back.
Once you start dancing in them, you will soon discover what it’s like to swallow your own sweat and almost faint from sheer exhaustion.
So back to my first gig as Alvin. My first appearance in a suit character did not go as planned.
During my first show I had NO idea where I was on the stage (It’s very difficult to get your bearings when you first start) and I was actually facing the BACK of the stage.
I think at the time, the audience just thought Alvin may have been a bit ditzy so went along with it. But it did make it very difficult for the other performers on stage who kept trying to shove me in the right direction …. Facing the audience!!! On one of these particularly hard shoves, I almost fell off the front of the stage as I broke into a Moon walk.
Needless to say, it was a complete disaster and although it was fun, I thought I’d never be booked again.
The poor company had no choice but to keep me on as it was too short notice to book another performer.
This particular show ran for two weeks with three shows per day. As the days went on, I became more and more comfortable and confident. I was never going to be as great as the professional dancers in the show but apart from almost moon walking off the stage, everything else went well.
My very last performance was when I was 41. I suffered a really bad panic attack after a few minutes in the suit and couldn’t get back in. Nature’s way of saying ‘time to move on Amber’
During the 20 years of performing, I travelled all over Australia and internationally, I have met the most incredible people and had some of the most amazing experiences.
Although today, these types of shows have sadly vanished, I think it’s a great way to earn a living as well as perfect some of your performing skills.
This foray into Kids shows also gave me the opportunity to become a Presenter which was always my passion. I still pinch myself that I was getting paid to travel and perform to kids every day.
Next up ….
BARNEY THE DINOSAUR
This was my biggest show and Barney was recognised all over the world. I was so excited and honoured to be chosen as the Presenter (Nerida no friends was my character’s name) and to go on a national tour of Australia.
We were booked into some huge theatres as well as some tiny venues in the middle of nowhere in WA.
One of the most memorable was a mining town in the outback that was populated by miners and a street full of pretty little houses with pink flowers hung over the white picket fences. These were the prostitutes ‘houses’. It was an interesting place to be performing Barney shows that’s for sure.
It was the first time in my life I actually felt like a rock star! The kids went NUTS for Barney.
Another interesting part of this tour was that Barney was played by an incredibly talented drag queen! There were only three people in the world allowed to get into the Barney costume and perform at the time.
As Barney was so well known, anyone who was tall enough and talented enough to play him, had to go through a rigorous audition process with the senior executives from America before even being allowed to try on the suit.
Huey was the perfect Barney. He bought that dinosaur to life and I was mesmerised. This was the first time I’d seen a suit character become something real and alive.
Huey also liked to keep me on my toes when performing and I remember on our last show of the season, he walked over to Nerida (me) on the stage a whispered ‘I just farted’ and blew the fart out of Barney’s mouth !!!!!!!!!!
We were clearly very mature in those days. It didn’t take long to get the full effect and I struggled to get through the rest of the show without laughing.
Barney and Friends during an Australian Tour
You never quite know what was going to happen during a kid’s show and some of the behind the scenes shenanigans were very R rated and not kid friendly at all.
Although we did get up to mischief, we all took our career very seriously and worked hard to ensure kids were taken to another world even if it was only for an hour of their lives.
Ironically, I was also one of the only people in my circle of performing friends during that time that was getting regular, paid work. It was brilliant.
I was pleasantly surprised a few years later to discover that I didn’t actually suck at suit performing. I spent many months of hard work doing meet and greets in suits so I could improve.
*A meet and greet is where you walk around hugging the kids and having opportunities to interact and play as well as for the kids to get photos. Shows were choreographed performances.
I must have done something right because my next job was one of the best I’ve ever had.
HUMPHREY B BEAR
Humphrey B Bear is one of Australia’s most well known and loved kid’s characters. He has had his own TV show since 1965. Humphrey is an Aussie icon. He’s jolly, friendly and doesn’t wear any pants!
I was going to be doing live shows across Australia (Not the TV series)
I was pretty terrified to be honest and had to do hours and hours of research into how Humphrey actually moved. Everything down to his hands / feet / walk and head movements. I had to move EXACTLY like the Humphrey the kids saw on television each day (there were quite a few performers who played him)
I was not quite tall enough to make him look real, so each time I got into the suit, I had to add padding to the shoulders to give me some height.
We found this out as during my first Meet & Greet, a kid yelled out ‘that’s not Humphrey’ They had noticed how Humphrey looked like he’d been on a diet and shrunk. Hmmmm I also learnt over the years that kids can, and WILL be brutally honest.
I ended up doing Humphrey live shows for a few years. Including Presenting the shows as well.
The thing I absolutely loved about playing Humphrey was that everyone loved and respected him. I know it sounds ridiculous as he’s a bear … a SUIT … A Character. But people treated him as if he was real (including adults)
Humphrey, like most characters didn’t talk, so it was very important when playing him that you conveyed love.
Because everyone loved and respected him, you NEVER got hit, punched, kicked, pinched, pushed, shoved, poked, slapped. And this was the only character I’ve ever played where this didn’t happen.
This kept Humphrey a Jolly old fellow 😉
THE BRUTAL SIDE OF SUIT PERFORMING (Yes, there is one)
TG MAN (Toyota Genuine)
TG Man was a full metal suit that was actually made out of the metal used in the manufacture of Toyota cars. It weighed about 70 kilograms which was more than me at the time. It was, by far, the most difficult suit I’d ever worn.
It took about 20 minutes just to get inside. Each piece of the suit was attached separately by massive hooks and it was incredibly difficult even for the dressers to help you in and out. It was a complicated thing to put on and it was definitely one you had to be comfortable wearing. If you panicked in this costume, there was no quick escape. I had to mentally prepare myself for this one.
TG Man started as a promotional campaign for Toyota Genuine Parts and services. I used to go to huge events like fishing, camping and car shows and do appearances where people could get their pictures taken with him.
I’d play all sorts of tricks like standing as a statue and suddenly leaping out at people standing in front of me or walking past. I soon realised I had to stop this cheekiness when I almost gave an old lady a heart attack!
I once went to a golf show as TG Man and a very drunk golfer decided to hit me over the head with a golf club. Yup, you heard that right. These sort of thing’s happened regulary.
As a suit performer, you cannot take off any part of the costume at ANY time.
I once heard a story about a performer who was knocked out by a man. She was in a male character and this guy thought ‘he’ was flirting with his girlfriend. The poor girl copped a punch to the head, was knocked out cold and had to be taken away on a stretcher, with the head STILL ON!
I’m happy to say, this one wasn’t me but it’s a true story.
No matter the circumstances, you must never take off your head in front of kids.
After I was hit on the head, I heard them all yelling ‘Shit, that must have hurt’ Generally metal on metal then pounding your head generally hurts like hell, you dickhead.
It’s never ceased to amaze me the amount of ADULTS who hit and punch suit performers or encourage their children to do so.
The best thing about this job was doing photo shoots for advertising agencies. We would often have 12 hour days and I was making $200 per hour.
By law, you are only allowed to stay in a suit for half an hour, with half an hour’s rest in between, so this was a great money earner and it would mean I’d often only be in the suit for a total of 3 hours out of a 12 hour day. This sounds easy but try holding a 70 kilogram suit perfectly still for even 10 minutes and you’ll understand.
The gig eventually finished when they changed their Marketing strategy and decided to use the late Steve Irwin to promote Toyota Genuine instead (RIP Steve)
In 1996 a new craze was about to start.
Pokemon began in Japan started as a Nintendo Game Boy system and soon became a world hit with television shows, trading card games, movies, comic books and toys.
To say that it became one of biggest kids crazes in the world, is an understatement.
I didn’t really understand the creepy looking characters but pretty soon I’d have too as I was booked to play a character called Meowth.Meowth !
The Costumes for the live shows were bought over from Japan. They were the sort of suits that were not particulary user friendly but looked like something out of a fairy tale. They were incredible to look at and to touch and had clearly been made by some of the best companies in the world.
The fur was plush and everything down to the teeth looked very real. I spent hours patting the costume. Weird, I know.
Our first appearance was for TV. We were doing a local current affair’s show to talk about this new craze taking over the world. As part of the filming, we went out on the Mission Impossible II boat and sped around Sydney Harbour like superstars. Being around water in a suit can be quite unnerving. If you fall into water with a costume on, you can pretty much start saying your goodbyes. The crew held onto me as tightly as they could and I lapped up the attention (even though you couldn’t see my face) I still felt like a star.
We returned to theatre in the city where we were going to perform our first show. The audience was made up of around 2000 eager media, kids and parents.
As I started to get ready, I noticed that the suits just weren’t made to dance, jump, skip and generally perform shows in. I was sure this was a bad omen. And it was.
During the first show, I was doing a crazy dance routine and I began to feel my head wobble. I tried to slow down and not move as much but before you know it … My head had fallen off and is rolling onto the stage.
My first response was to mouth the words ‘oh shit’ which I didn’t even realise I was mouthing ! It took a split second to realise I was standing there completely naked. Well, it felt like it anyway.
I could see all the adults in fits of laughter but at the same time trying to soothe their kids, who by now were standing in shock with their mouths open like someone had just disembowelled a giraffe in front of them.
The media were taking photos (they weren’t allowed to show any)
Those were the weirdest few seconds of my entire career.
Thankfully the presenter of the show was very witty and quick. She turned to me and said ‘Meowth, when we get home, heads are gonna roll’ with that, she then kicked my head to the back of the stage, I ran off behind the head and hung it in shame.
M&M’s – SOMEONE DOESN’T LIKE CHOCOLATE
Picture this … A beautiful sunny day at the world famous Bondi Beach. It’s summer, which usually means about 20,000 or more people enjoying the soft sand, surf and sun.
Bondi is buzzing and we are getting ready to go out onto the boardwalk dressed as oversized M&M Characters (red and green in case you’re wondering) These costumes are quite different in that they are not made out of fur, but more parachute material which is blown up by an air pump behind you and just sits on your lower back.
It’s quite funny to get into these suits and get blown up with air. The air helps to keep you cool which is great on a boiling hot day.
As we are walking through the crowded streets we notice a group of young guys coming towards us. Suit characters always have chaperones to guide them around and ensure their safety so you don’t have to worry too much. Seeing young men is nothing unusual but generally these are the types that will try to be ‘playful’ with suits so you have to be on guard at all times.
Sadly, our chaperones for the day were quite young and inexperienced and not even capable of telling a two year old to stop poking the M&M let alone save us from a mob.
My gut instinct was telling me we needed to walk in the other direction. I tried to let the chaperone know but as you can’t speak, it’s difficult to convey. Just as I was tugging on her arm frantically, I see six of the young guys running at full pace straight for us. Their faces looked determined and they were running like they were about to do a rugby tackle.
There was absolutely nothing we could do. They bowled us over at full pelt and the next thing you know we are lying on our backs with our legs kicking in the air.
This must have looked hilarious to any bystanders and I’m sure they probably still tell this story to their kids today. M&M’s get beaten up at Bondi and looked like turtles on their backs with their legs flapping in the wind.
What wasn’t so funny was being inside the costume at the time. As we were pushed onto the concrete, the air pumps were lodged into our backs and our heads hit the concrete with a shudder.
The guys ran off into the surf, laughing their heads off and we were left with slight concussion and bruised backs. Clearly these guys just thought it was a bit of fun for the day and let’s face it, M&M’s are pretty easy targets! But it was incredibly stupid and could have caused someone a serious head injury.
We decided to call the police to make a complaint. It was more to scare them into never doing something like that again.
Our Chaperones had watched the guys run off and knew what they looked like. When the Police turned up we had to tell them the entire story. I’m sure they were trying not to laugh and look at us like we were absolutely nuts. Until they saw the bruises on our backs.
Things got pretty serious, pretty fast and within a few minutes there were Police down by the edge of the water with a megaphone shouting ‘To those boys who attacked the M&M’s, get out of the water now’ As we stood and watched the drama unfold, we could see hundreds of people on the beach looking around very confused or laughing.
The Police did not let up and kept making the announcement over and over again. Finally, the guys came out of the water and were ordered up to the Life Savers hut to fill out a report.
There we were … The Police, M&M’s and the Surf Lifesavers all in one spot.
They were not officially charged and they did apologise to the M&M’s and I’m pretty sure the embarrassment was enough to stop them from ever doing it again.
Wearing suits can also be fantastic payback.
I once lived with a flatmate who persisted in coming home late at night, off his chops on alcohol or god knows what else, and would proceed in waking everyone up by vomiting loudly or turning up his awful music at 4am.
This guy was pretty much always off his face. One night he came home and had been in the emergency ward because someone dared him to try and fly off the bar. He did. He didn’t again. He broke his arm in 4 different places.
It’s all fun and games until someone brings home Stuart Little.
On this particular weekend, I had to bring home the costume I was working in. It just happened to be the cute little mouse, Stuart Little. Only Stuart wasn’t so little in the form of a character.
As it happens, we had all been woken up, yet again by this guy and we were not having any of it. At around 7am I pulled on the suit and started walking to his door. I slowly opened it so I didn’t wake him. I walked over to his bed and stood over the top of him. I began poking at his legs and his back but he didn’t stir. Then I decided to give his feet a little tickle.
He looked up and Stuart was directly in front of his face. He screamed like a little girl and I’ve never seen anyone jump up so fast. As he jumped out of bed, he ran to the corner in a quivering mess, still screaming.
I was in the suit almost vomiting from laughing so much.
It was the best revenge and still to this day I can’t stop laughing about it. I wonder if he’s afraid of mice these days ?!?!?!
Over the years, I’ve been beaten up pretty badly but i have also been able to work in Hospitals with very sick children who just needed to smile for a few minutes.
Those smiles from kids were something I will never forget. Although I’ve never had children myself, I can only imagine the immense joy it brings to see any child laughing, smiling and full of happiness.
I’m not sure the exact count but it must have been over 60 characters that I was lucky enough to perform in. Everything from Land Before Time, Mr’s Claus, Frosty the Snowman, Rugrats, The Magic Pudding and many more.
TIPS OF THE TRADE – HOW TO SUCCEED AS A SUIT PERFORMER
1 – Performance Skills. You will need to have some sort of background in performing such as acting or dancing (preferably both) Do as much training as you can from an early age. You’ll be lucky to continue past 30 as a suit performer.
2 – You must NOT be claustrophobic. If you are prone to anxiety or stress / heat exhaustion or laziness, this job is not for you.
3 – Suit performers are often quite short between 5foot and 5’6. There are a few suits which require very tall performers but as a general rule, the shorter ones are more common.
4 – Must be Physically fit. You cannot dance / perform in these costumes without a really good level of fitness
5 – Be prepared to work Weekends and Holidays. Kids shows are mostly put on through holiday seasons such as Christmas / Easter / Weekends. If you are looking for Monday to Friday work, this is not it.
6 – Must take the job seriously. Although it isn’t your standard job and is considered ‘fun’, you are still a professional performer and you must give 100% to every single show.
7 – Reliable. When you accept a gig, you need to do it. You cannot keep swapping and changing if you get better offers. Once you accept, the job is yours and unless you are VERY sick, you need to turn up.
8 – Have an ABN – In Australia you will need an ABN to get paid as a contractor.
9 – Must love kids. This one goes without saying. We all have days where the kids are naughty and obnoxious but you’ll need patience with this job.
10 – Work for a few different Entertainment Companies. Unless you are getting booked out for gigs every week, it is acceptable to do work through a few different companies.
11 – Must be likeable, easy to get along with and above all else, PROFESSIONAL.
GOOD LUCK EVERYONE 🙂