All the World's a Stage

Backstory: My Life in Fur

Recently, the Medium publication C(G) SNAPSHOTS issued a challenge in which participants were invited to submit images for their Snapshot Selfie Challenge. Being the camera-phobe that I am — no, really; until recently your truly used the same avatar across all social media for almost six years (don’t judge) — I opted to submit a snapshot of a few mementos that signified different periods of my life. Oddly enough, one object in my snapshot that garnered a few comments was a vintage Donald Duck bobblehead from the late 1960s or early 1970s, described in the accompanying text as: symbol of my former alter-ego, vehicle of torture, and self-discovery — let’s talk about that some time.

Well … the time has come.

We all have backstories; adventures and foibles few would believe the people we are now would ever be a party to. So in the interest of mixing it up a little and unpacking one such story here. Enjoy!*

Living life to the fullest in college became an expensive undertaking. I needed a little more cash to keep my collegiate lifestyle afloat. Christmas break 1981, I applied for a seasonal job at Walt Disney World, knowing they’d usher me into a high-paying office job related to my Communications major for the two weeks of my Christmas break. After waiting in the employment center lobby for what seemed like an eternity, a man in a business suit and a Disney name tag with “Mark” etched into it, greeted me and led me into a small interview room.

“Your application says that you’re interested in a position in our Marketing department?” he asked.

“I thought Marketing would be a good place to start since I’m a Communications major.”

“Unfortunately, at the moment we don’t have any openings in our Marketing department.” Mark paused for a moment, then a smile crept over his face that meant only one thing: he had a brilliant idea.

“Could you hold on for a moment?” he asked.

“Sure.” I said as I watched him make a call. I knew I was special, gifted even, and apparently my interviewer picked up on it, too. I assumed he was giving me a leg up to the Marketing department!

“Yeah. Hi, Chris. This is Mark over in Casting. I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet,” the interviewer said as he glanced over my application. “Yes, he’s got related experience. Great. Thanks!”

“So, you found something in Marketing?”


“Oh?” I was lost.

“I see that you’ve had some theater experience.”

“Yes?” I had no idea where he was headed.

“I was just on the phone with someone from Entertainment. We have an opening in our Character Department. Would you be interested in going over for an audition as one of our costumed characters?”

Entertainment? Characters? Auditions? What happened to Marketing?

Mark handed me a map, some directions, and sent me on my way.

Minutes later, I was learning a dance routine from someone deep in the underbelly of the Magic Kingdom. I performed the routine to their liking and passed the dance portion of the interview, two wardrobe personnel strapped cumbersome costume pieces to my body. I stood stiff as a board in front of a small committee with a Donald Duck costume hanging on my frame. None of it made sense. I had no idea how I wound up there. I didn’t want to be there. And I definitely didn’t want the job.

“Oh, my gosh! He’s adorable!” Someone cooed.

A bead of sweat rolled down my face and I couldn’t reach it.

“Is that it?” I asked from inside the duck costume, perturbed that my career in Marketing had been hijacked.

“Oh, sure,” the Entertainment representative said.

I got out of the Donald Duck costume — from the top of that sailor hat to the soles of the webbed feet — put on my clothes, and got back to my car as fast as possible. The whole experience was like a bad Fellini movie. Me? In a duck costume? The idea was preposterous. I was close to finishing my degree. A duck? I never like Donald Duck. He was too hot tempered, too mercurial, too moody.

On the drive home, I gave thought to walking around in a character costume sweating out all of my bodily fluids instead of sitting behind a desk in the comfort of an air-conditioned office. The idea struck me as criminal. Why would I want to do that to myself?

By the time I reached home, my mother informed me that someone from Disney’s Character Department had called for me thirty minutes before I arrived.

December 26, 1981 — the day I became a duck.

I strolled into the Walt Disney World character office, more affectionately known as the Zoo, with my game face securely in place and confidently picked up my company issued T-shirt, shorts — known as blues — and yellow-orange tights and headed for my locker. Everyone was full of energy and very helpful. The guys in the dressing room introduced themselves and welcomed me. I forced myself to match their enthusiasm about being there. It struck me as odd that they would refer to themselves as “characters.”

The Zoo was crazy with activity. Other characters had already changed from their street clothes into their blues and were milling about. A few were heading off to have breakfast. Some shuffled off for parts unknown with their costumes in heavy black bags slung over their shoulders. Others gathered their costumes and headed off to Walt only knew where.

A guy named TJ led me over to an over-sized blue service counter, known as the Character Wardrobe window, to pick up my costume for the day. He was my “lead,” that’s Disney-speak for a middle management person who made sure characters didn’t do anything they could get fired for.

“Morning, Boots,” TJ said to the woman behind the counter.

“What can I do you for?” she asked. Boots was plump, very Southern, and as pleasant as sweet iced tea.

“This is Clay and he needs — ”

“ — a Donald,” they said as if it was the punch line to an inside joke.

“Be right back,” Boots continued as she trotted back into the hanging racks of dozens of character costumes. “What’s your shoe size?”

“Boys 4–1/2!” I hollered.

Moments later, Boots returned and handed me a Donald Duck costume on a massive silver hanger, along with a disembodied head. TJ helped me carry all my costume pieces down a long corridor that seemed to lead to the center of the Earth. We emerged in what was referred to as a backstage area behind the buildings of Main Street, USA.

We arrived at the dressing area and a petite woman with dark brown hair greeted us. She obviously had worked as a character for a while. She was personable, very chatty, eager to start the day; dressed in a very familiar red and white polka dot dress and enormous cartoony yellow pumps from the waist down, and in a black long sleeve leotard and a do-rag wrapped around her head from the waist up. She put on the remainder of her costume in seconds. I hated her for knowing what she was doing. The only thing she needed help with was zipping up the back of her Minnie Mouse dress.

I wished I paid more attention to what the Wardrobe specialist told me during my fitting when I auditioned. I wanted to slip into the costume with ease and come off as little like a boob as possible. It took me about ten minutes to get all those freaking pieces on. And by the time I got them all on, it was time to head out into the Park.

My interpretation of Donald on the way to the nondescript door that led into the Park had all the grace and style of Frankenstein’s monster. A couple of times, I almost tripped and smashed the yellow-orange duck bill that jutted out at least a good twelve inches from my face, thanks to the rubber feet I wore. I couldn’t see. And most importantly, I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to breathe up all the air inside the oversized fishbowl of a head. I wasn’t claustrophobic, but wearing that costume was reason enough to become stricken with the fear.

TJ encouraged me as we approached that nondescript door.

Once I crossed the threshold, I stepped into a land more wonderful than Oz as imagined by Walt Disney. TJ led me to a scenic little spot in front of a garden of poinsettias. From what I could see I was next to City Hall in Town Square.

He whispered, “I’ll be right over here.”

“Okay,” I said in a very audible voice.

“Shh!” He corrected. At Walt Disney World, no character speaks.

“Sorry,” I said.

And then he disappeared from view.

I faintly heard the Christmas soundtrack playing in the background.

“Fa-la-la-la-la — la-la — la — la!” I hummed to myself and tugged my blue spandex sailor shirt down. I looked out of one eye and saw a river, teeming with guests (that’s Disney-speak for tourists), streaming before me. The reason for that deluge of guests: I stood only a few yards from the main entrance to the Magic Kingdom. There was a key bit of information no one warned me about: the day after Christmas is to the Magic Kingdom what New Year’s Eve was to Times Square. And at that moment, I was the mayor of New York City.

In a matter of seconds, tourists swarmed me. Autograph books were shoved into my face, some open, most closed. Kids were hugging and hanging all off me. Moms shoved their kids into my arms. Dads slapped me high five. People were excited to the point that the possibility of someone wetting their pants in my presence seemed highly probable. It was mayhem.

I panicked. I couldn’t understand why everyone was coming up to me. It was just me, Clay, doing a little seasonal job for some extra college cash, but the guests didn’t know that. They saw their favorite animated character in spandex, fun fur, and webbed feet. Everyone seemed to have forgotten that there was actual flesh and blood in the Donald Duck costume.

Someone managed to get one of those autograph books into my right hand. And miracle of miracles — it was open! They slipped a pen on to my left palm. For a second, I had no idea what I was supposed to do with the items in my hands.

Oh, okay! I’m supposed to sign this thing! I can do that!

But I wasn’t left-handed. So I had to try and put the autograph book in my left hand and the pen in my right. At the same time, people were trying to have a personal moment with their favorite character. Hurriedly, I tried to see the autograph book I wanted to sign, but before I could even get a glimpse of the page it was ripped from my hand.

“Don’t sign on that one, Donald. Mickey signed there.”

Fuck Mickey, my mind screamed. Do you want me to sign this thing or not?!

Someone gently guided the autograph book back into my left hand.

I felt bad about thinking thoughts so contrary to what Disney was all about.

I rested the autograph book on Donald’s bill and scrawled “Donald Duck” as best I could. The part of the autograph I saw looked more like chicken scratch than a signature. I was frustrated with myself. I had perfect penmanship and I could draw, but I couldn’t write “Donald Duck.”

“Thank you, Donald!” A fleeting voice shrieked and the autograph book was ripped from my hands. Someone actually appreciated all that effort.

“You’re welcome!” I called, then winced, remembering the no-talking rule. I promised myself the next time I got my hands on an autograph book, I’d do my best to give a proper autograph. Little did I know that I would have countless opportunities to perfect my Donald Duck signature. Before me guests waved dozens of autograph books at me.

TJ showed up thirty minutes later and led me away as I clutched his hand as if my very life depended on it. I felt like it had been a good hour since I had been thrown to the wolves. He calmly waded through the flood of clamoring tourists and announced to everyone that Donald had to go help Huey, Dewey, and Louie with their new Christmas bikes because they ran them into the Jungle Cruise. The tourists ate it up. At the same nondescript door, I turned and shooed everyone away. The guests all laughed at Donald’s irritability. Little did they know how close to the surface my irritability was running at that moment.

Once I made it to the other side of the door I felt the adrenalin rush subside. I began the trudge back to the changing area. From inside my Donald Duck head I saw that many other character performers in various states of dress had come to do tag-team meet-and-greets. A Goofy, a Tigger, a Winnie the Pooh, Three Pigs, a Big Bad Wolf, and some other characters I was in no mood to identify stopped to stare at me, the new guy. I grabbed my Duck head by the bill and flipped it off my own head and gasped for air. I’m sure the look on my face was one of absolute disgust.

I still had seven more meet-and-greets that day.

And five more days to go.

Embrace all that you are and strive to become all God has created you to be.