For the past few years, I’ve been greatly disturbed by the growing rancor, divisiveness, and hatred on display in America. I’m not so naive as to believe that the parade of abject malevolence is anything new. Like several of you, I’ve long suspected the seeds of bigotry had been lying dormant just below the surface in need of only a fresh heaping of fertilizer and a climate of fear to take root, blossom, and overrun our sociopolitical garden with brambles, weeds, and rodents aplenty.
Fireworks about the Fireworks
I hope everyone had a safe and enjoyable Fourth of July weekend and holiday. Unfortunately, that was not the case in Highland Park, Illinois, and Philadelphia, and at least eight other locations, as there have been at least ten mass shootings in the United States since July 1. Celebrating America with family and friends with favorite summertime foods and fireworks is a national tradition. It’s a tradition that many look forward to.
There’s no ignoring the partisan divisiveness that’s become de rigueur today. Last Friday, the City of Orlando distributed the following invitation to the city’s fireworks show via its emailed newsletter:
A lot of people probably don’t want to celebrate our nation right now, and we can’t blame them. When there’s so much division, hate and unrest, why on earth would you want to have a party celebrating any of it.
But in all seriousness, you know in your heart, Fourth of July fireworks are amazing, especially when you are standing in 90° heat, 100% humidity, next to 100,000 of your closest friends. In that moment, something takes over and we all become united in an inexplicable bond. Yes, America is in strife right now, but you know what … we already bought the fireworks.
Now there are calls for the Mayor to apologize, assertions that the post was inappropriate for city communications, it was sent out by a raging leftist, and more.
Is the wording cheeky? Yes, it is. It pokes fun at gathering outdoors with far more people than expected in subtropical Florida’s heat and humidity—an experience common to Central Floridians or anyone who’s spent time at any of our world-class theme parks during the summer.
But I don’t think that’s what people have an issue with.
Happy Birthday, Donald Duck!
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 in 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 and 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 choreography to their liking and passed the dance portion of the interview. Two wardrobe personnel then 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. 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 liked Donald Duck. He was too hot-tempered, too mercurial, too moody.
On the drive home, I thought about 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 got home, my mother told 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 to an oversized 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, and 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 had 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.
Excerpt from Walking Tall: A Memoir About the Upside of Small and Other Stuff by Clay Rivers.
If you enjoyed this installment, check out the others in the series.
“My Life in Fur (Part 1): The Accidental Audition”
“My Life in Fur (Part 2): ‘Merry Christmas to You, Too!”
“My Life in Fur (Part 3): ‘Show Biz Is’”
“My Life in Fur (Part 4): Becoming Donald”
“My Life in Fur (Part 5): The Show Mustn’t Go On
“My Life in Fur (Part 6): It’s Baseball in the USA”
“My Life in Fur (Part 7): Now It’s Time to Say Good-bye”
Home Town Takeover: A Little Reno, A Little Inclusion, A Lot of Love
HGTV’s new “it” couple and hosts of the smash Home Town, Ben and Erin Napier, are back in a new limited series, Home Town Takeover (HGTV, Sundays, 8:00 p.m. ET/PT). This time around, the Napiers are using their home renovation talents to breathe life into the floundering small town of Wetumpka, Alabama, as seen in the Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney film, Big Fish. And if you’re not careful, you may just pick up a thing or two about inclusion and community along the way.
Home renovation shows are nothing new. HGTV has perfected the art of combining likable hosts, adventures in house hunting and home repair, and the requisite “unforeseen” bump in the road to create the enviable HGTV happy endings we’ve come to expect. But Home Town Takeover takes these familiar pieces and turns them into something bigger and more meaningful than the sum of its parts.
When America Plays the Race Card
We, as a nation, have ignored the sneaking suspicion in the pit of our stomach that something just isn’t quite right in the land of the free and the home of the brave. We’ve been so caught up in trying to satisfy that nagging and empty feeling inside with food, booze, sex, toys, power, and anything else we can commodify that we’ve allowed the billows of smoke wafting throughout our country to go unattended.
Sweethearts, we’re way beyond the do-you-smell-something-burning phase. The whole of the United States of America is engulfed in the flames of systemic racism and codified injustice. Figuratively. And literally.
Evangelical Christians’ Political Choices Aren’t Problematic, Except They Could Get Me Killed
I was raised in a Christian home, attended Sunday school, and was active in my church. An active faith is something I’ve always had (except for those first couple years of college). Since my mid-twenties, I have considered myself an evangelical Christian. Evangelical defined as one who spreads the good news of Christ’s teachings—salvation, redemption, love one another, among others. That was until 2007 when conservative Christians began their power-grab with refashioning the Jesus of the Bible—the itinerant Jewish rabbi who railed against the powerful, the self-important, and the Haves, and taught the importance of caring for the marginalized, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised—into a political savior of their own making.
Symphony for a Friend: A Literary Composition in Four Parts
Within the last two months as many of my closest friends have died, Joel Strack and Ben Lane. The former’s passing came with the gift of a month of hospice care which afforded his friends the opportunity to reminisce about days long gone, when we had more hair, less excess weight, and our futures seemed boundless. It also granted his family time to see firsthand their beloved’s impact on Central Florida. With the latter’s passing, we were not so fortunate.
This is Why We Do
An Open Letter to an Our Human Family Reader
Thank you for your thoughtful and gracious letter regarding the efforts of the Our Human Family writers and editorial staff. I’m sure you didn’t know the email address to which you submitted your letter would lead back to me.
The LGBT Seat at Christ’s Table
This essay is written in response to a thread about the importance of LGBT Christians speaking out and being visible and active congregantsdespite having been wounded by organized religion. There’s a tendency to throw Jesus out with the holy water, but I’d like to offer another option. What follows is a recounting of my firsthand experience dealing with those who would deny my invitation and rightful seat at the table. Peace be with you.
As a forty-eight-inch tall, gay, black man, I encounter plenty of people who think and demonstrate through their actions, “You don’t belong because — ” With that said, my need for a self-concept that is not tethered to a human perspective is integral for my well-being.
The Mayor of the Magic Kingdom
I will always remember my friend with red hair — not because of his red hair, or because he could be the most infuriating person I ever knew at times, or even because he was the first activist I ever knew; but because he is the reason I’m a whole person.
Harry P. Leu Gardens, 2019.
The two groups cleared a path down the center of the ballroom for the guest of honor and his court to make their grand entrance. Members of the Orlando Gay Chorus occupied half the room donning rainbows, kilts, and a requisite drag queen or two. And across the vacant center aisle, equally as festive, present and former pixie-dusted Disney entertainment employees mingled in wait. The line of demarcation was much less Jets versus Sharks in nature and more a function of an eclectic mix of people cut from a wide swath of humanity preparing for the unexpected.