DAVID RAYMOND’S PILGRIMAGE to the happiest pantheon in sports always begins rather drearily.
After a flight from Philadelphia to Chicago’s Midway Airport, he takes a 40-minute drive in a rental car southeast, down the construction-plagued Skyway toll road, across a bridge that spans one of the nation’s most polluted waterways (the Calumet River), through the sulfurous fetor of the industrial Illinois-Indiana borderland. The final stretch, a woebegone landscape of liquor stores, discount tobacco shacks and forsaken gravel lots, leads him, at long last, to Whiting, Indiana, a tiny village (pop. 4,997) along the shore of Lake Michigan.
On the horizon looms the BP oil refinery, the largest operation of its kind in the world. Its skyline of towers spews dense clouds of steam and ominous columns of flame into the troposphere. A few hundred yards beyond the barbed-wire fence at the refinery’s edge, an elegant glass-and-steel structure rises from a patch of ground that was once a lumber yard. The building seems to glow amid the otherwise gray terrain, beckoning guests to Raymond’s grand folly: the $18 million, 25,000-square-foot Mascot Hall of Fame.
Standing three floors high, it is the world’s only shrine to the immortals of the big-furry-costume realm. Jutting from its facade: the giant decorative head of the Mascot Hall’s own hypebeast, Reggy the Purple Party Dude, his french fry hair flapping in the wind off the lake, which lies just past a stretch of freight train tracks in the building’s backyard. A multicolored ornamental booger dangles from Reggy’s nose. (During construction in 2018, Raymond says, storm winds blew the booger down the street, where it was eventually corralled by police.)
Reggy’s motorized googly eyes seem to peer out at Whiting’s rows of modest homes; at the quaint corridor of shops, cafes and restaurants along 119th Street; at Oil City Stadium, where the Northwest Indiana Oilmen play Midwest Collegiate baseball. It is a town Standard Oil put on the map 132 years ago, a town that for decades has been best known for its annual Pierogi Fest. And now Raymond is refashioning this place, quite improbably, into the mecca of mascotry.
Over the past several years, Raymond has lost count of the number of times he has made the journey to Whiting. He knows it’s more than two dozen. At the groundbreaking ceremony in the fall of 2016, he stood shoulder to shoulder with nine mascots as they plunged shovels into the hard Indiana dirt. But today, the first Saturday in April, as the Mascot Hall reopens for the first time since COVID-19 restrictions began last spring, Raymond is stuck at home in the Philly suburb of West Grove, Pennsylvania, awaiting a second dose of the vaccine.
His phone buzzes with an update from an employee on site. The first post-pandemic guests have arrived: a father and son from the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Both are decked out in Bulls gear. Face masks hide their smiles as they’re greeted by the pear-shaped pile of magenta fur that is Reggy, a preposterously large face mask stretched over the mascot’s bulbous nose.
They’ve come to experience Raymond’s magnum opus, a hall of fame closer in spirit to Disneyland than Cooperstown. Nearly every interior surface is vividly colored, wildly patterned or covered in fur. Ambient crowd noise, ballpark organ themes and jock jams blare from the sound system. There are kid-friendly interactive exhibits, and enough costumes and props to delight anyone who has ever marveled at an anthropomorphic animal acrobatically dunking a basketball.
Above it all, the pièce de résistance: the enormous inflated vinyl heads of the Mascot Hall inductees — Benny the Bull, Mr. Met, Wisconsin’s Bucky the Badger and 21 others — suspended in the hall’s atrium like decapitated Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. Whenever he’s in the building, Raymond gazes up and smiles at them like a proud papa.
When I first met Raymond, at a preview party for the hall in December 2018, he was wearing a name tag that identified him as “Emperor of Fun.” A tie made of green fur dangled below his neck. It was not some mindlessly eccentric flourish, but nodded to the very foundation upon which the Mascot Hall of Fame is built: Raymond’s distinguished tenure as the first performer to inhabit the Philadelphia Phillies’ iconic mischief-making muppet, the Phillie Phanatic. His bravura portrayal put the character on the Mount Rushmore of mascotry. As a character-branding expert, Raymond helped the Philadelphia Flyers create the team’s first mascot in more than 40 years: Gritty, the wild-eyed orange menace that became a viral sensation (and an unlikely icon of the political left) shortly after skating onto the ice in the fall of 2018. To be sure, Raymond is proud of these accomplishments. But in his mind the Mascot Hall of Fame is bigger than all of it. While it might seem silly, even quixotic, his funhouse of fur and frivolity is a deeply personal endeavor — the legacy project of David Raymond, the uncostumed human.
The past year has thrown Raymond and his Mascot Hall colleagues some curveballs. Eleven months after the hall’s grand opening in April 2019, the coronavirus lockdown halted hard-won growth in attendance, memberships, field trips and private events such as birthday parties. The biggest public event on the institution’s calendar, the June induction of a new class of mascots, was relegated to a Facebook Live video. Then, in August, the man who had first invited Raymond to Whiting, longtime mayor Joseph Stahura, left office in disgrace after he pleaded guilty to felony charges of wire fraud and filing a false tax return. (As part of a plea deal that kept him out of prison, Stahura admitted to dipping into his campaign fund for personal uses that included gambling at local casinos.)
After a year like that, one might think Raymond would be a bit down in the mouth. Instead, he’s practically effervescent. It’s because of something he learned while performing as the Phanatic: “Mascots are at their best,” he says, “when your team is losing.” And damn if it doesn’t seem like all we’ve been doing lately is losing. Losing life’s simple pleasures. Losing our sense of connection. Losing jobs and loved ones. Now, as we begin to rally back from the pandemic, Raymond feels the Mascot Hall of Fame has found, in this precarious moment, a greater sense of purpose. “When we are down, when we’re at our lowest point and getting close to hopelessness,” he says, “mascots give us a reason to smile, to laugh, to believe.” At the same time, skeptical Whiting residents finally have a compelling answer to the question they’ve been asking of Raymond for years: Why would a man make it his life’s mission to build a museum dedicated to glorified cheerleaders in Sasquatch suits?
THOUGH HE’S NOW in his mid-60s, Raymond bounds around with the energy of a teenager riding a sugar high. His loose limbs and happy-clown mien are suggestive of a man enrobed in fur. As it turns out, it’s not possible to devote a decade and a half to gesticulating wildly in a fuzzy green suit without it bleeding into one’s affect. These days, Raymond favors business-casual attire: quarter-zip sweaters, crisp dress shirts. He slicks back his neatly barbered salt-and-pepper hair. A Phillies 1980 World Series championship ring gleams ostentatiously from a finger. (Yes, mascots get rings, too.) Half-rim glasses frame blue eyes that often widen cartoonishly, especially when he is discussing how his wild and woolly life in sports led him to the Mascot Hall and, ultimately, to Whiting, Indiana, of all places.
Raised in the college town of Newark, Delaware, Raymond grew up idolizing his father, the late, legendary University of Delaware football coach Harold R. “Tubby” Raymond, a College Football Hall of Famer who led the Fightin’ Blue Hens to 300 victories and three national championships in Division II and the NCAA College Division. In the mid-to-late 1970s, Raymond attended U.D. and became a punter for his dad. (So dominant were the Blue Hens of this era, Raymond likes to note, that they rarely punted. In truth, he kicked about 50 per season, averaging 35 yards per punt — which didn’t exactly make him prime NFL material.) He dreamed of following his father into the college coaching ranks, but Tubby thought it unwise for his son to toil in his long shadow. So in 1976, Tubby helped Dave land a summer internship with the Phillies. The gig was far from glamorous. He spent most days stuffing envelopes in the mailroom. But he returned for the summer of ’77 at the team’s invitation.
Out of the blue, before the start of the ’78 season, Raymond got a call from the Phillies. He thought he was going to be fired. Instead he was presented with a peculiar opportunity: Would he take a job as the team’s new mascot? “They tapped me because they knew I couldn’t say no,” Raymond says. “‘Hey, stay for the games — we’ll pay ya.’ ‘OK.’ And that was it.”
He had no in-costume experience. What he did have was a preternatural facility for nonverbal communication, something he had honed since childhood. When Raymond was 3 years old, his mother, Susan, was rendered deaf due to Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear. In order to get his point across to his mom, young Dave exaggerated his gestures and expressions. “It was like a dance,” he says, “a communication dance for me to get my mom’s attention.” To this day, he credits her as his greatest mascoting influence, above even his slapstick heroes Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Three Stooges and Daffy Duck.
Soon after the Phillies offered Raymond the mascot gig, the reality of what he had agreed to do began to sink in. “They charged me to dress up like a 300-pound green, furry muppet and entertain the same Philadelphia fans who booed Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny!” he says. “What was I thinking?”
Wracked with anxiety, he paid a visit to the office of Bill Giles, the team executive overseeing the nascent mascot operation. “I said, ‘Mr. Giles, what do you want me to do?’ A big smile came over his face and he said, ‘David, I want you to go have fun.’ I went tearing out of his office, and he yelled after me, ‘G-rated fun, David! G-rated fun!‘”
For 16 years, from 1978 until 1993, Raymond served as “friend to the Phanatic.” His job description: hex pitchers, taunt managers, pop wheelies on an ATV, devour foul balls in his prominent proboscis and dance like the fictional, lunatic Galapagos Island bird he was portraying.
The job paid Raymond a comfortable salary with all the benefits afforded the players. (After turning 65 in February, he started collecting his MLB pension.) But as he approached 40, and the work became too physically demanding, he made a career pivot: hosting boot camps for mascot performers and launching a character-branding firm. And then, one day, a curious concept burrowed into Raymond’s brain. For the first time, he saw with his mind’s eye an institution committed to properly honoring the furry figures he calls “the true unsung heroes of sports.” It was, he concluded, an idea whose time had come.
IT TOOK A random act of violence to put the idea of the Mascot Hall of Fame into Raymond’s head.
Among mascot professionals, coping with occupational hazards — be they drunken fans or stunt-related accidents — is a crucial tie that binds. A case inside the hall holds one of the institution’s most hallowed artifacts: a pair of in-line skates Mariner Moose of the Seattle Mariners was wearing in 1995, when he broke his ankle in an infamous collision with the outfield wall.
“The danger as a mascot is, if you’re terribly injured, everyone thinks you’re just faking it,” says Joby Giacalone, a member of the Mascot Hall’s executive selection committee, who worked as Charlotte Hornets mascot Hugo and Colorado Rockies mascot Dinger. “This one time I sprained my ankle really bad, everybody just thought it was funny. I literally had to crawl to the home team’s dugout.”
The cruel and unusual event that would move Raymond to create the Mascot Hall occurred during a Pirates-Brewers game on July 9, 2003. As part of a long-standing promotion at Milwaukee’s ballpark, four people wearing 7-foot-tall foam sausage costumes competed in a foot race down the left-field line. When the challengers — bratwurst, Italian sausage, Polish sausage and hot dog — sprinted past the Pittsburgh dugout, Pirates first baseman Randall Simon swatted the Italian sausage with a bat. The blow caused Mandy Block, the 19-year-old in the costume, to tumble to the ground, tripping the hot dog, played by 21-year-old Veronica Piech. Neither woman was seriously injured, but Simon was arrested after the game by Milwaukee County sheriff’s deputies on a misdemeanor battery charge. Prosecutors ultimately reduced the charge to disorderly conduct and fined Simon $432 (“a teenie weenie fine,” per the Washington Post). MLB levied a $2,000 sanction, as well as a three-game suspension. In a statement, league commissioner Bud Selig said, “Obviously, the type of behavior exhibited by Mr. Simon is anathema to the family entertainment that we are trying to provide in our ballparks and is wholly unacceptable.”
The incident generated national headlines and outrage, but as critics decried Simon’s behavior as yet another athlete acting above the law, Raymond felt fewer acknowledged the underlying issue: that when mascots suffer mistreatment, it’s often because the perpetrators fail to appreciate that there is a human being under all the fur. In response, he led some 50 costumed characters on a march for mascot rights through Philadelphia’s Center City and organized a second demonstration the following year that culminated in the signing of a document he called the Mascot Bill of Rights.
In 2005, Raymond took the public-relations campaign digital, launching the online Mascot Hall of Fame. He created an “honor roll,” set up web-based balloting campaigns to nominate classes of inductees and hosted a handful of live induction ceremonies. The Phoenix Suns Gorilla, the San Diego Chicken (not in attendance) and the Phanatic (naturally) comprised the inaugural class bestowed with the Golden Silly String Award. At the souped-up second event, held in Philly’s LOVE Park, a duck-tour boat chauffeured mascots of every species to a red carpet. Raymond’s efforts were popular enough to instill in him the hope that his unassuming little website might one day become a brick-and-mortar monument to mascotry.
THAT OPPORTUNITY CAME with a cold call. In 2013, a man named Ron Niess rang Raymond at his office. Niess introduced himself as a museum consultant for the city of Whiting, Indiana, which was eagerly searching for a cultural entity with broad public appeal to occupy a planned “entertainment center.” He had recently stumbled across the Mascot Hall’s website and thought the concept would work well in a physical space. The ultimate goal, he told Raymond, was to make Whiting a year-round destination for tourists. Downtown Chicago is, after all, a mere 20 miles north, and many highways crisscross the area. To Raymond, it seemed as if the town was operating on the “Field of Dreams” principle of municipal development: If you build it, they will come. He had barely located Whiting on a Google map before he was on the phone with then-Mayor Joseph Stahura, who extended an invitation for a visit — and an implicit offer to construct the Mascot Hall of Fame’s forever home.
To help realize his vision, Raymond began working closely with the attraction design company Jack Rouse Associates, the Cincinnati-based firm behind the NCAA Hall of Champions, the Motorsports Hall of Fame, the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame and Steelers Country at Pennsylvania’s Kennywood amusement park. “What do you want this to be?” the designers asked. Raymond thought for a moment. “Can I start with what I don’t want it to be?” he said. “This isn’t reverent. It’s not formal. And it’s not static. It’s not a bunch of old men talking about people who’ve passed away. No! Like mascots themselves, this is irreverent and silly and about making us laugh even when we don’t feel like laughing. That’s what the power of fun is all about.”
The power of fun. It is Raymond’s watchword, his life’s guiding philosophy. The phrase also conjures the spirit that enlivens the Mascot Hall. In recent years, Raymond has styled himself as something of an evangelist of fun, incorporating his good news into a motivational speech he’s been giving to corporate audiences. In 2018, he presented an abridged version in a TEDx talk called “Be the Phanatic, Be Happier Now!” The following year, he laid out his manifesto in a self-published book called — what else? — “The Power of Fun.” “Mascots leverage the power of fun every day. I believe what they do is as vitally important as anything in life,” Raymond says. “Mascots teach us that it’s OK to have fun. That we should laugh a little bit and lighten up. That things could always be worse.”
RAYMOND FIRST BECAME acquainted with the power of fun in 1974. That is the year a San Diego State University student named Ted Giannoulas began appearing at Padres games dressed in a chicken costume as part of a promotion for KGB, a local radio station.
He was the Babe Ruth of mascotry. Everyone who came before him was playing smallball. The Chicken (aka the KGB Chicken, aka the San Diego Chicken, aka the Famous Chicken) swung for the fences. He approached the ballpark as a stage for improvisational comedy. He pecked at the heads of fans. He lifted his leg on the umps. He antagonized opposing players with lewd gestures. “The era of mascots just being there and waving and taking pictures — well, the Chicken showed you could do better than that,” Raymond says.
Four years later, during the 1978 Phillies season, Raymond quickly won over the “boobirds,” Philly’s tough-love fans, with his own brand of Phanatic hijinks — mocking opposing players, busting moves on the roof of the Phillies dugout. The big green bird soon became a national phenomenon.
Still, not everyone was a Phanatic fanatic. It’s no mascot trade secret that Giannoulas has always considered Raymond and other bleacher creatures to be cheap imitators. Even as the Chicken was among the first class of inductees into the Mascot Hall, the man behind the feathers has rebuffed all of Raymond’s invitations to participate in hall-related events. Giannoulas wouldn’t so much as provide a photo of the Chicken for inclusion in the hall’s mascot history timeline exhibit. “You’ll have to ask Ted,” Raymond says, when questioned about the rift. Over the phone from his home in San Diego, Giannoulas contends that his indifference stems not from some 40-year-old Chicken-Phanatic rivalry, but from his belief that he’s been sufficiently honored elsewhere. “I’m already in the largest hall of fame there is,” he says, “and that’s people’s hearts.”
Raymond’s most famous feud, however, was with the late Los Angeles Dodgers skipper Tommy Lasorda. “Here’s a guy who Philadelphia fans looked at as being inauthentic,” he says. “He’s a guy from Norristown, Pennsylvania, and he goes off to Los Angeles and suddenly he’s Mr. L.A. and he’s forgotten where he came from. So that’s why Phillies fans would always give him crap, and the Phanatic would be out in front of that effort.”
The long-simmering hostilities boiled over during an August 1988 game at Veterans Stadium. Between innings the Phanatic busied himself abusing a potbellied rag doll dressed in a Lasorda uniform. In a fit of juvenile rage, the thin-skinned SlimFast pitchman left his team’s dugout and proceeded to charge and pummel the Phanatic. Lasorda swung the effigy as a club, knocking loose the strap that kept the mascot’s head in place. Crouching on the ground, Raymond frantically secured the Phanatic’s wobbly dome. In that moment, Lasorda seemed far less scary to him than the risk of violating the mascot industry’s most sacrosanct rule: Never lose your head in public.
Less than two years after his dustup with Lasorda, Raymond would face down what he calls the darkest period of his life. In the spring of 1990, eight months after doctors discovered an advanced-stage cancerous tumor in his mother’s brain, Sue Raymond died at the age of 59. Just three weeks after Raymond said goodbye to his mom, his first marriage fell apart. “I can’t begin to tell you how unbelievably difficult that grief and sadness was,” he said in his TEDx talk. “I had never experienced anything like that in my life before. I was in my home thinking, I may not survive this. I can’t put one foot in front of the other, let alone do my job. Which was to be a clown!”
At his lowest point, Raymond happened to be scheduled to do a two-hour appearance as the Phanatic. “I still don’t remember how I got there,” he says. “But I got there and I put the costume on. And all my grief and sadness went away, just like that.” When he took the costume off that day, Raymond realized it was the best he’d felt since his mother’s cancer diagnosis. The power of fun, it seemed, was at work in his life. “I got to be someone else for a couple hours,” he says. “I felt great because I was the Phanatic.”
By the early 1990s, Raymond had begun to ponder his next act. “I’m a professional idiot, but I’m no dummy,” he says. “I could see that physically I was gonna be limited. At some point, I would not be able to do this work. That’s why I left the Phillies.”
He reached out to Phanatic designer Bonnie Erickson — creator of Miss Piggy in her time working for Jim Henson — and her husband and business partner, Wayde Harrison. Since the late 1970s, their firm, Harrison/Erickson, had given birth to such creatures as the Montreal Expos’ Youppi!, the New York Yankees’ short-lived Dandy, the Kansas City Chiefs’ KC Wolf, the Charlotte Hornets’ Hugo and the Orlando Magic’s Stuff the Magic Dragon. Together they formed a partnership called Acme Mascots.
The company developed a character called Sport that allowed Raymond to do appearances at stadiums across the country. The arrangement also freed him to develop a training program that he dubbed Dave Raymond’s Mascot Boot Camp. In the wake of the dissolution of Acme in 1999, he launched Raymond Entertainment Group (REG). Today his firm consults with teams and corporate entities to oversee their mascot programs — assisting with everything from designing characters, to building and repairing costumes, to scouting, selecting and training performers. He also developed a mascot for REG: Reggy the Purple Party Dude.
“Reggy is an alien that came to Earth in search of a civilization that worships fun the way his people do,” Raymond says. “What they’ve discovered is that fun keeps people young. So he’s preaching fun all the time. He’s trying to communicate to everyone on Earth: Have a little fun and things will be better, especially when you’re feeling sad.”
IN A NOOK of the Mascot Hall’s ground floor, bartenders mix mascot-themed cocktails, served via a giant ice luge carved to resemble Reggy’s smiling face. It’s the night of the hall’s sneak-peek event in 2018, and Raymond, the Emperor of Fun, surveys his domain with electric glee. Before him stand some 300 people — corporate benefactors, prospective donors, the hall’s designers and contractors, mascot industry professionals — who’ve paid $250 per ticket to attend the “Fur Tie Fundraiser,” Raymond’s send-up of a stodgy black-tie gala. Many arrive in beastly formal wear: neckties, bow ties and cummerbunds made of loud, shaggy material; feather boas in pink and yellow; evening gowns trimmed with ornate plumage.
As the decibel level of the party grows, the Mascot Hall’s director of community engagement, Al Spajer, steps behind a podium to introduce the guests of honor: a plucky herd of mascots, including the Boilermakers’ hammer-toting Purdue Pete; the Chicago Sky’s grinning rocketeer, Sky Guy; and the Chicago White Sox’s green whatsit, Southpaw.
A week away from the hall’s soft opening the day after Christmas, some big questions still linger: What happens when the sideshow becomes … the entire show? Once the furry freaks of halftime are the permanent attraction, how long can they possibly be compelling?
“Now,” Spajer bellows, “put your hands together for the best mascot in the NHL: Tommy Hawk!”
Like a steroidal Woody Woodpecker on amphetamines, Tommy, the Blackhawks’ bird of play, charges down the central staircase to the boot-stomping beat and nonsense syllables of “Chelsea Dagger,” his team’s goal-celebration anthem, by the Scottish rock group the Fratellis. He aims finger-guns skyward and, right on cue, a confetti cannon erupts with a thunderous crack, raining shiny paper down upon the heads of the partygoers. Tommy, who squeezed into a branded Blackhawks tuxedo vest for the affair, doles out high-fives to his fellow mascots, then darts over to a catering tray, grabs a fistful of bite-size cheese cubes and begins airplaning them into people’s mouths. It is the kind of waggish performance that would get Tommy inducted into the Mascot Hall in 2019.
“When you get a bunch of mascots in one place, it’s a little bit of mayhem,” says Raymond, beaming at the scene unfolding before him. “It’s mayhem — but it’s fun mayhem.”
Stepping into the role of docent, Raymond gives a tour of the place to a group of potential donors. Most of the ground floor is occupied by the Department of Phuzzical Education, a play area that includes basketball hoops, hockey and soccer nets, a football goalpost and other sports equipment. In one corner a trio of besuited executives from a bank that pledged $250,000 to the hall are racking up points on a “Duck Hunt”-style T-shirt cannon video game, firing virtual tees into fans’ open arms. “I kicked your butt twice!” one cries out. Responds the other, “It’s way too easy to lose your inhibitions in this place.”
In the Science of Silliness Laboratory, visitors can peer into a periscope to watch footage shot during games from the mascots’ uniquely disorienting point of view, while a heat lamp overhead simulates the stifling mugginess of being covered by 40 pounds of faux fur. To slip one’s hands into a lab glovebox retrofitted with pairs of four-fingered mascot mitts and pitifully attempt to pick up a baseball (or markers, or a doorknob) is to understand the challenge posed by everyday objects. To try on a couple of mascot heads is to gain an appreciation for the insufficiencies of the human spine. “Silliness,” reads a placard, “is hard work.”
Meanwhile, in the Department of Furry Arts, attendees construct mascot characters from a stockpile of life-size plastic parts. One patron’s unholy creation: a shark-faced, lobster-clawed beast with a big red bow atop its head. At another station, visitors record audition tapes in front of a green screen. Catnip for kids, kryptonite to any adult who isn’t on at least their third cocktail.
Grown-ups more naturally gravitate toward the Department of Mascot Studies, the hall’s most conventional exhibit area, with design touches that wink at both the preppy parlors of Ivy League schools and the decorous galleries of other sports halls of fame. Costumery dominates the glass displays. The sheer scale of the items astonishes: the head of Slider from the Cleveland Indians, as big as a beer keg; the bulky red shoes of Houston Rockets bear Clutch, threaded with laces the width of a human thumb; the fist-size World Series ring of Kansas City Royals mascot Sluggerrr. The wood-paneled walls are hung with small, ornately framed photographs of mascots and their celebrity friends: Benny the Bull playing dodgeball with Chance the Rapper, Mr. Met goofing off with Will Smith. The large photo over the marble mantelpiece shows Raymond as the Phanatic with a fleecy, viridescent arm thrown around a fellow icon of misbehavior, Richard Nixon, who’s grinning like a boy on his birthday.
“When you first heard that Whiting was building the Mascot Hall of Fame,” says Mayor Stahura, addressing the party, “how many of you thought that I was crazy?” Lots of hands shoot up.
“When you build a project like this, there are inevitably going to be negative voices — and there have been,” Raymond says. “There’s almost nothing that you’ll do that’s big and bold and different that’s not going to get negative feedback. Fun gets labeled a waste of time, a waste of budget. ‘Why are you fooling around?’ they ask. That’s where I step in and go, ‘This isn’t fooling around. This is serious fun.‘”
Soon after Raymond’s initial visit to Whiting in 2013, the city hired consulting firm Victus Advisors to conduct a feasibility study. In the process of assessing the Mascot Hall’s market potential, Victus analyzed other major American sports halls. The report painted a sobering picture of the institutions, many of which have faced steeply declining attendance and revenue in recent years. Few sports halls are consistently profitable, it concluded. To keep the lights on, most rely on memberships, donations and corporate sponsorships. But unlike Cooperstown or Canton or Springfield, the study noted, Whiting stands to benefit from close proximity to one of the nation’s largest cities, Chicago, and the 2.5 million people who live within a 30-minute drive of the Mascot Hall. The annual operating cost was forecast at a hair more than $2 million. While attendance was a small slice of the revenue projection, the hall would need to draw 67,000 customers a year — or almost 200 a day — to break even.
“The study did a fabulous job of giving us a realistic view,” Raymond says. “We learned that sustainability is a win. That making a profit shouldn’t be the focus. That halls of fame are not necessarily stable businesses, but they always are great community assets if they’re done right.”
Still, breaking even, modest a goal as it might seem, is far from a sure thing. That’s doubly true in an economy knocked off kilter by a global pandemic. During the plague year, Raymond says, the hall managed to survive the closure by leaning on corporate donations. The ownership groups of the Bulls and White Sox, the Blackhawks, Indians, Mets and Phillies have all given money. In the coming months, he plans to make his pitch to any team whose mascot has been inducted into the hall but has yet to contribute. “While we’ve done a pretty good job of fundraising,” he says, “the hardest struggle has been to convince people that the hall is doing more than silliness.”
But now, when Raymond is asked to justify the Mascot Hall’s existence, particularly in a world trying to heal from profound loss and grief, he tells the story of how, 40 years ago, he made an appearance as the Phanatic at a funeral. The request was written into the will of the deceased, a nonagenarian lifetime Phillies devotee. “I was going, ‘What? Really? Wait a minute. Is this a joke?'” Raymond recalls. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but I walked into the room in costume and people were going, ‘Yeah!’ They put on music, and everybody started dancing. And at that moment, I understood, Oh, this is a celebration of life. It was a great awakening for me, and a beautiful illustration of the power of fun that is so deeply cemented into the Mascot Hall. I realized mascots are a good fit everywhere. They give us permission to dance, celebrate, cry tears of joy — especially when we are visited by the brutality of life.”
ONE WINTER EVENING, as an ice storm lays waste to northwest Indiana, Raymond is on the third floor of the hall with two young men, conducting a two-day boot camp, the Harvard of mascot training.
Because the main performer in the role of Reggy, Christopher Bruce, lives hundreds of miles from Whiting, local understudies are needed to don the Purple Party Dude costume on short notice for birthday parties or public appearances around town. Much like Raymond at the time he was tapped to be the Philly Phanatic, Dylan Linkiewicz and Dylan White have zero experience. But Raymond sees in them that ineffable something he has spotted in other could-be performers, that glint of unmined comedic gold that tells him, Get this guy in a giant fuzzy head, stat!
Which is how White finds himself getting his bearings inside the Reggy costume while Linkiewicz shoots video with an iPad and Raymond yells out directions like a drill sergeant.
“Reggy, I want you to look at me right in the eyes,” he says, using the character’s name. (Raymond doesn’t just want them to play Reggy — he wants them to be Reggy.) “Look down a little bit further. Down some more. OK, there. Reggy is looking into my eyes. So now, Dylan, where are you looking?”
“I see your shoes,” White says.
“OK, good! This is a basic thing that’s vitally important: Know where your character’s eyes are. Most of the time, unfortunately, you’ll be looking in the direction of everyone’s crotch.”
Raymond tells Reggy to cover his eyes. White aims too low, covering the mascot’s cheeks. “Give me your hands,” Raymond says. He lifts the purple paws higher. “Feel the eyeballs? That’s covering your eyes. Now, grab your ears. Itch under your ears. Scratch your butt. Can you feel your hair? No? Reggy can’t get to his hair. That’s something you need to be aware of.”
Raymond requests a series of distinctive walks. White responds with a Travolta-esque strut, a funky limp, an equine gallop — each more difficult to summon than the last. The exercise tells Raymond how well a performer thinks on his feet. It also drives home a lesson: that a mascot must have at his disposal a large and varied toolbox of movements. “Watch the behavior of kids, watch silent movies, watch physical comedies, and look for nonverbal moves,” he advises. “Think about, Hey, I wonder what Reggy would look like if he did that move?“
Next, Raymond shifts songs on a playlist — a snippet of Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” the intro to the Village People’s “YMCA,” a bit of David Rose’s trombone-laden instrumental “The Stripper” — as White matches dance steps to each tune.
When White removes the Reggy head, he’s sweating profusely and gasping for breath.
“Whenever you’re done performing, hang up the costume and spritz it with one part vodka and two parts water,” Raymond tells the Dylans. “The solution kills bacteria.”
Raymond and his apprentices sit to review their videos like athletes watching game tape.
“You’ve both got a little bit of the Reggy frenzy down well,” Raymond tells them. “What you don’t have is an understanding of who Reggy is. I see you thinking when you’re dancing more than anything else. A good performance is one where you mask your own thinking. That just takes time in the costume.”
Before class is dismissed for the night, Raymond leaves the Dylans with some final words of wisdom. “Every time I ask performers, ‘What is your job?’ they say it’s to entertain, to be bigger than life, to move and dance and make people happy. All those things are true. But you’re not just a silly, wacky, wild performer. You represent this facility. And that’s really important,” he says. “Ultimately, the Mascot Hall of Fame will not be here if Reggy is not helping to sustain it.”
Outside the building, Raymond — the boy who spoke to his mother through clowning, the ex-jock who goofed his way to fame, the man who learned that inside the suit his antics could ease his pain — is greeted by spirit-crushing winter weather. Freezing rain has shellacked every surface. Wind howls off the lake. Stinging pellets of sleet lash the statues of Reggy, Benny the Bull, Mr. Met, Slider and Southpaw. In the near distance, the oil refinery belches fire and vapor into the cold night air.
Raymond returns to his rental car, only to find it entombed in ice. Instead of sulking, he reaches into the backseat and grabs a scraper. It becomes, in his hands, the prop cane of Chaplin’s Little Tramp character. As he pirouettes around the vehicle, theatrically brushing away the frozen glaze, David Raymond is the Phanatic once again, as if to tell all of Whiting, “Laugh a little bit and lighten up. Things could always be worse.”