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14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Sports Mascots

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Getty

Thanks to pioneers like Mr. Met in the 1960s, few sports teams have felt complete without the presence of a mascot. These larger-than-life animated characters rally hometown crowds, work with charities, and can occasionally make baseball seem exciting.

To get a better look at what goes on under those mounds of fur and sweat, mental_floss spoke to several current and former mascots about the tricks of the trade, from scaring small animals to how they fit their massive frames through doorways. Here’s a little peek behind the mask.

1. THEY CAN GET FLEAS.

“This happened while I was in college,” says Erin Blank, a former mascot for the Detroit Tigers and a trainer with Keystone Mascots. “A rival school had a situation where their mascot costume got infested with fleas. They actually dipped it in a flea bath. All of the fur fell off. And they only had one costume.” The faux fur used in many costumes also leads mascots to use pet grooming tools to keep their coats clean and shiny.

2. THEY’RE NOT ALLOWED TO TALK.

Mascots are masters of gestures that need to be big enough to be noticed from the rafters. Since vocalizing can't travel far, most major mascots abide by a no-talking policy. “I never spoke when I was in character,” says Kevin Vanderkolk, who spent 14 years portraying Bango for the Milwaukee Bucks and now owns the SOAR Adventure Tower near Nashville. “You don’t want to humanize him.” Instead, Vanderkolk hoped for a lot of yes-or-no questions or mimed a response. 

3. THEY LIKE A GOOD VODKA SOAK.

While costumes have come a long way from the suffocating and heavy designs of decades past, there’s still no getting around the fact that many of them aren’t machine-washable. To try and fight off the permanent funk, many mascots use a tip first recommended by Bonnie Erickson, a former Muppet Workshop employee and creator of several legendary mascots including the Phillie Phanatic: a spray bottle full of vodka.

“That’s still applicable,” says Blank. “You want to kill the bacteria. Some mascots also use Listerine, but the problem there is the added flavor. The color can ruin fur.” (An alternative for the smell is Fur Breeze, a dog cologne that apparently works on fake fur.)

4. THERE’S A SECRET TO GETTING THROUGH DOORS.

Many mascots cut a recognizable figure thanks to massive heads and wide frames. The problem? The world was made for people with human dimensions, not 85-inch hips. Dan Meers, who performs as KC Wolf for the Kansas City Chiefs, let us in on an old mascot trick. “The hips are basically Hula Hoops,” he says. “You just pull up on the left and push down on the right and you can get through doors.”

5. THEY SOMETIMES NEED A COLLEGE DEGREE.

There’s no clear and singular path to becoming a mascot. Some are former gymnasts; others come from a theater or dance background. According to Blank, several pro teams are looking to formalize the hiring process by looking for mascots with college degrees in sports marketing. “The mascots are responsible for seeking sponsorships for teams,” she says. “It helps to pay their salary.”

6. THEY CAN UPSET FANS.

Despite the histrionics of Tommy Lasorda, most mascots get along with coaches just fine. The real adversaries can be fans. “Complaints never come from coaches,” Meers says. “It’s from the guy sitting behind someone who wanted to help me propose to his girlfriend, and I was blocking his view of two plays. He couldn’t see around me. That’s why we’re always moving and staying active.”

7. THEY FORGE THEIR AUTOGRAPHS.

Because no performer takes up permanent residence in a suit, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to have them sign their “name” organically. Instead, mascots practice a kind of house style, using exemplars from previous actors in order to emulate the autograph of the character. “Some teams have developed very specific signatures for mascots,” Blank says. “It’s something that gets passed on down through the years.”

8. THEY CAN GET REALLY HURT.

As Bango, former gymnast Vanderkolk bounced off trampolines, did a back-flip off a massive extension ladder, and occasionally played with fire. It was all enough to get him on the injured list nearly as often as the players. “I’ve had a torn ACL, some pretty significant ankle and shoulder injuries, hand injuries. It was a big factor in my retirement," he says. Once, when an injury confined him to the sidelines, Vanderkolk rolled out in costume in a wheelchair. “Any time I was hurt, Bango was hurt. You want to keep the integrity of the character.”

9. FOOTBALL MIGHT BE A BETTER GIG THAN BASEBALL.

“It’s simple math,” Meers says. “I started out working for the St. Louis Cardinals out of college before the Chiefs contacted me. I could either do 81 home games in baseball or 10 in football. It didn’t take me long to decide.” Personal appearances, however, are a grind either way: between store openings, parades, and other events, Meers figures he makes up to 500 drop-ins a year.

10. THEY SOMETIMES LIKE TO SCARE DOGS.

PETA may not approve, but sometimes the temptation to annoy a dog while in a giant anthropomorphic animal suit proves irresistible. “I used to love making dogs bark and freaking them out,” Blank says. “I get it can be a little bit of harassment, so I don’t do it as much as I used to.”

11. THEY HAVE BIRTHDAY PARTIES.

Mascots rarely meet one another, with the exception of their birthdays: Pro teams often use a character’s birth date as an excuse to throw a public relations party, inviting four to six mascots from elsewhere in the league. “The teams embrace it as a marketing platform,” Vanderkolk says. In 2015, the Phillie Phanatic had an on-field celebration that featured a giant cake, a visiting Philadelphia Eagles mascot named Swoop, and an inflatable iguana that appeared to devour the umpire.

12. THEY GET PAID TO BE PATIENT.

If a normal person can walk a path in five minutes, it will take a mascot more like 30: Everyone wants to stop them, take a picture, or grab a hug. That’s part of the job, but Meers says the problem starts when people treat them like plush animals. “Mascots do not like having their tail pulled,” he says. As for hugs: no problem, but be aware their line of sight may line up with the costume’s neck. “Every now and then, I’ll catch a shot in the nose.”

13. THEY’RE NOT ALWAYS A FAN OF THEIR OWN TEAM.

“You don’t necessarily need to be a fan,” Blank says, “but you should check what you put on social media.” In February 2015, Darnell Enrique, a.k.a. Franklin the mascot, was caught ripping his Philadelphia 76ers and Philadelphia fans in general in messages that were excavated from tweets a few years prior to his hiring. On the Philadelphia Eagles: “WORSE [sic] TEAM EVER hhahaha.”

14. THEY DO WEDDINGS.

As part of their personal appearance rotations, mascots are often invited to private parties like birthdays and wedding receptions. As KC Wolf, Meers has walked three brides down the aisle. “I throw on a tuxedo over the outfit,” he says. “At the reception, it’s a half-hour of dancing with bridesmaids, taking pictures, and hanging out with grandma.”

All images courtesy of Getty.

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18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
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iStock

Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

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Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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