(Yours truly signing in cordoned-off area. Notice the state-of-the-art red security ribbon tied on the trash receptacle.)
Also hard to fathom: it wasn’t always a Beatles-arrive-in-America moment at my gigs with rabid fans straining the timber of the barricades to get closer to their objet de désir. Some businesses did a bang-up job of promoting my appearance: featuring the event in the week’s flier, advertising on local radio stations—occasionally stations broadcast from the store on the day of the proceedings—making periodic announcements over the PA system the week leading up to the occasion. Other businesses did nothing but slap the poster, which showed the date and time, that Marvel provided in the window or entrance. Then the management wondered why no one showed up, eventually coming to the erroneous conclusion that Spider-Man wasn’t a draw. I cannot tell you how many appearances I did where employees lamented to Spider-Man, “I didn’t know you were going to be here today; I would have had my husband/wife/sister”—insert relative here—“bring the kids.” Even the employees didn’t know; how would the customers?!!
In such cases when I had the books and signing implement but not the dedicated area or even wobbly fold-out card table on which to scribble my John Hancock, I’d keep the comics handy at a nearby unoccupied cash register (Do they even call them that anymore?!). I’d lead my wee fans to the spot, hop on the check-out counter and squat over to sign. I’m sure the people to my rear were happy I wasn’t a plumber, but the kids loved it. At the Grand Opening of a Hills Department Store in Chillicothe, Ohio, I parked my webbed-butt at a patio furniture display (see photo at right).
I still had to be careful not to scare children when it was a “free-range” appearance, especially those who wandered from their parents. I guess something could be said for unexpectedly terrifying kids, who do not stay by their parents’ side when in public. They’ll think twice before doing it again. Of course, the psychological damage might mean years of therapy when they’re older. Still . . .
In all seriousness, there wasn’t much more upsetting than witnessing a face of a child that you’ve terrified. So whenever I could, I presented myself to children in such a way as to make them at ease. As mentioned, this could mean nothing more than letting the child be aware of Spider-Man’s presence from a distance. In this way, the child can approach or not at his or her own discretion. I’d wave from afar and utter a friendly, “How’re ya doin’!”; perhaps do something totally silly—to extinguish any thoughts in their minds that I might be a threat—like bend to one side until my face is practically upside down. If they react in a frightened manner, I’d immediately back away and say, “That’s okay, I’ll stay over here.”
I had to be especially wary when making appearances at toy stores, the interiors of which were wall-to-wall colors, sounds and movement, accentuating the two-dimensionality of the costume. If I didn’t keep moving, I’d instantly dissolve into the scenery, virtually disappear. Remember that scene in E.T. when the title character escapes the mother’s discovering him, when she unexpectedly comes home one afternoon, by simply standing, immobile amongst the stuffed toys in the young boy’s closet? The Spider-Man suit caused the same effect in a toy store. When I did move, even after the briefest of pauses, I’d undoubtedly scare the bejeebus out of someone.
Kids wander away from their parents more often in a toy store, too. Correction: run. Something catches their eye and poof! they’re gone. They also touch, grab, explore in general. To a child, a toy store is essentially a playground where you can actually bring the fun home when you leave. It was not uncommon for my attention to be drawn to one or more children, then feel a gentle, curious poke or caress from another child that had approached me from a different angle, but didn’t realize I was alive. I’d turn and come face-to-face with a youngster performing their best Macauley Culkin in Home Alone impersonation, complete with the bone-chilling scream and flight.
From the child’s point of view... I’m reminded of the scene in the movie Jason and the Argonauts, when the crew of the Argo loot the tomb of the god, Talus. As they leave, they hear the screech of twisting metal. When they look up to the giant bronze statue of Talus that sits atop the tomb, the head slowly turns toward them in anger. You can practically hear them shitting their pants, before they run screaming back to the boat. The unfortunate child’s experience had to seem similar, even though I did not turn in vengeful anger. All I did was react as any human would when tapped or touched from behind, not that it made me feel any better knowing I was innocent of any wrongdoing when a child screamed in terror while running away from me.
There is one particular instance of my scaring a child that still haunts me. Okay, maybe “haunts” is a bit melodramatic, but I still recall the incident with guilt and wonder if I did any long-term psychological damage. No surprise that it happened at a toy store. It was time for a break and there was a lull in the action. I knew that if I didn’t make my exit immediately that could change. I also wanted to move quickly to prevent any wee quidnunc’s following me to my dressing area in hopes of seeing the man behind the mask. So off I went.
(It wasn't uncommon for toy stores to offer something for the little girls, such as Barbie, with Spidey, who was perceived as only of interest to the boys. But rarely is Babs joined by friends Chrissie and second fiddle, the unfortunately named Midge—she was named after a type of bug, after all—here with the author, during a break.)
Now, even on my worst day in the suit—say, when I had a cold or was unusually tired—my reactions were uncanny. It came with acting a role, portraying a character. Whether playing Willie Loman in The Death of a Salesman or James Bond in the character’s latest movie incarnation; whether on Broadway or off, big screen or small, community theater or public access television station; being in character heightens an actor’s level of awareness, certainly any actor fully committed to their role. Being “on,” as it is sometimes referred to, places the actor in state of vulnerability, highly receptive to his or her surroundings, no less so for Spider-Man, a character continually on his toes, ready for the slightest hint of danger.
Good thing, too. At that same moment I bounded around a corner of the aisle that would provide me with a beeline to the employee area—and my dressing/break room—a little girl who couldn’t have been more than three got the urge to stray from her mother and ran around the opposite side of the same corner around which I was speeding . . .
If Train A leaves the station at 9 A.M. going 50 miles per hour... and Train B leaves the station at 10 A.M. going 60 miles per hour... when will the trains meet?
It could’ve been ugly . . . uglier than it was. Because at the very last moment, I stopped short. All my focus was on getting to the back room, and there was no way I would’ve noticed a child that small—given the limited peripheral vision of the costume—with both of us moving that quickly, around a blind corner . . . but I stopped. I vaguely remember hearing the mother’s call to her daughter from the far end of the aisle as I fast approached. Or maybe it was superhumanly reactive on my part. Or maybe it was a greater force, that inclined me to do so. But I did. The instant the girl rounded the corner, I halted.
She didn’t, but with her size, the force—even while running—was not so great that she did more than mildly bounce off my leg. I knew I hadn’t hurt her by the way she plotzed backward on her bottom. Still, I instinctively bent down and reached out to her, saying “Are you all right?” I realized my mistake too late. I had forgotten completely that I was still Spider-Man. My concern for the child had overridden that fact. The look of sheer terror that flashed onto her face when she looked into the inhuman mien of her “attacker,” and the wail that came from her tiny lungs, immediately brought me back to reality. Oh my God. What have I done? was my initial thought, as the child’s mother rushed over. Then, I have to get away from her as quickly as possible. There was no other solution. Staying in the girl’s presence would’ve only exacerbated her fright. I paused just long enough to apologize to mom, who, thankfully, understood the situation. “That’s all right,” she responded before picking up and comforting her child.
The girl, now young woman, probably still sleeps with a giant-sized bug atomizer by her bed.