Thursday, February 23, 2012

Going to Court, Final Quarter: And All That Jazz

Barely surviving a head-spinning two-hour forty-five minute stint in the incubating Incredible Hulk costume, our weary wayfarer looks forward to a well-deserved morning off and an evening of NBA’s finest flaunting their phenomenal physical faculties…

After an appearance-packed three days of rampaging, web-slinging and doing the best there is at what he does, Yours Truly, Jeremy and Joe—Hulk, Spider-Man and Wolverine, respectively—were treated with a morning of unfettered bliss… or at least what goes for bliss in the wilds of Utah. My tortuous tour from Hell the day before was nought but a distant memory, with nary a raised eyebrow from Director Alyson for my abrupt walk off the set.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. I was numb; the type of deep exhaustion one usually experiences after a week of working doubles or a triathlon, I imagine. A single night’s sleep, no matter how restful, wasn’t going to come close to rejuvenating the body to its full potential. In fact, it was less an evening of sleep than one of weariness-induced coma. I awoke yoked with the grogginess that comes from strong cold medicine. And from the looks on Jeremy and Joe’s faces, their physical and mental states concurred. A morning off was essential to our being able to perform our final foray as the Marvel Universe triumvirate at the NBA Fan Fest appearance later that afternoon. It was a scant couple of hours, but we looked upon it with dread. Even the carrot of comp tickets to the All-Star Game after that did little to energize us.

Not quite the Spider-Mobile...

Added to the mix was the use of the rental car. Alyson didn’t need it, so once we dropped her off at the Salt Palace, where she would continue monitoring our Dunkin’ Spidey doppelgänger and glad hand any remaining corporate yahoos who hadn’t yet gotten their asses adequately kissed—no rest for the weary—we were free to enjoy the wonders of the area… which wasn’t much. Admittedly, we weren’t exactly prepared to sightsee during our stay in Salt Lake City. None of us had done any research, drawn up a “must-see” list of the environs or purchased a guidebook. And with so little time, there wasn’t inclination to do so.

Three days cooped up inside the basketball facilities, in which we were, in turn, ensconced within character costumes—some more cumbersome than others—and us three amigos were happy to simply be outside breathing fresh air, albeit frosty fresh air. Jeremy—he of the backwoods of Maine—suggested going to a ski resort, having seen signs to such along the highway during our drive from the airport to the hotel after our arrival. Joe and I were complicit. It was either that or… well… it was pretty much that. So we loaded into the vehicle and headed out of the city.

“THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this story took place in Utah in 1993. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

Late February was just as one would expect in Utah: a panorama of mountains and snow overcast with gray. It was a bit Fargo for my tastes. Growing up in the ’burbs of Boston, I was no stranger to ice and frigid temperatures, but at least civilization was always within spitting distance, or in this case, snowball-throwing distance. Skiing was as foreign to me as jai alai. Sure, there were plenty of trails within a couple of hours of Beantown, but the recreation entails a bit of monetary outlay in which to participate and thus out of reach for those of us born of meager incomes. I was content to be as far away from The Hulk suit as possible. Making snow angels in my birthday suit sounded like Heaven to me. But given the conservative atmosphere of the state, a quick trip to a ski lodge was an ideal secondary diversion.

Yours Truly rubbing up to Utah’s moguls

The journey up the mountainside was no picnic. Navigating the switchbacks along the route wreaked havoc with my internal gyroscope. Had I been driving—as veteran of the group, Jeremy took the wheel—the effects wouldn’t have been as severe, and riding shotgun was certainly better than being in the back. Still, nausea soon set in, and I wondered if I’d reach the resort before vomiting. Wouldn’t that have been funny? On the verge of heat prostration and severe dehydration less than twenty-four hours prior without so much as a puke-burp and here I am the next day about to lose my breakfast over a scenic thirty-minute drive up a mountain. I kept my stomach’s churning to myself. I knew if I could just make it to the top before hurling I’d be fine.

I did, and I was.

I’d love to be able to tell you that cresting the final turn into the ski area was a life-changing experience. The car broke through the cloud cover and the Heavens opened up with the Hallelujah chorus as we emerged into a Winter Wonderland of happy trails and snow bunnies. Nope. Where was the exotic Swiss chalet with the size tens in their magenta ski togs and Nordic wool hats, scurrying to the lift or back inside the lodge to sidle up to the Bunyonesque stone hearth with steaming mugs of spiked cocoa or hard cider? Where was anyone, for that matter? The place was deader than a Student Union during spring break. And the building was about as appealing as a storage shed in a lumber yard. Norm Abram’s New Yankee Workshop held greater allure. Okay, the vistas were pretty enough, but it was no more breathtaking than the Blue Mountains in Massachusetts, up which I hiked as a teen.

Jeremy seemed disappointed as well. Could he have been expecting that same ski-resort scene as depicted in The Pink Panther? Unfortunately, the surroundings hearkened more to the town Annie Wilkes called home in Misery. Still, I felt compelled to record the trip with a couple of photos, which look as depressing now as the place was back then. One good thing did come out of our expedition: We were more than ready to return to the arena and retake our heroic mantels.

Annie Wilkes’s biggest fans

Back at the courts, the Jam Session was winding down, as the Salt Palace prepared for the All-Star Game a few hours hence. Donning the verdigris epidermis of The Hulk again was approached with as much vim as a convict picking up a sledge hammer on his way to the prison yard to break rocks. We were bone weary. Our Von Trapp Family escape up the mountain failing utterly to fill us with the sound of music. Yet, the show must ever go on. We put on our brave faces—literally—and entered the festival for our last go-around. Blessedly, our final tour of duty was short. And, hey, being grumpy was the Hulk’s M.O.

The narrator with sportscaster Fred Hickman

The Jam’s swan song was the big game’s practice session on the main court. Ole green britches was crated and readied for shipment. Strangely, despite the fatigue and sweat, I enjoyed my debut dalliance as the Green behemoth and looked forward to future rampages, though a few months of Web-Swinging would be welcome in the interim. An advantage to portraying The Hulk is that I was finished before my heroic colleagues. And with my all-access Jam Session pass dangling from neck, I took a leisurely stroll to the main court to catch some of the highlights of the practice for the all-star spectacle to follow.

Growing up in Boston and being a sports lover go hand-in-hand. As mentioned in previous posts, my parents had season tickets to the Bruins, and as a product of the 70s and 80s, the Celtics were front and center on my sports radar. Havlicek, Cowens and Jo Jo White led the team to a pair of championships in the former, and Bird, Parish and McHale, arguable the greatest frontline in the history of the game, championed three more in the latter. But by the early 90s, the team was mired in mediocrity: always competitive, yet never exceptional enough to make it past the first round of the play-offs, if making the post season at all. In fact, not a single Celt was in the All-Star line-up in 1993. Still, I loved the sport and followed it religiously at the time.

His Airness

Imagine my reaction when Michael Jordan waltzes toward me soon after his arrival to the Salt Palace. Not since my first encounter with the famous Farrah-Fawcett one-piece bathing suit poster of my youth had I suffered such a lapse in control of my bodily functions. My underwear needed changing, but my NBA geek experience had only just begun. Look, there’s Clyde “The Glide” Drexler; Jordan’s partner in crime, Scottie Pippen; the “Round Mound of Rebound” Charles Barkley. I barely had enough self-control to snap shots with my camera as they paraded by.

“We’ve got magic to do… just for you...
We’ve got miracle plays to play...”

A short time later, as Sir Charles was making his way to the court from the locker room, he was surprised with a birthday cake. It was February 20 and the Phoenix Sun power forward was celebrating his 30th… and I was there! Exciting to watch, the future Hall of Famer and eventual winner of the league’s MVP that year was always a favorite of Yours Truly. He began his career with the Philadelphia 76ers—mentored by the amazing Dr. J. in his final seasons—a well-respected, perennial rival and always tough opponent of my beloved Celtics. Considered short for his position, his physique defied the laws of the sport, which favored the long and lanky. Nearly as famous for his big mouth, the outspoken hardwood antihero never shied from speaking his mind and was as humorous as he was controversial in his commentary. I normally don’t take to the type, but there was something about Sir Charles that captured my attention.

Sir Charles takes the cake

The eventual eleven-time all-star seemed more tolerant than actually appreciative. Perhaps he didn’t like surprises or hated to be reminded of his mortality. Maybe the garish likeness on the cake spawned his less-than-enthusiastic response. More likely, he was simply being Sir Charles. I guess those of us in attendance should be happy he didn’t flip the confection in the air and storm onto the floor. Although, there was the occasional slight lift to the side of his mouth that would indicate a smile. It was a cool moment nonetheless, one I was fortunate enough to shmooze a bystander into capturing with me on my Kodak.

“Quick, take the shot before security pulls me away!”

I spent the remainder of my time watching Jordan and co. warm-up. My All-Access pass would only last up until just before the game began, at which point I would have to take my seat. No prob. I certainly couldn’t complain. But my good fortune had yet to run out. Absent of any Celtic on the roster, the All-Star affair held meager hope of my encountering any player from my home team. Of course, these league showcases oft attract legends from the past, but after spending three-plus days without so much as a whisper of green in my sights—barring that encompassing my body—I’d given up on the prospect. That attitude was about to get a wake-up call.

Nothing but net

As I stood under the basket, at which Jordan was shooting field goals, a familiar figure caught my eye. There, before me, as if in a dream was Celtic legend Kevin McHale. Jordan who? You might Like Mike, but as far as I was concerned, All Hail McHale! Any hope of salvaging my jeans were lost in the moment I espied the thrice NBA champ, twice-awarded Sixth Man of the Year, seven-time all-star, among many other accolades. I blurted something to him about being from Boston—the rest would’ve confused the cast of Quest for Fire—before handing (read: forcing) my camera to the nearest person, emphatically gibbering for them to shoot a picture of us. McHale was gracious and bemused, perhaps sensing I was a bit touched—the drool didn’t help. I guess I’m lucky it wasn’t Larry Bird; I’d have gone into apoplexy.

Watch the drool, kid.

By this point, the game itself was gravy. I joined my fellow thespians and Alyson in our seats three quarters of the way up the first section. They may not have been floor seats—we weren’t exactly Ron Perelman—but excellent ones nonetheless, with a central view of the whole floor and close enough to still make out the individual players. I was impressed by the Salt Palace. For an arena with stadium seating, it was intimate and offered great sight lines. The affair opened with a beautiful arrangement of the “Star-Spangled Banner” sung by my peeps (see “Going to Court, Part III: You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry”), Boyz II Men; a classy, sophisticated rendition and perfect prelude to the annual basketball celebration.

Hitting the chord

All-Star Games tend to be high on the scoring and low on the defense for several reasons. As a nation, Americans derive more pleasure from offense than defense, even though, as the saying goes, defense wins games. But defense ain’t pretty. You’ll find more people impressed with a center mugging an opponent with a slam dunk than a savvy guard drawing a charge. A steal may earn in a certain degree of bally-hooing, but the resultant alley-oop quickly erases any memory of the defensive gem that caused it. A nail-biting pitcher’s duel in baseball, which ends in a 1–0 score, is less desirable than a blowout. It’s the prime reason soccer—wherein matches rarely score more than a goal or two total—is having such a hard time taking hold in The States.

There’s also a more practical explanation for these seasonal player showcases being such high-scoring events. Understandably, the players and their teams and coaches do not want to get hurt or overextend themselves. There’s a whole second half to the season to which these all-stars must return. An honor it may be, but an invitation to the All-Star cavalcade is a mere fizzle to the conflagration of an NBA title. So it is understandable that athletes would give less than their all to these lavish, vanity affairs and not risk possible injury, which could in turn jeopardize their team’s chance at a title.

Add up these factors and the result is more a street-ball competition of one-upmanship than an actual battle for victory; a spectacle of fancy moves, crazy shots and professional b-ballers screwing around and having fun. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Without the pretense of importance that comes with a win or loss, why not make the game a highlight reel of basketball’s greatest performers? The fans don’t seem to mind—they love it!

Taking my official ’93 Jam Session basketball out for a spin

Despite the seeming anarchy on the court, the players are ever mindful of their host city and endeavor to cede personal glory to its hometown heroes. Regardless of the standings, whether celebrating in the house of one the league’s premiere franchises or bottom dweller, the stars graciously spotlight the town’s own. this was no less true in Salt Lake City. The offensive juggernaut of John Stockton and Karl Malone—one of the greatest tandems in the sport’s history—were featured throughout the game. And it was a doozy, the lead oscillating like a metronome and resulting in overtime. The West finally won by a hefty score of 135 to the East’s 132. When the dust cleared, big man Malone had 28 points and 10 rebounds, while teammate Stockton had 9 points, 6 rebounds and 15 assists, which means he was directly responsible for 30 points! No surprise the Jazz duo were awarded co-MVP.

By the end of the epic confrontation, it was well past seven P.M. Alyson, my fellow actors and I had eaten little, if anything, for lunch and were starving. One nice thing about being on the road with your boss is not having to worry about the per diem. This is the preset traveling expense devoted to meals. When I began my Web-Swinging career, the per diem was $30 a day. That’s the amount the performers were given for breakfast, lunch and dinner, cumulatively. Certainly meager by today’s standards, at the time it was serviceable in areas with a lower cost of living, like Tuscaloosa, Alabama, or Elkton, Maryland; less so for major metropolitan ones, such as Washington, D.C. or Atlanta, Georgia. Working Canada translated to receiving approximately a double stipend as the exchange rate with the U.S. was about two-to-one at the time, but it evened out when factoring in the additional beer you had to drink.

The modest allotment meant us characters were relegated to fast food purveyors, food carts and snacking in lieu of a meal in order to stay within the per diem’s limitations. Woe to those trapped in remote accommodations that offered no dining alternatives to the always pricey hotel restaurant in the area. Hello, Dominos?! Being treated by the sponsor or host was always appreciated. That day’s per diem could then be divvied between two meals instead of three. One could actually experience the rare treat of eating healthily: the nutritious muesli with fresh fruit for breakfast instead of a choice of specials #1–6, which featured “spam, spam, spam, fried eggs and spam—that’s only got a li’l bit ‘o spam innit”—with a selection of side meats. When I hung up my webs a decade later, the per diem had soared to a whopping $40 a day! Rachel Ray, eat your heart out!

I remember when cell phones were as big as a candy machine... Tell that to the kids today, they won’t
believe you...

Still, Joe and Jeremy politely declined Alyson’s offer, preferring instead to spend their final evening in Salt Lake free from under official auspices. Me, I enjoyed my time with Alyson, and no, I was not simply playing Eddie Haskell to her June Cleaver. Alyson was full of interesting war stories from her early days as a showgirl treading the floorboards of Magic Mountain to her event marketing days with Macy’s. Considering what she’d put me through the day prior during the photo shoot with The Hulk, my feelings would have to be genuine.

The eatery du jour was across the street from the Salt Palace. It was quite expansive with various rooms and levels, with a contemporary (read: austere) décor. I’m unsure whether it was the restaurant’s closeness to the arena, it’s upscale, upper-echelon conduciveness or the dearth of anything on par in the vicinity, but the place was packed with NBA wags and celebrities. I couldn’t understand it, because the place had all the ambiance of a high school cafeteria. Patrons were seated so close to one another as to be obscene in certain parts of the South and the noise was deafening. Surprisingly, there was a wait—must be the only place open in the state—so Alyson and I took the opportunity to hit the head.

The Men’s and Ladies’ rooms stood abreast one another beneath a staircase—the type with no perpendicular backing to the steps, which was meant to convey modern and accentuate the open floor plan, but truly looks stupid and makes using them a vertiginous nightmare—to one of the upper dining levels. Right angled to them was the entrance to a private room, in which a large party sat at a single table. As I glanced in, my jaw dropped. At the head of the table was then Celtics coach Chris Ford, former Celtics guard who helped lead the team to their first championship of the 80s. Lesser known than colleagues Larry Bird, Robert Parish and the aforementioned Kevin McHale, Ford was no less important; a stalwart defensive master, who is credited with hitting the first three-pointer in the team’s history. He was an unspectacular player whose hustle and work ethic made him a champion… and I loved him!

“Omigod, Alyson… Do you know who that was?” I blurted.

“STEPHEN!!!” Alyson’s shocked response snapped me out of my reverie, and I noticed about a half dozen women staring at me, frozen in various stages of bathroom activities: drying hands, adjusting clothing, touching up makeup… In my excitement, I failed to veer off into the little boys room, instead following Alyson into the Ladies’.

“Uh, sorry,” I stammered before spinning around and exiting, not before careening into a confused pair of females, questioning whether it was they who were walking into the incorrect room.

Fortunately, the rest of the evening proceeded gaff-free. Alyson quite enjoyed herself retelling the blunder to Jeremy and Joe the next morning on the way to the airport. I was just happy to be heading home. I don’t know what could’ve possessed me, barreling into the women’s lavatory without thinking, like a mindless brute. I guess you can take the actor out of The Hulk, but you can’t take The Hulk out of the actor.

Upon Jeremy’s, Joe’s and my return from our ski lodge excursion, this vehicle pulled out in front of us on our way to the Salt Palace.
NOTE: The views expressed by those in the car do not necessarily reflect those of
Heroes In My Closet.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Going to Court, Part III: You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry


With Marvel Personal Appearance Department Director Alyson’s search for a Dunkin’ Doppelgänger complete, the stage is finally set for The Incredible Hulk’s coming out party at the 1993 NBA All-Star Game Jam Session in Salt Lake City, Utah. But will our nattering narrator’s inaugural stint as the lime leviathan be a “Hulk smash!”?

Unlike other costumed characters, The Hulk necessitated a minder, someone to serve as escort while he performed his ambassadorial duties. Improved though the new suit’s visibility may be, the sheer bulk of the ensemble made it impossible to maneuver without the constant threat of barreling into someone or something. Plus, walking as the Jade Giant was akin to doing leg extensions on a weight machine; it took real effort to lift each leg, given the costume’s heft and limited mobility. It was like walking underwater.

Mr. Hulk, your escort is here!

In fact any movement, regardless of how minute, was met with staunch resistance. Add the heat and lack of the body’s breath-ability—the only openings were the mouth and eye sockets—and it wasn’t long before the wearer was awash in his own sweat. Even the thin bodysuit I wore beneath the Hulk exterior offered little by way of capturing perspiration; it was sopping minutes after donning the suit. This was the reason behind the twenty-minutes-in, ten-minutes-out policy for Hulk performers. To spend much longer in the costume dared the actor’s passing out.

Of course, this all depended on the person and the circumstances. Oftimes a wearer o’ the green, as it were, would stretch the costume’s temporal edicts. Perhaps, there was an especially long line of children waiting or the gig itself was a one-off of thirty minutes—to shoehorn a break therein would be a bit “letter of law”—or the particulars surrounding the job necessitated the Hulk portrayer to remain in character beyond the stated limit. The policy was emplaced more to protect the actor from unsympathetic sponsors who might not be willing to understand the importance of the schedule and insist the performer work well beyond the conservative safety margins.

With Alyson’s time split between overseeing Sam’s dunking escapades and glad-handing the Marvel Mucky-Mucks at the festivities, the job of Hulk-sitter fell to Joe, our Wolverine. Jeremy’s status as tenured Spider-Man precluded his taking on such menial tasks outside his Web-Swinging duties, although he did pal around on occasion. The job didn’t devour a whole lot of hours. Most of the time, I was on the show floor along with my stalwart superhero companions, so there wasn’t a need for a minder. When I needed a break, Wolvie would escort me back to the locker room and help me out of the suit before rejoining Webhead, since their stints between respites were greater.

The Dream Team

My activities as the Jade Giant were relegated to the secondary court just outside our dressing room. The area, which held various other b-ball frivolities and vendor stalls, could be found at the end of a long corridor leading from the B court. It ran approximately fifty yards, traversing the length of the main arena and tiered seating surrounding it. A straight shot of smooth cement it may have been, but it might as well have been the Wipeout qualification obstacle course as far as The Hulk was concerned. Simply strolling from the lockers into the B court pavilion was exhausting, like doing a hundred reps of forty pound leg lifts.

Not that there weren’t enough fans to entertain where I was. The B court was always active. Sure, the slam dunk exhibition with special guest Spider-Man was certainly a highlight, but there were also clinics on how to improve one’s basketball skills, trick-shot showcases; us heroes even had some friendly competition from the NBA mascots, who performed their own dunking display… with a trampoline no less! Out of mutual respect, though, we ceded the floor to the mascots during their show and they graciously allowed Spidey and friends their privacy when we were doing our thing. Not only did this result in a nice chunk of off time to Hulk, but also it allowed me to watch the league’s court jesters perform.

Denver Nuggets’ Rocky the mountain lion takes flight

Here was character appearance work on a whole ’nother level. To be able to barrel along the hardwood at a full tilt while holding a basketball, hit a three-foot square trampoline at the top of the key and slam the ball through the hoop would take a fair bit of athleticism. I’ve seen my fair share of superjocks on Ninja Warrior miscue the trampoline on the show’s signature Jumping Spider obstacle and they’re clad in the height of athletic apparel. But to do so wearing a furry animal head and matching costume was insane.

Indiana Pacers Boomer flips out. The extra trampoline lower right gives you some idea the size of the area the NBA mascots had to strike to perform their dunks.

And these guys were flipping and somersaulting in the air like the Flying Wallendas… only they survived! When they weren’t performing on the court, they were in the stands, climbing up the tiers, on the backs of the seats at times. It was awe-inspiring. Their duds may not have been as onerous as The Hulk’s, and they may have been designed to allow the wearer to move as expected, but the actor/athlete therein still had to prove himself.

Minnesota Timberwolves Crunch attempts to dunk
over seven people

Truth be told, I wasn’t completely floundering while wearing the green. I could actually walk at a decent clip and the double-width concrete stairs of the bleachers, which surrounded the B court, proved no match for The Hulk’s prodigious tootsies much to the delighted surprise of then Marvel President and CEO Terry Stewart who I encountered upon my inaugural debut at the show. Alyson stole me away from my adoring public during a lull to escort me to where Marvel Comics Numero Uno was seated in the stadium, most assuredly there to catch our Web-Swinging Ringer in action. In her excitement to present me to Stewart, Alyson didn’t think that I might find navigating stairs a problem.

“Are you going to be okay getting up the steps, Hulk,” she intoned, always professional when it came to speaking with the characters when among the rabble. I could see the mix of realization and worry on her face when we reached the base of the section above which Stewart was seated.

“No problem,” I growled. “Just clear the way. I’d hate to make a scene my first night in Utah!”

Typical to stadium seating, the steps alternated from normal depth to extra wide as one climbed past each row with their height being less than that of the usual stair. The feat would’ve been treacherous had they all been of the mundane variety, but the levels on which the rows were situated afforded plenty of space for my humongous hooves. Without skipping a beat, I hauled one leg, then the next, up the section, vaulting two steps at a time. I nearly barreled over a surprised Alyson who was staying close to give me a hand if needed. She adjusted quickly enough to scramble ahead, leading the way.

“Gangway… Coming through!” I bellowed.

The move was not out of character for the bullish behemoth, whose common mode of transport was propelling himself on his muscular legs, leaping leagues at a time. And the words shy and unassuming would never be used to describe the simplest of actions taken by the Jade Giant. Fortunately, the Marvel President and CEO was only a third of the way up and positioned along the aisle. My thighs felt like Jell-O and shaking as much by the time I’d finished the climb. Any further, I may have been in trouble.

Beastz II Men

“Hi, Hulk,” Stewart said upon my arrival.

“Mr. Stewart! Sheesh, they’ll let anyone in here. Bad enough when I waltzed in… not that they had any choice.”

There was a twinkle in his eye and a smile crept over his face as he leaned toward Alyson. “Stephen?” he asked under his breath, inquiring as to my concealed identity.

“How’d you guess,” Alyson responded with a hearty laugh.

“Nice to hear my reputation precedes me,” I added.

“What do you think?” Alyson asked Stewart, who always enjoyed watching the characters in action. But it wasn’t my performance about which Alyson was asking.

I hadn’t realized up to this point in the gig that it was the Hulk’s coming out party. The Personal Appearance Department’s Spartan budget had spiked briefly in 1987 when thirteen new costumes were commissioned in conjunction with an awesome float and the famous Spider-Man balloon, all in celebration of the Web-Spinner’s 25th anniversary, at that year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (see “I Love a Parade,” parts I, II, III, IV, V and VI). It returned to a level only slightly higher to accommodate the added production of Wolverine costumes, the only character to have appearance longevity after that Turkey Day coming out party.

But the cranky Canuck’s togs’ costs ran along the same lines as Captain America’s signature red-white-and-blue, a far cry from the expense of re-envisioning The Hulk, a safe bet at ten grand. Also, with neither an impending live-action film, nor new cartoon on the telly, there was little reason for the Powers That Be to green light (pun intended) a fresh ensemble for Bruce Banner’s fearsome second self. To keep the costume cabbage coming, it was paramount for Alyson to dazzle, cajole and kiss the collective asses of every and any exec even remotely associated with the MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings group, the Ronald Perelman led über-corporation that purchased Marvel Entertainment in 1989, and all it’s ancillary acquisitions, including Fleer trading cards, the sponsor of the Jam Session.

Alyson was fantastic at running the department, no less this soulless aspect. Her success at the helm can be evinced from the prestigious partnerships she fostered, such as those with the NFL and NBA, which resulted in an increase in gigs, especially such cool highfalutin ones as this and Super Bowl XXV (see “Football Hero”) and subsequent commission of a parcel of brand-spanking-new costumes for such heroes as Cyclops, Storm, She-Hulk, The Fantastic Four and Iron Man (see “The Thing Is,” parts I, II, III, IV, V and VI) in the years she spearheaded the department.

Stewart was an exception to the stuffed suits with which Alyson usually had to hob knob. He not only understood the potential of the Personal Appearance program, he enjoyed and more importantly respected the actors who made Marvel’s superheroes come to life. In fact, Stewart was somewhat of a pop culture aficionado. In 1999, he left Marvel to become the President and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, a post he continues to serve today. His solid relationship with Alyson and the department was crucial for its health and good standing with Perelman’s people, since he was closer to them in the company’s hierarchy.

A positive report on the re-incarnated Hulk was more than certain to rise upward and osmose into the corporation’s executive ranks, securing a bit of insurance for future endeavors. It was evident from the bemused look on Stewart’s face that he liked the new look.

“How’s it feel in there,” he asked.

“It’s a hot time in the ole costume tonight,” I grumbled, and truer words had never been spoken. It was my first stint as the lime leviathan and mere minutes encapsulated within his skin, I was awash in sweat. But the laughter, which greeted my response, was enough to keep such paltry discomforts at bay. Alyson seemed pleased with my efforts, as well, and making one’s boss happy is never a bad thing.

It also boosted my confidence. Actors are a notoriously unsure lot, ever questioning their performances. The historic disrespect of the profession is certainly a contributing factor. Choosing the career is oft met with ridicule from family and friends alike; as if the decision is a phase the person is going through. Why else would one enter a job force with a ninety-percent unemployment rate and so little security? So every scrap of positive reinforcement is devoured like an oreo in the hands of Cookie Monster. This being my first time portraying the titular antihero, one of the founding pantheon of Stan Lee–created Marvel Universe characters, was unnerving, especially since I was embracing a different direction—one represented by Peter David in the character’s eponymous title to be sure, but perhaps a persona unfamiliar to the masses nonetheless—than that which previous Hulk performers had taken in the past.

I needn’t have worried. The fans—young and old—loved me. They really loved me! And I had a blast with the Green Goliath’s playfully snide character, especially with the celebs that roamed the area, including Mayim Bialik (see “Yours and Mayim”), a cappella group Boyz II Men and model/actor/MTV VJ Karen Duffy.

I want my MTV!

Still, I would’ve loved to have played with the fans in the carnival area, but even had I managed to survive the journey there and remained lucid, I didn’t trust that I’d get back on my own volition, and The Hulk being wheeled out of the stadium on a gurney wouldn’t have gone over to well with the company VIPs, never mind the wee Hulkophiles. It just wasn’t going to happen…

Then it happened.

Three days into the four-day event, Alyson had scheduled a photo shoot with Spider-Man, Wolverine and The Hulk. Joining us were a handful of Fleer executives, which only made sense; they were the sponsor for the event, after all.

I’d been involved in other photo shoots in the past, all of which spanned hours, usually an entire day, regardless of how seemingly small or mundane the project for which the session was scheduled. They’d also been conducted in a studio or at Marvel HQ, where a momentary removal of one’s costume to catch a breather between shots was permissible—no fear of exposure in the eyes of the public. Plus, since they were private, enclosed affairs, there wasn’t a need to constantly be in character. All in all, though the photo shoots may have taken longer than an average gig, they were less tiring.

Alyson made it clear that the photographer was booked for only three hours. Already this was sounding less severe, what with necessary breaks. Even ceding a mere fifteen-minute respite each hour so she could max her time with the shutterbug would be okay. A few pix on the court with Spider-Man and Wolverine; some nice cross-promotional shots with the Fleer Nabobs; perhaps a few solo efforts to highlight the new suit… badda bing, badda boom… done!

“I want to start with some shots of the heroes in the festival area,” Alyson chimed as soon as my colleagues and I exited the dressing room. Before you could say “heat exhaustion” she was leading her posse into the mouth of the endless tunnel that lead to the other end of the Salt Palace where the fan carnival was located. I dutifully followed, not that I had a chance to voice any concerns. Besides, it wouldn’t have looked good.

“Uh… excuse me, Alyson,” I’d grumble with an upraised green paw. “I have some concerns with my ability to make the trek. I fear I may pass out before we get there.” Yeah, that’d go over well and pretty much ensure my never getting another Hulk job.

In actuality, I was feeling fairly confident about hauling my purple ass to the fan fair section of the complex. During the previous two days within the walking green sauna, I’d acquired a sense of how best to regulate my breathing and conserve my energy to maximize my time as the Green Goliath. Four years of extensive vocal training—which included deep breathing exercises—and relaxation technique had attuned me to my body, and I was confident in my ability to push the boundaries of stamina, performing until the last possible moment. Had this been the start of the gig, before I’d had a few days of Hulking under my belt, I don’t think I would’ve handled the situation as well.

The journey was about putting myself into another state. I established a cadence to my footfalls and repeated a mantra in my head—I chose the marching song of the witch’s guards in The Wizard of Oz: “oh-wee-oh… woh-o-o-o-h-oh…”—in conjunction with each inhalation and exhalation. I all but ignored any attendees, NBA personal or workers that I passed, despite their greetings. A characteristic grunt was my reply as I traversed the corridor, that merest of sounds in accord with the rhythm of my breathing. I may have been at the back of the pack, but I kept in stride with them nonetheless. It was actually better not to be amidst the group, given the unwieldiness of the costume.

Finally, we emerged into the festival area, like navigating the tight confines of the wardrobe into the wonders of Narnia. The room was as expansive as a gymnasium; a cacophony of sounds—the hubbub of fans, bouncing balls, screeching sneaker soles on hardwood, carnies promoting their wares, loudspeaker announcements—and explosion of colors, plastered on banners, posters, clothing, bags and all manner of paraphernalia, from every team logo in the NBA. It hardly registered as I took stock of my condition. There was a moment of lightheadedness—a runner’s high, if you will—as I slowed my respiration and refocused my attention to the surroundings.

I was soaked—big surprise, there!—and winded, but otherwise good to go. The excitement of getting the opportunity to play the myriad NBA activities providing the boost of adrenaline I needed. The shoot was only just beginning, after all; there was a ways to go yet.

Hulk loves you this much!

So much for my prediction of a few pix of Hulk and co. There wasn’t a photo op that Alyson missed. Match your wingspan with that of basketball’s greatest big men… Check! Pose in your very own personalized locker betwixt those of All-Stars Karl Malone and John Stockton… Righty-O! Take part in hometown Utah Jazz’s team picture… Done! And of course, each shot went through a dozen takes. Okay, Spider-Man first… Now, Wolverine; you join him… Can you strike a different pose, Spidey…? Hulk, get in there… Let’s do one with Hulk alone… Now Hulk and Wolverine… What haven’t we done…? Oh, yeah; just Spidey and Hulk… We were going on two hours without a break, and any chance of one brought up images of the agonizing Death March to Bataan return trip to the B court.

Finally, Alyson directed us back to the secondary gym. I was delusional, seeing NBA cheerleaders beneath a bevy of swaying palm trees by an inviting pool, beckoning me… The prospect of traveling to the dressing room and getting this 500lb green gorilla off my back snapped me out of it. I actually led the way, moving more quickly than before, determined—Hulk smash… Hulk smash… Hulk smash…. Women and children fled before me. Hot dog carts pulled over. To those handful of poor souls oblivious to my approach I elicited an angry roar (They moved!). I was Godzilla razing Japan, Tokyo Bay my target, and nothing was going to stop me. Alyson had enough photos to fill the Hermitage. There was nothing more to shoot.

Apparently, there was.

Hey, these arent Hulks sneakers!

“Let finish up with some shots on the floor by the Jam Session logo,” Alyson announced directly behind me.

Aargh!!! I’d forgotten about the Mucky-Mucks from Fleer. We hadn’t taken a single photo featuring them. I was dying, but I couldn’t walk away from the people responsible for my being at the show. The tank was on empty, though, and the engine was in the red. I was teetering on the brink of collapse. It was the classic scenario in Hulk comics: the bestial behemoth, racked with fatigue after some cataclysmic battle, fighting his inner self—the formally dormant aspect of Bruce Banner—struggling desperately to re-seize control of his savage alter-ego, while the monster holds on vainly. Just… a few… more… shots…

“Screw you, guys. Hulk taking ball and going home!”

A handful of additional pix I could have handled, but Alyson returned to her litany of endless poses, beginning with those highlighting the superheroes. She went through more combinations than possible patterns on a Rubik’s Cube. And that was before she even invited the Fleer Poo-Bahs to participate. A dozen snaps with them and there was still no indication that Alyson was anywhere near finished. I was literally in danger of heat prostration. Flanked by Fleer execs and fronted by Spider-Man and Wolverine, I stepped out of the frame and headed for the lockers. My mind was a blur; blood pounding in my ears; my breathing a ragged whisper. And somewhere in the distance, I heard Alyson’s voice… Hulk… Hulk… Where’s he going…? Hulk…

I don’t know how, but I made it. I barely had enough left to navigate myself onto a metal folding chair, when I realized I had no way of getting out of the costume without someone to unzipper the back—Houdini couldn’t have done it! The arms allowed just enough movement for me to sandwich the head ’tween my massive mitts. But did I have the energy to free it from the neck folds tucked into the chest cavity? There was no way I was going to die as The Hulk. That thought was the impetus I needed to rip off the mask. I was still trapped—resembling the leader of the funny-book felons The Headmen—but at least with the noggin off, my body was able to breath.

I envisioned my body being ridiculously emaciated when I was finally unfettered from my jade jail cell, like cartoon characters who have been trapped inside those reducing cabinets of yore. I looked at the wall clock, taking a moment to bring it into focus. I’d been in the suit for two hours and forty-five minutes, and suddenly felt like a passenger on the Minnow … “a three-hour tour… a three-hour tour…” looping in my brain. I knew then I was going to be fine. Lucky for Alyson I wasn’t really The Hulk. She would never have made it to pose thirty-seven!

Next: The Three Caballeros

Friday, February 3, 2012

Going to Court, Part II: Dunkin’ Treasure

After successfully fitting into the brand-spankin’ new Hulk costume, our intrepid hero is off to Salt Lake City, Utah, for a gig at the NBA Jam Session, a b-ball-centric fan fair leading up to the All-Star Game. Accompanying him on this epic adventure are Spider-Man and Wolverine… and Marvel Personal Appearance Department Director, Alyson… gulp!…

What none of the actors realized until we got to the Salt Palace—home of the Utah Jazz and venue of the NBA Jam Session—was that weeks prior to the event Personal Appearance Nabob Alyson was hard at work preparing the infiltration of another Spider-Man to our ranks upon arrival! This was no clone—that saga was more than a year off. No, this web-slinging dopplegänger would have powers unlike any of the Spideys in the Marvel offices, talents that would be showcased for all to see at the basketball bender, i.e. court skillz.

That’s right. Marvel was hiring their own Spider-Jordan to dribble, shoot, and most importantly, slam dunk during the basketball Bacchanalia’s daily dunkin’ displays. Paradigms of pectoral pulchritude we heroes may be, each with the athleticism of the above-average Joe, but none of us in-house Webheads were on par with professionals. Sure, I played b-ball—badly—in the cages of New York City. Hell, I was even on a championship team when I was eleven—someone had to get water for the others—but I had about as much elevation as a Buick. Larry Bird would laugh at my vertical leap. Thus, a ringer need be found.

To accomplish this goal, Alyson contacted a local talent agency in Salt Lake City. I know what you, my Ever-Faithful and Canny Bloglodytes are thinking: Why enlist a middle-man? Call up the local colleges yourself. There’ll be possibilities aplenty from which to choose. Ah, but collegiates taking a paying basketball-related job while in the hallowed halls of academia would be in violation of NCAA rules, which could result in suspension, losing one’s scholarship, disqualification from the NBA Draft and/or dismissal. Fortunately, the agency had a bead on the next best thing: post-graduates; those hardwood heroes falling shy of the pros.

But not just any former basketball superstar would do. There were certain criteria beyond the facility to dribble, shoot and dunk that the candidates would have to meet, if they were to be considered for the role of Web-Swinger ringer. First, they’d have to fit the costume. Six-foot-two would be ideal; six-three, tight; six-four would be stretching it (pun intended). Plus, the prospective performers had to look good in the red-and-blue. Spidey’s signature togs appear differently on everyone. It all depends on where the webs fall on an individual’s musculature.

Ambassadorial aptitude was secondary, since the eventual selection would not be interacting directly with the fans. They’d be performing as part of a dunking display, switching roles with Jeremy, who’d appear before and after the show to meet and greet the fans in person. Of course, total a-holes were out of consideration. But Alyson left the personality decisions in the hands of the agency. She’d still have ultimate say from a triumvirate of finalists, which she’d choose before arrival.

To that end, weeks prior to the gig, Alyson shipped the agency a passel of retired Spider-Man threads. Photographs were taken of a bevy of b-boys—who fit the Webhead-thespian criteria—outfitted in the iconic regalia. Said pix were then Fedexed—email was a few years off—to Alyson for consideration. She chose her three favorite candidates before leaving the Big Apple and auditioned the finalists when we touched down in Salt Lake City. All this done under the noses of her hero elite without any of us the wiser.

“God, I hope I get it.
I hope I get it.
How many Spideys does she need?”

Oh, to be a fly on the wall of the family sports center where Alyson put the prospective Dunkin’ Spideys through their paces. An awesome display of the three Web-sketeers dribbling, passing shooting and slamming on the court; a clone pick-up game, as it were, or Web-Swinging version of Three-Card Monte with the victim trying to select the true Spider-Man once they’ve stopped moving. Of course, anyone who’s seen the Broadway production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark with its multiple Web-Slingers musical numbers might find observing the audition as more “Been there; done that,” and less “Wow, totally cool!” but back in 1993, there was no precedent.

We met Sam, the eventual winner of the Slammin’ Spidey Sweepstakes at the Salt Palace on the sidelines of a basketball court—perhaps a practice one the Jazz used—in another part of the facility. Jeremy, Joe and I had just finished moving our hero togs into one of this “B” court’s locker rooms and meandered onto the floor when Alyson approached with Sam in tow. He was approximately six-foot-four and had a body type that was more “Round Mound of Rebound” Charles Barkley than Clyde “The Glide” Drexler, though his manner was conversely more quiet, yet affable. We wished him luck and told him how much we were looking forward to seeing him dunk the ball as Spidey.

“Round Mound of Rebound” Charles Barkley vs. Clyde “The Glide” Drexler

That first day was spent acclimating ourselves to the areas we’d be plying our trade, i.e. meeting and greeting our adorees. The Jam Session would take place within the environs of the Salt Palace. Various basketball exhibitions, like the slam dunk contest, were scheduled throughout the day at the B court. A long corridor led to an open area where an assortment of appropriately-themed activities were set up. It was an indoor carnival as if run by the NBA, including hawker stands by the likes of Converse and Champion, selling everything from sneakers to hoodies. The main court, the one on which the Jazz played their home games was off this area. Major competitions, such as the old-timers’ and rookies’ games took place there, culminating in the All-Star Game, the finale to the whole week-long megillah.

We also had time to watch Sam familiarize himself with wearing the costume while working the hardwood. I envied not the onus of our Dunkin’ Double. As the worldwide idol of millions, whose alter ego was fabled to have the proportional strength and agility of a spider, he’d be expected to perform à la Michael Jordan, accomplishing the most amazing maneuvers, a veritable Bboy b-baller. It was a difficult task alone, never mind while wearing the signature webs of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Hey, who moved the net?!!

For those of you new to the wonders of Heroes in My Closet, let me take a moment to catch you up on the visibility of those donning the red-and-blue: It sucks! A milky haze constantly veiled the wearer’s vision, which not only caused a decrease in clarity—duh!—but also severely curtailed one’s depth perception. The actor’s peripherals were also impeded, but used to be worse before the suit design was updated to reflect the marked increase in the whites of the Web-Spinner’s eyes (see “My, What Big Eyes You Have”), due to the overwhelming popularity of artist Todd McFarlane’s interpretation of the character. But for the purposes of our Dunkin’ Double, difficulty in accurately judging the precise location of the basket was a major hurdle to overcome in order to perform successfully.

Moving our way down to the hands, imagine trying to palm—grip and maneuver without gravity forcing from one’s grip—a basketball while wearing silk gloves. Granted, the Spider-Man costume wasn’t made of spun silk—wouldn’t that be apropos?!—but the effect was similar. Unlike rubber or leather, the fabric was slick, offering no grip to the user. Dribbling and passing would be trickier, but dunking without palming…? it wasn’t essential, but inability to do so made the act far more challenging.

Plus, there was the issue of Spidey’s powers, those being the ability to adhere to any surface. He wouldn’t necessarily have to palm the basketball; it would stick naturally via his superhuman talents. So the b-ball slipping from his grasp, whether it be while dunking or dribbling or passing was not an option.

Okay, thus far, we’ve basically poked the eyes and broken the fingers of our Dunkin’ Double. Why not go for the triple threat? Let’s hobble our poor hero, too! The soles of the Spidey costumes were not but slender leather pads, approximately the same size as Dr. Scholl’s inserts, only the padding was thicker and looser; less firm. Simple ambulatory function caused the performer’s feet to slide. Anything more athletic than that risked serious ankle injury.

I’m hardly an expert, but I’m confident in stating that good foot traction is a plus when dunking. I won’t say it’s essential, because there are plenty of players whose height and/or jumping prowess makes them able to slam dunk a basketball from a standstill under the hoop. But for the more height-challenged, like guards who are typically several inches shorter than their teammates—usually around the same height as our victim… er, hero—it is nigh impossible to make the move without building up some speed and launching toward the net.

Up, up and away...!

Taking these problems in turn, the only solution to improving a performer’s visibility and depth-perception while wearing the Spidey suit was tried-and-true practice, i.e. there was no ready fix. The costume was what it was. Neither time nor funds were available to play with the eye construction, i.e. test different substances in lieu of the mesh used in the current design’s occipital region to find a better alternative. Sam had to simply acclimate himself to his new perception on the court as Spider-Man, which meant trial and error.

Stickum was the answer to the grip problem. It’s the same stuff wide receivers use in football to make their hands sticky so as to better catch the ball, especially in bad weather. One negative side effect to employing the gummy substance, however, was that dirt adhered just as readily to the surface to which it was applied. Dust from the ball quickly transferred to one’s hands, creating a layer that reduced the efficacy of the Stickum, resulting in its further implementation, which attracted more dirt, increasing the need for additional Stickum, and so on and so forth.

“Excuse me while I touch the sky...”

Fortunately, the stuff comes in an easy-to-use spray can. And worked wonders for the first dozen minutes or so after application. Sam could actually hold his arm out, palm down, and the ball would remain affixed to his hand, defying gravity, as if by magic… or spider powers! Sam must have gone though a couple of cases by the finish of his stint as the Webbed Wonder. And by week’s end, Spidey’s paws had stained to burnt sienna, similar to a skid mark on one’s tightie whities after an unfortunate fart with extras.

As for Sam’s traction risks, again, there was no way of altering the red-and-blue. He’d need sneakers. Yeah, I know, Spider-Man would never wear shoes of any type. After all, they’d inhibit the use of his powers to stick to walls, which the thin fabric of the costume does not. His excuse, or rather Jeremy’s for it would be he who would have to answer the clamoring questions of the hoi polloi once Sam’s duty was done, was that A) he wasn’t expecting a visit from any of his nemeses, so wouldn’t need the use of his powers to walk up walls, and B) he was getting into the festivities and wanted to show-off his own cool, personally-styled sneaks—Jordan has his, after all. To that end, Alyson decided to get Sam some. One problem: he was a size 14!

The call went out to Beverly, Marvel Personal Appearance Department costume maven, to scour Manhattan for red-canvas Converse All-Stars. Checking the internet was not an option; it didn't exist yet! The desired sneaks—Chuck Taylors—were relatively inexpensive and, more importantly, could be sketched upon. As long as Beverly could locate a pair and overnight them to Utah, Alyson could break out the Sharpies and channel her inner Michaelangelo to cover them in webbing before Sam’s debut.

In the meantime, Sam donned his own sneakers over the costume, so he could at least start practicing—daylight was a-wastin’! Nice shoes they might have been, but they were predominately black and stuck out, like a fuchsia bowtie on Batman, diminishing the cachet of the iconic red-and-blue. It became immediately apparent that custom-treads were no longer just a nifty idea; they were crucial.

Jeremy help Sam with Spidey pointers; explaining certain characteristic moves and poses that he should strive to emulate betwixt dunks. I had my own opinions—hard as that is to believe—but kept out of the conversations—harder as that is to believe! It would only confuse Sam to have gotten differing views on how to perform as the Web-Spinner. Luckily the suit, combined with the natural moves and crouched stance of a basketball player, did most of the work. He looked great—aside from the footwear—and was soon getting the knack of dunking the ball within the webbing.

Of course, there was the issue of Sam’s body size. As aforementioned, Spidey’s togs best fit a personage of no more than six-foot-three. Sam was literally bursting at the seams, including an unfortunate area just above the gluteus maximus that would have fans wondering if our erstwhile Web-Slinger was a plumber in his off-time!

Spider-Man’s dreams of being a plumber
were well behind him!

This weakness in the tensile strength of the suit’s stitches could have been a lot more embarrassing had it manifested after the doors to the Jam Session had opened to the public. As it was the day before, Sam had to suffer only the good-natured ribbing from the members of the NBA’s dunking exhibition team, which amounted to nothing more than the humorous tête à tête of a “Your mama’s so fat…” contest. As long as the costume was repaired before the next day’s inaugural start of the festival, the public would be none the wiser. That unfortunate task would also fall upon Alyson’s shoulders, and with the beating Sam’s ensemble was taking on the court, she’d be pulling a lot of late hours as Betsy Ross.

America runs on dunking

As for accommodating Sam’s size 14 flippers… Try as she might, Beverly could not find a New York City purveyor who carried that size in stock. She called Alyson in tears explaining her predicament. To her credit, Alyson was not one to get upset over “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” The woman came from Macy’s where she worked on organizing the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, an event of Brobdignagian proportions, fraught with speed bumps throughout its 364 days—their one day off a year was Thanksgiving—of preparation. You’d have to be Zen-like in your approach to the daily tribulations of the job or you’d soon be fitted with a white coat and dragged to the nuthouse.

So the greatest city in the country, known for its thousands of street-ball courts, couldn’t produce a size 14 Converse All-Star. What to do… The answer was pretty much a no-brainer, one of those “Wow, I could’ve had a V8” moments for Alyson. She spoke with the guys running the Converse booth at the show—duh! Lo and behold, they had the shoe… only not in red! One sleepless night—during which she painstakingly colored and copied the pedal webbing pattern of the suit—and several red and black Sharpies later, Alyson presented Sam with a pair of custom Chuck Taylors perfect for even the most discerning Web-Swinger.

Here they are: the infamous custom Spider-Man sneakers, nearly twenty years later.

Alyson got Stan Lee’s autograph on one of his East Coast visits. Needless to say, he wanted his own pair!

It wasn’t long before Sam, proudly donning a pair of sneakers worthy of a winning Project Runway challenge, was showing off some hardwood heroics alongside his envious peers. Dunkin’ Spidey was ready to go!

Air Spideys!

NEXT: Hulky Goes a Courtin’…