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

1 comment:

Vik said...

I've been training in the Himalayas with centuries-old Yogis and Lamas just so I can take the Hulk suit for a go one day. I can modulate my breathing pretty well, and pain has become a vestigal emotion. :)

I don't remember if you've mentioned this before, but how much does the Hulk suit weigh? Add about 15 pounds to that amount (athletes sweat out about 2 and a half liters of water per hour, and you were out there for almost three hours) and boy oh boy you must've been sore the next morning!