I Was a Costumed Cartoon Character (and Lived to Tell About It)

Person in a stuffed Clifford suit sprawls on a small loveseat, one ear over an eye
This is hard work. Photo courtesy Frank Sarris Public Library, Clifford courtesy Scholastic.

I love cosplay, but mostly because I love making costumes. It’s given me a bit of a reputation at the library as the one who’s always up for portraying a character, though, which I suppose is why the director immediately volunteered me to be Clifford* at our Halloween Bash this year. Scholastic had given us a deal where we’d get a whole pile of Clifford the Big Red Dog paperbacks to use as giveaways, as long as we used the Clifford costume at an advertised event. “Can you do that?” my boss said. “Um, sure,” I replied. “Okay, then we’ll request it,” she said.

We scheduled two different hour-long blocks for Clifford to meet visitors during the Halloween bash—11:30-12:30, break until 1, then 1-2—although the costume guidelines specifically recommended I spend no longer than twenty minutes in costume between breaks. I had an image of my “break” consisting of me, in the break room, with the head and front paws of the costume off but the rest of the costume on for simplicity’s sake. But as soon as I pulled on the bodysuit, I knew immediately that the cautions against overheating definitely applied to the whole costume. It was like wearing a stuffed animal. Extremely soft and puffy, super-extremely warm. After about 15 minutes all I could think was, how do people do this for two-hour blocks at a time, outdoors in the summer in Orlando?

When I put on the head, it became clear why the guidelines also insisted on Clifford having someone to guide them.  I had a sudden strong flashback to Mr. McFeely knocking Miffy’s head off years ago at the Children’s Museum (story in the footnotes of this link), but at least this head wasn’t nearly as unwieldy as Miffy’s had been. Still, I had a line of vision limited to slightly above straight ahead. It was not ideal for walking, let alone interacting with three-year-olds! Even with guidance, I still managed to trip on a bench in the now-crowded-with-visitors hallway on the way to our meet-and-greet station. I had an eager audience already at that point, and some part of me immediately thought, “We must turn this stumble into a pratfall!” So instead of trying to pretend the trip hadn’t happened, I splayed all my limbs and rolled over, wiggling, like an upturned turtle. This resulted in giggles and lots of helping hands to get Clifford back on his feet. And you know, that costume is pretty much all soft padding. It makes pratfalls much easier.

The trick now was to convince the close-hanging crowd to follow me/let me move on to the actual meet-and-greet station, where other kids were already waiting in line! I didn’t want anyone in the hallway to get the impression that Clifford was brushing them off, but if I hung out here I’d be brushing off the kids waiting. And I couldn’t just tell them because I wasn’t allowed to talk! My walking helpers probably should have spoken up at this point, but they were my kids, and this hadn’t occurred to them. So with big, exaggerated gestures, I tried to wave everyone after me, and finally reached my station without (I hope) disappointing anyone.

I am channeling my inner clown, I told myself. People go to school to learn to do this properly, so I must take my amateur efforts seriously and mindfully. I put myself in mime mode, only to realize I was still relying way too much on facial expression. Body movements! When I realized a slight tilt of my head didn’t actually tilt Clifford’s head: BIG body movements!

And not only could no one see my facial expressions, I could still barely see other people, particularly not the small children who most wanted me to see them. Wait a minute, I realized. Clifford doesn’t walk on his hind legs, anyway!  I dropped to my knees to greet each visitor now, and pawed the ground with my forepaws in between photo posing.

Now I could actually (mostly) see the kids I was interacting with, though at this level all the kids who wanted to run up and give Clifford a hug ran straight into his muzzle instead. I held my arms out wide. They could usually manage a proper hug if they came at me sideways. And Clifford is very soft. High-fives were the easiest way to show affection, though.

I talked myself through my exo-body. If I want to show surprise, I can put my paws up to Clifford’s cheeks which are here. When a kid punches me in the nose (which, yes, happened more than once), my paws go here to nurse it. I cover my mouth here, my eyes here. OH! I have floppy dog ears! I must make use of them! I started to use flopping Clifford’s ears up and down (with my paws: didn’t actually have muscular control over the ears) as a way to show excitement every time a kid came who was also dressed like a dog.

toddler dressed as Scooby-Doo dives at person dressed as Clifford, who is leaning away in exaggerated shock
This tiny Scooby really wanted to steal Clifford’s bone-shaped collar-tag. Photo courtesy Frank Sarris Public Library

As it happened, the initial rush of visitors had all passed through the meet-and-greet station after about twenty minutes, anyway, and my coworker at the book giveaway table (who also, incidentally, took all the pictures in this article) noticed me starting to sag. “How about Clifford goes back to the doghouse for awhile and just comes back at one to see who else comes?” she said.

So, with my kids leading me again, I made my way back down to the break room and stripped that red suit off. It was so soft, though, I considered spreading it out on the floor to use as a couch, but I was afraid that might get it dirty. So instead I put my feet up the best I could in a couple of wooden chairs, made my kids give me food out of their treat bags, and checked Twitter. I was in a sweat-drenched T-shirt and shorts and still wasn’t the slightest bit chilly. After forty-five minutes I was still noticeably sweaty enough to make a coworker (comfortably dressed as Mary Poppins) exclaim, “Holy crap!” She then said, apologetically, that another coworker who was leaving soon REALLY wanted a picture with Clifford before she went, so would I please put the costume on again even though my break wasn’t over? I did, but admittedly, I left the paws off. I put my hands behind my back for the picture.

Aside from the heat, I enjoyed embodying Clifford for the day. The hardest part was having to tame my librarian instincts to stop from saying helpful things. I kept stretching into a downward-facing dog, and then wanting to invite the people around me to my Monday morning Yoga Storytime. When my son had the nerve to express that he was getting bored within my earshot, I took him by the hand and led him to the place on the shelves where I knew there was a nice new series on sports cars.

On Halloween night, a young Jessie-the-Cowgirl arrived at my door, and was excited to see that she knew me from the library, and I had to fight hard not to tell her I’d seen her in her Jessie costume already, since I’D been a Big Red Dog at the time. But in one case, it was too good of a secret to keep. Two days before the Halloween Bash, I read a Clifford Halloween book to a small preschool class, and everyone in the class had to tell me their costume plans. “Do you want to know a secret?” I asked them. A week later one of those preschoolers came to the library and announced excitedly, “I know what you were for Halloween! Clifford!” “Shhh, it’s a secret!” I told her. But I didn’t actually mind.

Person in Clifford costume poses with preteens dressed as Eleven from Stranger Things and Steve from Minecraft
Clifford had to work to persuade these preteens to also pose for a picture that will probably be included in Christmas cards. My 10yo IS dressed as Eleven, by the way, but for some reason she refused to get a buzz cut for the occasion. This is the third time the 12yo has done a Minecraft character (with two years in between as characters from other video games), but he didn’t want to do the box costume anymore. My kids are getting lazy about dressing up.

*Imagine that every time I say the word “Clifford” in this article, there’s a ™ sign. I’m not sure how necessary it is for purposes of this article, but it did always appear on every box and paper that came with the costume, which my kids for some reason found particularly hilarious, and wouldn’t say the word “Clifford” without adding a “TM!” or “Trademark!” for the rest of the day. “Who trademarks a dog?” my son giggled. “It’s not a dog, it’s a character, an intellectual property,” I said. But the kids, somehow, were not interested in my explanations of intellectual property law, and continued to shout “Clifford TM!” all day.

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