Playbook salutes the birthplace of mascots

Behold Wabash College's Wally Wabash, the Memphis Grizzlies' Grizz and the Cleveland Cavs' Sir C.C. ESPN.com Illustration

It really is a wonder that you don’t hear more stories about mascots being beaten into smithereens. They’re just people, after all, people in suits who dance up on random folks, spray tough guys with Silly String, and enthusiastically embrace strangers’ children without invitation or permission.

It’s because we forget there are people inside. That’s the magic of exquisitely crafted mascot costumes: They suspend our beliefs and intuitions regarding social norms so that we don’t just tolerate the creatures, we adore them. And Jennifer Q. Smith is one of the magicians who makes that possible.

Smith is the self-proclaimed Queen of Fuzz at AvantGarb Inc., an Indianapolis-based company that designs and builds mascot costumes. She estimates that AvantGarb has created mascots for 14 different sports teams, including the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Memphis Grizzlies.

It’s the kind of work that no design school or fashion institute can prepare you for. You sort of just stumble into it, or at least that’s the case for Smith.

“It was a long, winding road,” she says. “My first costume was a sexy salmon for the opening of the Seattle Aquarium, and when you start off with a sexy salmon, things just kind of snowball from there.”

In the '70s, she made strange, conceptual costumes with a group called Friends of the Rag as part of the Wearable Art Movement, which earned her the sexy salmon gig. Eventually she moved down the coast to San Francisco, where word of her talents reached a small Berkeley cookie company.

The company asked her to make a chocolate chip cookie costume for a dessert trade show, which she did, and to her delight the San Francisco Chronicle ran a picture of it on the front page the day after the show. The plug in the paper earned her a few more gigs, and in 1987 she decided it was time to officially start a company.

“I didn’t really realize I was starting a mascot company,” reflects Smith. “It was kind of the worst business plan ever. I came from this art background, so I thought I’d name my company AvantGarb and I would make costumes for avant-garde theatre.”

She soon realized that this would never make her any money, considering the nonexistent costume budgets of most small theatres. But she noticed there was an unusual amount of demand for mascots. And someone’s gotta do the job, right?

“I feel like the mascots just came and took me by the hand and said, ‘We need to be made, and you’re gonna do it.’ I never even imagined that I’d one day make mascots for a living.”

But here she is. She’s in the mascot business, and business is good. AvantGarb makes roughly 50 mascot costumes a year and generates about $200,000 in annual revenue. Besides the mascots that Smith builds for professional sports teams, she also takes on corporate projects, including a perky pancreas for a pharmaceutical company and a large barfing child for a kids’ biology exhibit.

The mascots take about 150 hours apiece to build, and they demand constant communication with the teams or companies who commission the projects. Teams with very specific visions for their mascots often don’t realize that a design must have limitations if it’s going to be adapted to fit a human body, so much of the back-and-forth discussion between Smith and her clients involves compromising on things such as muscle bulk and head size.

Smith says that by far the most rigorous part of the mascot-building process is designing and placing the helmet.

“There’s a person in there, and they need to see and breathe,” explains Smith. “The interior helmet has to be comfortable for the performer; there must be plenty of room in the head. If it’s off by a little, their neck gets tired; they have to struggle to get vision. Placing the helmet takes forever.”

No matter how much time she invests, it’s always a worthwhile endeavor for Smith. Even though she never envisioned herself doing this kind of work, she’s come to realize the lasting importance of what she does.

“You have to create a creature that will be a team’s most ardent fan,” she says. “As coaches go and players leave, the mascot will stay on. That’s a great responsibility and a great joy. To create these characters who will stand by the fans through the thick and the thin, it’s exciting.”

And that’s something you don’t really think about. Is the face of a franchise the guy who’ll lead a team in victory and defeat so long as no one else comes along offering a bigger paycheck? Or is it someone made of foam, whose unconditional allegiance is vibrantly apparent in every chapter of a team’s legacy?

Maybe that’s a silly thing to ask. But maybe we should go ahead and acknowledge that mascots aren’t as silly as we think.