I was an A-list celebrity for one single summer. Women shoved babies into my arms for photographs. Crowds chanted my name. It was an intoxicating time. For an entire season, I was perpetually the most popular person in the room. Yet I barely earned minimum wage.
Through some twist of fate, a manager in the entertainment division of Six Flags Great Adventure gave me a second glance as I sat down for an interview at the onset of the park’s busy summer season.
“Hey, how much do you weigh?” she asked, interrupting my canned response to the greatest weakness/greatest strength question.
It was the new millennium, I was in college and I was applying for work in an amusement park. I didn’t even feign shock at the question. She then asked my height and if I could dance. I only fibbed once.
A week later, I was half-winging the choreography of my first headlining act as Bugs Bunny.
Part of my obligatory training for the role was learning how to walk like Bugs and gesture like Bugs. And one of my main duties was to be the star in each evening’s fireworks show. It might have helped if I had not told a little white lie about my dancing skills. So, when I inevitably forgot one or two of my choreographed moves on a nightly basis, I made some up. Did I accidentally almost throw a backup dancer into a pyrotechnic display on more than one occasion? I sure did. But everyone survived. Most important, the paying audience hardly noticed I had swapped a jig for a jazz square while nearly dispatching a fellow park employee to the afterlife.
Sadly, being Bugs Bunny also alerted me to a wide range of bad human behavior. Sure, a portion of the slaps and jabs regularly aimed at my caricatured features were playful, but I was also subjected to a level of violence I luckily had never experienced before. Young men beat me up, and grown women felt me up. On the outside, I was just your typical coattail-sporting pantsless bunny. But no one knew who wore the suit, thanks to a powerful combination of sports garments and specialty girdles. This confused — and enraged — many park visitors.
A great number of people beyond the age of about 12 wanted nothing more than to find out the sex of the person who wore the suit. “What you got under there, Bugs?” one woman whispered into my giant right ear while groping at my torso. I managed to twist away, Bugs’ face frozen in a wide smile. I had been warned about this from the outset: It came with the job, and it’s why each character was accompanied by a minder — to remind people of their manners when necessary. But Bugs also received his fair share of carrots, both real and figurative, the latter in the form of notes penned by little ones who wanted nothing more than to tell a big bunny that they loved him.
Bugs Bunny was the irrefutable king of the park. He greeted guests as they entered, and dispatched them into the night as the star of each evening’s show. But he wasn’t me. And I was never allowed to get too big for my britches. After the nightly performance was through, each and every one of the characters would push through the crowds, doling out hugs and autographs as we made our way back to the trailer at the back of the park. Once indoors, we shed the costumes, donned our standard-issue polo shirts and khakis, and headed back out to the stage to sweep trash before the cleaning crews started their shifts. We were reprimanded if we dallied too long in the trailer.
Out near the entrance, as I collected discarded napkins and cigarette butts, I regularly recognized faces among the departing that were, just moments before, screaming at Bugs for an autograph. Not a one gave me a second glance as a street sweeper. This is when I learned the sweet freedom of anonymity — though, frankly, I still preferred the accolades.
But it was one single child who made the biggest impact on me that season. I had just finished a particularly grueling midafternoon performance in August when a little boy grabbed my gloved hand as I tried to slip past the crowd and back to the air-conditioned trailer.
“Hey,” the boy said, looking up into the dark mesh that surrounded the eyes in my costume. “Are you smiling in there?”
I looked down at him, and marveled at the magic that allowed him to see me and the mask I was wearing — and to genuinely care about both. To love and acknowledge both the person and the suit. What a lesson in empathy. I reached out to grasp his five fingers in my four.
“Are you?” he repeated, looking straight through Bugs’ eyes and into my own.
Megan Ritchie Jooste is a Philadelphia writer who wrote this article for the Philadelphia Inquirer.