This was my third year as a PBS character. In 2008, I was Word Girl, and I reprised that role again in 2009. For those of you unfamiliar with Word Girl, she’s an alien with superpowers, whose secret identity is Becky Botsford, a 10½ year old fifth grader. She was born on the fictional planet Lexicon, but snuck onto a spaceship and crash-landed on Earth, where she teaches kids vocabulary while fighting crime.
I loved being Word Girl. Having a secret identity has always appealed to me, in a Walter Mittyesque kind of way. Plus Word Girl has a cape, and she can fly. But after two years, I wanted something different, and the lure of Princess Presto was more than I could resist: she’s pretty, she’s a champion speller and she’s royalty – and she has not only a cape, but a crown and a wand to boot!
Princess Presto and
former Director of Major and Planned Giving, Debbie Eliason
Character costumes are very intricate feats of engineering – they come with optional fat suits, depending on the build of the inhabitant. Shoes are oversized with padding inside to accommodate varying foot sizes. Shuffling is required. Gloves are huge, with fingers that extend far beyond those of the wearer, so that gestures lose any possibility of nuance. But it’s the heads that are the biggest challenge: they weigh easily 10 or more pounds, and come with a (supposedly) adjustable helmet inside. There are mesh covered holes, usually in the character’s mouth area, to enable the wearer to see – but not too much. That’s why the character needs a handler – because assuming you can see anything at all, it’s a 2” square that aims straight ahead – there’s no peripheral vision, no up or down, just straight ahead, and then only if the helmet doesn’t slide down and cover one or both of your eyes. The handler walks around with the character, directing when to wave, when to stop, when to lean down, and when a kid is heading toward you at breakneck speed.
And oh my, is it hot inside one of those things. It can be brutal, even on the coolest day. Sometimes the handler’s job is to keep you from falling over in a heap! In fact, if you ask anybody who’s ever worn one of these costumes who the most important person is, odd are “my handler” is the quick and enthusiastic handler.
My handler on October 2nd was a pinch hitter, but one who regularly lends a hand when anything needs to be done at WHRO – our former Director of Major and Planned Giving, Debbie Eliason. She definitely had the “aha!” moment at this year’s festival. Here’s her account of a priceless encounter:
Chaya, who turns two later this month, immediately recognized Princess Pesto from the PBS children's program, Super Why! at the Children's Festival. Chaya's mother, Suzanne Rimmer, said, "I was thinking "hmmm, what's that character's name?" All of a sudden Chaya pointed and said "P!" That was the first time she identified a letter. The following day, Chaya was watching Super Why! and said "P" right away when she saw Princess Pesto on the TV. “
There are many such stories when you’re dressed as a child’s favorite character. As Princess Presto, a dozen little girls ran up to tell me they were going as me for Halloween. Many of them were brandishing their own miniature version of me – the Princess Presto doll (complete with wand!) But the funniest thing I observed while my own head was inside the Princess’s is this: every time somebody asked to take a photograph of me, I noticed that I’d smile my biggest smile. I’m told it’s an instinctive response to a camera – but I rather think it’s just a real desire to make a little girl’s heroine seem genuine!
View the slideshow for a preview of the Children's Festival on October 2, 2010.