The best Halloween costume I’ve seen so far this year was a guy covered in pixels. He had small, multi-colored squares painted all over. Very clever. I don’t know who this guy is, I only saw his photo on somebody’s facebook page, but I love his idea and was tempted to steal it.
That got me thinking about costumes I’ve worn in the past. Although I did not consider becoming an actor until I was a teenager, I can see now that I took costumes very seriously as a child. Without a conscious thought being paid to it, I was intrigued by the idea of dressing up as someone – or something – else and staying in character for the duration.
There was the year I went as a puritan and spoke all day in an Olde English accent. People were getting angry and annoyed by it, and were trying to get me to speak normally, but I really felt as if I couldn’t use modern language while in that period dress.
In the third grade, I was Groucho Marx. It was my own idea, and I remember the adults being surprised that I would know who he was. I’d seen enough of his movies on TV, and he was my favorite Marx Brother. I loved walking around like him while holding that cigar. Also, raising my eyebrows was a trick I could do, and was glad to be able to put that to use.
Funny, when I was in acting school years later, I was cast in a role which required me to speak a few lines like Groucho, and I could not do it! I had never perfected his voice. I remember everyone I asked about it would immediately launch into their impressions of him:
“Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas….”
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard…”
“Room service? Send up a larger room…”
On the subway. In the deli. Everywhere I went, I was surrounded by Marxisms. Yet I couldn’t get a grasp of the accent. It kept coming out like Jewish.
Although I claim to have never won anything, that isn’t true. I won a costume contest. Twice. The first was in the sixth grade. I was Uncle Sam. Again, my idea, although I cannot remember why I wanted to be Uncle Sam for Halloween. My mom sewed strips of red fabric onto a pair of white pants. I had powder in my hair. I think I made the top hat out of construction paper. We had to parade around the gymnasium floor for the costume contest, and I won.
The second time was in high school. Some friends had decided we should go as characters from Star Wars. There was a Darth Vadar, a Princess Leia, a Storm Trooper, and me. I was CP3O. My mom made the costume out of gold vinyl. How she managed to have gold vinyl lying around is a mystery, but she constructed an amazing suit of armor. Helmet. Gloves. It was impressive. I took a black permanent marker and drew on some of his details.
I studied how he walked and spent the whole day in character. It took me a long time to get from one place to another, but I enjoyed the attention I got from the other kids in the hall. Wondering who was under that mask, and commenting on how well I captured his movements.
It was hot in the gold vinyl, but I almost made it through all of my classes without taking off the head piece. Except for orchestra. I had to remove the gloves in order to play the cello, but the conductor was a scrooge, and forced me to take off the helmet. I could see fine. He just didn’t like Halloween and was irked by those of us who showed up in costume for practice.
No matter. At the end of the day, trophies were awarded. I won a little gold Oscar, which I still have.
Then, in my senior year, after having discovered I was an actor, I dressed up for Halloween as Melvin. A nerd. I wore too-short plaid pants. Yellow shoes. A clip-on bow tie. Broken glasses, held together with tape. A pocket protector. My hair was gelled back and I carried a ridiculously cumbersome stack of books. The best part was the character I created. I spoke in a nasal voice and had developed mannerisms to go along with his personality. It was a chance to completely embody someone else for an entire day, and I had a ball.
The response to my performance led to this character being written in to the senior class show. It was called the Senior Follies, and was basically a Saturday Night Live type collection of sketches and comedy routines. We came up with the material ourselves, and Melvin appeared more than once in various situations. For a week after the production, I could not walk the halls between classes without hearing someone shout, “Hey, Melvin!”
That character also inspired me to continue dressing up in costume. Without a reason. I would show up one day as a punk rocker. Another day as a priest. My favorite was a homeless guy. I wore that costume quite a bit. Perhaps I was making some sort of subconscious social commentary? My political beliefs were still being formed, maybe this was a tactile way to explore socialism? Who knows.
What was certain was that it provoked an often hysterical response. I remember the day my friend Vilma’s mom was supposed to give me a lift home. She thought I was a real homeless person and shooed me away from the car. Vilma was in tears from laughing so hard.
Now, after years of performing at parties as everything from Woody the Cowboy to the Red Teletubbie, and returning from auditions as Jesus Christ or an Ice Hockey Referee, I sometimes forget that I am still in costume. I’ll be standing at the bank teller’s window, or in the post office, or at the supermarket checkout stand. Completely unaware that I’m dressed like Goku from Dragon Ball Z. Until I get out to my car and catch a glimpse of myself in the rear view mirror.
So when it comes to Halloween, I usually opt out of the wildly creative. It’s just another day’s work, and I am content to wear some simple vampire makeup and the always reliable inky weeds. Pixel man and his friends can enjoy stepping into an actor’s world for a night. It’s nice to be reminded how much fun we really do have.