Spokane is getting pretty rough. The other day, the Easter Bunny got sucker-punched at the mall.
He was headed for the break room when a boy jumped up from behind and socked the holiday icon in the back of his oversized head.
“It didn’t hurt,” the bunny said, “but it kind of got me mad.”
It’s not easy being a 6-foot-tall symbol of spring.
Just ask the guys who play the role at a shopping mall near you.
“When you first start, it’s hell,” said Bryan Waterbly, a 16-year-old Gonzaga Prep student.
Every afternoon for 30 days now, Waterbly dons his costume - a furry white bunny suit with a pink belly patch, blue kerchief and six-pound head with floppy ears.
He performs in the Madison Square Garden of bunnydom, NorthTown Mall, with its artificial climate, bustling crowds and endless waves of revved-up children.
Hour after hour, Waterbly sits in a high-backed wicker chair in a gazebo facing a Polaroid camera. The battery-powered miniature fans in the big head don’t work. So he sits there, dripping sweat.
“Once I worked a double shift and nearly passed out,” he said.
Waterbly is making his debut as a giant bunny. It’s his first job. He owes his mother money for a stereo system, so he jumped at the $5.50 an hour.
His only instruction: “Act like a Disney character.”
Unlike department store Santas, he didn’t have to study for the part, memorize reindeer names or learn any one-liners.
Let’s face it. As costumed characters go, the Easter Bunny isn’t in Barney’s league, either. He doesn’t talk, dance or sing. Heck, even the Trix rabbit jumps around, twirling his ears like propellers.
The no-talking rule is designed to protect the Easter Bunny’s mystique, insiders say.
“Besides that, your voice sounds really weird coming out of that head. It’d probably scare kids,” said Lorna Eichelberg of Spokane’s House of Images, which hires mall bunnies.
Of course, with any job there are challenges. In this case, it’s when kids climb onto the bunny’s lap and start firing off questions like F. Lee Bailey. The trick is answering with a mime-like shrug, nod, kiss, peek-a-boo wink or diversionary high five.
What do kids ask? Here are some popular queries:
“Are you a boy or a girl?”
“How did you get here?”
“Why are you so big?
“What do you do when you’re not here?”
“Can you bring me a Barbie?”
For parents wondering how to answer these questions, here are some suggestions: 1. A boy, like Peter Cottontail. 2. He hopped. 3. He eats all his carrots. 4. He colors eggs. 5. This isn’t Christmas.
At NorthTown, Santa and the Easter Bunny have a friendly rivalry. Both open their laps to kids and grownups for a full month each year. Both hand out treats and pose for pictures.
But the jolly old elf draws 16,000 children. The bunny brings in a relatively scant 5,000. Playing Santa is like doing off-Broadway, while playing a bunny is, well, mainly an exercise in humility and patience.
“I’ve been asked a lot if the bunny is mechanical,” said Christine McCulloch, who operates the camera snapping $7 souvenirs.
On breaks, the bunny cruises the mall, shaking hands and waving en route to the bathroom. McCulloch walks a few paces ahead to issue warnings when kids come barreling in.
“Incoming!” she cautions.
That gives the bunny a few precious seconds to protect his private parts by dropping to one knee.
David Evans, 27, is wearing a bunny suit to supplement his income as a night janitor. He does the morning shift at the mall, so he gets a lot of doting parents and preschoolers.
“I get a kick out of the kids and stuff. The most rewarding thing about the job is the expression on their faces. They hug you and say they love you,” he said.
The tough part is watching some kids stand in front of you, shaking in fear, he said. Others just cry.
“What’s sad is that some parents force these bawling kids to sit for a picture. There could be four or five re-takes and the kid is still there, crying and crying,” he said. “What kind of picture is that?”
Evans and Waterbly have been rapped on the head by unruly boys. But like true professionals, they always stay in character.
“Sometimes it can get really weird,” Evans said. “You can get mauled out there.”