Fluffy red paws reached up to pull off the large, bobbling mascot head.
Beneath it, a flush-faced Jessica DeLuca was breathing heavy, strands of hair clinging to a sheen of sweat on her forehead.
But like the space cat she had been pretending to be the past 10 minutes — an intense session of dancing, miming and improvising — she wore a huge grin.
“I love doing this,” said DeLuca, a 19-year-old University of Akron nursing major who was among a dozen folks auditioning for the role of Orbit, a mascot of the Akron RubberDucks.
Tuesday night, a team of RubberDucks staff ran the hopefuls through the paces in search of the next generation of Orbit (the space cat inherited from the team’s previous incarnation as the Akron Aeros), Homer (a purple polka-dotted pigeon whose design came from pulling words out of a hat) and a yet-to-be-revealed duck of some sort that will be symbolic of the new team name.
The folks who win the paid job will commit to 71 home games in a hot costume under the summer sun, and numerous community appearances from libraries to hospitals. DeLuca said if she gets the job, she knows she’ll also get paid in smiles and hugs. In the fall and winter, she’s one of four Zippy kangaroos who entertain at UA games and events.
“I love to see the reaction people get when you go up to them and interact with them,” she said. “I’m all about the people, and I’m ready to do it all summer, too.”
So is Emily Campion, a 22-year-old Kent State University student who would love to be a professional mascot for a major league team some day.
Like DeLuca, she already suits up in the fall and winter as Flash, KSU’s eagle mascot.
“I had fun and it looks like they had fun, too,” Campion said of the judges after her audition.
The job seekers performed before promotions director Christina Shisler, community relations director Sierra Sawtelle, and sponsorship sales coordinator Juli Donlen, who played the role of Orbit last year.
Each prospective mascot ran through five drills.
There was dancing: It helps if Orbit can pirouette as well he plays air guitar.
There was emoting: Doing “happy” is easy when you have a permanent ear-to-ear grin, but try to overcome that to show disgust or anger. And no talking aloud.
There was crowd interaction: You’ll have to do more than just shake hands if you want to rouse the fans. In another exercise, improvisation was tested as each Orbit was asked to grab random objects from a pile and put them to some nontraditional use.
One Orbit balanced a pool noodle over a tented pizza box, creating a teeter totter. Another rode an orange traffic cone like a horse, slapping a sombrero on his hip. Another turned a piece of fabric into a canoe, a pink baseball bat serving as his oar.
In yet another drill, each Orbit had to role play as he was talked through a scene. (You’re swimming in the ocean. Oh no, a big wave is coming! Swim faster! You’re going under! You’re OK now, you beat the wave. Oh wait, you lost your bathing suit, and the beach is filled with pretty ladies!)
In addition to the Orbit costume, a couple of auditioners tried their hand at Homer, a huge and intimidating inflatable costume that arguably has caused as many children to cry as cheer.
Jontavierre Bennett, a 17-year-old East High School student, donned the less-flexible suit.
He waddled before the judges, who only asked him to flap his wings, act like he was cheering, and then interact with a fan as best he could.
Bennett has no mascot experience, but thought it would be fun to try anyway.
“I’ve seen them at games and always thought it would be cool to do that,” he said.
While some mascots are naturally extroverted, Shisler said she’s seen all sorts of personalities succeed under the uniform, where people feel free to be something other than themselves.
“Sometimes the best mascots are those you least expect,” she said.