Not for nothing did a grizzled lifer at Disneyland refer to his worksite as “Mauschwitz.” In this case, “lifer” means “one condemned to wear a Donald Duck suit, day in and day out, even when it’s 110 degrees in the shade, even when he can’t see well enough through the eyeholes to make out which kid is kicking him in the nuts, and even when he’s so saturated in sweat that his vision is blurry and his clothes are hanging like wet rags.” Such is the fate that befalls a young, bright-eyed character actor at the Happiest Place on Earth. Or so says playwright Trevor Allen, who chronicles his stint at Disneyland in Working for the Mouse, a light, but engaging solo performance piece now playing at Impact Theatre, under the direction of Nancy Carlin.
Of course you’re more likely to find the piece engaging if you grew up steeped in Disneyland culture. Anyone who’s never seen the movies or visited the theme park probably won’t get it. In fact, you probably won’t follow Allen’s whole monologue unless you’ve been to Disneyland multiple times, and you remember details like the Tiki Room theme song, or the fake Cajun cuisine served at Blue Bayou Restaurant (which abuts the Pirates of the Caribbean ride), or the silent, furry characters roaming Main Street, who seem entirely real from a child’s perspective.
Allen was one such character. He started out as Pluto, working part-time while studying theater at UCLA. In many ways, it was a thankless job – a fact that the ever-endearing Allen never points out directly, but definitely implies. Since Pluto didn’t have voice clearance, he couldn’t utter a word, even to protest the kid who randomly assaulted him (with a single kick), or to greet little Scotty from the Make-a-Wish Foundation, or to woo lovely 21-year-old Tammy, aka Alice in Wonderland. He had to wear thick pads so that no one who touched the Pluto costume would ever sense a human bone structure. Because he apparently didn’t earn union wages, Allen had to spend part of his first summer at the Anaheim Ha Penny Inn, then at a friend’s house in Newport Beach, then in Tammy’s guest room, where he had to listen to his long-time crush screw her boyfriend all night.
In Allen’s account, Disneyland sounds very much like any other low-rung summer job. The rookies get kicked around and subjected to hazing rituals. The pay is low, the costumes are itchy, the clientele are bratty. To top it all off, the supervisors love to micro-manage – more so than in other jobs, since the grand illusion of Disney can only exist in a highly controlled environment. Thus, they have to stay in their places at all times, can’t shed their costumes or go off-script, and can’t behave in an uncouth or un-Disney-like manner. (Smoking a cigarette in your Pluto outfit is tantamount to smoking a joint in your YMCA staff shirt.) The whole park is full of suits. Anyone who breaks the rules risks severe disciplinary action.
Which probably makes it all the more tempting. In fact, there’s no shortage of scandal in Allen’s story, which he delivers with absolute gusto. Characters drop acid, eat pot brownies, and shag on Matterhorn Mountain. The seven dwarves have an orgy at a house party. Peter Pan and Captain Hook abscond from their designated unit, and narrowly evade capture behind a waterfall. It’s the kind of moral and professional dereliction you’d expect from a job that was mostly populated by weed-smokers and theater majors. But it’s a little more interesting in the wholesome environs of Disneyland. Allen can actually hold our attention, describing all the picayune details of his marijuana trip in “the Alice unit.”
Working for the Mouse isn’t exactly a coming-of-age story, and it isn’t a story of disillusionment, either – although there is a point when Allen starts to notice the electrical plugs and tawdry Christmas lights on the Peter Pan ride. (Spoiler alert: Yes kids, it’s all fabricated.) In reality, it takes a certain amount of buy-in to work at Disneyland in the first place, and Allen clearly has that. Whereas David Sedaris wrote an extremely jaundiced account of his stint as one of Santa’s little helpers, Allen seemed to enjoy character acting, even at its cheesiest. He fully embodied the dog Pluto and the buck-toothed Mad Hatter, which allowed him to do a perfect Ed Wynn impersonation. He dreamed of rising up the ranks and eventually landing the Peter Pan gig, even though a casting director dismissed him for being “too tan.” Twenty years later, he describes those experiences with all the giddiness of a young starlet.
And he wasn’t the only Mouse employee who whole-heartedly embraced the myth of Walt Disney. Many of his co-workers were aspiring voice actors, drama geeks, Kabuki students, or people who otherwise thought of their job as a form of performance art. Some of them would succeed beyond Disney, though most would switch to other fields. Perhaps it didn’t matter. After all, they had the genetic material to survive Mauschwitz – and that, in itself, builds character.