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The Frog Prince

Mike Dressel

Some actors will do anything to make a living, even dressing up in a frog suit to entertain the daughter of Jerry Seinfeld.

I'm alone in a second floor bathroom at the American Museum of Natural History, studying myself in the mirror under unflattering fluorescent light. Through the door I can hear the chatter and squeals of a children's birthday party already in progress. I'm looking at myself, but the reflection doesn't quite resemble me; because this evening, in this bathroom, I'm dressed in a giant green frog costume, a large foam frog head resting beside me on the counter.

I arrived in my street clothes thirty minutes ago, the frog suit stowed in a large black Hefty garbage bag, and was shown into the bathroom/ green room. I stripped off my coat, sweater and jeans and began the awkward metamorphosis. First, the clingy black tights, which yanked and tore at my leg hair. Next, the frog get-up. A one-piece suit made of spongy fabric; I had to wiggle my way up through the belly to get inside. The effect once it's on is that I've been fused with a giant amphibian in some sort of evil, sci-fi experiment á la The Fly. Next, the green face paint. There was much debate over the use of the make-up, with my supervisors arguing with the party planner that it might frighten the children. And this suit won't? Its use was approved earlier this afternoon and now, armed with a make-up wedge, I spackle the caky green cosmetic onto my face. By the time I have full coverage, I resemble a third-rate horror movie zombie.

As for the job itself, it's to go something like this. At the set time, I'll be summoned by one of the party planners, at which point I'll hop over to the thirty odd children and encourage them to chase me through the museum, to the frog exhibit. That's where the magic will happen. Or so I've been briefed. All aspects of the birthday party are being overseen by an ultra-crisp, type-A personality Manhattan party planner; an alpha-female dressed in a smart skirt and stylish if sensible heels, her hair pulled taut behind her head. Devoid of personality, she's the sort that operates with the precision of a Swiss timepiece. The execution of the "show" has been sub-contracted to a group specializing in children's birthdays—Party Makers. The theme is based on the story "The Frog Prince"—the age-old fairy tale about a spoiled Princess and the frog that rescues her golden ball from the bottom of the pond in exchange for companionship. Though she scorns the ugly amphibian, it's soon revealed that beneath his warty, enchanted exterior lies the handsome body of a pedigreed Prince. This is where I come in. I am to take on the mantle of the frog. And for this I will receive $100. For today, this is my job.

How has it come to be that I'm dressed as a giant frog, in a museum bathroom, game to be chased by a flock of five year olds in the first place? I spent the entirety of the previous summer gainfully employed as an actor at the Central Park Zoo. They have a troupe, Wildlife Theatre, which performs short ecologically friendly plays. The plays encourage audience participation, and are always clever, zippy, and usually involve puppets. If I've learned one thing, it's that kids go bananas for puppets.

All performances take place outdoors, so there were some drawbacks to the job. Occupational hazards included sunburn, heatstroke, and the occasional thunderstorm. Not to mention the mind-numbing and repetitive questions asked by patrons all the time. "Where's the bathroom?" "How do I get to the children's zoo?" "What time does the Delacorte clock go off?" Over and over and over. "In the Arsenal." "Out the main entrance." "Every half hour." On the upside, I got a good tan and didn't spend my summer in some windowless cubicle entering data into a nebulous spreadsheet.

So, it's a good gig. But come summer's end, Labor Day, the job ends too. Well, mostly. The fall and winter are supplemented by outreach performances and off-site shows. I was kept on the list of people who wanted to pick up some extra work in the fall, and that's how I was corralled into the frog gig. Susan, recently hired as the education/outreach coordinator, was the one who roped me in. A frustrated artist at heart, with neither a love for children nor an understanding of the job at hand, she had landed the position by talking a good game, and was now attempting to curry favor by booking work that would bring in some money for a program that is always short of funds. When Party Makers brought to her attention that a big name celebrity's daughter was having this party, she jumped at the chance to make an inroad, assuring them she'd find an actor to take on the role of the frog. And she emailed me. I was free, I was in a state of financial duress, and so I said yes. Cut to me, in the bathroom, waiting for my cue.

For the party, they've rented out the second floor of the Rose Center. Expensive for a child's birthday, but a small price to pay if your last name happens to be the eponymous title of one of the most watched sitcoms of all time; a sitcom that launched a stand-up comedian into super-stardom; one that is re-running daily on cable. Jerry Seinfeld's daughter, Sascha, is turning five today and that's the reason for this whole endeavor. She's enamored of the story of "The Frog Prince," and money is no object in bringing the tale to life for her and her friends this evening.

Full disclosure, that probably influenced my decision to take the job. I've got a touch of celebrity-itis. Still, I don't know what I imagine this will do for my career. It's not like Seinfeld's going to go "Your frog work is dynamite. I'm developing a new project and I think you'd be perfect for it." But at the very least, it'll be a good story to tell on Letterman some day. My life has increasingly been filled with ready-for-Letterman's-couch stories since moving to the city.

The door opens and one of the "party girls," Mandy, walks in to check on me. She's perky and blonde, most likely a sorority girl in college. "We've got about five minutes. You feel ready?" She queries. "As I'll ever be." We go over the game plan one more time. One of the other "party girls" will be reading the story of "The Frog Prince" to Sascha and her friends. When she finishes, I'll dramatically emerge (from the men's restroom mind you) and hop over to them to take part in a scene that will go something like this (now, remember, the frog doesn't speak so all my responses will be pantomimed):

Party Girl: Oh my gosh, what's this? Is this a frog?

Children: Squeals of affirmation that yes, this is indeed a frog.

Me: Waving hello.

Party Girl: Did you invite this frog to your party, Sascha?

Sascha: Shyly turning her head from the 6 ft. man/frog.

Party Girl: Where's he going? Let's follow him.

At this point, I'm to gesture, encouraging the assembled children to chase me. I'm to hop out of the room, down the large marble staircase, into the main hall, ending at the frog exhibit. At this point, one of the curators will attempt to explain about all the exotic species on display. Then, when prompted, Sascha will give me a kiss on the cheek. Dry ice will appear, I'll duck behind a corner, and another actor, dressed as the handsome Prince, will appear. Then, party over, pick up your favors, and see ya later. This is the game plan. With one new caveat. There's been some scuttle that Sascha might be scared of the frog. So instead, all the kids will be encouraged to blow a kiss in my general direction before the amazing transformation. "Got all that?" Party girl asks. I nod and she ducks out the door. I can't help but think, "Are you kidding me? She's scared of the frog? Why have a party with this theme if she's scared of the frog?" Then I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I sympathize.

I've started pacing back and forth in the small restroom, slightly nervous. I always get this way when entering into an unrehearsed scenario. The possibilities for disaster are limitless. What if I trip and fall? What if Sascha gets really freaked and cries, and the party's ruined? Or maybe I'm just antsy because I'm about to appear in front of a major television star embarrassingly outfitted like a giant mutant frog. I go to the mirror and recheck my green make-up. Then I don the foam frog head, replete with big yellow eyes, and wait.

Shortly, a knock on the door and Mandy peeks her head in. "It's show time!" she exclaims. I follow her over to the semi-circle of kids and we engage in the aforementioned scenario. Then with my gesture of encouragement, we're off on our merry chase through the museum. Now, the party girls are supposed to act as wranglers, keeping the children from physically harming me as I lead them to the exhibit. This, however, is good in theory but not so successful in the execution. Boys being boys, their sole purpose in the hunt is to catch and torment the frog, me. They try to grab hold and wrestle me down and I descend the staircase. I'm sweating profusely. Though it's a chilly autumn night outside, it's warm inside the museum, and sweltering inside the full body frog suit and airless foam head sitting snugly on my shoulders. Not to mention the added heat generated from the effort of attempting to approximate hopping in this get-up. Sweat is rolling into my eyes making it hard to see. The green Ben Nye makeup is running down my face, and I have no peripheral vision due to the head. All I can think is, "Please, God, let me get into this exhibit soon." The five-year-old boys, as five-year-old boys are wont to do, are trying to undermine me at every turn. "You're not really a frog. You're just a guy. You're just a guy in there." I remain mute, in character as it were, but I wanted to shout back "Of course I'm a guy in a suit. You think the Seinfelds hired a six foot, anthropomorphic frog who can follow scripted blocking?" But I refrain. And keep hopping, which has mutated into a bit of a jog, hop hop, pant for breath, hop, run.

I near the finish line, the frog exhibit, and I wish someone were inside with a giant cooler of Gatorade to dump on my head, like after a football game. I don't know from football, but I know I'm hot, exhausted, and feel like I deserve an accolade.

The kids catch up, all thirty of them, and the poor tour guide, Chris, a nebishy guy in his early forties with glasses and a groomed brown mustache, tries to capture their attention. But ramped up on candy, cake, and sugary drinks, the thrill of the hunt pumping adrenaline through their tiny bodies, attention is the last thing they want to give. The girls seem more demure and actually interested in the exotic amphibians encased in their tiny recreated habitats, but the boys lust for blood. It's quickly becoming a Lord of the Flies situation here. Truly, it ain't easy being green.

While in the exhibit, I continue the game of hide-n-seek, appearing and disappearing behind display cases as I make my way to the end of the room. Mandy pulls me aside and we go over the "out" again. Given the cue, Sascha, accompanied by friends, will blow a kiss to me and then I duck behind a corner, while the Prince emerges to take the spoils of victory.

Soon, it's time for the grand finale. I am placed at one end of the room, and Sascha and her friends are assembled on the other. On a three count, one-two-three, kisses are blown and I hop around and out of site as quickly as possible. Out of the corner of my frog head I see a piddling whiff of dry ice wheeze from the machine, and then the "handsome" Prince emerges to greet his throng of admirers.

And what of my counterpart, this fair Prince? He's a hammy actor in his late thirties; decked out in bad Renaissance Fair garb–a velvet doublet and black breeches, knee boots and a jaunty plumed cap. Of course, the girls go ga-ga. He makes his entreaties, kisses up to the birthday girl like a skilled courtier, and the "show" comes to an end. Mind you, I'm still around the corner, a larger than life frog/man. So, as the kids begin to file out, the party girls decide I need to be hidden. I end up scrunched into a little nook, where they proceed to drape a black piece of fabric over me. Now, I'm still sweating, and with the fabric trapping in my body heat, I feel as if I might die. My eyes are stinging. I hear the kids saying their goodbyes, carousing with the Prince, and trying to peek around to find me. Some eager kids call me out, noticing I'm under the cloth. But still I stand silent, determined to sustain the illusion. "You don't see me," I think to myself. "I've transformed into the handsome Prince you see before you."

I stand there until the room has all but cleared. It's then I realize everyone has forgotten about me. I meekly gesture, and one of the party girls sees my wan attempt at recognition. "Omigod, are you still under there? You can totally come out now." She unshrouds me and I blink, my eyes trying to get accustomed to the light. Mandy grabs my hand and thanks me. "You were such a trooper. Everything went perfectly. Say, you should meet your counterpart." She drags me over to the Prince, and we make our introductions. I go to shake his hand, but he doesn't offer his in return. "What the fuck," I think to myself. "Are you too good to shake my hand? What're you afraid of, warts?" I do, however, catch a glimpse of a gold wedding band on his ring finger. Here, I think, is the twenty-first century twist on this fable. I want to pull Sascha and her friends aside and confide in them this piece of wisdom: never get involved with a married Prince—no matter how handsome he is or how much money he has in his coffers.

One of the girls has brought my clothes down in the Hefty bag, and I exit the hall, spent and slightly embarrassed. I pass Seinfeld but get no kudos for my efforts. He and his wife are glad-handing parents and being the gracious hosts. So much for my big break. I find my way downstairs to a restroom and begin to make my own transformation, from frog/man to haggard actor. The make-up, so hard to apply, is even harder to take off. With only water and paper towels, I scrub my face raw trying to remove any trace of green. Still, as I stare at myself in the mirror, I have a sickly pallor. I bid a polite goodbye to the security guards as I exit, and head towards the nearest subway, imagining how I'll start this story after settling onto Letterman's couch.

"Well Dave, I found myself alone in a second floor bathroom at the American Museum of Natural History…"

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