GETTING INTO a character's head is part of the acting process I learned years ago. But getting inside a Sesame Street character's head is a wholly different matter, as I found out recently when I donned the bulky costume and 10-pound fuzzy headpiece that transformed me into Bert's good-natured and playful buddy, Ernie.
Not only did I have to get inside this affable oddball's cranium (his favorite toy is a rubber ducky), I found out I had to fill his shoes, too, which were the size of miniature gunboats.
The occasion was an appearance before 42 children ages 2 to 5 at the Fallon Federal Child Care Center in advance of the "Sesame Street Live" performances scheduled today through Sunday at the Baltimore Arena.
To appreciate how the singers and dancers felt while wearing the oversized costumes, I thought it would be a good idea to suit up and see for myself.
Baltimore Arena reps Maren Blum and Kevin Sosnowski took me in hand when I arrived.
Long a fan of Jim Henson's Muppets and the Sesame Street characters, I envisioned myself spinning tall tales for children who would follow me like a Pied Piper. That illusion was quickly quelled when Blum informed me I could never talk. If I did I would destroy the magic. I was even more disillusioned when I saw the cumbersome costume and immense orange head staring at me with its big glassy eyeballs . . . not to mention the shoes.
"The whole thing doesn't weigh 50 pounds, but you will feel like it does," Sosnowski said, smiling as he held out the heavily padded, foam body pod for me to step into. With its protruding cloth pouch, it fitted snugly over my stomach and hooked together over the shoulders, making movement extremely awkward.
Then came the big blue jeans held up by suspenders and the wool-like red, blue and yellow striped sweater that was fastened in the back. I started to feel like the many-layered cadaver in "The Mummy's Curse."
Luckily, I had worn shorts and T-shirt as he suggested because it was starting to get as hot as a sauna in that get-up.
Sosnowski thrust my hands into two yellow felt paws. My feet were encased in sneakers so huge they caused me to teeter off balance.
Finally, Sosnowski approached bearing aloft Ernie's grinning noggin, which had begun (in my fevered mind) to take on aspects of Macbeth's severed head. It was made from a motorcycle helmet with foam features glued on. Sosnowski assured me I would be able to see through the mouth, which was covered with a dark, shaggy scrim.
"But you will have to lower the head and look at everyone's feet," he stressed. "If you look at everyone's faces, Ernie will be staring at the ceiling."
The weighty headpiece was lowered on my shoulders and I was engulfed in a dark, dank and smelly place. I could barely discern the figures of Sosnowski and Blum through the black mesh. There was no peripheral vision, and perspiration started to form on my forehead and run down my face.
"Remember," said Blum, "you can't speak but you can hug, tickle, shake hands, hold the kids in your lap and dance around."
Dance? Was she kidding? I could hardly walk. I stepped forward, one foot stumbling over the other.
From 5-foot-6, I had grown to 5-foot-9 and added about 30 pounds to my ordinary 123-pound weight. Sosnowski took me firmly by the overstuffed hand and maneuvered me robot-like slowly out of the Arena and down West Lombard Street to the child-care center.
He pushed me through the doors, and I wobbled into the sunny room packed with screaming preschoolers, who rushed to greet Ernie with shouts of "I love you! I love you! You are my friend!"
"Where's Bert?" several asked. "Why don't you talk?" queried others. The teacher carefully explained that Ernie had a cold. I clutched mythroat.
One by one they happily bounded up, some shyly, to shake Ernie's hand and get a great big hug.
Despite the heat of the costume and the perspiration rolling down into my eyes, I was touched. These beautiful children still had the magic of belief. . . in Santa Claus . . . in Tinkerbell . . . and in Ernie.
After 20 minutes or so of communicating by using wild pantomime gestures, I bade them farewell and started the tedious return journey to the Arena. Oh, it certainly wasn't easy being Ernie but the memory of those upturned rapturous faces made it all worthwhile. Still, somehow, I felt cheated.
I never did get the rubber ducky.
"Sesame Street Live" will play the Baltimore Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St. at 7:30 p.m. tonight and Thursday; 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday; and 1:30 and 5 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets are $10.50 and $8.50. To charge tickets by phone call 481-6000. For further ticket information call 347-2010.