Ever since "The Lion King" opened on Broadway, late last year, much praise has been bestowed upon what the director, Julie Taymor, calls the "double event" of her animal costumes--by which she means that the viewer, while looking at a giraffe, also sees a man with stilts attached to all four limbs and with a tall giraffe-head device perched on his brow. This blending of human and animal has been rapturously received: a Times editorial noted that "the special genius of Ms. Taymor's version of 'The Lion King' is the way it unmasks--and de-coys--the anthropomorphism of Disney's animated animal films," while The Weekly Standard called her production "a feat of technique so profound that it will redefine the American theater."
But, in what appears to be one of those cases of parallel evolution which so fascinate biologists, anthropomorphic unmasking was going on at the MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park in Las Vegas long before Taymor became the most celebrated puppeteer since Gepetto. For the past two years, visitors to the park over the Christmas holidays have been treated to the sight of stilt-walkers in costumes designed to give the impression of an elf perched on the back of a big white plush bird. The elf's fake legs dangle over the bird's wings, while the bird's long neck and head are harnessed be a pair of reins. The result, to the "Lion King"-conscious viewer, looks like Taymor Lite with Nutrasweet.
According to MGM Grand's director of entertainment, Chris Coaley, the bird was conceived after he saw some stilt-walkers from Nova Scotia about two years ago. "There were some interactive creatures that were very entertaining to the people on the street," he recalled. "So I got one of our stilt-walker guys, David DeDera, to come up with something for Christmas. We talked about reindeer on stilts, things like that. And he was like, 'I think I can create a Christmas bird.'"
Unlike Taymor's dusty, velst-ready creations, the MGM Grand bird does not aspire to realism. "We played around with the twelve days of Chistmas, with the geese and the hens," Coaley said. "We took a piece of every bird that was in that song and created our own bird, basically." When asked wheather he, like Julie Taymor, was trying to create a "double event," Coaley replied, "Well, when you're on the streets in the theme park you need something tall that can take some focus."
The Christmas-bird costumes won't be seen again until December, but their popularity has Coaley planning other, more ambitious stilt creatures. "We'll do a very different-looking kind of thing for our Temporary Insanity Spring Break event," he explained. Among the ideas on DeDera's drawings board is, as it happens, a giraffe. "I was supposed to do it for last spring, and the budget didn't allow for it," DeDera said. "And then I saw 'The Lion King' in Time . It felt good to have had the same idea that they had on Broadway. It was 'Whoa, that's cool. I guess my ideas are all right.'"
The New Yorker