It’s three minutes until party time, and Austin Emery has one last instruction for his handler.
Outside, the petting zoo and bouncy castle are set up, and from behind the door come the squeals of small children – the sounds of an expectant crowd.
But this directive is important.
“If you see any kids pulling or getting aggressive,” he says, “punching, grabbing the nose – any of that – that’s a no-no.”
With that, he puts on the final, crucial element to his costume: a giant foam mouse head. Then he steps out the door and is instantly surrounded.
This is the world of professional mascotting – a world that revolves, in Toronto at least, around the Emery family. Jolène Emery, Mr. Emery’s wife, founded JoJoFun in 2005, building it into one of the city’s biggest children’s party companies. Their daughter Lily works as a mascot at JoJoFun too.
Mr. Emery is the chief of mascotting. Today, the 52-year-old, who has long, blond surfer hair and the gentle scruffiness of a cockapoo, is a cartoon mouse. But on any other day he might be the Easter Bunny or a giant stuffed bear. By his estimate, he has mascotted some 500 events. He is, quite literally, the city’s busiest party animal.
It’s a gruelling job, navigating unwieldy costumes and unpredictable audiences. But if you’re Mr. Emery, it’s also meaningful, fulfilling work – soul-affirming, even.
“I really, really love the kids” he says. ”I pour my heart out. There’s an art to it.”
He would know. Many of the hired mascots are students and actors and are paid about $50 an hour. Mr. Emery is an artist – a stone carver whose sculptures are on display across Britain and Canada. For him, mascotting isn’t just a paycheque. He approaches this work, too, with artfulness.
“It’s about bringing the character to life,” he says. As he makes his way around the event that afternoon – a summer festival that pops up in North Toronto every year – his mouse doesn’t just walk, he swaggers. He doesn’t just step up at the curb, he bounces.
This despite the fact that, he reveals later, the balaclava under his costume keeps sliding down and covering his left eye.
Such wardrobe mishaps are a common workplace hazard. A good costume, he says, can make or break a gig.
“The head,” he explains, “that’s key.”
A poorly designed costume, for instance, might mean having to hold his head at an awkward angle for the entire 30-minute gig. Or strapping ice packs to his chest to combat the stifling, unbearable heat. Or, when there are no eye holes, navigating an entire party in the dark.
Since his first gig almost 17 years ago, he has learned to adapt. Right before that first event, he went to put on the head of a new pink mouse costume but couldn’t get it to fit. “I’ve got a bit of a beak,” he says. “A little schnoz.”
Time was ticking. The kids were expecting him.
So he did the only thing he could: He took his house keys and began digging into the styrofoam head. He is a sculptor after all.
“I’m digging and I’m digging,” trying to create a larger opening, but that created another problem.
“The [styrofoam] balls were going everywhere,” he says. “I had the dress on. I’m all pink and plumy. And I’ve got the balls just sticking everywhere.”
It was, in short, a disaster. It took a lot of coaxing from Mrs. Emery before he put on another costume.
On this afternoon, some members of the audience need coaxing too. One little boy, about two, is so startled to see the mouse that he falls over crying. Another hides behind his dad’s knees.
Some of the older kids embrace the fantasy. Others treat it as a challenge – trying to feel Mr. Emery’s fingers beneath the gloves or craning their necks to look for his eyes.
And then there’s the abuse. One kid jumps up and down, smacking him. Another girl tries to trip him as he passes. Several older kids distract him as they try to knock his head off.
Mr. Emery is philosophical about it. “It’s the line between love and hate,” he says. They’re still learning how to navigate big feelings. “They have love and aggression at the same time, and they get confused.”
Mrs. Emery has a sterner approach. “Safety first,” she tells her staff. “If you have to leave, you leave.”
But there are moments of genuine delight, too. Dozens of people approach for hugs. One woman hands him – a total stranger – her 10-month-old infant. A little girl runs up shouting, “I LOVE YOU!”
A few years ago, when every single party was cancelled amid the pandemic, Mr. Emery realized for the first time how important the work was to him.
“It was terrible. Completely terrible,” he says. During the lockdowns, he felt the way many of us did: lost without each other. He missed connecting with humans. “I was trying to figure out how to be a complete person in isolation,” which didn’t feel possible.
He felt like something had broken and eventually realized he was depressed.
He began going for bike rides and delivering Uber Eats, just for the smallest interactions – “hellos,” “goodbyes” and “thank yous.” It helped.
Now, the parties are back. JoJoFun had so many requests this summer, they couldn’t fulfill them all. One recent weekend saw 46 bookings. “It’s back to reality,” Mr. Emery says. “Back to normality.”
Many of the kids are attending a party for the first time. They’re shyer, more cautious than before. But he believes they’ll adapt, just as he did.
A girl in a yellow tank top approaches. She’s nervous but curious. Mr. Emery reaches out a gloved hand. Soon, she’s dancing and laughing. The mouse is laughing too – his shoulders bobbing up and down as they spin.
“They love it,” he says. He could be describing himself.
“They absolutely love it.”