The larger-than-life porcupine with plush, rainbow-coloured quills on its back is lying flat on his stomach. His decapitated head sits on a table nearby, tongue lolling, ready to be placed on big shoulders at just the right moment.
Soon the porcupine called Pachi will be wiggling with abandon, dancing in front of yet another school gym full of screaming children (even the cool older kids in the back will get into it).
But moments before the show to promote the 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games gets started — with Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” blaring inside the gym of Michael Cranny Elementary School in Vaughan — Pachi assumes the only resting position the oversized costume will allow: belly down, quills up.
“I feel like Pachi brings the magic to the Games,” said the mascot in a rare interview with the Toronto Star earlier this spring.
However, Pachi, whose name means “clapping joy” in Japanese — appropriate for a creature that excels at clap-step dancing —suffers from a bit of an identity crisis.
At any given point, four actors can be playing Pachi around the GTA alongside his “ambassadors,” dressed in purple Games t-shirts. But once the Games start, a full prickle of porcupines will be unleashed, with seven separate Pachis dispatched to events.
On this day, I meet one of those actors and their behind-the-scene team after reassuring multiple spokespeople and handlers that I will not reveal the actor’s identity to preserve the “magic” of Pachi.
The first thing you should know is that while it may seem pretty straightforward to wiggle around for 10 minutes in front of youthful, adoring fans, it’s not as magical as you might think. The head of the costume alone weighs 40 pounds and has to be installed with fans in the cheeks to keep actors from overheating. Meanwhile, the view through the mesh nose of the costume is akin to looking through a screen door in the middle of a sweltering Mississippi summer, in the dark, with a hangover.
As with any big multinational sporting event, the mascot is a source of pride, a symbol of the host country and easily sellable as a plush doll or an image print-screened on shirts, hats and other paraphernalia.
Pachi was the brainchild of a group of Grade 8 students from Markham who put forward their design in a mascot competition.
A report last year put the cost of showing Pachi off to the world at nearly $400,000, with additional costs — largely to pay the actors— expected.
It’s all part of the great lengths organizers are going to to promote the Games at home in hopes of selling tickets to the more than 50 events to be held over three weeks.
To get ready for the Michael Cranny school appearance, Pachi and that day’s ambassador move through a series of almost mechanical motions: body suit on, boots fitted and strapped in, fur helmet in place, quills expertly bent, Velcro closures double-checked and fur mitts pulled up to white cuffs.
After a round of hugs, Pachi dances out the door to deafening squeals.
The porcupine wiggles with abandon as the youngest students scream his name. They are enthralled and unable to contain their excitement, their tiny backsides lifting off the linoleum floor.
Pachi winds up his imaginary bat like Jose Bautista at the bottom of the 9th. He “swims” like Michael Phelps in the final 100-metre stretch.
It’s a new routine, and the team is still trying to remove the kinks from it.
“You killed it today,” one of the ambassadors says when the show is over just minutes later.
This Pachi actor is what they would call a pro. They’ve been SpongeBob and other characters before. A friend who is an amateur athlete referred them to the Games.
Each actor brings their own experiences and signature to the job.
“You’ll always see me dancing,” this actor says, adding they take as much time with each child as possible before moving on, even if it means slowing the team’s schedule down.
This Pachi says it’s all worth it.
“I’m so grateful to be in the suit. I’m so honoured.”