SeaWorld Orlando features whales, dolphins, stingrays, penguins, sharks, Clydesdales and more.
But the rarest of its animals is the enjoyable, downright lovable mime.
Every day, before performances of the "Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island" sea lion show, a white-faced performer in pirate drag mocks incoming audience members, to the delight of the already-seated audience members.
The character — referred to as the "scurvy pirate mime" — may silently flirt with women, waddle behind plus-size guests, steal from backpacks or playfully escort customers right out of the stadium.
"In a nutshell, I make fun of people," says Jim Hackworth in a backstage interview "out of face," which means he spoke without pretending to be stuck in an invisible box. ("I don't like to do that," he says. "It's not funny. Is that being funny, to be trapped in box? That's tragic!")
Hackworth has worked at SeaWorld for 26 years. That's longer than the other two mimes at the park, but not by a lot. Lynn Frey has been with the company for 21 years, and Tom Munson has worked there for 19 years.
Hackworth got his start painting faces on guests at Circus World, a now-defunct Polk County theme park. He watched clowns performing there and decided to try it.
"My character was a silent character because I was very shy. I was a non-talking clown," he says. "I learned a lot from the other clowns about clowning, about bits of business to do, about the theatrics of being a clown, playing big, the exaggerating, all of that."
The audience responds positively to mimes' antics, giving the performers boisterous applause as they take a bow before the sea lion show starts.
"The audience gets it when I walk behind a girl and pretend to walk like her," Hackworth says. "It's like the audience thinks 'Oh, she's getting her comeuppance. She's getting what she deserves. Look at the way she's walking.'"
Another common comic opportunity occurs when a couple comes in with the woman carrying a big backpack and her male friend carrying nothing.
"I look at her, and I look at him, and I look at the audience — and I take the backpack off the girl and put it on the guy," Hackworth says. "The audience goes wild — they love that. They cheer and clap because I've done something good."
Bits where mimes secretly borrow from guests' backpacks are winners, he says. Frey recently lifted a camera, took a self-portrait and replaced it without the owner knowing, Hackworth says.
The mimes put on their own makeup — white face, red lips, blackened eyes. Hackworth says it takes him about 30 minutes to complete but that co-mime Munson can do it in 15 minutes. Their shifts can include six shows a day, including a nighttime version, "Sea Lions Tonite," which parodies other SeaWorld attractions. Mimes have a bigger role in that show, right on stage with other actors.
"In the night show, the mime kind of gets humiliated by having to appear in a chicken costume that represents the bird in the dolphin show, 'Blue Horizons,'" Hackworth says. They also wear pink wigs, blow bubbles, wear a Shamu-style headpiece and play ride operators in the Manta skit.
"It's kind of like the mime gets it, and the audience really enjoys seeing that happen," he says.
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Dewayne Bevil can be reached at 407-420-5477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just kidding Life as a SeaWorld mime is all good, clean fun, but do guests ever take the ribbing the wrong way? Maybe a guy doesn't appreciate being mocked for having a cell phone attached to his ear? "At one point in my early days as a mime, a couple of teenage kids from the audience came and threw me in the water," Hackworth says. "That was the one and only time that happened." Since then, he has been dry. "Everybody gets what we do," Hackworth says. "We're just poking gentle fun. I try my best to be a character that the audience knows, have sort of an innocence about me." Good audience interaction helps the mime show, which lacks a blueprint. "It's what we would call planned improv. We have a lot of different bits of business that we like to do during the course of the show. Sometimes something new just kind of happens, and those are the best times. "When something out of the ordinary takes place, in which a guest really comes to life and starts interacting with the mime and makes it a bigger show, it's a lot of fun."