Ooh, Interesting! - How a Dancing Gorilla Became a Mascot

May 06, 2016

When writing this blog, it’s often extremely difficult to write the title in an inviting way. Today’s blog is no such exception but rest assured, it is just as interesting as ever. Alas, the dancing gorilla isn’t a real dancing gorilla and before Cadbury’s fans get in touch, no it doesn’t play drums (we don’t think).

Mascots are strange things when you stop to think about them. A man or woman in costume, often in sweltering heat, simply has to stand up and walk about. Somehow this makes the fans go wild, perhaps brings in new fans to the sport and helps give the ‘brand’ of the club an identity. But where do mascots come from? How did mascots start? How do they come to be? Well, we know the answer for one particular club and it really is a fascinating combination of right place, right time. And right costume.

The Phoenix Suns are a pro basketball team in the USA who play in the NBA. Formed in 1968, they didn’t initially have a mascot but any fan of basketball will tell you that they can’t imagine the Phoenix Suns without their current one because he’s so iconic. You see, the Phoenix Gorilla is the most widely known and loved mascot in the league, able to pose with fans (thanks to the ease of movement within the costume) but also entertaining the crowd at halftime by doing things like slam dunking a basketball after trampolining through a flaming ring (see above.) Cool.

But it all came about by chance. That makes sense when you think about it because gorillas aren’t found in Phoenix, Arizona. And their logo is a sun, which also has no similarity to a primate. So why is the Phoenix Suns mascot a gorilla?

For the first twelve years of their existence, The Suns felt no need for a mascot, though they did allegedly ponder using a Sunflower for a brief amount of time. In January 1980, there was still no particular drive for a mascot until a huge fan decided to book a singing telegram for an unknown target attending the game. Thus Harry Rojas rocked up in his gorilla costume and duly sat through the first half in full dress, “trying to be inconspicuous.” The problem he had encountered though, was that nobody had told him where the person who would be receiving this message would be sitting. Unsure on what to do, Rojas decided to head home.

As he walked along the sidelines to exit the venue, music started playing and security guards grabbed him. Rather than throw him out for wearing a dumb gorilla costume to a game, he was instructed to dance for the crowd, who were absolutely loving his appearance, thinking it was planned entertainment. Rojas complied and due to the cheers, eventually found himself on the free throw line, continuing to dance. They handed him a basketball. He shot for the hoop and it went in. The crowd went wild. Rojas still had no idea what he was doing and still hadn’t delivered the message, but nobody watching cared. It was awesome!

…Almost nobody. The man in charge of PR for the Phoenix Suns, Tom Ambrose, was almost as confused as Rojas. What the hell was going on? Why the hell was there a dancing gorilla shooting hoops during the carefully cultivated halftime show? Where was security? That last question is another important part of the tale. Ambrose himself noted that he would have told security to get him off, but for the fact he couldn’t find any security guards quickly enough (that doesn’t really say a lot for your safety at a Phoenix Suns game in 1980 but anyway…) Due to nobody taking him off, Rojas continued to dance and dance for another minute or two before vacating the arena, having no idea what on earth had just happened. He thought that was the end of it. Not so.

Over the next few weeks, Eastern Onion’s singing telegram service were inundated with callsfrom Suns fans, desperate to know if they could hire the dancing gorilla for their next game. As such, Rojas turned up again and following his second appearance, was met by the Director of Marketing, who interviewed him in full costume. And that was that! As for how a dancing gorilla morphed into a trampolining primate who bounces through a flaming hoop before dunking a basketball came about… Well, Rojas hung up his suit in 1988 and has been succeeded by two gorillas since then. As for his current identity? Nobody knows.

So there you go. That’s how costumes can enhance your events and brand folks! 

Bonus Fact: The Mascot Grand National is (was?) an annual race between mascots since 1999. Ran at Kempton Park Racecourse, mascots from a variety of areas take part, with thousands of pounds being raised for charity. Alas, it hasn't been ran since 2013 and who knows if it will be returning any time soon.  

Enjoy this? Why not read: Fancy Dress Addict wears a Different Costume Every Day for a Year 

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