April 17, 2008
MIT Art Work-Out: John Bell and the Celtics' Lucky

In addition to my presentation on the history of professional wrestling in the U.S. as part of the Art Work-Out Lecture Series event on "The Theater of Sport," I was joined at the event by John Bell, a professor here at MIT who is also known as a puppeteer, as well as an historian of puppet theater. He is author of such books as Strings, Hands, Shadows: A Modern Puppet History and the forthcoming American Puppet Modernism.

I had heard about John's work, but I had never gotten the chance to meet him. John introduced and interviewed Damon Lee Blust, famed for his impressive dunks at Boston basketball games in recent years in his role as Lucky, mascot of the Celtics. Lucky is the only "human mascot," with no large outfit, allowing him to perform more athletic feats.

Turns out, building off my talk about pro wrestling as "sports entertainment," and prepared completely independent from my presentation, John and Damon talked about the work of a mascot also as sports entertainment.

Speaking of which, I wanted to point out that the Wikipedia page for the term "sports entertainment" seems excessive in pointing out that "sports entertainment" is not high culture, saying in the description line the evaluative line, "Events which fall under the classification of sports entertainment are generally considered to be low brow forms of entertainment," and ending with this paragraph that begins with, "Sports entertainment has a stigma of mindless pop culture, and has been criticized as such in popular media."

The conversation eventually morphed into a three-way discussion about the crossover of entertainment and sport, the concept of "pure sports," and the nature of performance in all form of sporting exhibitions and contests. Since the talk was taking place in the Rockwell Gym at MIT, "Lucky" was even able to demonstrate a few of his athletic feats as part of the talk, and we talked about his position as cheerleader and as an important part of the franchise, to help entertain the crowd, even during a blowout victory or a defeat.

We discussed how the performances of pro wrestlers help inspire the work of mascots, with Damon citing "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka and The Junkyard Dog as two of the biggest influences from his childhood. We talked as well about two different types of performance in sports: the intensity of performances inside the game or text, and the performances outside the game itself, extratextual additions like Damon would be, performing during time-outs, before the game, etc.

It was a fascinating talk, and I discussed with the organizers afterward how intriguing it was to see the many parallels between these two professions and worlds come out without any prior discussion but just through the juxtaposition of the two subjects. And it was a delight both meeting John Bell in person and having a chance to get to know Damon and learn more about the philosophy of and life led by a professional sports mascot.

(However, apologies to Damon...as I mentioned in the talk, my heart will always belong to Big Red.)

Any questions on the event? Feel free to leave a comment or contact me at samford@mit.edu.