Once a Bird Brain…, part 2

Former Eagles mascot Dean Schoenewald is still crazy after all these years. part 1 | part 2 As kids attendance during Shark weeknight games soared, trouble lurked in the Shark den. “You gotta imagine that it irked some people,” recalls…

Former Eagles mascot Dean Schoenewald is still crazy after all these years.

part 1 | part 2

As kids attendance during Shark weeknight games soared, trouble lurked in the Shark den. “You gotta imagine that it irked some people,” recalls Schoenewald. “After [they’ve] worked for months, 15-hour days, this clown comes in from New Jersey and steals the show in a goofy furry costume.” As Schoenewald sucked up the spotlight, some in Sharks management felt slighted. When a Sharks female executive, a former accomplished figure skater, groused that Schoenewald’s skating was not up to snuff, the tension reached a boiling point. Schoenewald was infuriated. Game after game, he fired up the bloodthirsty Bay Area fans with his antics. Now, some Nancy Kerrigan wannabe was interfering with his routine. Despite Schoenewald’s vehement protests, an ice skating rink was rented, and Schoenewald was forced to showcase his grace, he says. “She wanted me to skate like a swan!” shrieks Schoenewald. “She said do this and she did a swan thing. I’m working in front of an NHL crowd that goes wild over fights. They do not want a swan… Kiss my royal ass.” Levine contends that there was a much larger problem at hand besides Schoenewald’s refusal to skate like a swan. “[Dean] finds it very difficult working for people within any systematic framework,” said Levine.

Schoenewald skated right out of San Jose to Ottawa, where the NHL’s Senators played. However, the Canadian government had other plans. Schoenewald claims the Senators management inexplicably failed to obtain work visas for its employees. To make things click from the outset, Schoenewald knew that missing opening night was not an option. Once again, Schoenewald was desperate. Once again, Schoenewald got creative. To make the game, Schoenewald says that he rented a pedal boat and pedaled across the St. Lawrence River, using a hockey stick as a rudder. In Ontario, brother Joe was waiting with a car to drive him to the stadium.

On opening night, Schoenewald, sat atop the arena in a draped box unbeknownst to the players or crowd. Inside, Schoenewald sat in his Lion’s costume on a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle – scared out of his mind. “It was terrifying. I couldn’t move. There was nothing holding the four-wheeler. The sides of the box were made of cloth,” recalls Schoenewald. “I’ve done a lot of crazy shit during my career, but I’m not a brave person.” In fact, Schoenewald refuses to step into a plane and his head-first bungee stunt was actually performed by someone else wearing his shark suit. Despite his phobia, Schoenewald, managed to keep his cool for three anxiety-filled hours as the box swung and shook before being lowered to the floor at the end of the first period. “The crowd loved it,” remembers Schoenewald. However, many hated Schoenewald’s shtick. Women’s groups were infuriated by Schoenewald’s Michael Jackson routine in which he mimicked the gloved one (with his lion’s head on) and invited a horde of scantily clad waitresses to tear off his pull-away costume to reveal Schoenewald in a flesh body suit. When Schoenewald made a bonfire out of the ice rink, a fire marshal was waiting for him in the locker room. Schoenewald survived those brouhahas, but was released when the team’s owner, Bruce Firestone, was dismissed by the league, he says. “My contract was voided,” says Schoenewald. For his exit, Schoenewald let out a final roar, suing the Senators for $350,000 for wrongful dismissal. Schoenewald claimed $125,000 in lost wages, $25,000 for mental distress, $100,000 for damage to his reputation and “$5,000 for the Stanley Cup ring he might have been able to win.”

The very next season, Schoenewald felt like he won the job of career. He says he even managed to negotiate a six-figure salary for himself from New Jersey Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello. Back on his home turf, Schoenewald was back to his unusual antics. He danced like James Brown with a nun (Schoenewald’s then-girlfriend), placed ladies’ lingerie behind the opposing team’s bench and shot three Disney dolls out of the rafters the first night The Mighty Ducks played the Devils. Even the Devils’ players got into the act. One of the players, Ken Daneyko, lent Schoenewald his hunting dog to take the Disney characters off the ice. After the games, the players told him that their kids loved his act and picked up his Houlihan’s dinner tab. “The players’ kids wanted to know if the players knew me,” remembers Schoenewald. Kids weren’t the only ones who wanted the Devils time. Hockey groupies were also on the Houlihan’s menu, hints Schoenewald. “I wasn’t Joe Namath,” says Schoenewald. “But I met some interesting people.”

However, something was awry in the Meadowlands swamp. Night after night, fans yelled derisive remarks like “Stay away from my wife!” Schoenewald was baffled. That is until his assistant informed him that the previous Devils mascot, Slapshot the Puck, a.k.a. Brad Patrick Ebben, was charged with improperly touching three women while in costume. Furious at Lamoriello for not informing him of his predecessor’s digressions, Schoenewald relentlessly needled the GM by wearing opposing team’s jerseys into the office. “I went out and bought a Canadiens jersey, and I can’t stand the Canadiens,” shouts Schoenewald. Lamoriello, however, got last laugh, ordering Schoenewald to shoot promotional T-shirts into the crowd with a rubber band. Schoenewald vigorously protested the bush-league stunt. “That’s what mascots do that can’t think of anything funny to do,” fumes Schoenewald. Schoenewald thought of himself as a skilled performer, the game as an intermission for his act and that his act alone should be worth the price of admission. However, Schoenewald played the good soldier — for once. After all, he only had to do this once. Grimacing every moment, he shot the T-shirts into the crowd. One of the shirts, though, sailed into the upper deck, where an overzealous fan grasped for it and nearly fell off the balcony. After the game, Schoenewald was summoned to Lamoriello’s inner sanctum, where the rubber band was sitting on his desk like an official court document. Lamoriello, Schoenewald says, told him in no uncertain terms that upper-deck T-shirt shooting was out of bounds — and promptly ordered Schoenewald to continue shooting T-shirts into the crowd, just not into the upper deck. A now-livid Schoenewald resisted. Once again, Schoenewald was overruled. This time, though, Schoenewald fought back with a vengeance. “Now they have a popular mascot that is bringing down the house every night, and I have got to use those stupid fucking rubber bands for only a couple of hundred bucks that they’re getting out of some goofy company,” bristles Schoenewald, his voice rising. “And now I’m not allowed to shoot into the upper deck? Fuck you! The way I say fuck you is clean out my house and shoot all 12 of them in the upper deck. Fuck you! One of them hit the top of the stadium.”

No doubt, Lamoriello, who refused to return phone calls, was not amused by Schoenewald’s antics. Neither was souvenir dealer Art Miller, who says he did business with Schoenewald during that mascot’s days with the Single-A Vermont Expos in the summer of 1994. Miller claims that Schoenewald misrepresented himself, persuaded him to send $4,000 worth of baseballs and then turned around and sold the very same baseballs to the Expos. Schoenewald flatly denies the allegations. He denies knowing an Art Miller and claims that his sister, Marge, handled merchandising.

Schoenewald’s antics were not limited to the athletic arena. In February 1995, he was arrested by South Kingston, R.I., police for ripping a phone out of a wall in his mother’s house and driving with a suspended license. Before he made bail, Schoenewald spent three days in jail. Schoenewald pleaded no contest to the charges and was sentenced to six months probation and ordered to pay restitution. “We made him pay for [the hole the wall],” says Lois. Following the run-in, Schoenewald and Lois did not speak for a year. “He does not apologize whatever he does,” says Lois.

In the summer of 1996, Schoenewald resurfaced in Nashville, where he suited up for the minor-league baseball Sounds, where Michael Jordan had been expected to be on the roster but had unexpectedly retired to return to the NBA. “I was hired to pick up the entertainment void,” explains Schoenewald. But things were not hunky-dory in Music City. First, Schoenewald pissed off an umpire who threatened to fine him $300 after he impersonated a blind person following a controversial call. Then, he riled up management. “He’s supposed to be dancing in the top of the third,” groused Nashville Sounds then-spokesman Robby Bohren, “and he wouldn’t be there. He wanted to do things his own way.”

“Sour grapes,” sneered Schoenewald. “I’m the only one who got PR in this town.”

After more than 15 years of entertaining millions, Schoenewald was considering leaving the mascot trade. Perhaps the roar of the crowd had lost its thrill. Perhaps no team was willing to put up with his shenanigans. Perhaps Schoenewald realized that playing a costumed character was stifling his creative juices and that his greatest talent was his oratory ability. Somewhat tragically, at least in Schoenewald’s case, the fundamental rule of playing a character in costume is that you are not allowed to speak.

Uncertain of the future, Schoenewald once again got creative. In June, 1996, Schoenewald welcomed an inaugural class of eight to his newly formed mascot school. Ultimately, hundreds of Phillie Phanatic wannabes paid Schoenewald $795 to be taught the mascot trade. Before his disciples, Schoenewald stood with a Magic Marker in front of an easel. As his students took notes, he imparted his personal mantras: “Always burn your bridges because it means you will always go forward” and “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.”

Schoenewald warned his students of the pitfalls that he knew all too well firsthand. In the 1981 Super Bowl, Schoenewald passed out from dehydration and spent the second half submerged in ice water in the Superdome infirmary. He spoke with religious fervor about the importance of a good costume, ignoring male fans at all costs and that Barney must be trampled to a pulp. “Barney must go down!” Schoenewald preached. Of course, students who skated like a swan faced expulsion. As his students went before him and performed their comedy skits, Schoenewald eyeballed them like a Broadway casting director, frenetically tapping a pencil against a desk while smoking a cigarette. Regardless of how strong his direction, some were clearly not major-league material. Schoenewald laughs fondly recalling a would-be donkey who requested that Schoenewald kick him in the ass. To others with the knack for strengthening spirit, Schoenewald declared that wealth awaited. “Win their hearts and minds,” Schoenewald told graduates, “and their wallets will follow.” Ed McBride, the 30-year-old mascot who recently quit the Colorado Rockies, was sold. He says that Schoenewald’s tutelage was priceless. “We had a really cohesive relationship,” recalls McBride. “I cherish the fact that I went to the school.”

Vanderbilt University was impressed as well with the high school graduate and invited Schoenewald to speak to its students — three times. In an ill-fitting blue blazer, Schoenewald declared to the preppy aspiring entrepreneurs that he was the “craziest man in the sports business” before lecturing on why a mascot career is preferable to an MBA. “He’s always been a good speaker,” says Lois. “He used to say that he wanted to be a speechwriter for the president.” After class, students ran up to Schoenewald in the corridor and bombarded him with questions. “He’s one of the most dynamic speakers I’ve ever seen,” comments David Lucking-Reiley, the economics professor, now at University of Arizona, who invited Schoenewald to speak. “It’s really good for the students to hear that you can create your own career.”

 

Meanwhile, Schoenewald was shooting for his own sports franchise. With a group of investors, Schoenewald had plans of moving Oklahoma City’s CBA team to Savannah and renaming them the Bananas. Schoenewald said that the organization would focus its operations around mascots. But before the Bananas got off the ground, the Left Coast called. “How can you tell Hollywood you are too busy?” asks Schoenewald. “You gotta take your shot.”

Schoenewald signed with the William Morris Agency, packed up and drove west. But the land of Malibu and meandering meetings that have a microscopic chance of actually meaning anything was no place for the mascot guru. “It wasn’t a good fit. I got invited to cocktail parties and I told them I don’t drink,” says Schoenewald. “[William Morris] had no idea of what to do with me. They wanted to hang around until they figured out what to do. An artist can’t sit on his hands. I wanted to go back to work. I said thanks but no thanks.”

A Los Angeles talent manager familiar with the dealings says that Schoenewald did not help matters. “He wanted complete, utter control. William Morris is thinking if he knows it all, why does he need us?” says the manager who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He bit the hand that fed him.”

 

Back in Nashville, Schoenewald once again switched gears and concentrated on helping his golfing buddy and country singer, Doug Stone. “There was some talk of helping him market his career,” says Schoenewald, but Stone’s management team stepped in, claims Schoenewald. “They were not too fond of some goofball mascot calling the shots,” he says. Regardless, the pair opened a cigar shop in a Nashville “because they needed a place to hang out after golf” and Schoenewald seemed as if he was ready to hang up his costume for good, have a few Cubans and finally settle down. When asked at the time if he was a mascot in exile, Schoenewald laughs. “What happened? I grew up. I don’t have the need to be recognized like I used to,” says Schoenewald. He adds that he holds no grudges against his former employers, particularly Lamoriello. “I miss a normal lifestyle. I miss not being on a softball team because I’m not in a place long enough.” Seemingly settled, Schoenewald still harbored hopes of making it in Hollywood. This time around, though, Los Angeles attorney Larry Strick commissioned Schoenewald to write a children’s’ TV show pilot based on his mascot troupe Gorilla Warfare. “I think any intelligent television executive with a need for children’s television will jump at this and not look back,” predicted Strick.

Strick predicted wrong. More than a year later, Strick did not return repeated phone calls to discuss the project. As for the cigar shop, it went up in smoke. “We never made any money on it,” says Schoenewald. “We sold it after two months.”

Instead, Schoenewald got sold again on his childhood love, football, specifically women’s football. After a three-day, tumultuous stint as the commissioner of the Nashville Women’s Football League, Schoenewald hit the road again.

Meanwhile, Lois says she lives an “ordinary life,” working as a hospital housekeeper. She is resigned that her son will “never toe the line” and get a nine-to-five gig. “I guess he’s just a vagabond,” says Lois. But she stands by her son even if she does not see him for “months at a time” and does not know how he gets by “day to day.” Although her son’s costume days are done, every year she religiously writes out the check for her “Mascot” license plate. “I fight with my husband [Schoenewald’s stepfather] every year to renew it,” says Lois. “It’s a lot of money.”

Right now, Lois isn’t interested in money. The Schoenewald matriarch, the woman who raised eight children single-handedly, just wants harmony between her children, several of whom do not speak to one another. “They’re holding grudges for years over little things,” she says sadly. Perhaps, Schoenewald and siblings will bury the hatchet. Lois notices that her son is much calmer. “He isn’t as combative,” says Lois. “He thinks more before he acts.” Schoenewald does indeed seem calmer now, and he seems to be maintaining more bridges rather than burning them. He even says he’s willing to apologize. He has dated the same woman for a few years and he’s kept in touch with Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Prager. However, Schoenewald’s days on the road do not appear to have an end in sight. “I’m like a homeless person with potential,” says Schoenewald with a laugh. “I’ve had money. I haven’t had money. It does not matter to me either way.” Now, Schoenewald has landed in Denver, where he is the commissioner of a new women’s professional league, the United Women’s Football League, one of some 58 women’s pro pigskin leagues that has popped up around the country. To survive in this oversaturated market, Schoenewald is once again getting creative. He says that league has set up a plan with the Denver Public Schools and that kids will be admitted free to the games which will be played at Denver’s Invesco Field. Schoenewald says the atmosphere of the games will be football, Willy Wonka-style. He promises, balloons, games, refreshments and, yes, mascots. “A League of Their Own had nothing,” says Schoenewald as he drives down Interstate 25 alone in his car. “This is a winner.”

part 1 | part 2

    • Josh Kruger wearing a cloth surgical mask while wearing a tie and waterproof topcoat with City Hall's clock tower.

      Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and editor-in-chief of Philadelphia Weekly. His past work includes years as a journalist with Philadelphia Weekly, his PW column “The Uncomfortable Whole” winning multiple awards, including the Society of Professional Journalists’ First Place award for newspaper commentary in both 2014 and 2015. Josh has written for a variety of local and national publications, and his work often includes his perspective as someone with lived experience with HIV, homelessness, poverty, trauma, and addiction along with expert analysis from years of experience in journalism and public service following a five year stint in local government communications. He is a member of Philly’s local LGBTQ community, a parishioner at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a militant bicyclist, and resident of the Point Breeze section of the city with his cat, a senior tom named Mason.