The Mid-Majority Interview: Dominic Latkovski

by TMM

Saturday, January 23, 2010 (Season 6)
3,978 words · 19 min read

Several times a year during our travels of 100-plus games, we'll run into a halftime show called ZOOperstars! Though the concept is simple -- double-lifesized mascots that are each a hybrid of a sports celebrity and a zoo animal -- it's still the weirdest and most awesome thing in the world. So what is this strange phenomenon? Who is Dick Flytale [right]? How do they get those huge suits from one place to another? We went right to the source of it to find out.
ZOOperstars is part of the Skillville Group, a sports entertainment business based in Louisville run by the Latkovski family -- brothers Dominic and Brennan, and father Andy. Dominic Latkovski began his career in big suits 20 years ago as a triple-A baseball mascot. At 39, he still performs with the ZOOperstars in addition to running the serious side of a wacky business. After catching the ZOOperstars show for the second time this season at Bradley last weekend, we caught up with Dominic on Tuesday. We discussed the genesis of an act that expanded from one character to 40, the physical exertion necessary to perform in an oversized costume, and the place of sports entertainment in a changing sports landscape. We talked about our own ZOOperstars Trifecta Parlay, his favorite ZOOperstars, as well as the intellectual property issues of turning famous people into animals. Dominic also shared some of trade secrets and took us inside one of the ZOOperstars' most famous routines.

TMM: Giant inflatable mascots, based on sports stars, that dance and do stunts. How does a person even have that idea? Or rather, how did ZOOperstars come about?

DL: I guess I should start from the beginning. We began ZOOperstars in 1998, but we'd already been doing sports entertainment with more traditional mascot-type costumes for eight years. It all started in 1990 when I was Billy Bird, the Louisville Redbirds mascot (the triple-A team of the Cardinals), wearing a costume that the San Diego Chicken and his mom had made for the team. I left the Redbirds when I realized that I could have more success as a business if I was independent, and didn't have any affiliation with the team. So we started BirdZerk! because we had to leave the Billy Bird name behind.

That was around 1994. We launched ZOOperstars after we saw the University of Nebraska had an inflatable character, Li'l Red, and it was particularly funny-looking. So my brother and I researched it, and we ended up getting an inflatable for our BirdZerk show. Our father, who's always been our biggest supporter and our biggest creative guy, had an idea one day. He said, "You guys need to get rid of BirdZerk and come up with a new mascot, and all him Harry Canary." We didn't agree with him at the time, we didn't want to kick BirdZerk to the curb. But we did like the concept. Big bird with white hair and big glasses, hanging out of the press box singing at the seventh inning stretch... we liked that!

The first Harry Canary we made wasn't an inflatable... we made him as a traditional mascot costume. But there was the timing with these inflatable costumes for BirdZerk, and our friend was performing in some inflatable costumes that were made for the AllSport energy drink, and it all kind of came together. We said, "Let's make Harry Canary an inflatable costume." And then we kept going. "Why stop there? Let's create some other characters."

I came up with Shark McGwire. Then we made Cow Ripken, Pee Wee Geese and Ken Giraffey. Those were our original five, but then we needed a name for this act with all these characters based on famous baseball players. We were going to call this the Baseball Buddies, or the Zoo Crew, but then we came up with ZOOperstars. That name had never been trademarked, so ZOOperstars was born!

From that, we've kept expanding, and now we're up to 40 characters. We have lots of different sports, and now we're expanding outside of sports. We have Elephant Presley now. We're looking to take our concept to a wider audience. People ask us if we think it would ever grow to be this big. I tell them yes and no. We fly to Japan and Mexico and Canada to do shows. We've performed at Madison Square Garden and Wrigley Field, and yet we still perform at single-A baseball games, and small-college basketball games, and the Niagara Falls Ice Festival, and bar mitzvahs in Memphis too. We do it all!

TMM: About the names. You have a poll on your website now, looking for suggestions on your next hockey ZOOperstar. (I picked Evguinea Pig Malkin.) How does a character come together? Do you collaborate on ideas, and do you take a lot of fan input?

DL: It's a combination of those things. My brother, my dad and I have created many of the characters. We've had some that were suggested to us by fans. Trust me, Kyle, it's not that easy, and there's a lot that goes into the process. I'll give you an example. Kobe Bryant is a big-time star, but we just can't find the right animal to use in our cast of characters. The natural ones are either Cobra Bryant, or Ko-bee... or maybe Kobe Bry-ant, like an ant. Even if you do a bee or an ant, then we're using his real name and not changing the spelling. Cobra Bryant is the most likely one we'd use, but an inflatable snake isn't really that funny. We're still working on that idea. Albert Pujols too. He's big enough to have a ZOOperstar named after him, but we can't think of an animal that really works for him. but other characters are just natural, like Mia Hammster. Shark McGwire, Clammy Sosa, etcetera.

But the key thing is that the athlete or the personality has to be well-known enough to merit the ZOOperstar treatment. For instance, Pee Wee Geese... most kids today don't know who Pee Wee Geese is supposed to be. But many of the older fans do, they know it's a takeoff on an old Hall of Famer from the Brooklyn Dodgers. We try to mix it up.

TMM: OK, I have to ask you about intellectual property rights. Do you ever run into trouble with the athletes themselves? Take Barry Bonds, for example. When he was an active player, he wouldn't even license his name out to the Major League Baseball Players Association, so he was never in the video games. You could never be Barry Bonds in MLB2K-Whatever. But you guys can, with your character Bear Bonds. Do you ever get nixed on a character idea, or are there ideas that you weren't allowed to follow through with? Do you have to get permission, or are you changing the names and likenesses enough that it isn't an issue? I mean, you have Centipete Rose, who has dollar signs for eyes... have you ever received a call from his lawyer about this?

DL: When we first came up with this idea for putting together this act, before we put up any money to launch the business, we spent quite a bit on attorney fees. We met with the finest patent and licensing lawyers in Kentucky. We told them about our ideas. They assured us that based on past caselaw we were okay, just as long as we stuck to entertainment and parody. Parody is the big thing, because that's protected by the First Amendment, and that's why Saturday Night Live and comedians have the right to do spoofs and take-offs of public figures without getting in trouble. All we're doing is poking fun at public figures in an entertainment capacity. And we're not using the actual logos of the teams, so we're protected there too.

What we cannot do is use Bear Bonds in a merchandising capacity. If we sold Bear Bonds t-shirts or hats, then we're using Barry Bonds' likeness to sell a product and make a profit. That's totally different than what we're doing, and that's a line we can't cross.

Some of the lawyers we met with said, "You're going to be okay doing this, but you're probably going to hear from somebody." They told us we should be prepared to receive cease-and-desist letters to stop using certain people's likenesses as ZOOperstars characters. But the thing is that we haven't. Here we are, more than 10 years later, and we haven't heard from one single person about it.

But there have been moments. The first time that Dick Vitale saw Dick Flytale, he asked one of our performers backstage, "Hey, don't you guys have to get permission to do something like that?" The performer told him what I've just told you, about the rights to perform parody, and he told him. Maybe that's why we haven't heard from anybody. The attorneys who represent these players and personalities know what we're doing and probably have checked what our rights are. That's what you get for being famous, I guess... you get turned into a big inflatable bug that dances around.

A lot of the players, like Ken Griffey, absolutely love it. They eat it up. Cal Ripken knows all about it, he owns minor league baseball teams and his teams hire our act. They always request that Cow Ripken come to perform. Once at a game, Ken Griffey told us to make sure and go up to the suite where his family was. "Take Ken Giraffey up there to visit with them," he said. Most of them probably get a kick out of it. But no, we have not heard from any players in a negative way.

TMM: Our Twitter followers know this and are familiar with ZOOperstars Trifecta Parlay, a game in which participants attempt to pick the three ZOOperstars who will come out on the floor at halftime. (Don't worry, no cash is exchanged, and there are no Vegas lines.) How do you make the decision of which three will come out? Is that something that's calculated? Most of the time I've seen the show at mid-major basketball games, it's been the basketball-themed players... Yao Flamingo, LeBronco James, Dennis Frogman, etcetera... the HOOPerstars, if you will. How do you choose?

DL: Number one, we take the geography into account. If we're performing at Saint Louis University, there's a good chance you're going to see Shark McGwire. If we're in North Carolina, Mackerel Jordan is probably going to that one. In the Chicago area, Harry Canary, Dennis Frogman or Mackerel Jordan will most likely make that trip. Or Clammy Sosa. We put that kind of thought into it... where are we performing? Which characters have some ties to that area?

We'll bring five or six costumes on each trip. Sometimes the schools or teams will want to choose, and other times they'll just say, "You know what you're doing, bring the ones you think will work the best." Or they'll specifically request certain ZOOperstars. Maybe they'll want to see Shaquille O'Seal. Sometimes, we'll go to a basketball game and bring baseball characters, like say, Alex Frogriguez.

TMM: Alex was there at the Bradley game. It really threw everyone in the ZTP off, and nobody got all three.
DL: Yeah, we've done basketball games and sent out Peyton Manatee, Whale Gretzky and Jeff Gordog. It still works, since they're all sports stars. And we keep careful track of all the times we've performed, too. If we're going to perform at Bradley, and we've been there a couple of times in the past, we don't want to send the same characters. We have 40 of them, after all, and we'd rather keep it fresh.

We'll also use different songs, and try to change up our show as much as we can. There's only so much you can do in these big inflatable costumes, it's not like we can totally revamp our show every year, but we never do the exact same dances to the exact same songs with the exact same characters. We're dynamic and diversified enough that we can give the audience something new every time, and you guys can make a game of which ones are going to be there.

But if the team provides us with a time out in the second half, you know that Clammy Sosa or Mackerel Jordan is going to come out and eat somebody.

TMM: Tell me about what the folks in the suits go through. You have a lot of experience with this, two decades' worth. I imagine you have to be in excellent shape to do a show like this, to be out there entertaining people and staying at 100 percent high energy. What's it like inside a costume, and are there certain muscle groups that you have to have to do this? Is there a ZOOperstars workout?

DL: Our typical halftime show is six minutes long. People tell me, "You make a whole lot of money for six minutes of work." But we were at the UConn-Notre Dame women's game last weekend, and at the end of six minutes, I ducked down into a corner by the locker room and unzipped out of the costume... and I was dead. I was gasping for air, trying to catch my breath, covered with sweat. It's six minutes of all-out going crazy, dancing and running, climbing up the steps in the stands, jumping up on the stairs, doing all the maneuvers with a five-pound battery and the 20-pound motor that inflates the costume on your hip. It takes every bit of energy you have to lug all that around, stay high energy, and be funny too. We give it all we've got, and when that six minutes is over, we're spent.

TMM: So this is probably like choosing between children, but which ZOOperstar is your favorite to perform as? Which character do you feel reflects your personality the most?
DL: Shark McGwire has always been one of my favorite ones. There's just something about the character, the name... it's one of the characters I created myself. It's just a neat costume, despite the implications. That one's been one of my favorites. Bobby Orrangutang is another good one to be. Heck, I even like performing in the Mia Hammster costume. I guess you could say I like cross-dressing.

TMM: Not that there's anything wrong with that. OK, so how mobile is your operation? You mentioned that you take a bunch of them out on the road. Is a ZOOperstars costume something you can put in checked baggage? How far do they shrink down?

DL: When we travel, we take our whole show with us on the plane. We check the costumes, we don't have to ship them ahead of time by UPS or anything. Occasionally, they'll be oversized or overweight, and there are a lot of baggage fees these days. But because we travel so much, we get around a lot of that. We're Delta Airlines' favorite customers. Many of the guys who work with us are elite-level frequent flyers, and when you make that level they waive the baggage charges. But when we were coming back from New England last weekend after a hockey game in Manchester, New Hampshire, we could only get on USAirways. We're not elite with them, so we had to pay an extra $145, though. For the most part, though, we've got it down.

TMM: I'm sure it's still cheaper than having to buy Tiger Woodschuck a seat on the airplane. Actually, that was probably a bad example. I know that you have other acts in addition to the Zooperstars, tell me a little about your portfolio.

DL: Our company is the Skillville Group, and we have four main acts that schools or teams can hire. People know that they can call us, and that they're going to good range of options, get a professional group of guys who are easy to work with, who'll deliver as promised, and they know it's going to be quality stuff. We want to be that one phone call where a team can book a number of nights of great entertainment at their venue.

ZOOperstars is our biggest act. We still have BirdZerk, who's one the most established acts in all of minor league baseball, we've been doing that show since 1995. We've tried to do BirdZerk at college basketball games, but it's not as effective and powerful as ZOOperstars... it's entertaining, but it's hard to get across to the fans who BirdZerk is, and why he's at the game. Who's he the mascot of? We finally decided not to push BirdZerk for basketball games, and focus on ZOOperstars. It works great at the college level... we come out at halftime and put on a great show that fans really respond to.

We have another character named Myron Noodleman, who's a guy who works primarily in minor league baseball. He's a hip nerd character who's been around since the early 1990's, he's not a mascot like BirdZerk or the ZOOperstars, he's a real-life character who works the crowd and does goofy routines with the players and umpires. He does a handful of college basketball games too, but his bread and butter is minor league baseball games.

We also met this kid on "America's Got Talent", this really neat guy from Atlanta who does this incredible breakdancing routine. We tried to think of a show that would allow him to use his talents and make money... he'd go to clubs and stuff, but we thought we could come up with something national for him. So we created this concept where he'd be a breakdancing batboy who'd tour around the country and perform at minor-league baseball games. This past year, we launched B-Boy McCoy, and we had him perform at a handful of games. We've already booked him 25 minor league baseball games for 2010, probably headed up to 40. He's doing some basketball games as well, he's either a ballboy or a maintenance type of guy, mopping the floor, and then he does his routine when the music starts. You've got to check this guy out.

TMM: I will! From a philosophical standpoint, there's been a small but significant change in American sports over the past few years. There's a shift towards minor league and college sports, mostly because those are really the games that middle-class people can afford to go to. You can't take the family into the city for a Major League Baseball game or NBA game without taking out another mortgage. And these games are the ones that ZOOperstars might be performing at. How do your acts fit into this new reality?
DL: You're right on, but it's been this way outside the big cities for a while now. This all started for me when I was 12 years old, when the St. Louis triple-A team moved into town, which was a big thing for Louisville. It was the first minor-league team to draw a million fans in a season. I was there every single night, and that's how I was exposed to Max Patkin, the "Clown Prince of Baseball," and Morganna the Kissing Bandit. Captain Dynamite used to blow himself up behind second base, and the San Diego Chicken would come by too. I'd think as a kid, "Man, that's cool that Max Patkin would take the time to come here to Louisville. Tomorrow he might be in Evansville or Nashville."

I'd go out there to the games with my dad and my brothers, and after a while I realized that's what I remembered most about being at those games. I don't remember being at the stadium per se, or any details of the particular games... what the score was, what happened in the sixth inning. I remember some of the great players because they went on to the majors, but most of all I visibly remember Max Patkin coaching first base, spitting this stuff out. I remember Morganna running out on the field and kissing the players, and I remember the Chicken doing this and that. Those images are still in my mind.

Maybe it's just because I'm goofy and that's the kind of stuff that I like, but I don't think I'm alone. That's what people remember, the fun they had at the game. Who cares who won or lost? There was another game the next night anyway. What mattered was that I was with my family, having a fun night out, and that we were all laughing together.

Today, we know that there's over 200 minor league teams all across the country, and hundreds of colleges with basketball teams, and their attendance is always increasing. And they all have schedules that they have to fill. Back then, the San Diego Chicken was just one act, he could only be in one place at one time. With ZOOperstars, we've multiplied that out, and we can be in four or five different ballparks or college arenas on the same night. All these teams have to fill their promotional schedules, and we're glad that we have products to offer them that are funny and memorable, and people of all ages love what we do.

TMM: That ties in perfectly with my last question. It's specifically about the "Eat It" sketch. It plays to all age groups, both genders, student sections, kids. What strikes me about that routine is how perfect the comedy is.

As a construction, it's marvelous. You can come back and do that every night, and people are going to laugh whether it's the first time or the 1,000th. It begins with an everyday game situation, then reaches its climax with this bizarre otherworldly moment where a water creature eats a human being. And it ends with a guy running around maniacally in his underwear, which is universally funny. Everybody everywhere in the world will laugh at that, no matter if they're 6 or 86, or a 19-year old jaded liberal arts student. How did that skit come about, and were there other elements that were added or subtracted along the way? How does that work from a technical standpoint?

DL: "Eat It" has evolved through the years. The setup is the key too, to make it believable. We have our guy over by the visiting bench wearing that team's colors, pretending to be a manager or waterboy. Sometimes we eat a local kid who we practice with ahead of time.

The skit was born when we realized that we could put a trap door in one of the costumes. We had to practice a lot... finally, we got it so that the guy who's eaten jumps on the other guy's back. While he's geting piggybacked around, he's taking off his clothes, throwing the shoes and shirt out. Sometimes we carry the guy out without spitting him out. The very first time we perform somewhere, we'll carry him out. Let's say we're performing at the University of Northern Iowa. The first time in, Mackerel Jordan or Clammy Sosa will leave the floor with two people inside. We'll just eat him. But the next time we come around, we'll spit him out in his underwear. So it's a twist. If a fan says, "Oh, I saw this last year," we have a little something extra to make them laugh.

TMM: I feel like the book of magic has been revealed to me, but I still think it's the funniest thing in the world.

DL: It's okay... even though you know the secrets now, I don't have to kill you.

If you're below the Red Line, you can catch ZOOperstars on Jan. 29 at Weber State, Feb. 13 at Nevada or High Point, Feb. 20 at Liberty or Feb. 24 at Saint Louis. You can find out more about ZOOperstars and the Skillville Group at their website, and book them too!

The Woods

Once you give over your entire identity to a sport, the lines that separate the game and real life start to disappear. Welcome to The Woods, a new 22-essay anthology from TMM's Season 16.