The home crowd roars to the cadence of Pete the Panther’s direction. He is a conductor directing an orchestra; with the raising of his arms, spectators erupt in cheers as the Panthers march down the football field.
As quickly as this explosion occurs, it ceases as Pete’s hands fall. Game by game passes, Pete continues to direct his philharmonic and the repetition of school spirit draws more and more participants until the volume shakes the bleachers of Wilson Field. When he’s not leading crowds in cheer, Pete remains anonymous. He is the embodiment of Chapman school spirit, yet he could be any of the thousands of students on Chapman’s campus. Everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
“You never want to know who’s under there because then the spirit goes away,” Pete said. “That secrecy is based upon the spirit of the character; this is an actual panther instead of a person.”
The Panther spoke to one of the four members who dons the red and black costume. Although wishing to remain anonymous, he requested to be referred to as “Pete.” Pete has a wealth of previous experience doing similar work at Disneyland, from which he’s since retired. There, he played the costumed role of over 18 different Disney characters in a year’s span. Now a senior, he reflected on his beginnings as the character, when his focus was to bring a personable identity to the mascot – something that had not yet been solidified.
“When I first got the role, it wasn’t really fleshed out, it was more ‘Just put the costume on and go,’” Pete said. “I took charge of creating (the mascot’s) atmosphere. He isn’t as well known and that’s what I’m trying to change. I’m trying to get him more known and seen around campus.”
Braden Joe, a junior film production major, is one of the few who knows Pete’s real identity. He believes the mascot’s ambiguous identity is a mystery that can bring students at Chapman together.
“Pete represents a unifying factor on campus between the different schools, because the university can feel kind of segregated,” Joe said. “He is someone who can unite everyone under a common identity.”
Joe said the realization that he knew the person who unites the student body was incredible. His reaction was a mix of admiration and appreciation, noting Pete’s commitment to brightening students’ experiences.
“When he’s going out, he’s having fun out there, but he’s a true professional performer and that shows through his work ethic,” Joe said. “He’s sweating it out in 100 degrees in that suit and gets his job done. I have a lot of respect for that.”
Pete said the audition process was akin to a more relaxed Disney tryout. In the role of the mascot, he said he draws on those Disney roots to give him inspiration for the character. In this way, the mascot is more of an extension of his own personality rather than an alternate being.
“The way that I play (the mascot) is a mix of (the Disney character) Pluto and myself. I’m super high energy and when I’m in character, I’m insanely high energy,” Pete said. “It’s my energetic side and love for the school.”
Pete closely guards his true identity, adding to the mystery of his persona. However, withholding this information allows students to draw their own conclusions about who he really is and what he means to them. Joe echoed the belief that the mascot can unite the campus through this common mystery.
“It separates us from feeling like individuals and makes us feel like something bigger,” Joe said. “We are Chapman Panthers. I love being out there and seeing Pete hype people up, but I know that he does a good job – even if he’s not there, he’s well and truly alive.”