Clowning around is serious business for Gary and Sharon Hale of Soldotna. Their alter egos, Captain Burn-ee and E.D.I.T.H., have been teaching Kenai Peninsula children about fire safety for years.
National Fire Safety Week begins today, and the Hales and their gaggle of puppet sidekicks are starting their season of presentations.
Putting a new face on safety
"I know it makes all the difference in the world that we dress up like this," Sharon said.
Clowning requires serious work.
It takes about an hour for the Hales to put on their faces. After putting on the professional grease paint, they apply baby powder to keep it dry and intact. After a day's clowning, it takes another hour to take off the make up. And the only thing that will remove all traces is washing their faces in Dawn dish-washing detergent.
Hector the soke alarm visits with some students during a school presentation.
Burn-ee has evolved a bit since he stepped into the limelight eight years ago. He wears a new, flaming shirt Sharon made and has worked up to wearing size 20 tennis shoes. The Hales also graduated from Styrofoam noses to the glue-on versions used by professional clowns.
They get supplies like that from Dooley's Tuxedo and Costumes, a shop in Anchorage that carries clown accessories. Less specialized items they buy locally.
"I take great pains in the store selecting the right brush and eyebrow pencil," Gary said.
Do people look askance at a middle-aged man lingering over eye makeup in the supermarket?
Sharon replied that enough people know about Gary's other identity that they take it in stride. But the couple does get weird looks from people when they drive by.
They also get approached by people wanting to hire them to work at parties or events. As a rule, they decline, because Burn-ee and E.D.I.T.H. only work to promote their safety message.
Captain Burnee shows a youngster some of the gear firefightrs need to wear to protect themselves.
Fire prevention came before the clowning, and it still takes precedence.
Gary worked in fire prevention education in Colorado before the family moved to Alaska in 1986.
When he came to work for Central Emergency Services, where he now serves as the fire marshal, he resumed outreach projects. His work took him into classrooms to work with children. The father of three wanted a better way to reach youngsters.
"I needed a new twist in fire prevention," he said. "I'm always looking for new ideas."
He found out about a program in Phoenix called "Tiller and Friends," in which a fire safety clown worked with children and starred in education videos. Tiller inspired Captain Burn-ee.
Neither of the Hales had any background in clowning when they created Burn-ee.
Sharon, an experienced seamstress, made the outfit, and Gary experimented with makeup.
After two years as Captain Burn-ee, he felt the clown worked well with younger children but was not the best way to reach students in fifth and sixth grades, who considered themselves too sophisticated for red-nosed silliness.
Enter the puppets.
The Muppet-style puppets had been used by the Kalifornsky Beach Fire Department years ago. However, after that department and others merged to form Central Emergency Services, they ended up nearly forgotten in storage.
The Hales dusted off the half dozen puppets. Sharon became the puppeteer, and they worked the fuzzy friends into the routine.
Later, she moved out from behind the stage, taking on the clown persona of E.D.I.T.H., named after the slogan "Exit Drills In The Home."
Firefighters in show biz
How things have changed. Now the Hales work with a squad of dedicated volunteers and a cast of 27 puppets on a multitiered stage.
"It is a major production," Sharon said. "We built it all. We built all the pieces and made the curtains. It takes a minimum of five puppeteers back there."
The Hales are quick to give credit to their small army of assistants. The shows are too big for the couple to handle on their own and could not go on without support from Fire Chief Len Malmquist and efforts of the CES staff, on-call volunteers and family members who pitch in.
Marv St. Clair designed the stage; Tom Krueger and John Anderson helped revive the puppetry; Scott Aleckson transcribes and distributes the scripts; and Sterling businessman Lynn Baker donates time to do puppets, along with Sam Evanoff, Georgia Krapp, Anne McCabe and a rotating group of emergency personnel and firefighters' wives.
Sharon works at Redoubt Elementary School, which allows her flexibility to attend to E.D.I.T.H.'s business.
"We've even got some of the older kids," she said.
The Hales' 14-year-old son, Jeromy, sometimes lends a hand, too. He tolerates his parents' clowning with good spirits but refuses to let E.D.I.T.H. kiss him, his mother said.
Manipulating the puppets is harder than it looks. It takes practice, muscles and coordination. When puppeteers get tired, their character's heads tend to droop. Some days when she does it, her arm feels like it is going to fall off, Sharon said.
"Puppeteering can be rather strenuous," Gary added.
But, in general, the puppeteers have so much fun with the music and storyline they are half dancing behind the curtains. They move around so much that Aleckson had to reinforce the stage.
"So when the puppeteers are rocking and rolling and moving their rear ends, the stage isn't moving, too," Gary said.
In view of the audience, the characters carry on their shenanigans. They include Jake, the moose-riding cowboy; Herman, the saxophone-playing rabbit; and Hector, the smoke detector.
Despite the scripts, the puppets have been known to hold up signs or spout dialog that causes Captain Burn-ee to do a double take. They also have to ad lib when technical glitches arise, such as missing music.
"Sometimes they can pull some unusual surprises," Gary said. "You better have your wits about you."
Making sure they get the message
Captain Burn-ee has important messages for children. For example, he tells them that if their clothes ever catch on fire, they should "stop, drop and roll."
"The biggest thing is we push is smoke detectors. But we still have a problem," Gary said.
Nearly all U.S. homes now have smoke detectors, but surveys show that a quarter to a third of them are not working because of dead batteries, no batteries or disconnection.
"In Alaska, for the past several years, over 50 percent of the fire fatalities could have been prevented if they had had a working smoke detector," he said.
Fire prevention is focusing now on the next step of public education, helping families get to safety if a fire should break out in their home. For the past three years, the National Fire Protection Association has had a campaign called Fire Drills: The Great Escape.
"Over the years, we've been telling people you've got to have a plan. But it's no good unless you practice it," Gary said.
Children are easier to teach about safety concepts than their parents, Sharon said.
Last year, the Hales passed out packets of information to every school group they addressed. The final count was 2,300 children. In the packets were invitations for families to enter a contest on designing emergency exit plans. Only 1 percent entered.
The Hales said they were disappointed by the turnout. However, when it came time for the grand prize awards at the participating schools, the situation changed.
The winners were picked up at their homes and given rides to school in the fire truck. Gary described how Sterling Elementary School students lined up outside their school to watch the grand entrance. The children were thrilled.
Captain Burn-ee and E.D.I.T.H. will pass out entries again this year, and since word of last year's prizes got around they expect a better turnout.
Spreading the word
The safety messages, delivered with humor and flair, seem to get through.
Gary said last fall he got a call from a mother who said that advice may have saved her son. His Halloween costume caught on fire, and he put out the flames by rolling. A teen-ager, he remembered Hales' advice from a class visit years before.
The target audience is preschool through third grade. However, the Hales also give versions of the show to classes through sixth grade, to day-care centers, senior citizens and for special occasions. They have been at health fairs, the home show and the fire department open houses.
They do about 25 shows a year.
"We do it pretty much when anybody asks," Sharon said.
In the past, the show was limited to the CES service area in and around Soldotna. Last year, the Hales arranged special permission with former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre to take the show to other parts of the peninsula. Last year, they made their first trip to Hope School, which had never had fire prevention education, they said.
This year, they hope to take the clowns and puppets to visit school children from Moose Pass and Cooper Landing.
"Who needs it more than kids who live outside a fire district?" Sharon asked.
The couple also coordinate and participate in the "Fill the Boot" campaign, a fund-raiser CES does to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. They always get more money when they solicit people as Burn-ee and E.D.I.T.H., Sharon said.
The two clowns have become unofficial mascots for CES. During Soldotna Progress Days they are on hand for the parade and pass out balloons. This year, they got to borrow a golf cart and buzz around the festivities.
"And sometimes there is a fire when we are dressed like that," she added.
Gary rolls his eyes when he recounts how he detoured to a fire when Burn-ee was en route to a date at the Sterling Senior Center. He was unable to put on his safety helmet because he couldn't get his big red nose off and arrived first at the scene, big shoes and all.
"I've been caught two other times going to a fire," he said.
All in the name of safety.
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