SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Our theme music is by B.J. Leiderman. This summer, we're profiling young people with unusual jobs. So let's introduce to you now to a man who gets paid full-time to dress up as a Tyrannosaurus Rex. NPR's Kirk Siegler sent us this story from the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: So you know that scene in "Empire Strikes Back" where Hans Solo slices open the belly of a tauntaun so they can stay warm when they're lost on Hoth? It's not really that different from how Eli Presser climbs into a 75-pound, feathered T-Rex dinosaur costume.
ELI PRESSER: So right now, I am putting on some Velcro straps that are going to attach my feet to our T-Rex, and it's also going to let me control his legs.
SIEGLER: Then he sticks his head through an opening in the T-Rex's gut and climbs in. You can't see him now, but his head is somewhere inside the puppet's neck just beneath its gaping mouth and set of yellow, spear-like teeth. Eli uses his own legs and a hidden bike break to operate this giant beast.
PRESSER: And so by pulling on those breaks, I open the mouth and blink the eyes.
SIEGLER: And the best part...
(SOUNDBITE OF DINOSAUR ROAR)
ILANA GUSTAFSON: Great - I'm going to unclip you, and the doors are still closed.
SIEGLER: ...The vocal box that makes this scary roar. Eli gives it one last test with his boss, Ilana Gustafson, just seconds before his grand entrance into one of the museum's daily dinosaur encounter shows.
GUSTAFSON: And I'm going to go - doors are opening
SIEGLER: Eli and his T-Rex come to life darting from one side of the stage to the other, mouth opening wide, roaring, lunging at the show's host.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We forgot to feed him
SIEGLER: Warning - the depiction is so realistic it might be frightening for small kids. The 10-year-old Sofia Lyndzey leaves impressed.
SOFIA LYNDZEY: I liked it when it dropped the lizard out of its mouth and it didn't even notice. I recommend this show for all ages
SIEGLER: Beyond the thrills, Sofia says she also learned a lot. And this is one of the best things about being a master puppeteer, says Eli Presser. He's once again backstage, now wiping sweat from his forehead.
PRESSER: It takes a little wind out of you.
SIEGLER: He says he'll never take this job for granted.
PRESSER: I'm very fortunate. I spend my work week - as I come in and I either get into a wonderful, giant T-Rex puppet and chase and roar at kids and adults. And when I'm not doing that, I am in my workshop building new puppet shows and discussing arts and science with artists and scientists.
SIEGLER: Eli, who's 30, got his start in puppetry at age 15 in his hometown of Chicago. His mom took him to a performance at a local puppet theater. That night, he went home and built his own puppet. He brought it back to the theater the next day, and they hired him as an apprentice. Then came California and art school. And four years ago, it all became a full-time job when the museum launched it's popular program.
PRESSER: This is a dream job. You know, full-time employment as a puppeteer at a museum where every day I walk through these halls is wonderful.
SIEGLER: But don't discount all of the physical demands. You've got to stay in shape and stretch a lot if you're going to operate a 75-pound puppet four or five times a week.
PRESSER: For me, I'm not very flexible. So a lot of what I end up doing is just trying to keep my hamstrings from getting too tight.
SIEGLER: So before his show, you'll find Eli in the green room on a Pilates reformer. In a city full of actors and performers, you might not be surprised to learn that Eli's job is also highly competitive. On the rare occasion that there's an opening for a puppeteer, the museum's Ilana Gustafson will bring in at least 20 applicants for auditions.
GUSTAFSON: They definitely all need to be strong and imaginative. And it's - you'd be surprised how difficult it is to find these puppeteers. It's a very unique mix of skills that we look for.
SIEGLER: Skills like agility but also acting, artistry and performance. Eli Presser honed a lot of them working for years as a street performer. And, in fact, the favorite part of his job today - when he gets to walk around the museum in the T-Rex costume unannounced, surprising visitors.
PRESSER: It's the same thing I get out of street performing, which is that sense of people encountering puppetry or any kind of performance in places that they do not expect it.
SIEGLER: Sure. One minute, you're checking out the gazelle diorama, the next, you turn around and there's a giant T-Rex breathing down your neck. Kirk Siegler, NPR, News.
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