Mascots, mountains, Dew Tour and Disney: The strange story of snowboarding moose ‘Steve’
A historical look at cartoon characters as they relate to snowsports events
The Dew Tour arrived at Copper Mountain this past week immediately following the Grand Prix, with both events serving as Olympic qualifying competitions for freeskiers and snowboarders.
The Dew Tour and the Grand Prix are anchored by the same concept, same halfpipe venue and same mid-December timing. But the Dew Tour organizers, planning an event to occur just one week later than the Grand Prix, have managed to create an event with a much different feel. The way they accomplished this can be explained in one word: art.
Copper Mountain’s base village has been adorned in the work of artists Brandon Heart and Dan Janssen of Lincoln Designs, who — with their snowboarding moose and other characters — have unwittingly tapped into a deep well of sports-event mascot aspirations predating even the most legendary figures credited with creating the person-in-the-suit mascot.
Janssen doesn’t necessarily specialize in sports mascot creation, but as Lincoln Designs is focused on illustration and art direction for companies, mascot ideas come with the territory in the field of general branding. While Janssen’s resume includes a long list of very legit branding campaigns, his most successful brand might be his own in Lincoln Design.
Young people lined up at Janssen’s booth at the Dew Tour on Thursday, purchasing stickers and shirts by Lincoln Designs artists. There was quite a demand for this year’s Dew Tour poster, and an enthusiasm for the characters on it, which include an eagle who sports a beanie and gold chain, a wolf on skis and the snowboarding moose.
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After one person purchased the sticker/poster combo and commented that he really liked the moose, Janssen asked what he thought the moose should be named.
“I think Steve is good,” he said.
The others agreed. The moose looks like a Steve.
Giving the moose a name could be viewed, optimistically, as the first step in a memetic shift at the Dew Tour, which could hopefully bring Steve the snowboarding moose to life one day, Janssen agreed. But in addition to a name, much more necessary would be some kind of social media interest or following.
And as of Thursday, it did appear that was possible. At the Dew Tour Experience, where they’re giving away the free stickers of the wolf, eagle and moose characters, the stacks of the wolf and eagle were noticeably larger. While the Dew Tour worker was happy to give me stickers of all three characters, several of the people I observed approaching the booth appeared to only feel comfortable taking one sticker. And they all went for the moose.
A memetic shift, in the sense of human culture as opposed to the human genome, can be thought of like a mutation and adaptation occurring in evolution, only it’s occurring in the evolution of cultural things like art. It’s usually someone simply learning a new technique, often by accident, which then goes on to become a standard practice in that artistic genre.
When industrial-revolution era painters realized that mass production suddenly allowed them to be outside all day experimenting with painting objects in changing light conditions without fear of wasting their supplies, a memetic shift occurred that gave way to impressionism.
When Walt Disney figured out that a metronome helped combine music and animation, it created a memetic shift in the world of cartoons. When DJs noticed that the simple repetitive drum beat with no other music was when people really came alive on the dance floor, it gave way to break dancing.
The list goes on, but an important memetic shift in the performance art world of mascots occurred in San Diego in the 1970s when baseball fan named Ted Giannoulas, a local college student, had been hired by the San Diego Zoo to dress up as a chicken.
The New York Times reporter Max Rubin, in August, wrote a beautiful piece about mascots and their importance in the post-COVID world of sports. Rubin profiled the original Phillie Phanatic, Dave Raymond, a person he calls “The Mascot Whisperer.” After a long run as the original Phanatic, Raymond formed the Mascot Hall of Fame, which trains many of today’s professional sports mascots.
But the Phillies got the idea from the San Diego Chicken, Rubin reports.
“Out in San Diego, a minor celebrity had recently been made of another college kid, one named Ted Giannoulas. A local radio station called KGB had recently run an Easter promotion at the San Diego Zoo, and it hired Giannoulas to dress up as a chicken and distribute eggs. It was supposed to be a one-off gig, but Giannoulas began scheming about how he could leverage the costume to get things he wanted. What he wanted was free baseball.
“Giannoulas approached the radio station with a proposition: If they got him into Padres games, he’d put on the chicken costume and work the crowd. … Soon, the Padres began inviting Giannoulas to perform on the field, and it wasn’t long before people started coming to games just to see him. By the end of the season, attendance had nearly doubled year over year, and the KGB Chicken had become a local phenomenon. Back in Philadelphia, the Phillies took note. What would happen, they wondered, if we had a chicken, too?”
‘Characters go to the mountain’
At the Dew Tour this week, Dan Janssen is enjoying the reaction skiers and snowboarders are having to his company’s branding effort.
Janssen’s first design job was for a skateboarding shoe company, DC Shoes, and since then, he’s been watching as the street art from the world of surf/snow/skate has crept its way into other brands in recent years.
“A lot of those people left DC to go to other brands, so all those people that were skaters are now running brands in all these different departments at different brands and companies, and bringing skateboard and snowboard influence into those companies,” Janssen said.
While art has always been a part of skateboarding and snowboarding, the Dew Tour, it could be said, created a bit of a memetic shift itself when it comes to the big events that feature the top talent from those worlds.
That shift occurred in 2017, said Scott Seiver, who is in charge of branding with the Dew Tour. The Dew Tour signed artist Steve Harrington, and while Harrington was on the rise at the time, in the years that followed, he would become a legend in the continuously merging worlds of skate/surf/snow art and big company branding. Harrington, today, has collaborated on projects with the world’s largest brands, including Nike, Coca-Cola and Disney.
“Steven Harrington was my No. 1 artist that I would follow and look up to,” said Los Angeles-based mural artist Andrew Cooper.
Two years after Harrington’s appearance at Dew Tour, Cooper was called in as featured artist.
“I was completely blown away,“ Cooper said. ”I have so much respect for Steven, and I had known about Dew Tour and their culture stuff, and I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is happening.’“
Other skate/snow events started featuring artists more prominently, as well. X Games Aspen hired skateboarding muralist Spencer Keeton Cunningham to create art for their 2019 event, and at the 2021 GoPro Mountain Games, organizers hired street painter Skye Walker as an official event artist. Walker teamed up with pro skier turned artist Chris Benchetler to create a large mural on-site during the event.
Seiver, himself one of those skate/surf kids turned brand managers, hired Janssen and Lincoln Designs for the 2021 Dew Tour gig. Janssen attended the Art Institute of Colorado and spent four years “snowboarding as much as possible“ in his youth, he said. “So to get call from Dew Tour to do an event like this, the branding and graphics, to me is huge. What they’ve created, for us to be asked to be involved, it’s an honor.”
Immediately upon receiving the contract from Seiver, Janssen said he knew his company needed to come up with a crew of shredding cartoon characters. The character-driven nature of the Dew Tour art goes back to Steven Harrington’s 2017 creations, Seiver said.
“I had always had a dream of working with Steven Harrington, and that was the first real collaboration that (Dew Tour) had done with an artist,” Seiver said. “Steven Harrington had never done an event, so we had this great idea, we brought him on, and his stuff was quite amazing … it was all character-driven.”
Seiver said character-driven art resonates with ski town audiences “because there’s a ton of characters that go to the mountain.“
At the 2017 winter Dew Tour event, Harrington created on paper “a purple sasquatch guy, and I was obviously like, ‘Hey, can we get this thing made (into a mascot character)?’” Seiver said.
It proved too challenging at the time, but Seiver hasn’t given up on the dream.
The following year, the Dew Tour collaborated with artist Luke Pelletier, who also used a character-driven approach, creating a crocodile and a buffalo who, thus far, have come the closest to coming alive as Dew Tour partnered with motion graphics specialist Andy Baker to animate Pelletier’s characters in a video. The video features a cameo from a cartoon version of snowboarder Danny Davis styled by Pelletier.
This year, Seiver said Heart, Janssen and Lincoln Designs were able to fill the difficult shoes of the talented array of artists that came before them by once again creating memorable characters.
Janssen said the wolf represents skiing, the moose represents snowboarding, and the eagle represents having style while flying through the air.
Seiver said he would love to see the characters, the moose especially, become real-life event mascot characters.
But while many would see that effort as a continuation of the long tradition inspired by the San Diego Chicken, many snow sports mascots are actually operating on an entirely different historical timeline.
Mickey and Goofy on skis
On-snow sporting mascots (picture Mickey Mouse on skis at a giant slalom race) predate the San Diego Chicken and all of the costumed characters of baseball by years.
More than a decade before the San Diego Chicken antagonized fans at Padres stadium, an Italian ski event known as the Trofeo Topolino forged a partnership with Disney to bring Mickey Mouse on skis as a mascot to their youth ski racing event. The Disney partnership began in the late 1950s and remained in place for more than half a century.
The Trofeo Topolino was a legendary indicator of talent — Ingemar Stenmark won it as a youth in 1965, Marc Girardelli won it as a youth in 1975, Lindsey Vonn (nee Lindsey Kildow) won it in 1999, and Mikaela Shiffrin won it in 2010.
As a result, the Topolino ski race became such a popular youth event in the world of skiing that it the term “Topolino” now simply means “children’s international ski race” for some.
At the Birds of Prey ski race in Beaver Creek this year, I asked Italian ski racer Christof Innerhofer if he had participated in the Topolino as a child. He said yes and proceeded to describe his experience at a completely different event, the Whistler Cup, which was modeled after the Topolino. The two of us weren’t able to understand that we were talking about different events until we got to the subject of mascots.
“Do you remember seeing Mickey Mouse there?” I asked.
“No,” Innerhofer responded. “It was a lion. I remember that.”
Indeed, mascots are often the most memorable part of sporting events, as evidenced by the language surrounding the Trofeo Topolino. While the word “Topolino” simply means “junior international ski race” for a person like Innerhofer, the word Topolino does not actually translate to mean ski racing. No, the race itself is not the part of the Topolino which is remembered through its name, instead its the mascot.
In Italy, “Topolino” is the word for Mickey Mouse.
Former Disney sales director Horst Koblischek, in the 1980s, noticed the branding success of the Trofeo Topolino and decided to develop a similar event called the Sport Goofy Trophy in Europe and the U.S. In Koblischek’s Sport Goofy Trophy events, a sports-based version of Goofy was the namesake and mascot.
Sport Goofy would go on to be the mascot of several other sporting events in the U.S., including the 1989 World Alpine Ski Championships in Vail.
So when Sport Goofy was seen in the stands at the ’89 championships, or on snow skiing around Vail at that time, the character was there not as a result of the San Diego Chicken, but rather from the Trofeo Topolino, a ski event.
Later, at the 1999 and 2015 Alpine championships, new ski mascots would grace the snow, including a raccoon and a cougar named Pete and Earl. Their names are an homage to Vail’s founders, but they too were created with Sport Goofy in mind, rather than the baseball mascots which now define the craft.
Indeed, baseball mascots have come to define the craft of the person-in-a-costume style sports mascot over Disney characters, and this is evidenced by more than Rubin’s wonderful story for The New York Times. Janssen, too, is proof of that thesis at the Dew Tour this week, as he now seeks to create his on-snow mascot. And that’s because Janssen didn’t grow up on the downhill track at Copper Mountain dreaming of participating in a Topolino.
Janssen grew up in San Diego, skateboarding the streets, snowboarding at Big Bear, and, most memorably, attending baseball games at Padres stadium, where he watched the original San Diego Chicken work the crowd.
Like many San Diego fans, Janssen doesn’t necessarily love the chicken.
“He was a pain in the ass,” he told me.
But Janssen absolutely respects the San Diego chicken, and what the mascot represents, and there’s no doubt that, consciously or not, the San Diego Chicken has influenced his work in branding.
Before heading out to Copper Mountain this week, “I just bought a little toy of the San Diego Chicken,” Janssen said.
And in looking at his Dew Tour characters, he said he can’t help but hope for a similar fate for them, especially Steve the snowboarding moose.
“I’d love to make these guys move, and tell a story,” he said.
All roads lead to Disney
In carrying on the tradition of Harrington’s character-driven art at the Dew Tour, and in drawing from his knowledge of the San Diego Chicken, rather than Sport Goofy, Janssen appears to be creating a non-Disney inspired version of his on-snow mascots.
But in tracing the origins of practices used in the art and media world of today, often times all roads lead to Disney.
In 1950, an Ice Capades show revealed to Walt Disney that large, costumed versions of Mickey and Minnie could make a great draw for his Disneyland park opening in 1955. Costumed Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy characters became a staple at Disneyland.
After Disney introduced Southern California to the large, costumed, mascot-like characters with the opening of Disneyland, the creation of the San Diego Chicken costume was no doubt influenced by the permeation of these Disney characters into the culture.
And Steven Harrington has also said that his art — which kicked off the Dew Tour’s efforts to bring character-driven creations from featured artists to their events — is also inspired by, you guessed it, Disney.
This revelation from Harrington comes courtesy of an interview with Seiver on DewTour.com, regarding Harrington’s collaboration with Disney and Nikon to design a watch. Seiver asks Harrington what it felt like to work on a design featuring Mickey Mouse. Harrington responds:
“Everyone has their own relationship with Mickey, and I feel like the relationship that I have with him and that world, for me personally, feels very intimate. So much of what I do on the day-to-day is drawing, kind of bubbly, cartoon-esque kind of characters, that it just felt like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m just referencing Mickey and just drawing him in my studio.’”
What: Dew Tour Experience at Copper Mountain, showcasing the art, culture, music, and lifestyle of action sports.
Where: Center Village between American Eagle and American Flyer lifts
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday