Role of saber-toothed cat is not for the claustrophobic

In the annals of odd jobs, this recent listing ranks high.

"The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County seeks . . . a full-suit puppeteer for a saber-toothed cat."

"Extremely hot, claustrophobic full-suit puppet with limited sight range. … ," it went on. "Must carry 73 pounds on back in a crawling position, supported by arm stilts for periods of 20 minutes, multiple times a day."

More than 100 people sent in resumes for the chance to face these tough working conditions in a new museum show, "Ice Age Encounters."

Some had been team mascots or trapeze artists. Others had backgrounds in capoeira or gymnastics.

The ideal candidate would be "a combination of an actor, an athlete, a puppeteer and a teacher, all in one person," said Jen Bloom, the museum's performance-artist supervisor. "I want someone who doesn't just have brute strength but who can use their body holistically."

Bloom, who used to direct experimental theater in New York City, joined the museum two years ago to cast and choreograph its popular "Dinosaur Encounters" show, in which a lumbering triceratops or Tyrannosaurus rex acts out a short skit in front of an audience of squealing kids.

Museum staff decided to launch the new show earlier this year. They figured the first puppet ought to be a saber-toothed cat because it's the state fossil of California. At the La Brea Tar Pits alone, the remains of more than 2,000 have been discovered. The cats lived 40,000 to 11,000 years ago during the late Pleistocene epoch.

The museum commissioned Jim Henson's Creature Shop, the workshop that built the Muppets and the beasts in the film "Where the Wild Things Are," to construct the saber-toothed feline, which was cast from a real fossil and cost more than $100,000. Museum paleontologists, after much research, chose the fur from samples.

Today the puppet hangs in a back storage room filled with boxes of taxidermied skunks and bobcats.

On a recent morning, Bloom pulled back a protective tarp to reveal the museum's latest acquisition. In many ways, it resembles a modern-day lion, with a muscular body, a boxy snout and knife-like canine teeth. Bloom bent down and grazed her nose against the puppet's long whiskers.

"It's a face only I could love," she said.

The museum's marketing department is planning a contest to name the puppet, but for now Bloom calls it Smiley (after the Latin name of the species, Smilodon fatalis).

A slit in the belly allows the puppeteer to enter. Once inside, he or she can only see straight down. So the stage on which the Ice Age show will be performed has been built with a special patterned carpet to help out.

According to the job listing, the puppeteers who operate the saber-toothed cat must be 5 feet 3 to 5 feet 9 and wear women's shoe size 6 to 8 or men's size 7 to 10. They must be strong but also imaginative.

In the auditions, Bloom led candidates through half an hour of power yoga and a series of strength tests before asking them to prowl, hunt and pounce.

In the end, she offered the job to three people, each part time. One is a stuntman who moonlights in a pirate show. Another, a female aerialist, also acts as a mock patient at County- USC Medical Center. The third already works as a museum dinosaur.

They begin in October.

There are 10 puppeteers working at the museum right now, in "Dinosaur Encounters" and other shows. When they're not performing, they relax or work out in a green room hidden behind a wall in the museum's hall of birds.

Bloom was helping some of the puppeteers get ready for the dinosaur show in the North American Mammal Hall when she was stopped by a man with a concerned look in his eyes.

"Excuse me, do you work here?" Dell Bennett asked.

"Yes," Bloom said.

"This is Jordan," Bennett said, putting his hand on the shoulder of his 10-year-old son. "Now tell him, does he have anything to be afraid of?"

Bloom bent down until she was level with Jordan's face.

"So, my friend Eli is going to go inside of that dinosaur puppet," she said. "He makes all the roaring, but it isn't real."

Jordan, lips quivering, looked unconvinced.

"Are dinosaurs alive today?" she asked.

He shook his head.

"See," Bloom said. "They aren't real."

Jordan and his father went to take a seat and Bloom disappeared behind a staff-only door to help puppeteer Eli Presser, 29, get into the large, scaly Tyrannosaurus rex costume.

Presser, who studied puppetry at CalArts, said this was a dream job.

"This is kind of one of those mythical jobs in the world of puppets," he said. "When you put on this mask, you're looking through a new set of eyes. You feel that power when you roar. You feel that power when you open your jaws. It's a new vocabulary."

Sometimes when he walks home from work, Presser catches himself snorting and grunting like a dinosaur.

He said he wishes he could perform inside the saber-toothed cat. "But I'm too big for her."

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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