MASCOUCHE, Quebec >> After his wife kicked him out, Jean-Claude Tremblay moved into his small factory here and set up a cot. He slept there for two years, he said, as he devoted himself to what was becoming his life’s work: building mascots.
"I love fur," Tremblay said on a recent morning, some 35 years later, inside the same factory, as he pawed at a shelf full of faux fur — orange fur, purple fur, green fur — destined to become outerwear for zany creatures with weight issues and mischievous streaks. "When I touch the furs, I go crazy."
Tremblay, 68, who has a deep tan from the golf course and the wiry frame of an aging acrobat, has persisted through the decades as a craftsman in the most specialized of professions. Yet his work is everywhere.
Dinosaurs who dance on minor league dugouts. Ducks who ice-skate between periods. Horses who celebrate touchdowns by spraying multicolored ribbons from their nostrils.
"In my head, I never thought I would be doing this," said Tremblay, who operates his company, Creations JCT, with his son Dominic, 42, out of a no-frills, two-story assemblage of plywood floors and makeshift ladders in this quiet suburb of Montreal. "But I think I did the right choice, because I am an artist."
American sports fans might be surprised to learn that some of their favorite mascots are, in fact, French Canadian. The factory’s alumni include Blue, the potbellied, crowd-pleasing mascot of the Indianapolis Colts, and Raymond, the resident prankster of the Tampa Bay Rays. Countless others have graduated from Creations JCT to take jobs everywhere from Switzerland to Staten Island.
"Scooter is a pretty central piece of what we do," said John D’Agostino, the director of game entertainment and event presentation for the Staten Island Yankees, whose aforementioned mascot — a 7-foot-tall cow in a stars-and-stripes top hat — was actually born here in Quebec. "Scooter’s always running into the stands, shaking his cowbell and causing a ruckus."
Creations JCT produces between 150 and 200 mascots a year, most of them for sports franchises but also for amusement parks and corporations.
Televised sports are uniquely appealing to Jean-Claude Tremblay — "I watch for my characters," he said — even as he grapples with technological innovations and the prospect of retirement.
"At a certain time, you have to pass — how do you call it in English? — you have to pass the torch," he said.
He remains deeply involved as the factory’s creative conscience. If Dominic Tremblay, who runs the company’s day-to-day operations, is brainstorming with a client who cannot settle on a character, he will summon his father from the bullpen.
No one, he said, can close quite like his dad, who listens to the client and waits for inspiration to strike. Then, with a snap of his fingers and his eyes aglow: "You need a mosquito!"
"And the client is always like, ‘Wow! Yeah!’" Dominic Tremblay said. "Meanwhile, I’ve been busting my butt for two hours trying to find something."
Jean-Claude Tremblay has dreamed up and drawn more than 5,000 characters, dozens of which adorn the walls of the factory’s lunchroom. The rest are archived in sketchbooks: sea creatures and aliens, birds and blobs, bears and dogs, their tongues wagging, their midsections bulging.
"Sometimes customers would want to see all kinds of cowboys," he said, "so I would draw a bunch of cowboys. And then they would say, ‘Oh, I don’t want a cowboy anymore. I want a dog.’ So I just kept everything."
A musty room on the second floor houses a block of alphabetized storage boxes that contain the patents for his many drawings that graduated to full-fledged costumes — more than 2,000 to date, including Spartacat, the resident prankster of the Ottawa Senators, and Jay Jay, the official fur ball of FIBA, international basketball’s governing body. (Jay Jay recently helped hand out medals at a tournament in Mexico City.)
Back when Tremblay started, he had one box. He now has 53, all stuffed with envelopes that detail how each strip of fabric should be cut, every eyeball affixed.
"For me, it’s easy," he said. "If you call yourself the Red Wings, it’s going to be a bird. It’s automatic. But some people, they’re asking for foolish things."
Dominic Tremblay said, "Sometimes, we get asked to do cups. Coffee cups. Stuff like that. And I think it’s our job to advise the client."
Jean-Claude Tremblay said, "You cannot give a kid a cup."
The Tremblays have seen their share of trends. Robots are big these days. Kids love robots.
"But we’ve never stopped doing animals," Dominic Tremblay said. "We’ll never stop doing all kinds of crazy characters. I think people will always love a crazy character."
His father, of course, is one of them.
A Life-Changing Call
Growing up in Montreal, Jean-Claude Tremblay developed a passion for painting. His father, who was an engineer, was resistant to the idea of his son making a career out of it, though. Tremblay summed up the prevailing view at the time: "If you go to art school, you’re going to be a beatnik and smoke grass, and you won’t do very well."
Firm about his future, Tremblay said, he enrolled at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Montreal. He played hockey in his spare time. His hair barely fit under his helmet.
After graduating from school, Tremblay taught art at a prison before he took a job working at his brother’s art shop. Then, one day in 1981, he said, the Montreal Expos called. It was the call that changed his life.
The team’s mascot, a scruffy fellow named Youppi, had seen better days. One of his eyes kept falling off. Youppi, who was originally created by a designer for "The Muppets," was in dire need of repair.
Not long after Tremblay tackled the job, the Expos made a fortuitous discovery: Tremblay was supplementing his income by working as a mascot-for-hire at various corporate functions. The team just happened to have an opening. Would Tremblay be interested in performing as Youppi?
He needed little convincing. His two young sons were thrilled.
Dominic Tremblay recalled the day one of his grade-school teachers asked her students what their fathers did for work.
"My dad is Youppi," Dominic told her.
Nobody believed him, he said, not even the teacher. So the next day, he brought one Youppi’s furry hands to class — an impromptu version of show and tell.
Performing as Youppi was a lot of fun, Jean-Claude Tremblay said, but the mascot stunk — no, really. Fans could smell Youppi coming from a mile away. The Expos soon commissioned him to build a new Youppi, preferably one with washable materials.
Dominic Tremblay can remember the intoxicating glue fumes drifting up from his family’s basement. It was the scent of his childhood.
"It’s probably why we all went crazy," he said.
Once Jean-Claude Tremblay completed his revamped version of Youppi, other offers began to materialize, he said. He created Badaboum, a fuzzy creature from the tundra, for the Quebec Nordiques– all while continuing to perform as Youppi at home games and fan events.
His work cost him his marriage, he said.
"I was so passionate in my domain," Tremblay said. "One time I was out for 17 days with the Expos. When you’re on a caravan, you don’t come back. And I said, ‘I’ve got something here.’ My wife didn’t like it. So we split. She gave me two weeks to get out."
Tremblay, who gave up his job as Youppi after three seasons to focus on his growing business, was in charge of everything in those early years: designing, manufacturing, marketing. He hired a seamstress to help assemble various appendages, but mascots were his world. He was capable of producing about 20 a year.
"I was happy," he said, "because I was doing something special."
Some Things Haven’t Changed
Creations JCT, which continues to operate out of the same factory on the same industrial street in the same quiet suburb of Montreal, now has 12 full-time employees. Much has remained the same. Each mascot sells for between $4,000 and $5,000 — roughly the same price that Jean-Claude Tremblay was charging when he started his business. He still relies on the company’s reputation for new customers.
"And Google," Dominic Tremblay said. "What’s hard about our business is that you cannot knock on a door and say, ‘Hey, do you need a mascot?’"
Jean-Claude Tremblay has also seen his share of technical improvements. Velcro was a big deal because it eliminated the need for metal snaps and cut the weight of each costume by about a pound. (He gets really excited when he talks about Velcro.) Gone, too, are the days when he had to send sketches and invoices by mail.
"When he bought his first fax machine, it was like, ‘Oh, my God! The technology!’" Dominic Tremblay said.
Jean-Claude Tremblay has been delegating more and more of the creative work to his staff. In the old days, he would sketch all his mascots by hand and shape the structural foam for each oversize head with a pair of scissors and a knife.
It was painstaking work. The Expos, for example, needed dozens of copies of Youppi over the years, and Tremblay had to be as exacting as possible.
Now, he has graphic designers who use computer programs to create models and patterns.
"If you want another Youppi, it’ll be perfect," said Jean-Claude Tremblay, whose company continues to produce Youppi clones for the Montreal Canadiens, who adopted the mascot not long after the Expos left town in 2004. "In my time, you could see the difference. Or at least I could see the difference. Now, it’s all perfect."
Too perfect, perhaps. He cannot help but worry that something gets lost in the mechanized process. He reached down to open one of his sketchbooks. A cartoon owl stared back at him.
"These drawings? They talk to me," he said. "You can feel them."
Some clients still appreciate the old way of doing business. Dominic Tremblay turned to his father.
"That guy from France? He doesn’t want to hear anything about computers," he said.
Last fall, after he was found to have colon cancer, Jean-Claude Tremblay had surgery and nine chemotherapy sessions, he said. It was unpleasant for many reasons. He cited one of them.
"I couldn’t play any golf," he said.
Jean-Claude Tremblay, who said he was recently given a clean bill of health by his doctors, has since returned to the fairways, where his 12 handicap is holding steady. He splits his time between Quebec and a home in Orlando, Fla. He is not a fan of cold weather.
He still finds occasions to perform in character, to become one of his creations. Whenever a new mascot is completed and ready for presentation to a client, he puts it on for a photo shoot at the factory.
"He likes to go inside the costume and check everything out," Dominic Tremblay said. "Is the head moving correctly? Is there anything we can do to improve it?"
Jean-Claude Tremblay also performs each year at a trade show in Florida. If there happen to be young women who want to pose for a photo with him — well, he does not pass up the opportunity. It makes him feel young again.
"Everyone," he said, "loves a mascot."