The Story of Tommy: A One of a Kind Actor
By Noah (AKA Jolly Pumpkin)
Creator and webmaster
Rex B. Hamilton tells the story of a unique individual He came across while acting in an Oklahoma haunt.
Haunted house performers are a small but, sometimes, strange subset of the human population. Some haunted actors and actresses are as ordinary as corn flakes. There are others who desperately need psychological counseling and regular doses of mood-altering medication. Finally, there are a tiny few of us who love Halloween and all that it entails as much as life itself. This is the story of one such person. I’m going to tell you about Tommy, the crippled haunted house actor, with whom I worked on Saturday, October 28, 2000.
But first, some background information. The haunted attraction at which Tommy and I met was a brand-new one called FrightFest: Terror on Coal Creek. FrightFest is located on the grounds of the historic Perryman Wrangler Ranch in Jenks, Oklahoma, the city directly to the south of Tulsa. (The Perrymans were the folks who founded Tulsa back in the late 19th century.) Producer Gordon Pendergraft, a veteran of outdoor haunted attractions, had moved his production company to this new spot early in 2000. His energetic and friendly staff had spent the sweltering Oklahoma summer bulldozing out a 1.1 mile-long hay ride (“FrightRide in 3-D”) and an almost equally-long, walk-through trail they called “The Forbidden Forest.” At one point that summer, it didn’t rain in the Tulsa area for 59 straight days. But, in my opinion, all of their hard work was worthwhile: FrightFest’s hay ride and walk-through were the best I’ve ever witnessed.
Producer Pendergraft added a new dimension to his haunted production for the 2000 season: a haunted house. He purchased a prefabricated haunt from Halloween Productions and erected it under a large, rectangular tent. Altogether, FrightFest had three haunted venues to entertain those who dared purchase admission.
I had flown to Tulsa the day before (Friday the 27th) only to find that Mother Nature had been throwing a new kind of meteorological temper tantrum: it had been raining in Oklahoma for nine days in a row. Many areas of the Sooner State had been swamped by the heavy rains and FrightFest was no exception. The normally-placid Coal Creek, which snakes through the 80-acre property, had spilled over its banks. The earthen parking lots and most of the driveways couldn’t be driven on because of the grasping, tire-trapping mud. Even the hallways inside the haunted house, situated on the highest ground on the ranch, were thick with mud. Producer Pendergraft had no choice but to cancel Friday’s performance.
A few of us die-hards hung around for a few hours that evening, drank a handful of beers and tried to make the best of a depressing situation. It was there that I learned about Tommy, the young man who wanted to scare people.
Tommy is eleven years old and suffers greatly from a disease called osteogenesis imperfecta, more commonly known as “brittle bone disease.” Tommy can’t run. He can walk, but not very well. Tommy is a dwarf and he walks with a distinctive, rolling gait. A normal eleven-year-old kid would stand about five feet tall, but Tommy barely reaches the three-foot mark. He spends most of his time in a custom-built, electrically-powered wheelchair. In time, I would learn that Tommy is much smarter and much more mature than just about any 11-year-old I’ve met.
Two of Frightfest’s staff people, Matt and his wife Shannon, told me all about Tommy that Friday night as we glumly nursed our beers and hoped that the weather would clear up. Over time, Matt and Shannon had become like a second set of parents to Tommy, taking him on various outings or just spending time with him. They told me how much Tommy enjoyed Halloween, how much he wanted to scare people and how he had heard about this professional haunted-house actor from Cleveland who was coming all the way to his home town just to frighten the wits out of the locals. I told Matt and Shannon that I would love to meet Tommy and have my picture taken with him. The couple emphasized that Tommy probably would have to leave for home by about 8:30 PM, so we would need to get together early in the performance.
On Saturday, Mother Nature was at last in a good mood and gave us a beauty of a day: blue skies, warm temperatures and gentle breezes. The mud dried up, the standing pools of water disappeared and the Coal Creek became a trickle of water instead of a rushing torrent. That afternoon, Oklahoma University beat up on the Nebraska Cornhuskers to become the top-ranked college team in the nation. Everybody in Soonerland had a smile on their face. We at FrightFest looked forward to that evening’s performance. We watched with delight as the parking lots filled with cars and a long, thick line of patrons gradually formed in front of the ticket booth.
Since I was a guest performer and had no assigned role in the production, I waited until the rest of the 140-odd cast members got made up before climbing up the wobbly stairs of their make-up trailer. Inside, the make-up artists were working on their final character of the night – Tommy. When I met him, the artists were gluing a Cinema Secrets lag bolt onto his forehead. Tommy thought the fake “bolt through the skull” gag looked pretty good on his larger-than-normal-size head. But he grew quiet as he watched me tease my hair up into the air so that it looked like Don King on hair steroids and then apply several layers of ugly goo to my face. Tommy wanted to look really ugly like me, he said.
So the make-up gals sprayed his hair a weird, red color, applied highlights and shadows to his face with an airbrush and dressed him in a black top hat and black cape. I smiled at him and told him he was ugly. Tommy seemed happy to learn that. We had a couple of pictures taken of the two of us. Then, I helped him down the steps and watched as he buckled himself into his wheelchair. He said he was going to go scare the customers waiting in line to purchase tickets and took off in that direction just as fast as his chair would travel. I grabbed my street clothes, make-up case and camera bag and walked toward my rental car.
I passed the ticket booth on my way to the parking lot and saw Tommy doing exactly what he wanted to do – frighten the customers. His little wheelchair would bounce over the rough terrain as it raced toward the packed customers and, at the last moment, swerve to one side to avoid a collision as he screamed at them with his squeaky little voice. Tommy wasn’t scaring very many people but he was able to get the jittery junior high school-aged girls to let out some squeaks and yelps. I grinned in admiration – the kid was doing better than I thought he would.
As I approached the ticket area on my return trip a few minutes later, Tommy motored over to me and told me that a group of three punks was giving him a hard time and could I chase them away for him? I immediately saw the three losers he was talking about twenty feet away from us. You know the type – about 12 years old, selfish, socially inept, likes to pick on girls and/or cripples, etc. I stalked over to the three, gave their leader a murderous look and yelled at him in a deep voice “WHERE ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO BE!!?” His bravado instantly vanished and he meekly pointed toward the throng of customers waiting to purchase tickets. “WELL THEN GET OVER THERE RIGHT NOW!!” I bullhorned at him. The three would-be-bullies scampered back into line. There was a smattering of applause from the waiting patrons.
Tommy looked up at me with a grin as big as Texas. He told me he wanted to act with me inside of the haunted house. He was bored with chasing people around outside. I said “Fine, but we gotta tell Shannon and get her permission first. She’s the one responsible for you tonight.” (Husband Matt was busy all evening driving one of the hay ride’s tractors.) So we tracked her down and informed her that we were going inside. Shannon gave her consent. Yes, she said, Tommy could easily get hurt. But she believed that he was smart enough and mature enough to know what he was and was not capable of doing. I told her that I would return Tommy to her in 30 to 45 minutes.
We must have made a hilarious sight, the two of us ghouls waiting in line amidst the rest of the customers at the haunted house. (Tommy’s wheelchair would not fit easily through the emergency doors and secret passages so we had to use the customer entrance.) One of us was six feet tall with green-colored, electrocuted hair; the other was barely three feet tall, with top hat and wheelchair. Danny, the staff person running the haunted house that night, suggested scene number two would be a good choice for Tommy because it was roomy and had hiding spots big enough to conceal the chair. So we discretely followed a group of customers into the house. I led the way with my flashlight pointed at the ground to help Tommy see where he was going.
During the day, staff people had scattered hay on the wet spots in the hallways to soak up the moisture. The knobby tires on Tommy’s chair had trouble getting traction on the loose hay. I had to push him out of several areas where the hay was too thick. When we arrived in scene number two, I saw that Danny had chosen well. The room was square, about sixteen feet to a side. Several large packing crates were littered around the room’s perimeter. There was a drop panel scare at the entrance to the scene, an air-powered “banging crate lid” gag in the middle and a swinging door panel scare at the exit of the scene. There were several gaps between packing crates where Tommy could hide his chair and zoom out a few feet at the unsuspecting customers. He and I backed his chair into a shadowy gap between two crates. I knelt behind a nearby crate and we waited for the next group of customers to arrive.
We didn’t do very well with the first two groups of patrons that walked through our scene. Tommy’s chair could barely move because of the loose hay on the floor. He never got close enough to the customers for them to see him through the swirling mist from the fog machines. In disgust, he yelled over the din of the sound systems, “I’m getting out of my chair!” He parked the chair out of sight behind a large packing crate, unstrapped his safety belt and struggled to his feet. Without a moment’s hesitation he waddled out into the center of the scene, screamed at the customers and tried to chase them out of the room, just as he had watched me do a few moments before to other customers. I was so surprised by the actions of this diminutive child that all I could do was stand there and watch.
As soon as the scene was clear of customers, I knelt next to him and told him how dangerous his actions were. He was going to get knocked over and stepped on by the customers, I warned him, some of whom were twice or more his height. He told me that he would be careful but that he was not going to get back into his protective chair – the thing was useless on the straw-covered ground.
For the next 45 minutes Tommy, myself and the four other actors and actresses in that scene scared the customers but good. Tommy did everything that I did and said the same things that I said. Imagine, if you will, what it would be like if a three-foot tall dwarf charged up to you and screamed “I’m going to rip your liver out and make you eat it!” I saw him make several full-grown men recoil in fright. Tommy was doing well in his rookie stint as a haunted actor. But, more importantly, he was having a blast being in a haunted house and surrounded by haunted house actors and actresses.
At the end of our 45 minute stint, I pointed at my watch and announced that it was time to leave. Without a single protest, he scrambled back into his chair, buckled himself in and followed me as we traveled through the rest of the house, out the back door and over to the concession area where Shannon was a roving manager. I warmly congratulated Tommy on his success, shook his small hand and turned him over to Shannon. I told her a little bit about how Tommy had acted without his wheelchair. She didn’t seem surprised. He’s a special kind of kid, she told me. The time was now about 8:45 PM. I assumed that my experience with Tommy was over and that he would be going home soon. In a moment you’ll learn how wrong I was.
I walked back to the haunted house, slipped in via the back door and slowly made my way backwards through its scenes. Every now and then I would stop in a scene for a few minutes and help out its actors. I also spent some time hiding in dark hallway corners, frightening groups of passing customers. After about a half hour of this, I arrived back in scene number two. And who was waddling around in that scene, trying to panic groups of patrons? You guessed it – Tommy.
As soon as he caught sight of me, he yelled “Hey, Rex! I’ve been looking all over for you!” I knelt next to him. He was still grinning like mad. “Shannon doesn’t know I’m in here!” he shouted with joy. I got a little cross with him. I told him that what he was doing was wrong and that he should go find Shannon right now. “But I want to be with you, Rex!” he protested. I repeated that his actions were not acceptable, that Shannon was responsible for him that night and that he should return to her keeping right away. “I want to scare people with you!” he squeaked. He turned away and started molesting the next group of people who had just entered the scene. So I stayed with him for a few minutes and scared a few groups of people with him.
After a little while, my bad temper got the better of me. Tommy was deliberately disobeying the woman who was responsible for him. He was plenty smart enough and mature enough to know that what he was doing was wrong. I decided that he deserved whatever punishment was in store for him. So I left scene two and went to scene number three. I didn’t want to see him get hurt but, at the same time, I didn’t want to be responsible for him. I had traveled all the way from Ohio to scare the stuffing out of thousands of Oklahomans, not to babysit some kid who wouldn’t listen to his elders.
About 15 minutes later, one of the floating actors, a guy named Bobby, walked into my scene. Bobby was dressed as a green-faced ghoul and stood on a pair of stilts that made him appear 10 feet tall. He bent down and yelled into my ear, “Have you seen Tommy?” I pointed toward scene two and hollered back, “He’s in the next room! And Shannon doesn’t know he’s in this house!” Bobby yelled back, “The cops are looking for him!” I shrugged my shoulders, rolled my eyes and pointed again toward scene number two. Bobby grinned and stalked around the corner and into scene two. I figured that Bobby had been dispatched by Shannon to grab up little Tommy and return him to her.
Imagine my surprise when I walked into scene two about five minutes later and found Tommy still waddling about, scaring the customers. Bobby, the actor on stilts, was nowhere to be seen. I knelt next to Tommy and shouted over the noise, “Do you know the cops are looking for you?” He shrugged, said “Whatever!,” turned his back to me and started after the next group of customers who had just entered the scene. What do you do about an eleven-year-old cripple who ignores the fact that the police are on his tail? I didn’t have an intelligent answer to my own question so I left scene two and acted in other scenes for the next hour or so.
Around 11:00 PM, I decided to take a break. I walked over to the concession area to find Tommy in his wheelchair, calmly finishing up a plate of nachos. Shannon was sitting next to him. I related to her how Tommy had repeatedly disobeyed his elders that evening. She was aware of what had transpired, she told me. (The police had never caught up to Tommy, by the way.) But, having seen how much the kid was enjoying his night of fright, she had decided to let him stay the rest of the evening in the haunted house. Tommy looked up at me and said, “Are you ready to go scare some more people, Rex?” How could I argue with this sort of enthusiasm for frightening the general public?
Tommy and I spent the rest of the performance together, shrieking at the customers inside the haunted house. During the final 30 minutes of the performance, we worked together inside one of the most dangerous haunt scenes there is – a large, double-sided cage. The danger comes from the fact that customers walk along both sides of the cage. It’s very easy for a customer to sneak up behind an unwary actor and punch him through the widely-separated wooden grating. I warned Tommy that he could never let his guard down, that there was always the chance that some jerk customer would take a poke at him. “I’ll be careful,” he replied. And he was.
There were times when the man-made fog was so thick that he and I couldn’t see each other in that fifteen-foot-long cage. But I always heard him yell in his pipsqueak voice, “Rex! People coming!” He and I would take turns blasting out of the concealed doors in the cage to chase frightened customers down the hallways. We had a ball together until the haunted house closed at 12:20 AM. The hay ride finally shut down at 1:00 AM and the walk-through a half hour later.
Meeting and working with Tommy was as refreshing and inspiring as anything that’s happened to me in the 26 seasons that I’ve been a haunted house actor. Despite his small stature and physical limitations, he never complained. Not once. He didn’t ask for a rest period, didn’t whine for a drink of water and didn’t break character in front of the patrons. All he wanted was to be with me, to do the things I did, warn me of the approach of the next batch of customers and chase after them by my side. The thick fog, the overly-loud sound systems, the unstable footing – none of these things fazed him. It was a night to remember.
After Matt and I had hoisted Tommy’s heavy wheelchair into the bed of Matt’s pickup truck, I helped Tommy clamber up into the cab. He looked at me and asked if I would be coming back to Oklahoma next year. I told him the truth – I didn’t know where my haunted travels in 2001 would take me. But I assured him that if did come back to Oklahoma, I would want him with me. Tommy may have been a rookie that Saturday night, but he acted like a pro.
Very truly yours,
Rex B. Hamilton