Twenty years ago I started to work professionally as Forrest Gump. Here is that story.
“Don’t follow the crowd, let the crowd follow you.” – Margaret Thatcher
My challenge wasn’t getting the crowd to follow me, I had to figure out a way to survive amongst the crowd.
The good news was there were lots of people. People were waiting an hour or two to get into the restaurant. While they were waiting, they would hang out and want to get their photo made with Forrest Gump. Both Bubba Gump Shrimp and I had a good problem. The restaurant was doing four-times the business initially forecast.
The first few weeks I would walk around inside the restaurant chatting up the tables. But because of the crowds, I was told to stay outside – Forrest’s presence inside the restaurant was causing pandemonium.
All I had to do was figure out how to manage the crowds.
The bench was situated in the middle of a busy tourist walkway. The crush of people was non-stop. How was I going to get people to line up and in an orderly manner and politely approach, get their photo taken, and then move on so that the next 10 people in line got their turn? It was a free-for-all.
I imagined setting up ropes and stanchions. I envisioned Bubba Gump providing a person to direct traffic. I approached one of the corporate managers and told him how challenging it was to control the crowd. He was inside the jam-packed restaurant attempting to get people seated, train servers to take orders, and make sure food was being properly prepared from the kitchen. He unsympathetically stated, “We’re paying you a lot of money … go figure it out!”
It took time. I did figure it out.
I learned to control the conversation. Clue people when it was their time to approach, clue people when their time was up. I was doing it with quick glances, eye movements, and subtle head nods. Most of the interactions lasted from 20 to 40 seconds. Things were happening. Fast. Bowie famously said, “Wham. Bam. Thank you maam.” That’s what it felt like a lot of the time.
People would see the crowd. They’d approach to find out what was going on. The crowd was drawing a bigger crowd. Folks would watch for a few minutes, fall into the quasi-line, sit down, get their photo taken, and then they’d be gone.
Those first few months I made major progress each weekend. I was beginning to get the hang of managing the crowd.
But every once in awhile, things would go hay-wire. Someone would completely play the game in a totally unpredictable way. I remember getting frustrated. Annoyed. Angry. I attempted to hide this from the public, but inside my adrenaline was pumping. Initially, it took a half-hour to calm myself and get back into a good rhythm. After a few months, I learned to calm myself within a few minutes after a weird interaction. And at some point – maybe a year or so into the process – I learned how to spot the trouble-makers and defuse them before they could act up. And another year later I could flip the trouble-makers and get them to play nice. On the rare occasion that I couldn’t flip them, I’d simply let them do their thing, play the game the way they wanted to play, and leave. And I’d just move on to the next person.
I had learned how to control myself in dealing with the public.
99.5% of the people I interacted with had fun. 99.9% of the time I had fun. It took about 3 years – or 2000+ hours – of sitting on the bench, dealing with the public, and talking to one individual after another to master managing the crowd. Or in reality – to master my own ability to self-control my mindset and my outward, public behavior.
I became good at crowd control. The bench was no longer my space or place to work – the bench was now my stage.
Next up. Part 5: Jokes & Gags