By Polly Keary, Editor
National Night Out Against Crime is all about public safety, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.
In between demonstrations of fire safety and police procedures, there are lots of free treats, bouncy houses and music.
And perhaps the event that draws the most enthusiastic crowd participation each year is the mascot dance-off.
Monroe is rich in the oversized mascot figures that represent various agencies.
There is Racy Raccoon from the Evergreen Speedway. There are Sparky the Fire Dog and Pluggy from the fire department. The Monroe Police Department has a couple of canines carrying their name, including McGruff the Crime Dog and Tracker, who is a police tracking German Shepherd that manages to be menacing and amiable all at once.
Red Robin restaurant has a big, bright red bird, the Monroe Parks Department is represented by a huge bunny, most often seen at the annual egg hunt, and Sam’s Cats and Dogs has characters from Peanuts.
And of course, no Monroe mascot convention would be complete without Monroe High School’s Benny the Bearcat.
At large town events, like the Monroe Fair Days Parade, the mascots are a colorful and sometimes comical presence.
They are never more comical then when dancing in the annual dance-off that takes place in the last hour of Monroe’s National Night Out Event.
National Night Out is one of Monroe’s largest town events, with about 3,000 people turning out to eat free treats like cookies, sno-cones, pizza and hot dogs, visit dozens of booths hosted by local public safety agencies, non-profits and businesses, watch police and fire demonstrations and turn the kids loose on the bouncy toys.
That makes Monroe’s Night Out one of the largest in the Puget Sound.
As the event draws to a close, many of those attendees gather by the concession area to watch the mascots dance.
As music plays, each mascot gets a turn to show its best moves, until one is proclaimed the winner.
Last year, top honors went to Benny the Bearcat.
That makes sense, as the young man who inhabits Benny’s costume has a lot of experience.
Jared Bernhardt, 17, will be a senior next year at Monroe High School. But he’s been Benny the Bearcat since he was in the 8th grade.
“My sister was on the cheer team and had me try it out and they said I did a good job so I just continued doing it,” said Jared last week. “I wear it at big school events, football, basketball, and National Night Out, and at the carnival, all the Monroe activities.”
A mascot has an important job at games, he said. It keeps the crowd energy high in support of the team.
“You have to get the crowd riled up,” he said. “You have to get them to follow you, and you follow them, and you get them pumped up.”
In the parade, it’s mostly giving kids high-fives and waving.
It’s not always as easy as it sounds.
“It’s usually really hot,” he said.
Britney Hunt, 16, also a senior next year, agreed.
She has appeared in the costume of Sparky the Fire Dog for the last three years, a job she got because her dad, Rusty Hunt, is a firefighter at Monroe’s District 3.
“It’s really hot in the Sparky suit, especially in the summer,” she said. “A lot of people don’t like to do it, but I like to interact with the kids. It’s fun. It’s amazing how happy they are to see you.”
The tradition of mascots goes back to at least 1908, when the Chicago Cubs introduced one to their fans. The word “mascot” comes from an 1880s French term for “good luck charm.”
Now mascots typically symbolize an organization.
Sparky the Fire Dog has represented the National Fire Protection Agency since 1951, and Monroe’s fire department since 2005.
“Sparky is a Dalmatian, and Dalmatians have long been associated with fire departments when they first ran with horse drawn fire pumps to protect the horses and warned off people and dogs from the path of the carriage,” explained Monroe Fire Marshal Mike Fitzgerald.
Monroe’s Sparky was purchased with funds from a federal grant in 2005. He is a key figure in fire education at schools and events.
McGruff the Crime Dog and Tracker, the crime-fighting German Shepherd both represent the Monroe Police Department.
“‘McGruff the Crime Dog’ is a trademark mascot that has been with the department since 1985 and was purchased with grant money by the department,” said Monroe Police Spokesperson Deb Willis. “Originally used in preschool to 6th grade classes to teach traffic safety and stranger danger, McGruff is still used in community events such as National Night Out and Walk Your Kids to School.”
Tracker is unique to Monroe.
“‘Tracker,’ named after a typical German shepherd tracking dog used in police departments, was donated to our department by New Horizon Church of Monroe in 2010,” said Willis. “He became a partner to McGruff for community events, positively interacting with children and adults to bring a ‘Safety First’ message and opening up the lines of communication in a lighthearted way between the public and the police department.”
At National Night Out, which takes place Tuesday, Aug. 6 at Lake Tye Park, Sparky, Benny and the others will be on hand to greet kids and pose for pictures. And right before the close of the event, they’ll vie to see which mascot has the best moves.
It’s not easy, dancing with a head the size of a beach ball, said Britney. But, she said, it’s a lot of fun.
“It’s really thrilling, with everyone clapping and everyone yelling dance moves and cheering,” she said. “You do old fashioned dance moves, like the ‘sprinkler.’ And you don’t let your head fall off.”