When thoughts turn to New York’s Coney Island on the anniversary of our nation’s birth, the mind usually veers toward tank-topped Cyclone seekers, sideshow sword-swallowers (do they have a union?), and the curious creatures known as competitive eaters, who ingest inhuman amounts of cheap animal parts stuffed within pig intestine casings, in between gluten un-free bread rolls while wide-eyed crowds do their best to retain their lunches.
But as July 4th feats of heroism go—alien invader- asskickery notwithstanding—spare a thought for The Frankster. For over a decade, the contest’s official mascot has been cooling down un-chill children, enduring drunken hecklers and inhaling smells (both inside and outside the costume) that no unpaid volunteer should have to endure—all while dancing his buns off in stifling summer heat.
And for most of the past 15 years of Frank’s existence this “he” has been played by a “she.”
Indeed the role of “sweat-soused sausage” is brought to you by Julie Rosenberg, a normally shy 50-year-old social worker at New York City’s Department of Aging.
In an interview last week, Rosenberg said the crowd work during this event is a good release from her day job aiding seniors in housing court to hold on to affordable apartments. Yet her 14-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son’s opinion of their mom’s secret identity has gone from being totally impressed to now being totally mortified.
“It’s embarrassment mixed with shame,” Rosenberg admitted. “I invited my daughter to come with her friends last year and… yeah… she declined.”
The artist remains modestly unaware of her own gifts.
“Many people don’t realize this consciously, but what they recognize as The Frankster is actually Julie’s portrayal of The Frankster,” said the contest’s straw-hatted impresario, George Shea. “In much the same way that people think of ketchup as delivered by the Heinz brand, they think of The Frankster as the Rosenberg Frankster.”
While everyone wishes they were an Oscar Meyer Weiner, a desire to become the world’s foremost mascot of masticating is an acquired taste…
When it comes to the upcoming 100th anniversary of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, it’s (kind of) important to remember there hasn’t been this type of intentional intestinal distress since the days of Roman vomitoriums. But while the Takeru Kobayshis and Joey Chestnuts of the world are breaking their buns in two and dipping them in liquid (for easier swallowin’) at upward of 60-plus plump ones a sitting, our heroine is undergoing her own physical ordeal.
Rosenberg’s inaugural run can be summed up thusly: Ask and ye shall aggrieve.
“I bumped into George Shea at a bar with my then-husband and inquired as to how one becomes the Frankster,” Rosenberg said. “He basically said, ‘Do YOU want to do it?’—and that was it.”
Added Shea: “I never doubted Julie’s ability or commitment because when someone asks to be The Frankster you know that they will likely be a great Franskter—no one asks to be that and then delivers a half-hearted performance.”
“My downtime is when the eaters do their thing,” Rosenberg said of the, uh… athletes? “Basically I make sure I’m not bothering them while obviously making sure I’m still in full view of the cameras.”
And while she fights for attention alongside the spectacle’s cheerleaders (aka “The Bunettes”), she respects their role.
“We’re drawing two different crowds,” Rosenberg said. “They’re the glitz and glamour—I’m there for the kids.”
The “glitz and glamour” gals acknowledge her effort.
“Like us, the Frankster has to dance and rile up the crowd, but unlike us, she does it in a sweltering hot disguise and misses out on the fame and glory of seeing her mug splashed across ESPN,” said former Bunette and now-freelance writer Laura Leu. “On the upside, her costume provides a layer of protection from being covered in half-masticated slobbery hot dogs.”
Rosenberg maintains that she can barely watch the actual contest because a) she’s a hot dog witnessing the violent deaths of her already-boiled brethren and b) she knows her size 15 shoes are constantly sopping up the regurgitated sausage that doesn’t get consumed.
Leu, who has been both an enabler AND a competitive eater, empathizes with Rosenberg’s plight.
“Becoming a contestant was not quite as much fun because of the disgustingness of it all,” she said of her one foray onto center stage.
“I love a hot dog as much as the next guy, but not when they’re cold, dunked in Crystal Light, and eaten at record speeds.”
Said Shea of the various egos involved in his execution of the event: “There has been some diva-like behavior by one former eater, including a demand for specialty luxury transport and other accommodations that one would more likely expect from Kim Kardashian, or another cultural giant.”
This dog’s duds consist of 40 pounds worth of foam tubing, nylon gloves/leggings, and that super large footwear. There are actually two costumes: one that’s roughly 6-foot-3 in length and another, a LeBron-sized 7-foot-1 edifice—the latter of which Julie wore while giving a nice, juxtapositioned hug to a visiting, 5-foot-7 Mayor Bloomberg some years back.
And much like Ralphie’s brother’s winter wear in A Christmas Story, one needs help getting the costume on and off.
Also like Ralphie’s brother…
“If I fall,” lamented Julie, “I just lay there until somebody pulls me up.”
“Most people think there’s a man in the costume, and treat me as such,” Rosenberg admitted. “And I learned early on to stop smiling for photos because, well, nobody can see me doing it anyway.”
Rosenberg’s routine consists of a lot of dancing, mostly by way of arm-waving, (her hips are fully hidden within the foam frankfurter) along with various sight gags with whatever prop is available.
“I’ll put my hands on a cop car and have the officer frisk me. And it’s always funny when somebody spots me looking at them from the stage, I’m pretty sure it’s how a Stones fan feels when they catch Mick Jagger looking at them during a concert.”
And future Frankster applicants needn’t worry about pee breaks.
“You don’t go to the bathroom for the whole day, due to how much body fluid you lose via sweating—and you get bruises from the bun weighing down on your arms as you wave to the crowd.”
“On different years, my costume has had different smells,” Rosenberg sighed. “They claim it’s laundered—but I would say it’s a combination of a locker room mixed with old sausage, from being too close to competitive eating refuse of the past.”
Rosenberg recommends wearing workout gear underneath the outfit so as to properly absorb what she describes as a just-got-out-of-the-shower amount of postgame perspiration.
Shea told The Daily Beast that he’s looking into alleviating the air issues for this year’s tourney… kind of… sort of… not really.
“The Franskter outfit will this year feature a small, custom-designed air-conditioning unit to bring the internal temperature of the suit down to 68 degrees Fahrenheit—if we are unable to find the funding, or engineers, necessary to implement this improvement then we will do nothing.
“In the beginning there was a small crowd, no national coverage, and the winners were gulping 20 dogs, tops,” Rosenberg smiled. “Now it’s thousands of people, the athletes are downing more than twice that amount and I’d like to think that in some small way I was a part of this success.”