Dominic and Brennan Latkovski are entertainers at heart. The brothers are the brains behind BirdZerk! and ZOOperstars!, both popular traveling sports entertainment shows that perform at venues across the United States and the world. So it was no surprise that they decided to make their afternoon at Wrigley Field one to remember a few years ago.
The duo, in town for a performance that night, was excited about watching a Cubs-White Sox game. Since they were at Wrigley Field, they brought a costume that fans of the Friendly Confines would truly appreciate. ZOOperstars! features a troupe of characters named after famous sports figures. On this day, Dominic went into a bathroom and changed into Harry Canary, a tall and portly singing bird adorned with Coke bottle glasses and cotton-white hair.
As Harry Canary, Dominic took his seat next to Brennan along the right field line, to the delight of fans throughout the ballpark. Cheers soon turned into boos when security guards led Dominic away in handcuffs after they told him no costumes were allowed inside Wrigley Field. A flustered Dominic was held in a holding tank beneath the center field stands until he was released, instructed never to return. Brennan was shown the exit gate as well.
It was the only time Dominic can recall that Harry Canary, or any of the multitude of characters that compose the ZOOperstars! and BirdZerk! shows, were not warmly embraced by those who encountered them.
BirdZerk! – an act that includes the feathery namesake character and his sidekicks, the inflatable Zerk! Jr., BallZerk! and BabyZerk! – performs about 60 shows a year. ZOOperstars – which feature 32 inflatable characters with amusing names like Tiger Woodschuck, Whale Gretzky, Mia Hammster, Shaquille O’Seal and Clammy Sosa – make more than 200 appearances annually. They perform at Major League and Minor League baseball parks, NBA and minor league basketball games, NHL and minor league hockey matches and an assortment of college sports among other events.
Long before the entrepreneurial brothers were building the nation’s most popular sports entertainment company, they developed an interest in performing as mascots. Dominic was his high school’s mascot before attending Bellarmine University, where he played soccer and attended a tryout for Billy Bird, the mascot of the Triple-A Louisville Redbirds.
“I wasn’t their first choice,” said Dominic, who was 19 at the time. He is now 36. “I was second, but the guy who was the top choice backed out, and I gladly accepted the opportunity.”
Dominic performed as Billy Bird while continuing his studies at Bellarmine. A class project spurred the idea for the venture that would later become BirdZerk!
“Our assignment was to create a business plan, and I had three ideas in mind. One was a ticket brokerage (Dominic supplemented his income in high school and college by purchasing and selling tickets to concerts and sporting events), and another was a home energy efficiency testing system. The third, of course, was a business idea based on Billy Bird.”
Heeding his professor’s advice, Dominic pursued the Billy Bird idea, which involved performing at minor league baseball games with Billy Bird and his sidekicks. Interestingly, Billy Bird’s uniform was designed by the mother of Ted Giannoulas, who portrayed The Chicken, one of the traveling sports entertainment shows (along with Captain Dynamite, Morganna the Kissing Bandit and Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball) that interested Dominic as a child. Billy Bird & Company was born, with Dominic serving as Billy Bird and Brennan filling the role of a sidekick. Brennan, who is 35, played soccer at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. He had performed as a radio station moose and the Kentucky State Fair Bear.
Billy Bird & Company was such a success that, after earning his degree, Dominic decided the group should attend the 1992 baseball winter meetings, which was fortunately held in Louisville. Using Dominic’s Billy Bird earnings and his funds raised by sales of Garth Brooks concert tickets, they created a video, designed marketing materials and built a booth for the annual trade show attended by big league and minor league baseball officials. Dominic invested $6,000 hoping that his presence would result in at least four bookings at $1,500 per appearance.
“That first year we did 48 shows,” Dominic said. “As long as I fulfilled my role as Billy Bird at Redbirds home games, they allowed me to use the Billy Bird character at Billy Bird & Company performances.”
In 1993, Billy Bird & Company appeared in Monclova, Mexico; Stockton, California; Clearwater, Florida and Medicine Hat, Canada and everywhere in between. To create a character of their own, Dominic and Brennan left Billy Bird behind and debuted BirdZerk! in 1995.
With its hijinks with players and coaches, humorous harassment of umpires and interaction with the crowd, BirdZerk! became a hit. Bookings increased in each of the first three years, keeping Dominic and Brennan busy traveling and performing year-round. Eventually, they added an inflatable character sidekick to BirdZerk!, which led to an idea that transformed the brothers’ operation into the country’s premiere sports entertainment company.
“My father kept suggesting that we change BirdZerk! to a character he called Harry Canary,” Brennan said. “He thought that baseball fans would more easily connect with a bird with glasses and white hair that leaned out the press box window and sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” than BirdZerk!
“Since BirdZerk! was popular and already established, we didn’t want to eliminate him, but we saw an opportunity with Harry Canary,” he added. “We decided to make him an inflatable character. At a restaurant one night, we sat down and brainstormed for names of other characters.”
Ken Giraffey Jr., Shark McGwire, and Cow Ripken resulted from that session, as did the framework for ZOOperstars!, which debuted in 1998. Dominic and Brennan consulted with lawyers, who told them they could legally use variations of sports figures’ names as long as the players’ likeness is used as entertainment parody and not in the sale of merchandise. Over the years, more characters arose. Nomar Garciaparrot and Mia Hammster. Ichiroach Suzuki, Derek Cheetah and Mackerel Jordan. Shaquille O’Seal, Snail Earnhardt Jr. and Mario Lemule. Even Donovan McCrabb and Peyton Manatee are represented in the ZOOperstars!’ entourage.
ZOOperstars! has performed throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan and Indonesia. Most shows will have at least five characters, even if only two performers are on hand. They dance to music on the field and on dugout roofs, playfully harass umpires, mingle in the stands and have skits with skillfully orchestrated maneuvers. Most characters have a certain niche. For example, Centipete Rose splits into two pieces with both running around looking for its other half. Ken Giraffey Jr. can flip his neck around in circles in tune with the music, and pop his entire neck and head into his costume and back out. Clammy Sosa, Roger Clamens, Snail Earnhardt Jr. and Mackerel Jordan can eat people. The “Eat It” skit is the highlight for many fans.
At a recent game, with Weird Al Yankovic’s “Eat It” blaring from the sound system, 10-foot-tall Clammy Sosa devoured a bat boy (actually a ZOOperstars! performer dressed in a bat bay uniform) and then spit out bits of clothing – shoes, a cap and a pair of pink silk boxer shorts adorned with hearts.
It takes coordination and athleticism to join the ZOOperstars! Most of the four full-time and 15 part-time cast members have a background as either a team mascot, cheerleader or gymnast, and it takes hours of practice to master dance routines and movements for skits. The cost for each costume ranges from $4,000 to $9,000, Brennan said. The typical costume weighs 15 pounds alone, and 35 pounds when worn since it includes a 20-pound battery pack and motor to keep it inflated.
“We have a great combination of big colorful costumes, clever names, funny skits and dance routines,” Dominic explained. “We’re successful because our act is different than any other.
“The show is popular with children and adults alike,” he added. “We even have fans that log onto our web site and submit their own ideas for new characters.”
Very rarely does a player or umpire refuse to participate in a skit, Dominic said. In fact, MLB players like David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, Mike Lowell, Cal Ripken and Miguel Cabrera are among ZOOperstars!’ most willing participants. Ken Griffey Jr. was so amused by Ken Giraffey Jr. that he asked the character to visit his wife and children in the luxury box where they were sitting.
“They especially like the clam,” Dominic said. “When they see us in the clubhouse, they always seem to ask if Clammy is with us.”
The schedules of BirdZerk! and ZOOperstars! are busy this year. As usual, some teams have booked the acts multiple times. From Dayton, Ohio to New Britain, Ct. and Lake Elsinore, Calif. to Portland, Maine, Dominic and Brennan find themselves in airports and ballparks around the country. They are expanding the number of Major League and Minor League baseball teams for which they perform, as well as NBA and college basketball, NHL and minor league hockey and Arena Football League games. Future plans include performing at festivals and fairs, filming a TV show and producing a DVD.
“We have carved a niche in the sports entertainment industry, and we think we have just barely scratched the surface,” Dominic said. “Harry Canary and the rest of us are ready to take the next step.”