I'm on a floating fortress, heading down the Willamette River with nearly 200 passengers, most of them children screaming with glee. I'm squirming from discomfort, my red-and-green tights squeezing my manhood, ripping at my leg hair. Beside me sits a gigantic bear, lumpy and smiling, waiting for worship. A young lady with magnificent fairy wings picks up a small child, who is screaming in terror, and offers him to the bear....
Watch out, Santa. Portland has another option for holiday worship; a ghost of Christmas past who is making a bid at becoming the new holiday god: the Cinnamon Bear.
The Bear and his cohorts have overtaken the Portland Spirit riverboat, which features cruises with the fluffy one for children and nostalgic parents. Last year, more than 3,000 people took the cruise, shelling out $20 per child and $26 per adult. This year, organizers expect 5,000 to take the trip. The bizarre journey upriver and hodgepodge of fairies, pirates and dragons strangely echoes Apocalypse Now's descent into madness. I was curious.
Briefed by Portland Spirit director of entertainment and marketing Rick Lewis, I would infiltrate the Bear's watertight compound, which had been declared the sovereign nation of "Maybeland," and investigate—with extreme prejudice— the Bear's lair and his ability to snare imaginations young and old.
To do this, I had to go deep undercover as an elf—David Sedaris-style—pointy shoes and all.
The Bear's dossier reads like that of a proper four-star holiday icon. He began as the subject of a popular national radio show in 1937, the story of a talking bear who travels to mythical Maybeland with two kids seeking the silver star from their Christmas tree (The Wizard of Oz of old-time radio, as Lewis refers to it). He spawned a loyal following of children and adults (including some Trekkie-like fanatics). For some time, he appeared at Portland's Lipman and Wolfe's department store, located where 5th Avenue Suites now resides.
Until last year, he was off the radar, save in the minds of old-school radio buffs. Then Lewis, who discovered the radio show 20 years ago, saw the potential and brought the Bear back to Portland, on a holiday cruise packed with characters: the matronly Queen Melissa, the thieving Crazy Quilt Dragon, pirates, sexy pink and blue fairies and, of course, the Bear. "We're the keepers of the flame now," says Lewis. "In a lot of people's minds, the Cinnamon Bear has supplanted Santa Claus."
Perhaps in days of old, but Cinnamon Bear has a lot of catching up to do.
Upon arriving for my mission, I was given my elf uniform: a green-and-red muumuu and tights; one green leg, one red.
Immediately, I was taken to massacre Christmas songs with other elves on the main deck, a cold breeze tickling my inner thighs. They wanted a baritone, but they got soprano. Five songs later, the ship left port.
We cruised for a bear-less hour. We elves bussed tables and were pushed around by grumpy parents swilling booze. The children, entranced, heard stories of Maybeland and joked with Raggedy Ann and Andy. Jim Morrison's ghostly voice rang in my mind: "All the children are in-sane...." It echoed through my head as one girl, red-faced with excitement, exclaimed, "I love Cinnamon Bear so much!" They only knew what their parents told them about the teddy—yet these children were ready to be converted to the church of the Bear.
The Sellwood Bridge was the last outpost on the Willamette. After that, there was only Cinnamon Bear.
To subdued applause, the Bear finally emerged—the kids obediently lined up to sit on its lap for pictures. The Cinnamon Bear is a towering, plush costume with ever-staring eyes. I was positioned directly beside his throne, handing out cookies to children (I love the smell of gingerbread in the morning). Like clockwork, a blue fairy named Ivy would place a kid on the Bear's lap, a picture was snapped, and the kid was removed and given a cookie.
As a deity, the Bear demands sacrifices of drool and tears. Babies gleeked on his chest and toddlers bounced on his knee. Most of the children were overjoyed to be close to the elusive icon, squealing with joy. Others were skeptical. One 3-year-old kicked and screamed throughout the line and couldn't bring himself to sit on the Bear's lap. The Bear had put the fear in him.
After pictures, most of the children were glowing as the boat docked two hours later. More carols were sung, this time with the kids, who demanded autographs from us. The Bear's mystique abounded and he basked in the songs. Children declared their love before being carted off the boat.
After all children left, the staff shed its costumes and the Bear, seeming exhausted, removed his head—he was a normal man!
"Dude, I think one of the kids totally farted on my leg. I felt it," I overheard him say.
But this isn't the end of the Bear's reign—his presence is growing. The 26-part old-time radio show is now broadcast annually on K103-FM (every night at 7 pm, and hosted by another false idol, John Tesh). Lewis claims that Cinnamon Bear cruises could go national. A storybook, published independently by Portland Spirit, is to be released next year, with a history-of-the-bear book on its heels. Lewis is also planning a Cinnamon Bear museum in town, and is hard at work penning a musical chronicle of Maybeland.
But, for now, the Cinnamon Bear is just a man with a toddler fart clinging to his leg.
Portland Spirit Cinnamon Bear Cruise, Southwest Front Avenue at Salmon Street, 224-3900, cinnamonbearcruise.com. Two-hour cruises at 10 am and 2 pm Saturday-Sunday, Dec. 16-17 and 23-24. Noon Dec. 18-22. $26 adults, $20 children. Visit radioarchives.org to listen to clips of the orginal 1930s Cinnamon Bear radio show.