Out of the bag

Mascoting as big cats is family legacy

Posted on Jul 26 2021 in Features
Hinkle Family
Mascoting is the Hinkle Family legacy. Candice Hinkle started it off, when she was still Candice Layman, in the mid-1990s by assuming the full-time role of Felix the Cat, the iconic Logansport High School mascot (inset photo at left). Her son, Mason, is now Pepe the Panther at Pioneer Jr.-Sr. High School in Royal Center (far left and far right). Below, Mason and Candice pose with Shannon Hinkle, far right, Candice’s sister-in-law who followed her as Felix in high school and Valerie Hinkle, Candice’s daughter, who hopes to follow older brother Mason as Pepe next year. Photo by Richard G. Biever.

When Candice Hinkle — then Layman — first asked if she could don the fuzzy black suit and oversized head of her high school’s mascot, she let more than one cat out of the bag.

Her high school was Logansport. The mascot was Felix the Cat, the famous feline of film and funny pages — and Indiana’s oldest mascot.

“There was no actual ‘Felix’ being Felix,” Candice, Class of 1996, recalled. “They might catch one of the kids and say, ‘Hey, we need somebody to be Felix tonight. Would you do it?’”

Candice Hinkle as Felix
Candice Hinkle as Felix the Cat. Photo courtesy of Candice Hinkle.

Given the chance to be Felix, Candice took the role and made it hers. She not only animated Felix in a way no Felix had been before (or since), she later went on to portray two other mascot cats, The Puma at St. Joseph College on a mascoting scholarship, and Pepe the Panther at Pioneer Jr.-Sr. High School in Royal Center where she was teaching.

And to show that the claw doesn’t fall far from the paw: Candice’s then-future sister-in-law, Shannon Hinkle, followed in her pawprints as Felix; Candice’s son Mason took over from her as Pepe, the Pioneer mascot; and daughter Valerie hopes to step into the Pepe costume next year after her big brother graduates. 

If all that wasn’t enough, Candice’s mother-in-law, Barb, has always been there, too. She was the seamstress to adjust or fix all three costumes. She started with Felix when Candice was just her son’s high school sweetheart. 

“I just have to laugh to think that my interest in mascoting would lead to an entire family affair!” Candice, now 43, said recently. “They always say one decision can change your life. One decision as my 16-year-old self to step out of my comfort zone changed an entire family dynamic over 25 years later!”

Mascot’s Meow

All over Indiana later this month, high school students will step out of their comfort zones beneath veils of fleece, foam and fuzz as fierce or farcical school mascots. They’ll lead their teams back onto the gridirons as normal school activities are expected to resume. And mascots are a big part of that rah, rah, sis, boom, bah.

“A mascot is the embodiment of school spirit,” explained Matt Jones, principal at Logansport High School. “A mascot is there to cheer alongside the crowd and build a sense of belonging to the school at its games and events. A mascot entertains and heightens the engagement of the crowd.”

Felix 150 logo
This year, Felix the Cat celebrates 150 years.

Logansport, he noted, has all that in Felix, as a source of entertainment while being a big part of the history and tradition of the high school.

Jones, who grew up in Logansport and whose father taught at the school, was five years ahead of Candice, but the legend of her portrayal of Felix lived on when he returned to the school system as a teacher and then administrator. “Candice took Felix to another level as an animated and interactive personality,” he noted. 

Candice said peering through the mesh eyes of the Felix costume, she found freedom to really clown around. “I was outgoing, but I didn’t know that I could entertain crowds of 4,500 people. It’s like a transformation. I found my groove when I became Felix.”

She said she learned so much about herself — through Felix. “I learned that I’m kinesthetic. I move with my body. If I hear music, I’m moving my hands and my legs. And what made Felix was how much I moved. Mascoting is all about telling a story through your body. Because you can’t talk, right? So you’ve got to communicate in other ways.”

After she got the part of Felix, she started doing research into her role. She read about Felix and watched his old black and white films. “Oh, so Felix has antics. And Felix is kind of ornery sometimes,” she learned. “I can do that. Just being creative and thinking outside the box was my favorite part of being Felix.”

Her biggest fan, she said, was her boyfriend, Jeremy Hinkle. “It was a natural fit. It really was,” said Jeremy. “She’s always had a real bubbly personality. And she’s always been outgoing and wanting to talk and play around with people and just be the class clown.”

Jeremy said that as a farm kid, he didn’t get to attend too many high school games, but he always made it a point to attend the games Candice appeared as Felix. The couple dated throughout high school and married just after college. 

After Candice graduated from Logansport, Jeremy’s little sister Shannon tried out for Felix. As a freshman, she knew Candice had been Felix, but she said she never thought much about it until someone gave her a tryout slip at the start of her sophomore year.

Because of the new awareness and celebrity Candice had brought to Felix, several students wanted to be the mascot the following fall, and tryouts had to be held. “I was someone who would never really talk to anybody; I really kept to myself,” recalled Shannon. “And so I thought this would be a perfect way to get out of my shell. Candice had a lot of fun. And nobody really knows who’s behind the mask and the costume.”

Shannon won the part as Felix for the 1996-97 school year and continued playing the role of Felix until she graduated in 1999.

Shannon said she was always more introverted, not boisterous and a class clown like Candice — until she got into the Felix costume. “It’s kind of that switch that clicks, and you just feel invincible,” she said. “You just know what you have to do. And you know that you make people smile. And when you make people smile, you feel good. If it’s jumping around acting crazy, then by golly, that’s what you’ll do. If it’s sitting on the floor playing blocks with kids, then that’s what you need to do.”

Meanwhile, after graduation, Candice had gone to St. Joseph College in Rensselaer (which has since shuttered) on a softball scholarship. But the softball coach had also seen her perform as Felix and recommended her for a mascot scholarship, too. St. Joe’s mascot was also a cat — a school-color purple feline known just as “The Puma.” Candice passed some of Felix’s zany antics and ornery humor on to the Puma during her four years there.

After college, Jeremy and Candice moved to rural Cass County as Carroll White REMC consumers. Candice settled in as a fifth grade teacher in the Pioneer school system in Royal Center. In 2016, just like 22 years earlier at Logansport, she discovered Pioneer Jr.-Sr. High School had a mascot — another big cat named Pepe the Panther. Its costume was hardly being used. “I used to be a mascot,” she told folks at the high school. “Let me do it.”

She reprised her crazy antics to the enjoyment of Pioneer fans. “I did it for three football games and had a blast,” she said.

Her comeback, however, was short lived. Out of the blue, her seventh grade son Mason asked if he could be Pepe. She let him try it on for size, and he never gave it up.

Mason Hinkle as Pepe
Mason Hinkle as Pepe. Photo by Richard G. Biever.

Mason said he was more quiet than his mom. “I don’t normally like talking to people as much, … which is kind of a nice thing because as Pepe you are expected to be silent,” noted Mason, now 17 and entering his senior year. “It’s a different mindset when you’re actually in Pepe. I’m happy chasing people around, having my tail pulled … off in some cases.”

“From seeing both,” said Jeremy, “Felix as a cartoon was always kind of the jokester, the prankster; Candice tried to bring that to Felix when she was on the basketball court during halftime. Pepe, however, doesn’t have a cartoon or anything to model after. So, it’s kind of been Mason figuring out what he can get away with.”

“It has been fun watching Mason develop his own bag of tricks,” said Candice. “I never thought he’d stick with it this long, but he really has enjoyed himself — immensely! There is a sense of pride as a parent to see that something so unusual you did and enjoyed as a kid, is now something your own children like doing!”

Mason admits it took him a couple of years to grow into the role. “It was really hard at first to let go and not be Mason, anymore,” he noted. “I’m Pepe. I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to sit in the bleachers,” he told himself. “So it took me until maybe all of eighth grade to fully go into it and just own it.” 

He’s not kidding about “owning it.” Little sister Valerie, who’s a freshman this fall, has asked about filling in as Pepe. “She’s bugged me for the past two years to let her do it a few times,” said Mason.

So far, he hasn’t let her. But her time may come. She has been assisting Pepe, carrying his water bottle and making sure little kids don’t pull his tail. She hopes to step into the suit next year. “I want to get a taste for it,” she said. “I just like messing around in front of other people, like dancing and stuff and not having to worry about them knowing who you are, because you have that mask on. ”

Mascot dreams

After 2018, Candice took a year sabbatical from her 20-year career as a teacher, and then resigned to pursue a new calling — the ministry. She is working to become a Lutheran minister. This summer, she’s been interning as a chaplain at Ascension St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis. “We just had to do a thing about what are your squashed dreams.‘Oh, I thought one day I’d be a mascot in Disney World. That was my biggest dream.’”

While she was joking, she did note that mascoting did prepare her for the calling she’s now undertaking. “By being Felix, I learned that I could be open to multiple types of people, and just be loving to them — from little kids to older folks. I learned in my youth that God had given me a special skill to be able to relate to people of all ages, and races, denominations, ethnicities, everything. By being a mascot, you observe people and their body language and their emotions. And then that clues you in for this profession. I know to back off, or, go forward, or give them their space. Now that I’m being called to be a pastor, I can use those skills to be with people.”

How Logansport bagged Felix the Cat

Felix the Cat

Felix the Cat was among the first celluloid celebrities. Created in 1919, the anthropomorphic cat was a contemporary of the likes of Charlie Chaplain and predated Mickey Mouse. His cartoon misadventures made him as feline phenom in the early 1920s.

So, how did such a big celebrity come to be the mascot at Logansport High School and recognized as the state’s first high school mascot?

As the story goes … the Logansport basketball team was having its end-of-the-season banquet at a hotel in downtown Logansport in March 1926. Next to the hotel, a store’s window display featured a small stuffed Felix toy which serendipitously sported the team’s colors of black and red. As the team entered the hotel, Coach Cliff Wells bought Felix at the store. He then sat it on a table at the banquet.

At some point before the next season, Wells gave the doll to Raymond “Curly” Hupp, his senior captain on the 1926-27 team. Hupp kept the doll in his locker. At a home game early that next season, Logansport found itself down at halftime. As the team returned to floor for the second half, Hupp grabbed Felix from his locker and placed it on the floor during warmup.

When the team came back to win, Felix was seen as a good luck charm. “From that point on,” said Matt Jones, Logansport’s current principal, “Felix was the official mascot of Logansport High School and the first known mascot in the state of Indiana.”

The cartoon Felix underwent changes in the ensuing decades: making talking cartoons, getting face lifts and getting a “bag of tricks.” New animated cartoons for TV by Joe Oriolo, who also created Casper the Friendly Ghost and was a protégé of the original Felix artist, brought Felix to a new generation of youngsters in the 1950s and 1960s.

Always highly revered at Logansport, Felix became a living, breathing mascot for the first time in the late 1980s when the first Felix costume was donated. Felix has been interacting with fans, dancing, acting silly and firing up the home team ever since.

In December 2016, Logansport celebrated Felix’s 90th anniversary with the school. The celebration took place in conjunction with a girls/boys varsity basketball double-header. Other mascots — including Boomer from the Indiana Pacers and high school and college mascots from around the state — joined the Felix festivities. 

For the event, Logansport also brought Oriolo’s son, Don, who carries on his father’s tradition as the Felix illustrator, to town. Oriolo appeared at a community event, singing, drawing images of Felix and telling stories from Felix’s past. He also talked about cartooning to both high school and elementary classes.

“The tradition of the cat story is such a critical part of our rich traditions,” noted Jones. “We’re just extremely proud with the connection with Felix the Cat. It just goes hand-in-hand with Logansport High School.”

Don Oriolo, who carries on his father’s legacy as the artist of Felix the Cat, visited Logansport High School for two days in 2016 to celebrate Felix’s 90th anniversary as Logansport’s mascot. Photo courtesy of Logansport High School.