Meet The Lion Makers
It all started with a white corduroy suit. That was the first time Elisabeth DeAngelo-Tucker picked up a needle. The reason? Her mother made her.
“She was always the boss of me,” said DeAngelo-Tucker. “Since I wanted the suit, she said, ‘Make it yourself.’ So I did.”
Elisabeth’s mother Mieko, who owned a dry cleaning business downtown, was insistent on her daughter having a skill that she could always fall back on, like tailoring. Though DeAngelo-Tucker was resistant to the idea, she learned how to sew.
Yet if DeAngelo-Tucker had not heeded her mother’s advice, Penn State might be short a very famous lion.
Elisabeth and John DeAngelo-Tucker are the creators of the Nittany Lion Mascot costume.
The couple’s journey to creating the costume began in 1990, when Elisabeth’s mother undertook the responsibility. “The taxidermist that originally made the costumes decided to get out of the business,” said DeAngelo-Tucker.
That taxidermist would be Clearfield Furs, who made the first Nittany Lion mascot costume out of real mountain lion skin. Before that, Penn State’s mascot was an actual lion, sans mountain.
That story goes back to the year 1904, when Penn State was gearing up to play the Princeton Tigers in baseball. One of the players, Harrison “Joe” D. Mason, was taking a tour of the prestigious Ivy League school when Princeton fans began to taunt the Penn Stater. They jeered at the fact that Penn State didn’t have a mascot. Thinking on his feet, Mason quipped back that Penn State was home to the Nittany Mountain Lion, which “had never been beaten in a fair fight!”
The lion that Mason was referring to was actually a stuffed “Brush Lion” that was displayed temporarily at Penn State as a part of the Columbian Exhibit in Chicago. Though the actual Lion wasn’t present at the game, he did his job. The Penn State Nittany Lions defeated the Princeton Tigers, and would go on to defeat the school two more times.
After the game, Mason jokingly proposed the Nittany Lion as the school’s official mascot in a student-run humor magazine. Due to the success of Mason’s article, the school decided to make it official, and named the Nittany Lion Penn State’s official mascot.
However, the Lion didn’t make a game day appearance until nearly two decades later. During the mid-1920’s, the living Lion made his debut under the name Nittany Leo I. Although he was called a Nittany Lion, Leo looked nothing like the mascot we all know today. He actually resembled an African lion, as he supported a full mane and fluffy tail. Furthermore, the mascot was required to remain on four legs during every presentation to give a more authentic appearance. Clearfield Furs created the first Nittany Lion suit, using real lion skin.
Nittany Leo I, circa 1929 (Penn State Archives)
The Nittany Lion suffered quite a long identity crisis. For more than 60 years, the Lion jumped back and forth between African and mountain varieties. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the Lion began to resemble the mascot we all know and love.
Flash forward to 1990, when Clearfield Furs decided to relinquish its Lion suit responsibilities to Meiko DeAngelo. While DeAngelo felt confident she could create the body of the mascot’s costume, the Lion’s head proved much more daunting. Instead of giving up, DeAngelo turned to her son-in-law, John Tucker, for help. Tucker was an art teacher, which DeAngelo believed would be particularly useful in crafting the Lion’s head. Although Tucker had never undertaken a task quite like creating a mascot’s head, he agreed to DeAngelo’s request.
“My mother was always very positive that people could do things,” said DeAngelo-Tucker. “If she decided someone could do something, they could.”
Meiko DeAngelo, in her tailoring shop (Penn State)
A short time after Meiko and John began making the Lion’s costume, Meiko’s health prevented her from giving her all to the mascot. But Elisabeth’s mother was not going to give up on the Lion’s uniform. “When my mother became ill, she turned to me and said, ‘I didn’t teach you how to sew for nothing,’” said DeAngelo-Tucker.
Meiko became a boss of sorts to Elisabeth and John during the early years of their Lion-tailoring career. “She really wasn’t healthy enough to do the work a lot of the time, so she bossed me around,” said Elisabeth. “She was the boss of John, too.”
“She always had to put her two cents in for everything Elisabeth made,” said Tucker. “It was like her stamp of approval.”
After Meiko passed away from complications due to cancer, her legacy continued on in Elisabeth and John’s work. “So there we were — the Lion duo,” said Deangelo-Tucker.
The Tuckers blend tradition and innovation into every Lion suit they create. Take the Nittany Lion’s iconic teeth, for example. The Nittany Lion is the only school mascot allowed to bear his teeth. “Historically, that’s how our lion was,” said DeAngelo-Tucker. “Because when you use a real lion, that lion is going to have teeth. So the teeth have been grandfathered into the costume.”
The Lion’s pearly whites are more than just a nod to Penn State history; they also act as major structural support.
“I’ve learned over the years that areas like the jaw need a lot of support,” said Tucker. “The way I make the teeth helps to reinforce the jaw.”
The Nittany Lion’s teeth aren’t the only feature that sets him apart from other collegiate mascots. Compared to other costumes, the Lion is quite small.
“We’ve seen some costumes that have to be packed in two boxes,” said DeAngelo-Tucker. “And when you open those boxes, the costumes just smell horrible.”
The Tuckers make sure that the Nittany Lion doesn’t have to deal with a heavy and odorous costume. “When the taxidermist used to make the costume, it weighed a lot more and took a longer time to clean,” said DeAngelo-Tucker. “So we made it washable, and John made a lighter and more durable head.”
The suit itself is made out of a polyester faux fur, which is machine washable. That way, the Nittany Lion can machine-wash his own costume in between his many presentations. “My mother was very adamant that our costume could be cleaned very well,” said DeAngelo-Tucker. “These young men have too many presentations to go to, so the costume has to be washed and dried easily.”
The base of the head is a football helmet. Then, John uses a fiberglass mold to create the Lion’s face. He tops it off with teeth, eyes, and a nose all made out of liquid urethane. To keep the head as clean as possible, John makes sure that the pads inside the helmet are removable for easy-access washing. “We’ve always suggested using alcohol to clean the whole thing,” said Tucker. “But one guy did try to Febreeze his head, and found out that you can’t stick your head inside of something full of Febreeze.”
The Tuckers’ job doesn’t end when the costume is delivered to the new Lion. The couple is always on standby for any repairs that need to be made to the suit. They mostly fix ripped knees and replace tails, but they occasionally deal with more extreme situations. “Once the Lion had his head off, and someone who was walking by grabbed the head and vomited in it,” said DeAngelo-Tucker. “So sometimes we end up with challenges like that.”
But the job has given the Tuckers massive respect for the men who don the mask and suit as the Nittany Lion. “They’re renaissance men in costume,” said DeAngelo-Tucker.
In addition to the more than 2,000 presentations the Nittany Lion has during the year, he must still keep a minimum 3.0 GPA. Yet amidst balancing school and the Lion’s appearances, the men still find ways to improve upon their masked performances. Many of the former mascots have even attended summer mascot school to learn some of the Lion’s iconic moves. They also make sure to keep their oath of silence while wearing the suit. “It’s amazing what they do to communicate,” said Tucker.
As a token of thanks, the Tuckers let each Nittany Lion keep one head.
“They really want to portray the Lion in his best light,” said DeAngelo-Tucker. “That’s why everyone loves the lion.”