– From radio star to part-time mascot: Rebuilding a life at age 53 (Al Jazeera, April 9, 2014):
Like millions of Americans in recent years, Scott Alan went from middle class to struggling
This year, Scott Alan was the Easter Bunny. He’s been a rodeo clown and Santa Claus. Once, when he was dressed in a giant alligator suit, a group of college students threw a milkshake at his head. Recently, he was close to suicide.The country’s unemployment rate has been slowly creeping downward, but those official statistics don’t say what kinds of new jobs people are getting.
“The average mascot age is between 22 and 26,” Alan told “America Tonight.” “I was in my early 50s, still wearing a costume in 100-degree weather, in 20-degree weather, still performing, trying to survive and make a living.”
Winning the dream job
Alan, 53, is a natural entertainer. Fourteen years ago, he won a radio contest pretending to be a baseball announcer. The head of Chicago station WJJG 150 saw him on TV, and turned Scott Vanderstuyf, a painting business owner in Bartlett, Ill., into Scott Alan, a local radio star.
His morning show attracted between 50,000 and 100,000 listeners a day, he said, putting him in the same league as much bigger stations. With a little hustle on the side, Alan was solidly middle class. He took his wife, a part-time dietitian, and his two kids on a vacation every year, to places like Florida and the Bahamas. He saved up enough to pay for his oldest daughter’s first year of college.
Plus, his face was on a billboard. Chevrolet, one of his sponsors, would lend him cars to try out. His family once got an all-expenses-paid trip to a resort in Indiana, and a stretch limousine picked them up at their door. People asked him for his autograph.
“The salary I made on the radio wasn’t top-notch, but it was decent,” Alan said. “But the perks I got were incredible. I ate at restaurants that right now, if I walked in, I would have to be the dishwasher.”
The work was also fulfilling. He interviewed Robert Redford, the late Paul Newman and then–state Sen. Barack Obama. And Alan’s shtick was blue-collar: anti-corporate, pro-little-guy. He gave weekly spots to local struggling musicians. He helped an ex-con listener get a job. His audience peaked during the worst of the recession.
Then, in October 2011, a new manager came in, more of a “bean counter,” Alan said. After 12 years on the air, he was replaced with a nationally syndicated host’s show. He said it was clearly a money-saving move.
“It devastated me,” Alan said. “… And that’s where my depression came in. You know, I’ve been battling depression since then.”
Nearly a quarter of adult Americans were laid off during or after the recession, according to a 2013 survey by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. Of those who found new work, nearly half reported that it was a step down, and 54 percent said they were making less money.
Constantly hearing no
The last few years have been a bad time to look for a job, especially when you’re in your 50s and your skills are entertainment — never a stable business — and painting, which collapsed along with the construction industry. Alan’s family was suddenly struggling, his marriage strained.
Currently, he’s working as a part-time salesman at AAA, a painting contractor in Wheaton, Ill. He has a lot of experience with calls, but they used to be from giddy listeners and broadcast live to thousands. Now he cold-calls people all day, he said, with a hang-up rate of 99 percent.
“There are times when you’re battling depression and you go through four days of constant no’s,” he said. “It’s hard, it’s difficult.”
And he hustles as much as he can, picking up work as a concrete laborer, plumbing-truck driver, semi-truck washer from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. and high-rise window washer in downtown Chicago. Last summer, Alan painted and prepped the windows of a house in 95-degree heat, and said that at the end of the week, the guy literally threw his money on the ground and told him to pick it up.
Almost every day he hunts for entertainment gigs, and he’s ended up in a lot of goofy costumes. Alan likes making kids happy, and playing Santa makes him feel good, he said. But it can be hard to keep up the smiles.
“The depression has taken the energy out of me,” he said. “I still enjoy it, but there’s always ‘Is the electric going to be shut off when I get home?’ We’re probably one or two paychecks away from being homeless.”
If he hadn’t lost his radio show, Alan said, his hope was to round up some investors and buy the station outright. Now he doesn’t know how he’ll be financially secure, let alone retire. He just hopes to get on the radio again.
“I always believed in hard work,” he said. “Usually, it’s rags to riches. Here, it’s riches to rags.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Alan was hit by a milkshake while wearing an “A+” suit. He spoke in error, and was in fact hit by a milkshake while wearing an alligator suit, and hit by a Slurpee-like drink while wearing an “A+” suit. He was also hit in the head with a hammer while wearing an Easter Bunny costume, and said the foam in the head likely saved his life.