As he walks around downtown Ashland, Lucas Caldwell is hard to miss.
At 6-feet-9, in mismatched Chuck Taylors and dressed like a cup of frozen yogurt, the 21-year-old stands out as he marches along Main Street in his hot, fleecy, hoop-framed costume, offering 10-percent-off coupons to anyone who will take them.
Caldwell, from Eugene, is an aspiring actor and fourth-year undergraduate theater major at Southern Oregon University. To pay for college, Caldwell works multiple part-time jobs.
Last summer, he applied for a counter job at the Ashland Yogurt Hut and was instead offered the position of "Yogurt Dancer."
Although the company has used conventional sign dancers at its Medford and Grants Pass locations to target passing vehicles, owner Susan Orrego wanted a different approach at her Ashland store, on Lithia Way.
"There's such a walking population in Ashland," she explains. "After looking at some of the street performers downtown, we wanted to have something like a kids' mascot. We wanted to have a kind of fun, kid-friendly image to go with it. We decided not to have one of those impersonal costumes where you don't see the person's face and know who the person is, where the person doesn't matter. Lucas has been a perfect fit. He's really special."
Caldwell, who has been acting in school plays and community theater since he was 10 — and is also interested in muppet-style puppetry — says that adopting a goofy public persona came naturally to him and that he looks upon it as "a job like any other job."
Fourteen months later, earning only 20 cents above minimum wage, he has become a fixture in downtown Ashland — if not something of a local pop celebrity.
As Caldwell bops around town, he approaches strangers and says, to almost every passing person or group, "Would you like a coupon?" A large minority of people seem to take him up on the offer.
One young man who declines a coupon claims he already has 10.
The most common refusals he gets are, "No thanks, I don't live here" and "No thanks, I live here," he says.
"Apparently, they're both reasons to not take a coupon," he notes.
"Go Yogurt Hut Guy!" a young male pedestrian says in passing, pumping his fist in the air.
"Hey, get a real job!" shouts a motorist who has taken the time to pull over. It turns out to be Caldwell's boss from another of his jobs — cleaning rooms at a bed and breakfast. The man laughs and waves before pulling back into traffic.
"Ay, yuy, yuy!" hollers a female bicyclist, prompting a familiar return wave from Caldwell.
"Hiiiii, Yogurt Hut Guuuuy!" shouts a young girl, waving from the passenger window of a passing SUV.
A few minutes later, on the Plaza, there is a special request for a "Yogurt Hug."
"He just brings a smile to my face every single time I see him," says Stuart Meyer, of Ashland, who wanted to take photos of himself and his friends posing with Caldwell. "This is the second or third time I've had pictures taken with my friends and him. They get posted on Facebook."
"I love Lucas!" says Ally Twiest, of Ashland, who greets Caldwell outside Beau Club, where a group of bar patrons are smoking. "He's always smiling. He greets everyone and, even if it's 100 degrees, he's still happy."
Many passersby trade bemused looks after passing Caldwell, and much barely stifled giggling is audible in his train.
Sometimes, according to Caldwell, people have a bit too much fun at his expense. He says he has been called every profanity you can think of from passing cars ("though never the N-word," he adds) and occasionally has problems at night with drunk young men who make remarks in passing or handle his costume a little too freely. He has been kicked, spit on and hit in the face with a soccer ball. He also reports that certain members of the homeless population delight in threatening to eat him.
Things have gotten mellower now that he's spending weekend nights inside, in a second, all-new Yogurt Hut persona: DJ FroYo, the MC for Yogurt Hut's twice-weekly karaoke night (Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m. to midnight). Also, he got his roommate a job as the mascot for the neighboring Pita Hut, and the two look out for each other on the streets of Ashland.
Caldwell says he is not much affected by occasional instances of abuse, because the overwhelming number of his interactions are positive. He says the experience has opened him up to the basic friendliness of people when they aren't confusing you with their problems in the moment.
"When I'm in my street clothes and I walk down the street, I notice that I see people more than I used to before the job," he reflects. "Someone will make eye contact ... on the street, and I'll smile back at them. I usually get a smile back when I smile to a stranger. And that's good, right?"