The Airport Canine Ambassador

“I don’t know of any other airport in the U.S. that does this,” Liz Miller says. “People just flock to [Casey] on the concourse.” Photo: Miami-Dade Aviation Department

Casey, who is almost four years old, soothes red-faced wailing children. She gives harried businesspeople a moment of calm as they scramble to catch connecting flights. She shimmies and wriggles on the floor, delighting most within her line of sight.

Casey is the 69-pound golden retriever-in-residence at Miami International Airport. As the airport’s official “K-9 ambassador,” she and her owner, Liz Miller, volunteer for two hours on Mondays and Thursdays, helping passengers feel at ease and spreading goodwill on the concourse. It’s one of the airport’s unique ways of providing a rich customer service experience.

Beneath a silky sheath of golden hair and you-can’t-stay-mad-at-me eyes, Casey engages with passengers on an emotional level. “Airports can be so sterile and annoying,” Miller says. “You don’t expect to see a beautiful dog walk up to you. I think people are really touched and moved by that, and it chills them out a little bit.”

But Casey isn’t the only one working her magic. Miller, a former consultant and human resources director, is Casey’s human sidekick at Miami International (MIA), which spans 7 million square feet and services the most international flights in the United States.

Age: 58
Graduated from: Bachelor’s from University of Rhode Island; MBA from University of Miami; PHR [professional in human resources] certification
Based in: Miami, Florida
In the position for: About one year
Work hours: Mondays and Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m. EST; open to special requests
Previous jobs: Corporate lender; national and small business consultant; CFO and director of human resources for a private school in southern Florida

How did your skill set – HR and consulting – segue into volunteering with a golden retriever? Two years ago, I left my position as director of human resources and opened a specialty dessert sauces company, which had been my dream for quite a while. That left more time to focus on volunteer work, and volunteering at the airport was one of my first choices.

What inspired you to bring Casey into that equation? Casey is our family dog, our fifth golden retriever. She went through obedience training and is a certified therapy dog. I took her to do therapy dog work at a local children’s hospital, where I saw her love of humans and how much she delighted kids. I thought that she’d be a natural doing the same kind of work with passengers at MIA. With about 105,000 passengers coming through the concourses daily – and lots of stressed travelers – the opportunity to make a positive impact there was huge. I thought Casey could do it.

Casey the K-9 Ambassador spreading the love. Photo: Miami-Dade Aviation Department

Do you typically approach passengers, or let them come to you? Both. People approach Casey and pet her, and sometimes end up on the floor with her in a lovefest. Other times, I watch people’s body language – they might brighten up when they see Casey, but don’t come over. So I’ll walk over and ask if they want to meet her. Usually, a child’s screaming and crying will stop when we approach.

Does Casey wear a uniform on the job? Yes: a cobalt blue vest with the words “pet me” on the back, and an official MIA security badge, just like mine. Casey even has her own business cards; a paid MIA employee responds to everyone who writes in. They sign off with Casey’s paw print.

You volunteer with Casey twice a week, but mentioned that you’re “open to special requests.” Like what? Sometimes, airlines ask us to see off a large group passengers at a certain gate. Other times, Casey will get an email from a family, asking if she can come in and greet them as they arrive, or before they depart. In February, we got to the airport at 8 a.m. to see off a family with five kids going on a ski trip. Casey started wriggling on her back, and all the kids got on the ground and mimicked her. We still get messages from that family.

One occasion you truly made a difference: I heard screaming at the international arrival gate. The source was a 2-year-old girl standing on her seat, kicking at her mother, who was trying to placate her. I knelt down next to her with Casey, and she immediately stopped. It was like manna from heaven. I quickly realized the little girl and her mother spoke Creole, not English, but the universal message of touch and calm and safety came across. When we got up to leave, I could see the other passengers saying thank you, thank you, thank you with their eyes. Another time, Casey pulled me toward a young boy who was traveling with his parents. She pressed her head against him, and he bent down to kiss her head. It was beautiful.

But not every traveler loves dogs. I’m really sensitive to that. I don’t approach little children unless their parents have given me eye contact, so I know the parent is receptive. I would never approach it if the parent was reticent.

Has Casey ever bitten a passenger? You think I would tell you if she did? (Laughs.) But no, thank God. Once, I misunderstood someone’s look, and went over to introduce Casey, but he put his paper up. I got his drift.

Do you work overtime during the summertime and holidays, when travel stress is at all-time highs? If we work more than two hours at a time, Casey will push against my knee. If I resist, she’ll pull on the leash and get angry with me – she needs a break. After those two hours, she falls right asleep.

Dogs: a baby’s best friend? Photo: Miami-Dade Aviation Department

Best part of your job: The visual thank-yous – like huge smiles from passengers – and the verbal ones. And the awe, the surprise, from passengers. Casey’s presence has a ripple effect: when I look up, I’ll see people standing and watching us 10 yards away, smiling and talking to each other.

Most challenging part of your job: For every two hours spent in the airport, I spend about five to six hours preparing or coming down from it. It’s a lot of energy being constantly “on”; it’s like a full day’s work.

What kind of preparation? Keeping Casey’s coat clean and groomed. It’s absolutely beautiful, and the softest thing ever. Then there’s getting myself prepped, and getting to the airport takes about 45 minutes. But it’s worth it.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? A therapy dog’s tolerance level is about one and a half hours. Casey’s is two hours, but she’s doing a lot of walking and getting touched a million times – and doesn’t necessarily know where the hands are coming from. Part of my job is making sure she’s safe.

Any other pets at home? My sons. (Laughs.) No, not right now.

Where does Casey spend her off days? At Totally Dog Day Camp, a five-acre rural area a little south of [Miami]. Twice a week, a small school bus picks her up at 7:30 a.m., and she has her own seat – all the dogs do. The windows stay half-open so the dogs can hang out and bark and love life all the way to the camp. They’re let loose to run, play, and go on hikes around the property, which has a huge bone-shaped swimming pool. I pick her up from the bus around 5:30 p.m.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. Be very comfortable working and engaging with a dog for a number of hours per day. Build a loving rapport through obedience training.

2. Put yourself out there and initiate contact with strangers. You need an ease with the public. This is a vulnerable position, and you must be able to read people’s body language to see whether they will be receptive to your approach.

3. Enjoy finding out about other people, and be a good listener. The dog breaks the ice, but the handler is the one who must engage in conversation and coax people out of their shells. It’s teamwork. If at any time I see a passenger looking really distressed or confused, I deal with that immediately and help solve his or her problem.

Casey’s business cards: no bones about it.

Check out Casey’s personal site, or email her at casey@miami-airport.com. Learn more about the MIA Volunteer Ambassador Program, where about 80 volunteers help to welcome visitors to the Greater Miami area.

For more animal-loving No Joe Schmos, check out the pet detective and the pooper scooper.

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The SNL Cue Cards Guy

“When you’ve been holding up 22″ x 40″ cards for 22 years, you develop muscles,” says Wally Feresten. “But with that muscle comes ache.” Photo: steph-was-here.tumblr.com

Wally Feresten rolls over in bed around noon on Sunday, struggling to open his eyes. He’s had a long night; he didn’t get home until 5 a.m., and his entire upper body aches. He’ll have the next few days to recuperate, but on Thursday, it’s back to Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where he’s responsible for making sure all the actors and celebrities know exactly what to say come 11:30 p.m. EST on Saturday night.

Feresten started working as a cue cards guy on NBC’s Saturday Night Live more than 20 years ago, when he was almost fired for sloppy handwriting. But now he runs the show with precision and a sense of calm that is unusual for a job that requires rewriting cue cards for sketches just minutes before they air. Over the years, he has written episodes for a variety of sitcoms; but most of his writing still involves printing large letters exactly the right space apart on swaths of recycled cardstock, which he orders in batches of 10,000 and stashes beneath the bleachers in Studio 8H.

Sometimes, Feresten feels uncomfortable telling people what he does for a living. He explains that his company, NYC Q-Cards, handles all the cue card work on SNL and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, plus many other award shows, live specials, and commercials. Then he politely inquires about the professions of his new acquaintances. Oh, I’m an accountant, they’ll say. I can’t compete with that.

Age: 46
Graduated from: Syracuse University; studied television/radio/film and writing
In the business for: 22 years
Based in: New York City

Previous jobs: After graduation, I lived in Los Angeles for three years, writing scripts. I didn’t have much luck, so I moved to New York, where my brother had just started writing for the Late Show with David Letterman. He helped me get a job writing cue cards there.

Was handwriting a major factor in the hiring process? Actually, my handwriting was horrible. I had to do about half an hour of duping during my interview, which is the process of copying text from card to card. But [the job is] also a lot about getting along with everyone – you have to work long hours under stressful conditions. They liked my personality, and as for handwriting, said they’d seen worse.

Did your handwriting improve? During my first six weeks at SNL, my trainer Tony Mendez wouldn’t use any of my cards because they didn’t hold up to his standards. He was looking for an excuse to fire me. During one show, he threw me into a line of fire. For the first card, I had to stand on a ladder; for the second, lie on my stomach; for the third, get on my knees. I did it perfectly, which pretty much saved my job. Within three years, I was running the show at SNL.

Do you move around for a majority of the show? If the actors in a sketch are looking directly into the camera – say, for a press conference with Kofi Annan and President Obama – I’ll stand in place. For other sketches, I’m constantly adjusting my height so the actors can always see the cards. It’s like a choreographed dance.

Wally Feresten (R) with Keenan Thompson on the set of SNL.

Are you right-handed or left-handed? Right-handed, as most cue card people are. If you are left-handed, your left hand would typically smudge the printing on the card. But you have to be good with both arms. You’re holding one card steadily in the palm of one hand, and balancing the other 7 to 20 cards in your other palm. I’m pretty sore at the end of the day.

Do you have noticeable muscle strain? Over the past eight years, I’ve gone to physical therapy for tendonitis in my left elbow, right elbow, left shoulder, and right shoulder. But I’m feeling pretty good now, knock on wood.

The New Yorker called preparing and holding cue cards a “dying art,” and that was more than 10 years ago. I’m surprised the industry hasn’t digitized. Timing rules everything. If a computer goes down or gets unplugged during a live show, it’s a disaster. Producers won’t allow that.

To what extent do actors improvise during SNL? They can only improvise during rehearsal, not during the actual show. [Improvising] doesn’t make sense, anyway, since writers are rewriting up to the last minute.

Define “the last minute.” We’ll do rewrites until anywhere from 12 a.m. to 12:15 a.m., sometimes rewriting a sketch just a few minutes before it starts. [Editors’ note: SNL airs from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. EST].

That sounds very high-stress. How do you cope with the pressure? I love the adrenaline rush, and I don’t panic. I think that’s why they picked me to do the job 19 years ago.

You undoubtedly have front-row access to some of the most important moments in TV history. An especially memorable one was holding cards for Mayor Giuliani two weeks after September 11, with firemen standing behind me, when we were the first comedy show to come back on the air. It’s also pretty fun seeing pairs meet for the first time in the dressing rooms to discuss their monologues: Sarah Palin and Tina Fey, Jesse Eisenberg and Mark Zuckerberg.

I love the Mother’s Day episode when Will Ferrell hosted. He told you to lower the cards so he could talk to his mom on stage “unscripted.” Was that scripted? Yes. Adam McKay, who used to work for SNL and now writes and directs with Will Ferrell, wrote that. I get my best reviews for that performance.

 

Writing utensils: M99 markers, which are big, thick, silver pens that we unscrew and fill up with ink. The fumes are really bad for you, so we try not to inhale too much.

Best part of your job: Making friends with cast members and working with our celebrity hosts. After Paul Rudd hosted for the first time, I sent him his monologue cards, and he told me he has them hanging around his house. I’ll do that for young actors who haven’t hosted before and are really excited about it.

Most challenging part of your job: Getting through the day on Friday, when we start rehearsal at 1 p.m. and aren’t done until midnight or 1 a.m. It can be tough to stay focused, especially when it takes two hours to block one sketch.

Walk me through your week. I don’t work Sundays through Wednesdays. Thursdays are light days; we rehearse three or four sketches and are out by 5 p.m. They don’t want to scare the host too much. Fridays are long and hard. Saturdays we rehearse all day, do two shows, and then party.

Do you usually attend the SNL after-parties? Yes. You get such an adrenaline rush from the live shows, that even when I just go home, I can’t fall asleep until 5 a.m. Lots of alcohol helps you relax. Then, on Sundays, I’m a mess. I get home really late, which is tough on my wife and two sons, who are 12 and 10. They let me sleep until noon.

Feresten’s company, NYC Q-Cards, also works on the set of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Photo: sheknows.com

Do you foresee a future in comedy for your kids? I wrote some stand-up for my older son, who performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and he totally killed.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? The number of people who still ask whether SNL is a live show.

Best reaction to telling a stranger about your line of work: It kind of halts the conversation. Sometimes, I’ll go through my spiel about meeting celebrities, and the other guy will be like, Oh, I’m an accountant.

Most important lesson learned: The rewrite process is the most important part of writing comedy. That’s sometimes the hardest thing for a writer, since you might not want to mess with your work.

Do you consider yourself a funny guy? I do. [Laughs.] Growing up, we listened to a lot of George Carlin albums, and I always want to be a comedian.

Any summer plans while SNL is on hiatus? [NYC Q-Cards] is doing three shows at the same time: Ink Master, a tattoo reality show on Spike TV; Project Runway on Lifetime; and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on NBC.

Salary per show: For most New York shows, I normally charge $500 for an eight-hour day. SNL is a different beast, though. And the cards cost about $1,700 for a 10,000-card order.

I read that your legal name is Chris Feresten. What’s that about? My brother nicknamed me Wally when we were kids, and it kind of stuck.


LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Practice your printing – that’s copying from script to cue cards. Meet people doing cue card work and have them show you how to hold the cards; you need someone with connections to vouch for you.

Meet more No Joe Schmos who wield pens as swords: the fountain pen doctor, the tattoo artist, and the CollegeHumor.com editor.

The Video Game Voice Actor

Need for speed | Bend your elbows and pretend you’re typing really quickly on a keyboard, Minella advises. Your fingers will act as puppeteers to move your mouth faster.

Lani Minella makes a very convincing baby boy and elderly grandmother. She’s spot-on as Nancy Drew in the Her Interactive video games and as Rouge the Bat in the Sega game Sonic the Hedgehog. Minella won’t reveal her actual age, but she is credited with voicing more than 500 video games in 365 different voices over about two decades.

In 1992, Minella founded AudioGodz, a one-stop shop to help game companies with voice acting, casting, directing, and audio. “I’d like to think anyone can be trained to do this, if you’re not tone deaf and have vocal control,” she says. “You can get a lot of your inspiration from real life. Or from watching Springer.”

Scrunching her face for a gruff six-foot Haitian soldier and stretching her lips for a sexy Katharine Hepburn are all in a day’s work. “What’s great about voice work is…you can look like holy hell,” Minella says matter-of-factly. After spending hours in cramped, overheated recording studios, one often looks like she just took a shower or walked through a tornado.

Below, Minella explains how reality TV is destroying the industry, why the gender gap doesn’t show signs of closing, and the unlikely way the voice of Spongebob nailed his job.

Age: I prefer not to say; this is a very discriminatory business. I voice anyone from a baby to a 100-year-old.
Based in: San Diego, Calif.
Graduated from: San Diego State University and United States International University; English major, art minor

Previous jobs: On-air talent and producer at various radio stations

Much like acting, voice work is an opportunity to be someone you’re not. Is that exhilarating for you? Games are the best, because you have the chance to be a multiplicity of characters. I get to have fun and create insectoid languages, which kids love. But nowadays, parents are determining what kids should hear, and they’re replacing exciting characters with “safe” ones. Producers don’t want to offend anybody.

Producers tend to run on the nervous side, Minella says. But clearly not the South Park ones. Photo: mentorless.com

What about shows like South Park? They got away with it because people were like, thank goodness someone is taking a chance and not being politically correct.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? Lots of black parts are actually played by white people. Also, my line of work takes a lot of energy. For characters in games, you need to make dying sounds, jumping sounds, and landing sounds.

So you’re actually jumping in the recording studio? The last thing you want to do during a voiceover is sit down. You have to put the motion in games; that’s part of the fun. For hitting noises, I’m actually punching the air or doing a karate chop. I’ll often do backhanded tennis swings to make certain sounds, which impresses producers.

Most embarrassing moment: While gesturing, I once swiped my can of Coke and it splattered 50 feet away.

Speaking of getting physical, how do you switch your voice from young boy to old woman? Women can do a lot of things men can’t, like voicing a teenage boy. Pooch your lips and move your mouth forward to sound like a boy; bring your lips back against your teeth to sound like a girl. Making a tough face makes you sound masculine. It can be that easy.

Do you find a gender gap within the industry? Yes. A male might get a $500 offer on Voice123.com, while a female might get $50 or $100. It’s the way the public has always done it, and it’s the same reason people didn’t take me seriously as the manager of a stereo store. Girls aren’t supposed to know “that stuff.” It’s largely who you know and who you blow.

Best part of your job: Working with the audio guys, who are highly creative.

Most challenging part of your job: When directors tell you to “do it different” but don’t specify how. The toughest jobs really wear you down. After recording for a Lord of the Rings video game, I was so hoarse I couldn’t even swallow water.

How often do you lose your voice? It has happened three times. But I only lose my normal speaking voice; I can still go really high and really low.

The best cure for a hoarse voice: Hot liquids can temporarily relax swollen chords a bit, and humming instead of whispering or talking can help. Water just washes away your mucus lining and can lead to dry mouth.

Your dream job growing up: To do cartoon voices. I was amazed at the animations, and I was always the class clown.

Are most cartoons and games recorded in Hollywood? Looping and animation, yes. But Take-Two Interactive, one of the biggest companies that hires people for the voices in Grand Theft Auto, is based in New York. But games don’t pay that well. The real bread and butter of the industry is in commercials and promos.

Salary: It’s better pay than flipping burgers, but you’re not punching a time clock. Don’t quit your day job unless you’re the voice of Revlon.

Dress code in the studio: No jewelry, no high heels, no clothes that rustle. Don’t waste time with perfecting your hair and makeup, because sometimes, sound studios will be little clothes closets.

Has the industry shifted with the rise of reality TV? It’s done a lot of damage to the industry, just like hiring celebrities has. Reality shows get away dirt cheap without having to pay a script writer. Directors on shows like The Real Housewives of New Jersey are just like, be yourself and fight a lot.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. Know your voice, control it well, and be able to read cold copy quickly. Don’t inflect your voice upward at the end of sentences, and follow directions well.

2. Go your mirror, make funny faces, and talk through them. The odder you look and the more you flail about with your hands, the more people are going to think you’re really good. Keep an open ear while you’re out, then go home and impersonate and adapt those voices.

3. At the start of your audition, say “1 of 2.” Do the first take the way the director wants, and then come up with something entirely different for the second take. By putting more lottery tickets in, you get more jobs.

Tom Kenny also voiced Dog on CatDog and Heffer Wolfe on Rocko’s Modern Life. Photo: fanpop.com

THE SPONGEBOB STORY>> Tom Kenny, the voice of Spongebob Squarepants, got his big break at a Hollywood party. He was mimicking a midget he had overheard — one who was angry about being typecast an an elf. Someone overheard Kenny, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, “Come into my office tomorrow. I might have a job for you.” And he was thus cast at Spongebob. —As told to Megan Hess

Think Lani Minella‘s job is cool? Check out the opera singer who compares singing to a hot fudge sundae.