The Making of Prisoner 00045

What does it take to sail a 33-foot chicken that might look a little like the President of the United States around Alcatraz Island dressed in a prison shirt? Three boats, nine crew members, one theatrical costume designer, 13 yards of 10-foot wide lightweight scenic canvas, 27 cans of black spray paint, 134 feet of webbing, 50 grommets, two fittings, a huge warehouse, a sense of humor, and hours and hours of everyone’s time.

Once the Chicken Wranglers decided on our President’s Day weekend stunt, two of us walked the docks at Fisherman’s Wharf looking for a fishing boat with a deck big enough to accommodate the 22 by 14 foot dimensions of the chicken’s feet. We were surprised to find any captains who were interested in our job after our experience in August, but find them we did.

The Amigo: benches out, chicken in

We reached an agreement with Captain Barnett of The Amigo to leave from Fisherman’s Wharf. Next we had to find someone to make the shirt. Vicky Nebeker, an experienced theatrical costumer designer who is expert at scenery and props, fit the bill. Her face lit up when we asked if she was willing, but she warned us that everything she did would be a wild guess. That was true for all of us.

Early in January we laid the deflated bird out on the ground so she could get his measurements, and Vicky sketched out a shirt design on a photo of the bird. There wasn’t a printed fabric on the market that had stripes wide enough for a prison shirt this big, so she would have to paint the stripes onto lightweight scenery canvas herself.

Vicky spent spread out the cut shirt on the floor of her apartment and spent forty hours laying down layers of contact paper that she sealed with thick duct tape. It was a long and tedious process: “I watched a lot of Netflix,” she says.

A month before launch, the prototype was ready for the first fitting. Vicky arranged to use an empty five-story warehouse where we could inflate the bird in secrecy, sheltered from the wind. As the bird came to his feet in the cavernous space, struggling a bit with the weight of the shirt, Vicky took notes on a clipboard.

The Chicken has a thick neck, no shoulders and a really big butt.

The following week, Vicky set up long tables in a friend’s front yard where she and Tom Martinelli spent two days painting on the stripes. They used 27 cans of black spray paint, the kind taggers use, that costs 99 cents a can at Home Depot. The weather at the time was warm and mild. “That part of this project was pure bliss,” she says.

The final fitting took place the first weekend in February, two weeks before launch. Most of the chicken crew made their way to that same warehouse on Mare Island. We’ve all inflated the Chicken before, but not indoors. Seeing him with a building around him made him appear so much bigger.

The stripes worked well, but Vicky was concerned about the back, which bunched up a little around the rear. In the warehouse she had an epiphany. She’d lace it up the back. “You know, like a corset.” In the weeks since she has finished the shirt with webbing and grommets, to allow us to tie the shirt down if the wind kicks up. Vicky wrote out detailed rigging instructions for the wranglers, and advised that each one of the crew carry a knife sharp enough to cut the rope if the conditions get rough.

As we publish this story, it is the day we take the Chicken out on the bay. We have no idea what will happen when the boat is out on the water. Wish us luck because we need it. All of us were sobered by seeing the Chicken in his prison shirt filling up the warehouse, and each of us have our own near-death failure scenarios that we’re trying to keep to ourselves. One wrangler said, “I give this thing a 50-50 chance of success.”

No matter what happens out on the water, we say great thanks to Vicky Nebeker for doing such amazing work on this crazy project, and to the crew of The Amigo for agreeing to take on this yuuuuge job!

Thanks also to all our donors and volunteers for helping make this day happen too!