Donair costume is a hit in Alberta government surplus auction

By Catherine Griwkowsky July 20, 2023

The donair costume in Alterian Inc.’s workshop (Alterian Inc.)

Among a pallet of expired face masks and old printers, a saucy donair costume — purchased for but never used in a government advertising campaign — has sparked a bidding war.

Yesterday evening two donair restaurants — North Edmonton’s Swiss Donair and Calgary-based, Halifax-style restaurant Blowers & Grafton — used proxy bidding to instantly one-up each other in $5 increments, pushing the top bid above $4,000. Then, the original donair shop, King of Donair in Halifax joined in, vowing to strip the costume of its lettuce if succesful. By this morning, a fourth shop, Prime Time Donair, pushed the bidding to $6,500.

The donair costume is dusty, but in otherwise excellent condition. The auction site says the overall operational condition of the suit is not known, but photos show it has been worn with a person waving and posing in it.

The donair portion is made up of latex, vulcanized rubbers and synthetics, and the costume stands 56 inches tall, 27 inches wide and 16 inches deep with adjustable shoulder straps. It also includes a 75-inch silver morph suit for the “authentic tin foil look.”

Due to its rarity, bidding on the costume has been extended, with 25 days to go until the auction wraps.

‘It was supposed to have a face’

The donair costume gets a screen test (Alterian Inc.)

So how did the donair costume end up on a provincial auction site? Some Albertans may remember a commercial from the Alberta Transportation department titled don’t drive and donair — part of an award-winning 2015 PSA campaign against distracted driving that included the “crotches kill” poster — but the costume was not purchased for the video.

Instead, the suit was procured for an impaired driving ad campaign featuring a character dubbed “The Wise Donair.”

A former government staffer who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity told Alberta Today he has been waiting for the day the costume would be auctioned off for a long time.

While he had heard of the costume, the ex-staffer had never set eyes on it, and when it hit the surplus site, he was shocked by one detail — or rather the lack thereof.

“It was supposed to have a face, but the costume doesn’t have a face,” he said. “I was blown away when I first saw it.”

The Wise Donair campaign was first pitched under the PC government but was ultimately kiboshed by the newly elected NDP government in 2015.

The premise of the ads, the staffer explained, centered around a Steve Buscemi-esque “how do you do, fellow kids?” character who would warn hallucinating pot-smokers about the dangers of driving while high.

The first pitch featured a burrito character — which was rejected over concerns it could be viewed as racially insensitive — then a pizza was proposed and cut because pizzas are typically delivered, which meant the character lacked the distracted driving angle. In the end, the donair was chosen.

“We were all pretty amused by it,” the staffer told Alberta Today.

The campaign was envisioned as a series of commercials that would have aired before movies, as well as social media memes.

But the timing was sensitive, with the 2015 federal election — in which legalization of cannabis was a hot topic — looming.

Former NDP transportation minister Brian Mason was tasked with helping provincial authorities prepare for the legalization of cannabis, and part of his role was making sure roads were safe.

Mason said the proposed pitch was to play on getting “the munchies” while stoned. Staff debated whether the campaign made sense and whether hallucinating a talking donair after consuming cannabis would seem far-fetched to viewers.

“I think that some of the people working on that campaign were unfamiliar with the use of the substance,” Mason said.

Ultimately, the silly tone of the pitch was deemed a mismatch for the seriousness of the issue and the campaign was shelved.

“The intention was very good, but I pulled the plug on their project because I just didn’t think it was going to be a very effective way to communicate,” Mason said. “I also thought a lot of people would think it’s a little weird.”

The donair costume — which Mason said he didn’t know existed — was left to collect dust in a government warehouse.

Straight from Hollywood

The costume was manufactured by Hollywood puppeteer Christine Papalexis for the LA-based prosthetics and special effects company Alterian Inc. in 2015. On her website, Paplexis lists the costume as a shawarma.

Tony Gardner, head of Alterian Studios, confirmed the costume was ordered by DDBCanada for a series of commercials, built in the Irwindale, California studios in July 2015, then shipped to Edmonton for local filming.

In a statement to Alberta Today, Gardner said the company traditionally focuses on makeup effects and animatronics. The zombies in Zombieland, the helmets for Daft Punk, the cavemen in the Geico commercials — all were made by the company, as was the Chucky doll (filming of Season 3 of the CHUCKY show in Toronto is suspended due to the Screen Actors Guild strike).

“We don’t normally create food costumes, but this one was so unique, we had to say yes!” Gardner wrote.

The company found food costumes were unusually popular in 2015, the year the donair suit was ordered. Similar costumes — a rotisserie chicken, a reuben sandwich and a taco — from Alterian were used in Tums commercials.

Costume piques interest all the way to Halifax

Nearly a decade after being rejected and almost forgotten, the donair costume is now getting plenty of online love. The initial $50 bid to buy the savoury piece of provincial memorabilia has been exponentially surpassed.

Donovan Eckstrom, the No Affiliation candidate for Monday’s Calgary—Heritage byelection, placed a meme bid of $420.69.

The costume has attracted attention across the country with Haligonians calling for the donair suit to “bring him home” to Nova Scotia. However, some eagle-eyed Atlantic residents noted the blasphemous lettuce on the costume — one of the key distinguishing ingredients that sets apart the original Halifax donair from the Alberta variety.

Service Alberta’s surplus auction site, where the donair costume is racking up bids (Service Alberta)