Little Rock, Arkansas' South Main (SoMa) neighborhood has a special friend. The friendly, yellow face of Cosmo—a loveable cornbread skillet—is a common sight around town. Since 2011, the Arkansas Cornbread Festival, a community development fête, has evolved into one of the region's most anticipated events. A big highlight of this evolution was the creation of the mascot, Cosmo. The festival and its mascot were born of the minds of visionary community leader Anita Davis and artist Steven Otis. Davis asked Otis to create a character for the festival with a "cosmic" theme; hence, Cosmo was born. His inaugural form can be seen performing a galactic concert for a host of star struck produce on a mural facing The Root Café's parking lot.
Eventually, the question was raised: How would Cosmo come to life? For the 2014 fest, Don Bolinger, from UA Little Rock's Theatre Arts and Dance Department, built the mascot costume that continues to thrill crowds today. Due to time constraints, the first person to wear the costume for the festival and promotional events bowed out after one season. When the popular skillet was needed for an early morning news promo, Rory Jones happily volunteered. Having grown up in SoMa, Rory remembers her first Cosmo sighting, when she was 10 or 11 years old. "I had been wanting to be Cosmo ever since I first saw the costume," she says.
As a festival committee member, Rory's mother Amber had already shared her daughter's dream of playing Cosmo, and eagerness to fill in, if ever needed. "When the director was thanking me at 5:00 AM for being Cosmo, I told her, 'I've been waiting my whole life to do it!'" Rory remembers.
Now 16, Rory's been Arkansas Cornbread Festival's mascot for five years running. Quite the cornbread-about-town, you can catch Cosmo at events throughout the year, including the Main Street Food Truck Festival, SoMa Mardi Gras Parade, Africa Day Fest, Arkansas Made-Arkansas Proud Market, and as the switch-flipper at the annual Bernice Garden Tree Lighting Ceremony. Rory enjoys the smiles Cosmo brings to faces of all ages. She says people are "always so excited and happy to see Cosmo." While cheering on runners during the Little Rock Marathon, even racers will stop to have their picture made with Cosmo. Although children can be a little cautious as they approach the largest skillet of cornbread they've likely ever seen, Rory says, "They usually love a high-five or fist bump from Cosmo!"
One of Rory's favorite memories is from a Fire Prevention Month kickoff event last October, where local fire stations competed for the best cornbread recipe. "I got to wear a firefighter's uniform, called turnouts, and take photos with the fire pole and while holding an ax in front of the truck," Rory says.
Cosmo always travels with a handler, who warns of potholes, curbs and other obstacles that aren't so easy to see from behind the giant yellow face. The costume's odd shape requires some fancy maneuvering, and since she can't eat or drink while wearing it, Rory takes frequent breaks from the warm, foam façade. Because the costume can be very hot, Cosmo's appearances are limited in the summer months. Describing the costume, she says, "I have a tall handle that requires me to dip down to get through doorways. The yellow face covers the top half of my body, and then some." Rory's black-gloved forearms and hands stick out the sides, limiting range of motion and vision. "Since his eyes are very large and far apart, I have to pick one eye to look out of to see," she says. "It is somewhat awkward to move, but I've gotten used to it and can get around pretty easily and safely while wearing it now."
A cornbread lover, Rory's favorite is traditional cornbread in a skillet served with plenty of butter—a treat she only enjoys when out of costume, because, she explains, if Cosmo ate it, "that would be cannibalism."
Just like Cosmo, Rory calls the SoMa neighborhood home. Her family's historic house was built in 1892. She will soon be a junior at eSTEM Charter High School, where Math and Art are her favorite subjects. She also enjoys reading, even though it can be a challenge because of her dyslexia.
It was dyslexia, in fact, that led Rory to another mascot opportunity—Rorysaurus the Dyslexic Dinosaur—which she has played for her dyslexic group. She says that when she wears this inflatable costume, "The little kids love it!"
After graduation in 2021, Rory plans to study Art and Math in college, possibly play softball, and maybe adopt yet a new disguise. "It would be great to be a college team mascot," she says. "I have great experience!"
When she isn't repping Arkansas' favorite fall festival, Rory is catcher for her softball team. She also may be found riding Caramel, her palomino-colored horse, and honing her trapeze and other aerial skills at Arkansas Circus Arts.
Come to the 2019 Arkansas Cornbread Festival, Saturday October 26, 2019, and remember to say hello to Cosmo! But now, of course, you'll know it's Rory behind the skillet.