There's this robot, see, standing absolutely motionless outside a store in ZCMI Center. Looks just like one of those Audio-animatronic characters at Disneyland.
Then it starts moving, its arms making robotlike maneuvers, and the body swiveling first one direction, then the other.But watch those eyes. They never blink.
It must be a robot. It's just some mechanical device, not a flesh-and-blood human.
Then-- suddenly --the "machine" steps out of character and greets a passerby with a friendly handshake.
The element of surprise. Works every time.
What you're relaly seeing is Mr. Manakin, alias Davis Ray Aston, a Provo actor who's been doing his manniquin imitation since last October.
Aston, who was a high school dropout but eventually got his diploma via the Utah Trade Tech route, claims to have extensive training "in Halloween." He's also performed in a number of Utah Valley plays and has done stuntwork at Lagoon's Pioneer Village.
Aston says a traumatic experience in special education motivated him to get into stuntwork and acting.
When he was a youngster, his family was assigned to Guatemala for two years for an LDS Church mission. When they returned, Aston was in the fifth grade, but because he had become deficient in both U.S. history and world geography during his time in Central America, he was placed in a special education program.
His personal image and self-worth were nearly destroyed by the experience. Although he was considered a "behavioral problem," he was later tested and found to have an IQ of 120. But he had been treated as if he had an IQ of 80.
It was during this depressing period in his life that theater and acting succeeded in bringing him out of his shell. He discovered the excitement in entertaining others.
One thing he did gain from the special education experience, Aston says, is an empathy for others -- especially for those who some people may be quick to judge as "weird" or "strange."
Although he was involved in several Halloween endeavors, such as a March of Dimes fund-raiser in Utah County (as "Warden Dagger" in a haunted house in the old Utah County Jail), Aston recently decided to drop his Halloween antics.
"I'd prefer to do positive performing rather than negative. That's why I've switched to 'Mr. Manakin.'"
Aston insists he is not a mime. He doesn't do skits. He simply re-creates the mechanical movements that a mannequin would make.
The team of Shields and Yarnell are his heroes, and he also credits an actor named "Jomo," who does a similar robotics routine at the Hollywood Wax Museum, with encouraging him along the way.
His skill at doing stuntwork includes rollerskating pratfalls.
Aston has never had any formal theatrical training. He's picked up his various routines by educating himself and watching others.
Last year he went to Southern California because he had learned of a possible job opening. The job he was looking for didn't pan out, so he obtained work in a Photon laser game at Universal Studios.
Since it was a non-speaking role with no public contact, he was able to get the non-union job, but Aston was frustrated. He's "a very public person" and he was admonished not to get involved with the public in the Photon display. But, he said, he was always getting in trouble because of his penchant for mingling with the public.
At Universal, he was still experimenting with his robot movements. Because there was another Dave on the Photon team, Aston went by his middle name, Ray, which eventually gave way to the nickname Raybot.
Rick Taylor, founder of Taylor Maid Beauty Supply, gave Aston his first job as a robotlike mannequin, helping promote his stores at three local malls. At that time, he called himself "Mr. Classy," but someone at the 49th Street Galleria suggested he change his moniker to "Mr. Manakin."
The latter name, Aston says, has biblical roots as a phrase that translates, roughly, into "a friend to all mankind," which is what Aston hopes he is.
Like most struggling actors, Aston has drifted from one job to another. He's done his "Mr. Manakin" performance for Clark's Travel & Tuxedo during the recent Bridal Fair at the Salt Palace (and receiving his own tux in return.) But Aston would like to find a more fulfilling outlet in the theater, where he can work creatively in bringing out the talent in others.
Aston, who's home base is Provo, charges $10 an hour for his "Mr. Manakin" gigs. He can be reached at 377-1971.
Aston's other interests are history and genealogy. His big dream, he said, is to be a tour guide specializing in Utah tours. He has a Class E chauffeur's license, which would permit him to taxi visitors around the region in a limousine, explaining the various sites.
Later this year he plans to tour Britain to record several ancestral sites on videotape for his family. He feels that "video genealogy" would be of interest to young people, who could be shown the areas where their ancestors came from and gain a more graphic understanding of their past.
Aston gained quite a bit of hands-on experience as a videocamera operator during a brief stint at Comcast, a public access cable TV studio near Pontiac, Mich., recently. He found that he has a natural instinct for creative video photography.
But, until some of his other options open up, Aston enjoys putting on his makeup, donning his tuxedo and slipping into his "Mr. Manakin" role.
So, if you see this classy-looking mannequin near a storefront -- and it suddenly playfully winks at you -- don't be shocked. It's just Mr. Manakin at work.