Kiersten Calvert walked up to the seated rabbit and waved, but when The Easter Bunny waved back, the youngster stopped in her tracks. Keeping her eyes on the rabbit, Kiersten backed slowly into the leaves of a potted plant. After regaining her footing, she moved backward off The Easter Bunny's photo set.
The Easter Bunny didn't move.
Other children treated The Easter Bunny as if he were an old friend: Four-year-old Bryan Gernhardt Jr.'s dimples were deep in a smile as he approached the rabbit. When The Easter Bunny lifted him to his lap, Bryan appeared elated.
"He was soft," Bryan said afterward, clutching the coloring book The Easter Bunny gave him. "I visit him every year at the mall."
Over the course of the morning, the rabbit handed out more than four dozen coloring books. In return, he got one raw carrot, a gift from a little girl.
Usually, The Easter Bunny said, he gets pacifiers.
"The mothers push them into (giving them up)," he said.
Margo Vaynman, The Easter Bunny's photographer, often had parents move to the side of her camera to help coax the children into smiling. For the younger subjects, Vaynman squeaked a large orange bone or played peek-a-boo. Sometimes she jumped up and down.
Vaynman, who works for IPI WorldWide Photography, tells the parents of infants to quickly place the baby on The Easter Bunny's lap and walk out of the frame. Often, the shot of a baby taken before the child realizes what's happening is the best one, she said.
It wasn't unusual for babies to stare ? mouth open ? at The Easter Bunny's face. The squeak of Vaynman's toy would break the stare for only a second, but Vaynman was quick.
Some parents tried to barter with their uncooperative children: "If you don't give a big smile, we can't watch a movie when we get home," one dad coerced his daughter, who responded by slightly turning up the corners of her lips as the bulb flashed.
The Easter Bunny said that, since he doesn't speak to the children, they don't often ask him for anything. When they do ask questions or tell him stories, he always listens.
"They don't ask for chocolate bunnies or jelly beans anymore. It's iPods and the games for video games," he said. "What happened to the Easter basket?"
Beneath the suit
The Easter Bunny got dressed and took short breaks in a drywalled back room of the mall. Stacks of cardboard boxes filled with furry bunny mittens and photo handouts lined the walls, a smiling female bunny head shell perched atop the highest stack. A few pairs of rabbit feet were lined up on the floor of the small, humid room.
The Easter Bunny, as it turns out, also is Santa Claus.
On this day, Vernon Davis doused his shoulders with baby powder and slipped a full-body suit of white faux fur over his tank top and jersey shorts. Placing his black shoes to the side, Davis sat on a set of unfinished steps to slip on a pair of white rabbit feet, which were more than twice the size of his own.
At that point, only partially in costume, he appeared to be a little bit Easter Bunny and a little bit Santa.
The 67-year-old man shaves his bright white beard right after Christmas, but begins growing it again on March 1. With only a little more than a month's worth of growth, Davis could have played Kris Kringle on this day.
The corners of his mustache curled, framing his florid, bespectacled face. His Santa-like stature remains the same year-round.
"The Easter Bunny isn't as popular as Santa Claus is," said the half-costumed Davis.
The father of two and grandfather of seven has years of practice with children. As Santa Claus, Davis said, he can speak with the children, who show far less fear of him when he's wearing the red suit.
"Santa Claus carries the conversation," he said. "You get very little out of them as The Easter Bunny."
Davis was reluctant to portray The Easter Bunny for that very reason.
As Santa, Davis said, "They tell me about grandma and grandpa. I wish Daddy would spend Christmas with us ... You definitely get involved."