My Daddy was a Gorilla by Charlie’s daughter Diana.
Charlie had by now (1944) established himself as one of Hollywood’s foremost gorilla impersonators. With monies from being a make-up pioneer, movie set designer, portrait painter to the Stars of Hollywood, sculptor extraordinaire, gambler etc., he had built a beautiful home on top of the Hollywood Hills. Sitting all by it’s self on the long crest of a ridge, overlooking Hollywood and Vine with sweeping views from Long Beach to Malibu on one side, the Hollywood Lake and Hollywoodland sign were on the other. We owned the entire ridge of about nine lots. A ready made bank, Charlie would sell off one at a time as he needed financing for his inventions and gambling ventures. Every prefix had “Hollywood” in it, from the phone to Zip, I was born a true Hollywood Movie Child.
This beautiful home had a major quirk, a gorilla head and it’s accompanying body resided “somewhere” in the lower bowels of the house. Hidden from view and secreted so I wouldn’t know where, my fear was very great. Somehow Charlie and Isabel thought by hiding Mr. Gorilla, I wouldn’t be so afraid. WRONG!! The mystery only fed it.
There was one more quirk that encouraged a small child’s fear. The house had small draft points that made it howl, even if there was only a small breeze. That eerie low whistle, that nostalgic, bittersweet feeling you get when a plane flies over, this all adds up to the power of “make believe” coming to life in the mind of an impressionable child.
It is also a tribute to the fact that Hollywood loved to reflect itself in the lives of those who worked within it. Hollywood in the forties could be likened to a tribal country, The Studios were the tribes and the departments were the clans, they were very tight knit and had running practical jokes between each other, I was inculcated into this culture from birth.
I have so many studio memories because my early childhood was spent on the Lot. My Mom & Dad separated for awhile when I was one to three years old, the Body Make-up Ladies and Hairdressers took care of me every day and I was virtually at the lot from that point on, unless I was at school. I was Charlie’s Studio companion and Lab apprentice. In those days you brought your kids on the job and they hung around if they weren’t in the way. Of course, you had to be Charlie to get away with it the way we did. It was the circumstance of the Lab’s isolation and the freedom of having it to ourselves. I grew up with over 300 plaster cast movie star heads and monsters, special effects and make-up supplies. It was GLORIOUS FUN!!!.
There were only me and my brother Pat, totally alone up on that hill. We played games that lasted days and as we got older the favorite was Flash Gordon going to Mars or Venus or just joy riding in space. Using the home lab, we grew up reclusive and inward bound. Pat was never interested in going to the Studio.
My brother Pat has a photographic memory and he was “dragged” to the studio by my Dad who wanted him to apprentice and become a make-up man. All he was interested in was how things worked, he’s a genius and his interests were in physics and programming. Pat went on to work for IBM and was lent to JPL/NASA where he helped program the Voyager Space Probes and bring back Apollo 13.
Charlie would take Pat and a few Britannica’s to the studio and get pools going up to $500. He’d have anyone choose any page and paragraph – my brother could rattle it off.
As often as Charlie could convince us, he’d have me and my brother Pat sleeping with him out under the stars on chaise lounges hoping to catch a glimpse of a meteor or shooting star. He had built an observation deck up on the roof of the house and every night we’d all go up and each face a different direction to try and fulfill his ‘goal in life’ of seeing a UFO – he never did.
To test Charlie’s latest special effect I was relentlessly enlisted, against my will, as the ‘fear factor’. I was the scream-o-meter for Charlie’s latest horror, he would experiment on me with tricks he thought up to see if his newest idea was scary enough. I dreaded when he was busy, I never knew what was going to hit me in the face, around the legs, pull me up or down or just bap me all over. Never knew where or when and guess what? He really managed to scare me so much of the time I had nightmares, but in my nightmares someone was always trying to kill the monsters and that’s what “really” scared me.
On returning from a date when I was sixteen, Charlie rigged the lights so I couldn’t turn them on. The idea was for me to grope in the dark and run into his newly made shrunken heads “Skulls of Jonathan Drake” (1959). He went to a lot of trouble to hang and line them up right at face level, forget if I had been wild on my date, it’s how loud would I scream. There was always something wild and scary lurking around the corner, in my case it was real.
Of course the practical bonus was that all my classmates thought there was something ‘so strange’ about me. This allowed me to be left alone, even though I was the class mouse just waiting to picked on. At my 50th grammar school class reunion the biggest memory for a classmate was being given a ride by us on his way to school. It was pouring rain and we put him in the back seat with the full Gorilla suit just sitting there nonchalantly like an ordinary person. We didn’t say a word about it and neither did he till 50 years later. Now that’s a memorial tribute!
The fun bonuses were spending every available moment at the studio with Charlie, using the home and studio labs as playgrounds, playing practical jokes with leftovers from the workings of some special effect. When Pat and I were teenagers, we were always scheming to sneak out the Gorilla suit for some plan or other. I especially remember the blood latex pancakes from the mould drippings of I think “Spacemaster X-7″ (1958). We had great fun placing them on the chairs of my Mom’s tea guests after they got up from being, “Oh! So dainty”.
The boxes that held the Gorilla head and the separate one that held the body were objects unto their own. Just to look at them all closed up, locked and bound by straps, had the portent of ominous contents. The wooden box that housed the head had a flip-down flap in the front that folded half open like a Dutch oven door, it perfectly displayed the head like a macabre trophy turned object d’art. The body box was made of shiny hard trunk material, it needed 2 wide cloth belts with huge buckles, you just ‘knew’ there had to be a headless body in there!
Charlie was said to have made and lost a million dollars seven times before the depression. He was first and foremost a gambler and secondly an inventor, then a Studio technician, Artist in residence. Studio blood, latex whipped soft to duplicate skin, (still used today in prosthetics today), lipstick mirrors, first Kleenex tissue box, cement paint to look like stone (Surfazon), a bubble to make the first B&W TV’ s give a color illusion. He starred as the gorilla in the first 3-D film, “Bwana Devil and I have his first draw-up for the first 3-D patent. I don’t know who took the credit for that, but they let him be star. He had many other inventions.
My favorite childhood memories involve being my Dad’s “apprentice” – a willing appendage for my first 12 years. Starting at the age of three I cleaned his brushes and kept the clay wet. It evolved into every aspect of special effects and mad “goings on” at the Home Lab and Studio. This was where he experimented and invented.
This meant I was also his road companion and he took me everywhere. We trekked from the wrestling arena to following the race track circuit. We would spend hours at the zoo watching the apes and monkeys. He would jump up and down making ape and monkey AAGHS. He’d imitate what they did and cause a huge commotion.
Watching the Silents was his favorite way to spend an evening. There were two theatres that showed a lot of Charlie Chaplin. He’d watch the same film over and over to catch the movements. I feel this helped with the incredible eye emotion he could get with no facial movement in the gorilla suit. Also the idea of using exaggeration for movement, which helped me in stunt doubling later.
I was with Charlie on different occasions when we would go to as many as two studios in one day so he could trouble-shoot a scar or an aging job. He worked on so many pix he mostly didn’t even know the name, only the Stage number. The presidents of Paramount all had special soft spots in their hearts for Charlie – his lab was the funniest place on the lot.
We would vacation with Frank Freeman Jr., the president of Paramount Pictures and have these incredible beach parties on Rosarita Beach in Baha. Charlie would build marvelous sand statues and we’d stay into the night playing instruments and singing as we’d watch them wash away. Charlie loved to bring his guitar, he played many instruments by ear but loved the guitar best. He’d serenade us till the fire went out, at home too.
Those nights at home out on the patio in front of our BarBQ which was built to look like a volcano, were wondrous guitar nights with the city lights twinkling below, the fire cackling, the pool illumined, the waterfalls tinkling down meandering riverlets, Charlie singing Spanish serenades…
As I got older my jobs were prepping monsters, mixing and baking latex, keeping up his personal Special Effects Make-up Lab. There was no special department for effects in those days, only the Prop and Make-up Departments. I did this until I became a Stand-in and Stunt double for children at age 18.
I was with Walt Disney Studio for the four and a half years that covered the time immediately after Walt’s death. The Studio staff and crews decided I was going to be their “Lucky Piece” after Walt’s passing. I was in every “Kodak World of Color”, every movie and every filmed TV show, even if for only one day, from the day I started until I suddenly retired at 31.
I was given the run of the Studio, my own bike and chair and I could use my camera ‘anywhere’, which nobody else was allowed to do. I could go into any department anytime and even Bill Walsh of Mary Poppins, Lovebug fame, gave me permission to walk into his office anytime. I walked with the Ghost of Walt. I left the Industry with Bill Walsh’s enthusiastic encouragement.
The funniest thing is that no one was allowed to curse in front of me. I eventually found out that it was written in all of their contracts. Can you imagine having the run of The Walt Disney Studio? I was the envy of the Industry, but certainly didn’t see it that way at the time. Every small, beautiful young thing was hoping I’d break something so they could take my place. I lived in a converted market two blocks away on Olive Avenue, I’d just ride my bike doorstep to Stage door. I took thousands of slides, which are all in the ‘lost history’ department. How I left Disney and watching all the power plays makes an interesting story. I’ll tell you one thing, Walt’s spirit is NOT happy about the state of his earthly kingdom. He hated any exploitation, especially around the Disney name or around the Anaheim Park. Can you imagine what he would think of what they’ve done in his name! Not…..
I also witnessed the tearing down of the Studio system. From being Disneys’ Lucky Piece after Walt’s death to walking the deserted MGM lot. Stages open with the wind whistling and all the props lined up on giant floats with numbers attached. I was working on Donald Sutherland’s first starring movie “Alex in Wonderland” (1968) and, being an Independent film company, Paul Maszersky had rented space so we were the only people on the lot. It was eerie, it gave me the dark shivers… It hit home… it was all over…
It all came full circle. The whistling of the wind as a first memory for me as a small child and as the last memory for The Industry. Not too many years earlier I had heard Jimmy Durante and Doris Day practicing in the rehearsal hall, passing the dancers in costume, the sound and feel of the wooden boardwalks that were under long verandas the length of the buildings. Stars walking around like ordinary working people. There’s a sweet melancholia to it, seeing it all empty, to be replaced with high rise condo’s. Bye Bye Hollywood….
I’d beg the family to fold up the Crap table in the kitchen, back to being the hidden eating table it was supposed to be, so my friends would not be horrified to see how we lived. Just forget meals together. Here’s the rub, Charlie ended up enlisting all my boyfriends to be involved in gambling trips to Vegas to “beat” the Roulette Wheel, leaving me behind.
The Whiz Kid who broke the bank in Vegas and wrote “The Velvet Jungle” stayed with us, along with his French mistress, while Charlie tried to change his appearance without having to undergo surgery. He carried a gun and a money belt with 25 G’s, quite impressionable in those days. He was banned from the gaming tables, Cuba to Las Vegas, but couldn’t carry off a disguise because of a distinguishing limp. Those were exciting times.
Besides the fold out kitchen table, our coffee table was a standard lowered Roulette table, wheel and all. Charlie and Belle, trying to save this very heavy wheel during the Hollywood Hills fire of 1961, was, in my opinion, partly responsible for his early passing in August of that year. It was more important than anything else, gambling was part of the M.O. to the end.
Every moment not on an invention or at the Studio we were at the race tracks, Hollywood Park to Tijuana was our circuit. The most fun was the train ride to Del Mar. There are too many funny stories around these adventures. He even came up with a horse liniment to get to the stables and the tips. I still have some of that stuff. The day I got my driver’s license he threw me the keys to his new Mercury and had me drive him to Santa Anita, quite a distance for a novice driver.
We were regulars at the Olympic Stadium wrestling matches and he knew all the great wrestlers of the day. Gorgeous George, The Blimp, Mr. Moto, et al, they were great and wonderful people. They had showmanship and flair without that steroid style.
Charlie loved the Jai Lai games, and again, we knew all the players especially from Argentina. They would stay with us in Hollywood and showed us how to practice in the empty pool. My brother Pat and I had our own personalized baskets and got in plenty of very hurtful playing, even with tennis balls.
What many people have lost sight of is Charlie’s influence on the make-up industry and his many achievements. “Studio blood” that didn’t stain, homogenized make-up, first Kleenex box, whipped latex that felt spongy like skin, on and on…
The film era from the twenties to the sixties and the incredible demand for real ‘hands on’ artists from every strata, reminds us that there was a period of filmmaking in those decades that gloried in the patronage of movie moguls. They doted on any person of talent, crazy artists who would have floundered in any other century, came of age in this era. We’ll never see the like of it again. Exceptional artisans of various talents in sculpting, painting, building sets, lighting, camera, authors, poets and journalists were enlisted entirely on raw talent and the films showed it. It was a glorious renaissance of art, this will be recognized in historical hindsight.
Now the ‘film’ itself is the form, then, it was the accumulation of ideas from multi-talents that added up to jewel-like results, each facet to be examined for it’s own sake. You can check out old films like you listen to an orchestra, each layer can be judged on it’s own merit, the lighting, the sets, the writing, each a new revelation.
I sing the praises of those days because they deserve it, it reflected a time of what America stood for, talent, opportunity and great good luck. Somehow, and most assuredly sure, is the fact that all the folks who hold a living knowledge of those days should be nurtured and their stories brought forth. Trumpet the triumphs of what really incorporates the totality of THE AMERICAN ARTIST…
It’s my job to trumpet the talents of my dad Charlie, he held the unique position of covering every layer of talent I mentioned. My love for the genre is bottomless and it is my wish to have the great good luck of helping to preserve the legacy of at least one grand story….
He was ‘not’ King Kong and never, never claimed to be. He ‘did’ do all the close-up models, ie: hand, face, eye’s and small models for people, dinosaurs, sets and etc.
He was voted “Top Banana of the 20th Century”, quite a distinction that I cannot add to. We were born one day apart, on June 14th & 15th, I still feel less than a day away from him. Love you Charlie Gemora.
Diana Isabel Gemora Fox Jones