Saturday, August 18, 2012

GORILLA MY DREAMS



I had a blast watching the original PLANET OF THE APES on the big screen at the Paramount last night. Charlton Heston was a honey-baked ham of an actor but he's great in this genre classic. Here are my thoughts and memories of this durable film and the industry it spawned.

The first time I heard about a movie called PLANET OF THE APES was seeing the one-sheet poster in the lobby of the State Theater on Congress Avenue. The year was either 1967 or 1968. There was no Internet then, no readily available source for news and information about upcoming movies. Our one source for the straight dope on new "monster" movies was FAMOUS MONSTERS. I do recall that Forry Ackerman ran some articles about the film (although the original film wasn't cover featured, that honor fell to BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES). But I remember that these articles, which focused mainly on the amazing make-up by John Chambers, ran after I had already seen the film.

I saw PLANET OF THE APES as a first run film at the State Theater. It blew my mind. I never saw that ending coming. It stayed with me for days. I decided to read the novel (originally published as MONKEY PLANET) by Pierre Boulle. I struggled my way through most of it but it was so totally different than the movie (and slightly over my seventh-grade reading ability), that I didn't enjoy it. I have a copy of it on my shelf and one of these I'm going to tackle it again and read it from an adult perspective.

Oddly enough, there never was a comic book adaptation of PLANET OF THE APES published when the film was new. Dell and Gold Key Comics both did regular comic book adaptations of films and they were usually pretty good. Gold Key did publish a comic book version of BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES and that issue is a highly-prized collector's item, especially if it still contains the poster that was originally included within the comic.

Marvel Comics acquired the rights to publish a POTA black-and-white magazine in the mid-'70s. This magazine, which sported gorgeous painted covers, ran an original story set on the Planet of the Apes in the front of the book, several articles about the films and graphic adaptations of the original films. Finally, a comic book version of the original POTA, with art by one of my favorite comic book artists, George Tuska.

Of course, we can't forget KAMANDI, THE LAST BOY ON EARTH,  the post-disaster science fiction comic book series that Jack Kirby produced for DC Comics. It's a terrific series, full of high adventure and wild concepts and it was clearly inspired by the success of the POTA films (see the cover of the first issue!). Kirby is my all-time favorite comic book artist and I love everything he did. KAMANDI, which is currently being published in handsome hardcover collections, is highly recommended.

Meanwhile, back at the movies. The POTA cinematic franchise continued with BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES. I saw this one at the old Fox Theater on Airport Blvd the summer it was released. I was in junior high at the time and it was a big deal, a highly anticipated movie event which should have written an end to the series (the planet is destroyed at the end of the movie). But the box office take was too good to stop making monkey movies and a third film, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES was produced.

In this one, Zira and Cornelius escape the destruction of the planet at the end of BENEATH in a spaceship that takes them back to present day earth where their child, Baby Milo, becomes the progenitor of the whole intelligent ape species. Just thinking about this time paradox makes my head hurt. I didn't see ESCAPE at the theater. Instead, I caught it one Friday night on the CBS LATE MOVIE.

Two more films followed, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. My interest in POTA had pretty much died by the time these lesser efforts were released and to this day, I've never seen these films in their entirety. I do recall that all five APES films used to run in dusk-to-dawn marathons at drive-in theaters (remember them?) around town. They were promoted with the tag line "Go Ape!" but I never worked up the enthusiasm to sit through them all.

There was an animated POTA Saturday morning cartoon series that ran on NBC for one season and I remember seeing a few episodes. And there was a prime time POTA series on Friday nights on CBS but I don't think I ever watched it. POTA also spawned model kits, action figures and other toys (which are highly prized by fans) but I never bought any of them.

My closest brush with POTA fame and fortune came at one of the first comic book conventions held in Austin in the late '70s. These conventions were the brainchild of Jay Knowles, who owned and operated the first back-issue comic book shop in Austin, the legendary N.E. Mercantile Company. The store was housed in a small building on North Lamar right next door to the fabled Terminex Bug building (it was across the street from the Tavern at 12th at Lamar).

The first few conventions were held at the old Gondolier Hotel (Riverside and IH-35). I volunteered to work at the cons and I had a great time. A featured guest one year was a stunt man (and forgive me, I don't recall the gentleman's name), who had worked in POTA as a gorilla solider. He still had the long sleeved tunic, the leather vest, the bandolier, the pants, the two-toed boots and braided leather whip that he used in the film and he brought them with him to the convention. He also had a mass produced POTA gorilla full-head mask.

I forget whose idea it was but at some point it was decided that I should don this get up and wander around the hotel giving guests ape attitude as a swaggering gorilla enforcer. Believe it or not, the clothes all fit me then and the stunt man blackened up the areas around my eyes and my neck and slipped the mask over my head. I must confess, I made a pretty good gorilla and for a brief time, I wore a costume that was actually used in the film.

I recall hanging out with the stunt man by the pool later, drinking beer and listening to  stories about his career. If anyone reading this can recall this gentleman's name (I seem to remember that he was later killed while performing a stunt in a film), please let me know. He deserves to be properly remembered.

The gorilla suit wasn't my only brush with playing dress-up at one of those comic book conventions. At the next year's con, I was coerced into wearing a full-body Godzilla suit that someone had made out of foam rubber. I had to strip down to my tighty-whiteys to get into the thing, which was like wearing a full body sauna. I had to have help walking around the convention (I could hardly see anything out of a small slit in the neck) and by the time I got out, I was soaking wet with sweat. I don't know who wore the suit after me but I sure hope they gave it a good hosing down.

1 comment:

  1. I believe the stunt man's last name was Carruthers.

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