Monday, May 4, 2009

Of Mice and Monkeys

Gorillas don’t like Spider-Man.

I can’t speak for other primates, but I know for certain that gorillas don’t like Spider-Man.

I was in New Hampshire at Benson’s Wild Animal Farm, a family-owned and -run zoo and amusement park that I was shocked to recently discover had closed its gates in 1987. That would mean that my Spider-Man appearance occurred during its final months of operation. At the time I was excited, because I took field trips to Benson’s as a kid through a program at the playground in Manchester-by-the-Sea where my family spent their summers and loved the park. Unlike today’s combination amusement park/animal safaris, Benson’s retained a warmth, charm and hospitality.

Although small, Benson’s had all the features of a larger park, sans the acres of cement. There were rides, games, food, souvenir shops and wild animals, but on a smaller scale. They also gave as much consideration to the grounds as they did the amusements. Everything was nestled amongst towering conifers, expansive picnic areas and natural flora. Visitors were neither mugged by lights and noise as they entered, nor were their feet assaulted by an endless sea of hard tarmac. Also, while the park’s rides were decent and entertaining, they didn’t have the cutting edge, supersonic, inverted, double twister, zero gravity, triple loop-de-loop, mega-ones that were being installed in other parks. Unfortunately, these unique and appealing features were most likely what led to Benson’s eventual downfall.

I was appearing as Spider-Man, one weekend, little realizing I would be joining another superhero cartoon character. Mighty Mouse and the Terrytoons stable of characters had become the park’s mascots—the way the Peanuts characters are for Knott’s Berry Farm in California; and Bugs Bunny and the Warner Brothers Merrie Melodies characters are for the Six Flags Adventure Parks across the country—in the years since I last visited the park in my early teens. What’s more, Benson’s featured a Mighty Mouse Playhouse, an adorable, little barn, set in a grassy lea with a raised proscenium thrusting from its faux barn doors. It’s the type of barn one envisions in those endearing classic MGM musicals, wherein Mickey Rooney inevitably cries out, “My Uncle’s got a barn,” to which Judy Garland replies “Let’s do a show!”

Twice a day, the “Mighty Mouse Players” performed a skit, which echoed the Mighty Mouse cartoons of yore. Oil Can Harry kidnapped Pearl Pureheart and Mighty Mouse would “come to save the day,” as made notable in his famous theme song, which in turn briefly regained prominence in an amusing, early Andy Kaufman routine. Another of the Terrytoons characters, Sour Puss, was also featured in the cast, although, in the cartoon shorts, his character played second fiddle to another named Gandy Goose, who was not represented. I can only assume that Sour Puss was perpetually terrified in these cartoons as the costume’s mask was designed with an expression of terror.

Contrary to Spider-Man, the Terrytoons characters were played by amateurs, specifically three local high school boys on summer hiatus. They took the job nonchalantly, figuring as far as summer jobs go, it was better than flipping burgers at McDonald’s. When I say “nonchalantly,” I don’t mean to imply that they didn’t work hard or portray their characters accurately. They simply were as relaxed as beanbag chairs, kidding around as they dressed, even though they were portraying somewhat iconic characters themselves.

Yet, they were impressed with the visiting professional Spider-Man from New York City. There were a lot of “Cools!” and “Awesomes!” as they pummeled me with questions about being the world-famous Web-Slinger. They fawned over the costume, all of which embarrassed me. Comparatively, they certainly were making peanuts. Yet, they were working as hard, if not harder than I was.

I dressed with them backstage. Surprisingly, they rotated costumes. It was no big deal for them to don a costume that one of their colleagues had worn and sweated in the day prior or even during a earlier performance that day. On one occasion, one of them did let out a pronounced “Ew, this one’s due for a cleaning!” Then, he put it on and didn’t say a word about it the rest of the day. This also meant that they all knew each other’s parts. Granted, it wasn’t Shakespeare and it was only a ten-minute skit, but it’s worth noting nonetheless. And since, there were no women amongst them, a man played Mighty Mouse’s love interest Pearl Pureheart. Again, there were no complaints. On the contrary, one of them announced “I think I’ll play Pearl today for a change,” and that was it.

There wasn’t a director and the owners of Benson’s left me in the hands of Mighty Mouse and his friends to work out Spider-Man’s integration in the show. Management’s trust was well-founded. These high school kids were more professional than most professionals I’d worked with. And, blessedly, less vain and emotional. There were none of the dramatic ego-clashes synonymous with actors left to direct themselves; no one was whining or pouting over their ideas not being heard, or storming off because their staging—which was obviously better than anyone else’s—was not being considered never mind used. The teens’ approach was practical, pragmatic and economical—they retained the entire production, adding Spider-Man’s entrance during the show’s final moments. It took minutes and didn’t even need to be rehearsed.

The show itself was approximately ten minutes long, comparable to the average length of an animated short. Mighty Mouse’s arch-nemesis Oil Can Harry abducts the valorous vermin’s paramour Pearl Pureheart—with the help of a dim-witted sidekick Sour Puss—sets a trap, from which Mighty Mouse escapes; and a crazy chase ensues, at the end of which Pearl is rescued, and both villain and accomplice are confronted. The restaged ending: with Oil Can Harry and Sour Puss’s back to the upstage barn-door entrance as they face off against Mighty Mouse, I slink in and tap the feebleminded felons on the shoulder. Seeing Spider-Man, Oil Can Harry and Sour Puss drop to their knees, kiss my feet and beg for mercy. Of course, there are no punches thrown—this was a family show, after all. Mercy is granted and everyone descends from the stage and greets the audience.

While Mighty Mouse and I remained sedate, as our characters demanded, Oil Can Harry and Sour Puss played like puppies. They ran around, wrestled, even climbed trees. Yes, climbed trees. Wearing costumes similar to those worn by the bipedal characters on Sesame Street or at Disneyland—with oversized heads and enormous feet—they actually climbed trees. And they were hysterical. I got so caught up watching their antics that I forgot that I was working. I also had to remind myself that they were not trained actors. Yet, they imbued their characters with such life, I could almost hear the voices, though their every movement was pantomimed. I’ve overseen Marvel character auditions and witnessed professional actors “dissolve into a dew” after donning the webbed red-and-blue. These “kids” were amazing puppeteers. They were one of the best troupe of performers I’d ever worked with; no egos, no whining, gut-wrenchingly funny and talented.

What does this have to do with Spider-Man-hating gorillas? Not far from the performance barn, was the gorilla house, wherein Colossus, a 500-pound silverback gorilla was kept. Unfortunately, Benson’s animal accommodations were not ideal. Most animals were pent up in small caged areas. There were some animals which had larger areas, because their size demanded it. The African rhinoceros, for example, had large ranch-like quarters with room to run around. Still, the facilities were a far cry from the facilities provided for the animals at the San Diego Zoo or Bronx Zoo. Colossus had it worst of all. First, he was alone, no others of his kind to play with. Second, he was trapped in a room, no bigger than 20 x 20 feet, surrounded on three sides with plexiglass walls. The room was housed in a larger facility, so the ape never saw the sun or breathed fresh air. There was the prerequisite tire swing and that was it. The only item missing was the Samsonite Luggage.

During a lull, I bounded to the Gorilla House in my Spider-Man suit to take a peek. Upon seeing me, Colossus quite literally went ape. He bounced off his walls, punched the glass, swung the tire in a fury, roared and pounded his chest, all in an attempt to get at Spider-Man. I do not doubt that had he escaped he would have ripped off every one of my appendage and then used my head as a soccer ball. I was terrified and quickly left. I trepidatiously returned later when out of costume, but the gorilla was nonplused. Call it naïveté or stupidity, but I was seriously concerned that Colossus would recognize me and explode in a frenzy of anger again.

I’m sure a zoologist could offer a logical explanation for the gorilla’s insane behavior, but I figured he was just more of a Superman fan.


Mike Koutrobis said...

Someone just sent me this and I remember it very well, since I was one of the high school kids. Thanks for the great memory

Eric Snyder said...

I was one of the other high school kids!! I couldn't have written that any better. thank you for bringing back great memories!

Anonymous said...

Heh. Colossus (or Tony as known by us behind the scenes) was rather picky in those he liked/disliked. He did not like women, nor anyone with dark hair. It may have been the dark colors on the Spider-Man outfit or perhaps the over large eyes that set him off.

Note: After the park closed, Pat Quinn (head zoologist) brought Tony down to the panhandle of Florida to "The Zoo" where he had a much larger enclosure, then he went to the Cincinnati Zoo where lived until 2006.

LPC, Former Rides Operator.

Skip Bothwick said...

Colossus or Tony as he will always be known to me was an extremely smart primate. He recognized our Benson's uniforms and always made a scene when we came by. If you weren't paying attention to him, he was also vain, you could bet that some object would come flying out from his cage to smack against the plexiglass right by your head. Most times it was fecal matter which would always draw a shriek from the girls and giggles from the boys who were standing around. Article brings back lots of fond memories, I worked there from 68 to 72 every summer. Where else could you get a job at 14 and earn $1.35 an hour and get paid in cash every week. What fun, THANKS!

Vroom! said...

Mike, Eric...

I'm gobsmacked to hear from you guys and beaming that you enjoyed my retelling of our adventure.

Working with you was one of the most fun experiences of my "acting" career. And Benson's was a dear childhood memory that was greatly enhanced by it.


Vroom! said...


Thanks for the update on Colossus.

He may not have liked me much, but I loved that big gorilla, and was happy to hear that he moved to a bigger facility and lived a long life!