“A Chimp for All Seasons”

clip from New York magazine with a chimpanzee "smiling" while wearing a zebra-print robe
“Brief Lives,” New York Magazine

One thing that is hard about documenting the lives of famous apes (especially those who are/were famous as performers) is the way that we conflate character, stage name, and animal. We see “Cheeta,” “Zippy,” or “Marcel,” not the individual animal (or more likely animals) who were used to create the stage effect.

Each of these beloved characters were created using a “troupe” of performers who together create an illusion of an animal that is smarter than the rest or more tame, even when it’s an obvious fiction.

Zippy, the Chimpanzee–a beloved character appearing in state fairs, commercials, and on late-night television programs in both the 1950s and the 1980s–is a perfect example of this. Here, in this interview, the Krevenses attempt to sell the public on a “new Zippy,” rebooting the brand from its 1950s beloved iteration and documenting the Zippy-effect (in which one character is played by many animals).

(The original Zippy was owned by Lee Ecuyer. More on them both soon! This Zippy enters the scene in the 1980s when the Krevenses apparently answered an ad placed in the Village Voice in 1980 by Ecuyer. In the ad, Ecuyer offered free rent in a large Long Island home in return for care of a chimpanzee. Another source suggests that this was a common tactic used by the Ecuyers, perhaps as a way to care for some of the aging Zippys).

As this article makes clear, this is not the same Zippy. It is in fact most likely Jade, a creature born in Colorado in captivity in 1980. The article emphasizes that Zippy/ Jade is only four years old. He/she is thus like the beloved Zippy of the past (rollerskates!) but for a new generation. This Zippy is modern, wearing leopard print robes, appearing on Letterman and Carson (#26.50), and hawking cutting-edge 1980s security technologies.

four images of a chimpanzee wearing a red sweater while on the Late Show with David Letterman (drinks coffee, holds a microphone, swings from a rope, and sits and looks at Letterman)
Jade, as “Zip” on “Late NIght with David Letterman” in 1986

The magazine’s narrative of a “new-and-improved” Zippy also offers a glimpse into the realities of the industry (for the animals and also for the humans). Most production companies hire handlers who use chimpanzee infants, often with their teeth removed. These animals are then “retired” in early adolescence when they become unruly and potentially violent to human actors on set.

(One narrative I found explicitly mentions one of these “older” zippys: Al Boscov, a fan of the 1950s-Zippy, wanted to hire one of the 1980s-Zippys for a store opening in Philadelphia. But when the younger Zippy cancelled due to illness, he asked his team to hire a replacement Zippy, any one of them as long as the chimpanzee could rollerskate. A handler with an adult chimpanzee showed up for the opening, as big as Al Boscov. The chimp performed, purportedly terrifying children and parents; after the show, the handler locked the creature in a hotel room (supposedly to go to a bar) where it ripped the toilet from the wall and destroyed the wallpaper. Boscov paid the hotel for the damages.)

In short, there are many Zippys.

My bet is that most ended sadly and tragically. Jade’s does: in 1988, the Krevenses sued the Ecuyers in small claims court for $1975, apparently to cover the cost of diapers and food as negotiated in a custody agreement the prior year. (In an article, Krevens claimed that Jade ate mostly fruits and vegetables, but that she also loved spaghetti, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, “which can amount to a rather costly bill.” They also reported that she used 8 disposable diapers a day).

They claimed that the Ecuyers proposed sending Jade to Missouri to a medical test facility. The Krevenses claimed to refuse and thus sued for financial support. The claim was settled for $918. The next source I could find places Jade in a rehabilitation facility for aging animal performers in Austin, TX (Peterson, Visions of Caliban). She had had her teeth removed and she had been given hormones to delay puberty (making her more pliable and perhaps also preserving the “cute” appearance of infants that audiences prefer). She died in 1990 at the age of 10 from an infection. The source emphasizes that Jade’s owners (the Ecuyers? The Krevenses?) loved her.

Jade’s story is just one part of this tale. The history of zippy is a rabbit-hole of late 20th-century Americana. It (so far) includes strip bars in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the 1950s, a trip to India in the late 1950s, and a brief appearance in the Iran-contra hearings of the 1980s; it moves through Life magazine, children’s bookscomic books, the Tonight show with Johnny Carson, state fairs, the late show with David Letterman, and (as outlined above) Boscov stores. Tomorrow, I hope to take up the origin myths.

“Anybody Want a Chimp?”

Debbie, a 4 year-old chimpanzee wears a sweater and holds a sign that says "My name is Debbie. I need a home and I am free. p.s. I'll work for you."
Debbie, a 4-year old chimp on the streets of Philadelphia

This morning, I was researching the history of “Zippy” the chimp, a famous television performer in the 1950s, known for “his” ability to roller skate. (“Zippy” is a stage name; the chimp was female and known by her handler as Jade). But in searching the archives for Zippy, I found Debbie.

This image is hard to process. One of the ways that we tell Zippy’s story is by emphasizing “his” talent and skill. Numerous youtube clips like this one and the popularity of this iconic image emphasize that his ability to roller-skate was unique. Yet here’s four-year-old Debbie, valued at $2000 (or $9100 in 2018 currency), offered for free by Norman Docktor.

(Norman Docktor is listed here as a “Philadelphia pet-store proprietor”) even though the Billings County Pioneer was published in Medora, North Dakota. My hunch is that this shop is linked to Docktor Pets, a popular chain of pet stores in suburban malls in the 1980s and 1990s; protestors accused these stores of cruelty. (Irv Docktor was an illustrator for his half-brother Milton’s pet stores; Norman may have been Milton’s brother.)

Debbie’s talent and her “cuteness” seems to have had little impact on her value. Her sign emphasizes that she “needs a home” and that she “will work for free.” I can’t find any other information about what happened to her, though Zippy’s own tale perhaps provides some clues. More on that soon, I hope.

Interested in other rollerskating chimps? Chick, these two, and Jerry (who is ice skating).

The Famous Ape

Photograph of a chimpanzee in grass holding right arm aloft in a gesture that looks like acting
Chimp Does Hamlet” (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

This is a place where I can share my research on a new book project, “The Famous Ape”. In it, I trace the long history of human-simian relationships from the renaissance to the modern era. My training is in Renaissance literature and some of you Shakespeare buffs out there may recognize that the title comes from Hamlet. In that play’s famous closet scene, Hamlet warns his mother not to be “like the famous ape,” who sought “to try conclusions.”

I love this line; it’s usually cut from most modern productions since it makes Hamlet sound, well, crazy. Despite his specificity (he uses the definite article) and his conviction that the lessons of this example are well known, no one seems to know a thing about the so-called “famous” ape. Gertrude leaves the scene convinced of Hamlet’s madness, and most critics do, too, glossing the line as one that signals Shakespeare’s willingness to abandon reason and inhabit the world of his characters.

I am taking a different approach; I’ve been tracing the forgotten history of various “famous apes” from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, all of whom were quite well known in their own time. These animals were used by humans to “try” a wide variety of conclusions about science, culture, and art, but they are now mostly forgotten and excluded from our histories of early modernity.

Each chapter focuses on a specific animal, tracing its history. Its my hope that read together, these tales point towards broader claims about the role of animals in shaping histories of art, culture, and science and the role of aping in shaping human categories of knowledge. But, at its heart, my argument is simple: these are extraordinary creatures, whose tales are worth telling. In short: Who are our famous apes and what are we learning from them before they, too, are forgotten?