“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.