With a few exceptions, many of the gorilla suit actors that populated cinema from it's inception up until the 1950's, are either nameless, or those that can be identified, what is known about them can be summed up in a few lines. Another aspect of Gorilla Men that remains an enigma, are the origins of their suits. Most bearers of furry formal wear came from a stunt man background - to cope with the stresses of wearing a suit that was always cumbersome and extremely hot, you had to be made of stern stuff. Charles Gemora was a breed apart, building his suits and constantly upgrading them. It is likely that early screen apes had their suits provided by a studio, or if they were an independent agent, it was built by an effects/makeup company. Which leads to the next question - who were the craftsmen who built these beasts?
Over two years ago I was in the early throes of my gorilla suit fascination. I would dedicate hours every night combing the web for anything of consequence. I was dumbstruck when I stumbled upon a unique image of an early suit in an unlikely venue. William Persona was a noted painter whose primary focus was circus clowns - his work is the subject of an interesting site, www.personaclowns.com. Accompanying the artist biography (an interview published in THE MAUI NEWS in 1983) were several pictures of scrap book pages, one of which caught my attention. Pasted together are a handful of images; a frontal shot of a gorilla suit behind a formal looking gentleman with glasses, a vacant gorilla mask and photos of a metal understructure with an articulated jaw. At that point I had seen only one other example of the headpiece mechanics, the Emil Van Horn piece in Bob Burns collection. I was terribly excited and quickly sent off an email to the site's author, who responded with an email address for Persona's surviving daughter.Naturally, I attempted to contact his offspring in the hopes that she could provide me with a more detailed scan and some background on the pictures. A number of days had passed (as I worried there would be no email at all) when she replied that she had been dealing with a family member’s passing and would get back to me soon. I felt like a bloody heel for my impatience - there is an immediacy to email that leads the sender to assume that a response should be generated almost automatically. When she was able to contact me again, I learned that the images on the Persona Clown site were from a scrapbook that William had created in his later years to document his experiences. Along with the gorilla suit stuff, there were also images of editorial cartoons he had sketched for an Australian newspaper, and photos of scenery he had designed and built while in Hollywood. When her father had passed away and the difficult task of sorting his belongings was underway, she saved the scrapbook pages from the trash. Unfortunately, she was unaware of any background on the images I had inquired about.
There was, however, another side to the page that was not on display at the clown site. Persona's daughter was appreciative of my interest in her father's work and generously offered to send me the page. I was absolutely floored. My budget had kept me from pursuing many gorilla suit items, like posters, pressbooks and stills, and here was an opportunity to hold something that had a direct relation to source of my obsession. Her package arrived in short order - she resides in the Pacific Northwest, a stone's throw from Victoria - and I was overjoyed to handle the page and examine it closely. On the 'B' side, William had pasted a large sketch of a gorilla's head, jaw agape with anger, another of a gorilla's skull, a photo of a torso and head sketch, and lastly, two segments from a photo of a local monkey house with a pair of great apes at rest in their habitat. Inspiration, exploration, implementation; all captured on a yellowing, slightly ragged scrapbook page. This is the gem of my humble collection, both real and virtual.
Much time has passed between that day I opened up that envelope and today. I had told Persona's daughter that I had high hopes of identifying the film the suit had appeared in and I would relay that information to her. Despite my regular Ebay trolling and emails to fellow suit enthusiasts nothing definitive was ever concluded about the suit and its origins. I was fortunate enough to exchange a couple emails with the Gorilla Suit Godfather, Bob Burns last year and he had this to say about the images:
One of my prize possessions is Emil's metal face armature. It is truly a torture device though. It was made by the same person who made Ray's (Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan) only his was larger. I've never been able to track down who the guy was that made those and since they're both gone I guess we'll never know. It's amazing that it looks very similar to the one that William Persona was wearing in one of the photos on his site. (I later clarified it was another individual in the armature) I'm sending you a scan of Emil's in this email.Gorilla pal and artist George Chastain had remarked on the striking similarities between the mask features and general shape to that of one used by Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan in DARKEST AFRICA. George recently grouped a trio of comparative photos that demonstrates this point clearly.
With my recent surge in contributions to Gorilla Men, I thought that an article featuring the page and the tale of its acquisition would make for an interesting story. It had been a while since I had handled the page or given it much thought - it has been stowed away in safe spot and parenthood has had me otherwise occupied. As I was chewing over what I wanted to say about Persona and his suit, I came across 3 items on the CLASSIC MONSTERS MESSAGE BOARD that drew my interest. In a thread about National Gorilla Suit Day, somebody had posted some links to tiny pics of a suit, headpiece and what appeared to be arm extensions. I had seen them some time ago but I had passed them over because of their diminutive size. I am marginally more computer savvy then when I saw them first - I realized that something was off with their link address. In a few minutes I was staring at large images of the gorilla suit that I believed that Persona had built. The headpiece photo was identical to that on my page with the exception that it was not cropped the same. The empty suit was unquestionably the same one. I contacted the source of the post, fellow board member Ryan Brennan. Ryan is a member of the Lone Star Film Society and a regular contributor to THE THUNDER CHILD WEBZINE.
With all of this scrutiny I am embarrassed to admit a pretty major oversight I had made about the scrapbook page. I had assumed the fellow in glasses standing in front of the ape, was Persona himself. Looking at the several photos of William Persona on the website was a good slap to the head. They're not the same man dammit! The image looks like a photo op with the gorilla suit for promotional purposes - would it not follow that the man in the foreground was the one in charge? Department heads in the early days of cinema routinely enjoyed the accolades heaped upon a work distilled by many talented hands. By this date Max Factor Jr. had replaced his father who originated the company - the man in the photo could easily be the age of Max during 1940. Unfortunately, I have yet to find an image of Jr. to compare against my image. It is a leap but a logical one at that.
So where does this leave us? In the middle of a movie mystery that promises to be solved one day. History is never complete or static. New facts constantly put former theories on their ear, and it's up to the intrepid and determined to stay true to the path of discovery. I may never know the complete tale of William Persona and his Hollywood gorilla but I will never stop wondering.
UPDATE February 13 2010
A post regarding Persona's suit and it's silver screen appearance will be forthcoming once the post transfers are complete. With the astute observations of a modern Gorilla Man the mystery appears to have been solved. Stay tuned!