Monday, September 5, 2011

Gorillas Prefer Blondes

Of all of the fellows who have ambled across the silver screen in fur, the one man that continually fascinates me is Emil Van Horn. He is perhaps the most mysterious of the small club of professional Golden Age Hollywood Gorilla Men - he avoided being photographed out of suit (yet he was nabbed at least once!) and rarely spoke of his past in print. Snippets can be found here and there but what is known relates mostly to his activities beyond film. Gorilla suited performers have been active on the burlesque circuit since KONG became a household name and Emil saw value in having a steady income. Sex always sells! Throughout his film career Emil Van Horn performed in a variety of venues and acts across the US, chasing after barely clothed bombshells for more than a decade.

Much has been said of Emil and his simian stagecraft at the Classic Horror Film Board but this quote comes from film historian and scallywag, Tom Weaver (write that damn Gorilla Suit book already!) recollecting info the Gorilla Godfather, Bob Burns had shared with him.

From the Bob Burns Archives: Emil on Emil

For a girlie magazine of (possibly) mid-1960s vintage, Emil Van Horn wrote this short, humorous article about his current stint, performing in his gorilla suit in clubs for live audiences. Only the torn-out article still exists, with no indication of the name of the magazine. It was illustrated with shots of Van Horn menacing a gal dressed in a skimpy "jungle girl"-type outfit on the club stage.

My gorilla suit is especially made to my specifications and is all done by hand by costume artists in Hollywood. The complete suit weighs 65 pounds and it's made of Canadian bear fur, a rich coat such as a real gorilla sports.
I completely blacken the area around my eyes with theatrical greasepaint. This is very important since the eyes are a dead giveaway to my many imitators who copy the style of my suit but fall by the wayside with their grinning eyes and very ungorilla-like mannerisms.
Twenty minutes is the maximum amount of time that I can stay in the complete costume. The moment I come off stage, my handler gets me out fast. I then cry out and, with his assistance, pound on doors backstage, giving the illusion of a gorilla being caged until the next time he is set free.
On occasions to satisfy an audience I have attempted to remain in costume past 20 minutes. But this has more than once sent me to a nearby hospital to be revived by oxygen. And if you can imagine doctors giving a headless gorilla oxygen--well, just imagine it! It's laugh-provoking, but on more than one occasion it has saved my life.
Some five years ago, in Chicago, the gorilla was stolen from my locked car. I made appeals on the radio and the newspapers, but this mystery has never been cleared up. Perhaps the thief or thieves died of fright when they opened the trunk and saw the suit. My conclusion has been that it would have been bank thieves who stole the suit, planning to use it on a job to throw panic into bank employees and any witnesses. It has not been executed to my knowledge as yet. But it would have to be done within 20 minutes or there is going to be one very dead man inside a HOT gorilla suit. And in this case HOT means a little more than the term for stolen goods.
People have asked me whether members of the monkey family cringe from me when we come face to face in zoos or circuses. Chimps for one are petrified when they see me on a publicity binge, banging their cage as though I want to get inside and tear them apart.
Club patrons have broken bottles and chairs over my well-creased head to protect the female members of their party from the nasty gorilla that is tearing up their tablecloth and drinking their spirits--as well as threatening to carry the women off. There have been times I have had to rip my head piece off to show an angry drunken customer that there is a real man inside the suit. When that happens, they do not know how to react--whether to laugh or cry. Women sometimes run in terror, and, in more squeamish cities like Boston. my act has been banned by the police.
I have had many offers from TV and undoubtedly will do a series of films when I get time. People love to be scared, hence the great popularity of horror pictures.
On a publicity stunt in Detroit last year, a policeman (who I learned later had not been aware of the stunt) drew a gun and threatened to shoot me dead if I came another step. My handler shouted: "There is a man in the suit." But the policeman was not buying, until I shouted: "He is right...there is a man in the suit and it's me, Emil Van Horn."
That was my closest shave, and if he is reading this magazine I am certain that he is getting a chuckle out of an episode that could have been my last.
I will not consent to being photographed out of my costume since this, more than anything, would be destroying as an act such as mine creates such an illusion--and without this bit of doubt on the audience's part as to whether I am real or not, I would not have an act. I have made a very good living being a gorilla for hire, and after 24 years of the act still get a great thrill from the audience when I step into the role.


The first article here dates from 1941, the earliest instance of his burlesque career I have come across in my searches. I had the good fortune to find this gem on EBay some time ago when George Chastain had alerted me to the articles' existence. What is particularly remarkable about the piece is the rare unmasking of Emil - George had sent me the cleaned up and reworked image during our chats about the article (see above). I was struck by how dapper the fellow looked - I don't quite know what I was expecting but he does appear rather pleased (perhaps, the photo was shot post-girly grappling!). The photos were shot at the Florentine Gardens in L.A. - a popular destination for GI's during WWII.



The photo below corresponds to the first page of the article above - I found it at an image database ages ago.

Emil at the Florentine Gardens 1941

The girl below tangled with Emil in the same stage show. Doris was apparently a regular of the Gardens.

Florentine Dancer

More Emil to come! Stay Tuned!


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