Returning Sunday night from the Academy screening of the fabulous Fox/Peter Chernin film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I was sleepless and distraught at the effect the film had upon me. Don't get me wrong, I think it was one of the best, most fascinating and provocative films I have seen in years. The story was riveting and real, the motion-capture technology was staggering, and yes, Andy Sturgis should be up for an Oscar for his performance as Caesar, the humanoid ape. No, what captured my attention was so many memories of the 11 years in which I had two squirrel monkeys as pets/family members.
Yes, you heard me correctly... 11 years, the decade of the 60s, during which I functioned actively on both coasts as a film producer. Once a month my then-wife and I would pack our two tiny primates into a Louis Vuitton animal carrier and board an American Airlines flight to L.A. where, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, I had a large cage kept in the basement (probably still there) which they would set up in my suite awaiting my arrival. Demi and Schatzi (my ex-wife was German), were greeted by the staff as long-lost friends, fed grapes and bananas by the maids, visited by the managers, and treated as honored hotel guests. Crazy, yes, but you ain't heard nothin' yet,
How did I get into this mad situation? It started simply as a humanitarian gesture on my part. In late 1959, I was waiting at the small airport at the Florida west coast town, Panama City, after visiting a client, and stuck my head into an animal zoo next to the airport. There was a cage with a tiny, tiny five-day old squirrel monkey in it with a cruel chain around its waist cutting into its body. I asked the zookeeper how much for the monkey and cage, he said $35, and I paid the money and made him cut off the chain. Holding the cage, I got on the flight to Miami, where at the Fountainbleu Hotel, I wrapped the sad little animal in a big towel and placed him atop the warm bulb of a lamp. The next morning I flew with the monkey to New York and took a cab from the airport to the East Side Animal Hospital. There, a vet told me that the monkey was too small, too frightened, probably ill, and would not last more than a few days. He said that these animals were particularly susceptible to respiratory illnesses, and even in zoos never lived more than a few years. Of course, that was a challenge... and I had to prove him wrong.
So I slowly nursed Demi (my name for him) back to health. Read everything I could find on the care and feeding of squirrel monkeys. Learned that they had to regularly eat something from pet shops called meal worms for protein, as well as fruits. And another vet told me that monkeys can die of loneliness... I had to get him a companion. So I hied myself downtown to a famous pet shop named Trefflich's, where there was an entire floor filled with chattering squirrel monkeys. After due deliberation (ten seconds), I picked an active, aggressive female and brought her home to my spacious Westside apartment, where she immediately disappeared into the hanging drapes for days at a time, only coming out to feed ravenously and drink some water. Eventually, Schatzi (named by my soon-to-be wife), joined our family... and the two monkeys resided in a special cage room I had built for them with a tree, medical glow lamps, and a maid whose main job was to clean after them and keep everything sanitary. During the day, they wore baby diapers and spent hours in the window of my ground floor office on 65th Street and Central Park West, where many friends (like Neil Simon and Mel Brooks) would walk by just to visit the monkeys. Director Paul Mazursky 'took a meeting' with me' once and then put the scene of a producer with monkeys in his office into his Donald Sutherland film, Alex in Wonderland. And we began taking them to the Beverly Hills Hotel every month. In 1971, after eleven years, Demi died of a cold in my arms shortly before I was destined to move to California to produce Lady Sings The Blues. Schatzi died four days later (of loneliness, I am sure.) I buried both of my monkeys in a grave under a tree next to the Tavern on the Green in Central Park. With an appropriate marker. And missed them desperately.
So that is why I was anguished when I saw the wonderful, powerful Planet of the Apes sequal last night, where James Franco takes a small, pitiful baby monkey home with him 'for a few days'. No, I do not recommend anyone ever keep a monkey as a pet. For many, many reasons, including the fact that you become attached to them and also they require enormous and expensive caring. Do they ever! A monkey expert told me later that I held the world record for keeping squirrel monkeys in captivity... eleven years and counting. So, see the movie, by all means, just don't take a monkey home afterwards.
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