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Courtesy of Valdemar Lethin
Courtesy of Valdemar Lethin

I, Darwin: An Oral History of the IKEA Monkey

Courtesy of Valdemar Lethin
Courtesy of Valdemar Lethin

Like any successful chain store, IKEA prides itself on a uniform shopping experience. Walk into the company’s location at 15 Provost Drive, North York, Ontario, Canada and you’ll find two sprawling stories featuring stacks of easy-to-assemble furniture. Shoppers are enveloped in the smell of Swedish meatballs coming from the store’s trademark food market. Near the first-floor entrance is a playroom for impatient children to idle while parents push warehouse carts full of bookshelves.

On December 9, 2012, shoppers expecting a traditional IKEA shopping excursion got something else. Sprinting between cars in the store’s adjacent two-level parking garage was a primate decked out in a tailored faux-shearling coat and a diaper. Barely a foot tall, the gimlet-eyed creature scanned the growing crowd around him looking for any sign of his keeper. Several of them snapped his photograph.

In less than an hour, animal services would arrive to collect him. In less than nine hours, he would become an international news story.

Initially misidentified by some media outlets as a capuchin monkey, the beleaguered animal was a Japanese snow macaque named Darwin. His striking appearance in stylish winter fashion and incongruous presence at IKEA captivated the internet, making him one of the most popular memes of the year. In the days following, the media ferreted out that he had escaped from his owner’s car, that he had quickly been delivered to a primate sanctuary, and that a significant and costly question would be raised over custody: Is a monkey a wild animal? And if he is, can he really be “owned” by anyone?

Darwin’s human keeper would eventually pay $250,000 to get an answer to the question, the primate sanctuary would endure death threats, and the eventual court proceedings would become the second most publicized monkey trial of the past 100 years. Here’s the story behind the meme, as remembered by the people directly involved.

I: “ANYONE LOSE THEIR MONKEY AT IKEA?”


Courtesy of Stephanie Yim

With two weeks left before Christmas, the North York IKEA store was perpetually congested with customers. Most parked in the attached two-level parking lot that featured an enclosed vestibule with an elevator leading to the lower level of the property. A little before 2 p.m. on Sunday, December 9, some shoppers noticed a diminutive figure lurking in the lot.

Yasmin Nakhuda (Owner, Darwin): Darwin would always go shopping with me. However the last time we went to IKEA I was approached by one of the staff and told that I could not bring him in. On that unfortunate day, we planned a very brief stop and took all precautions to ensure he would be busy and safe while we were shopping. It was the second time we had left him alone and we took longer than expected.

Bronwyn Page (Shopper, Saw the Monkey): It was a really busy day there. I went with my sister to buy a Christmas tree and we drove all around looking for a spot. When we got out of the car, we saw a circle of people around this … object. It was hopping around. I thought it was a bunny.

Joe Fiorillo (Animal Control Officer, Toronto Animal Services, via deposition): [Dispatch said there was] a monkey running in the upstairs parking lot with a jacket and a diaper on. I thought it was a joke.

Lisa Lin (Shopper): I was there with my family. We parked in the upper deck because there was a cop outside the doors on the first floor, so we went to the second floor.

Nakhuda: He had a soft zippered crate that generally he was not able to get out of which he was able to rip apart. He was locked in our SUV and from inside he unlocked the car by himself—none of which we could foresee at that time, given we had not seen him do it.

Page: It was making sounds and seemed scared. It was running in between people. Some of them kept trying to corner it or trap it.

Stephanie Yim (Shopper): I saw a little head bobbing up and down near a car I had parked by. I actually couldn’t believe there was a monkey.

Nakhuda: I had no choice but to carry Darwin everywhere I went. He would have anxiety fits if I kept him away from me.

Lin: It was a well-dressed monkey.

Page: It was incredibly bizarre to see. It was so small, like a baby. I would’ve stuck around, but my sister didn’t care. I just snapped a few photos and then we went into the store. It was so weird. I kept thinking, “What just happened?”

Nakhuda: We were obviously panic stricken and I started running up and down the parking lot until someone indicated to me that they had seen a little monkey running back to the store.


KnowYourMeme

Page: People think he was inside the store, which probably made it funnier.

Lin: By the time we were there, the monkey was already secured in the vestibule. It took me a while to understand what it was. You don’t usually see monkeys running around.

Fiorillo: People were outside taking pictures. As soon as I drove up the ramp ... I said, “Now we got a monkey.”

Lin: It was running around and looked distraught. I took a picture of it through the glass door. We didn’t stay long. I didn’t want to make it more frazzled.

Yim: He was lost and clearly looking for someone familiar. He didn’t seem agitated, just more bewildered or scared.

Fiorillo: I went in just to assess it and I asked the security guard, “How is he?” [He said] “Oh, he’s fine. If you put a blanket over him he stops right away.” And he did.

Lin: At that point, the cop was inside the vestibule with the monkey. They locked the automatic door so it wouldn’t open.

Page: I didn’t tweet the picture until we got back to the car. My sister said, “You should send that out.”

Lin: At the time, I was new to Instagram and Twitter and was looking for something unusual to post, so I put it up.

Fiorillo: I never saw a monkey, like, you know, in Toronto, running around. He wasn’t bad in there, too. He screamed a little bit. I’m sure he was looking for his owner but he didn’t attack anybody and he was scared.

Page: On the way out, I saw someone talking to a security guard. She was really upset. I guess maybe that was the owner.

It was. Nakhuda, a Toronto real estate lawyer, obtained Darwin just five months prior from an exotic animal dealer introduced to her by a client at her firm. The seller, known only as “Ayaz,” indulged Nakhuda’s interest in obtaining a Japanese snow macaque after she viewed YouTube videos of the species. Nakhuda acknowledges that she knew there might be problems with having the monkey in the city—but as she’ll explain, she was under the impression that she’d just receive a warning and be told to move to a suitable farm; something she was planning on doing anyway.

After paying Ayaz $5000 for the exotic animal and bringing him home, she realized the monkey—which she named after Charles Darwin—would require a significant level of care.

Nakhuda: Darwin would nip and resist any handling. I thought it would take a few days for him to come around, like perhaps a dog or cat that is newly adopted, but it did not seem that he was making any progress in this direction. If anything, he was getting bolder and more aggressive.

Katherine Cronin, Ph.D. (Research Scientist, Lincoln Park Zoo): When macaques get close to maturity, they can quickly become pushed away from people and grow more aggressive. It can be unsafe.

Nakhuda: He actually settled down the day I took him back to return him to Ayaz. As soon as he saw Ayaz and realized I was handing him back to the animal trader, he jumped and grabbed on to me with complete trust and practically begged me to keep him.

Cronin: What we know about macaques is that they look for a maternal figure. If their mother is not available, they may form a pretty strong bond with someone else, given no other options. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if a primate who had his caretaker taken from him would be distressed.

Nakhuda: We were told that if we were found holding a monkey, we would be asked to relocate the monkey; no fine was mentioned. We had always planned on moving out of the city to a farm and we were told that if there was an issue, Ayaz would keep Darwin … until we were ready to have him back.

Cronin: Primates do not make good pets. There’s no way around it. It’s not good for people and it’s not good for the primate.

A video game based on Darwin's IKEA exploits quickly made the rounds
KnowYourMeme

Nakhuda’s YouTube videos of bathing Darwin and brushing his teeth would eventually enter wider circulation as his fame grew. But at the time, the fact that he was seemingly a harmless monkey cast adrift allowed the internet to invent their own stories about him. Someone posted a “Missed Connections” ad on Craigslist purported to be from Darwin; a Flash video game followed. Page’s photo went out with the caption “Umm saw a monkey in the #ikea parking lot.”

Page: Immediately, people were retweeting the photo. The Toronto Star phoned me while I was still in the car. Media was trying to get in touch with me through direct messages on Twitter. Four camera crews arranged to come to my apartment that night.

Lin: I didn’t really realize what was going on until hours later. It became international news. I was very surprised by it.

Nakhuda: We were waiting for instructions from Ayaz, who had promised to help if this happened. He refused to interfere saying that it was all over Twitter. I had no clue what Twitter was at that time.

Don Caldwell (Administrator, KnowYourMeme.com): Before Darwin, in terms of notable monkey memes, I can’t really think of any.

Page: The media asked what I saw. I saw a monkey darting all over. That was about it.

Caldwell: The coat was a huge part of it. People love to anthropomorphize animals. And being at IKEA was also important. Memes need a catchy name, and “IKEA monkey” was catchy.

Page: The madness lasted over the next few days. I did television interviews, radio interviews. I did an interview with BBC World News. They were treating me like an expert. I saw the monkey for maybe a minute.

Caldwell: It very quickly made r/funny on Reddit and got a lot of points, which was huge for visibility.

Page: I got recognized on the subway. “Are you Bronwyn Page?”

Lin: I love memes, so that someone would turn my photo into one was pretty cool.

Caldwell: Bronwyn posted the original, but the one of him behind glass became the iconic shot. He just looks sad.

Page: That was my favorite one, I think, the one about a friend forgetting to pick up “Carl.”

While Darwin was becoming a viral sensation, Nakhuda was frantically trying to reclaim him from animal control officials. Monkeys were and are prohibited in the city of Toronto. With Ayaz unable or unwilling to assist, she and her husband, Samar, drove to Toronto Animal Services. Their interactions and what was or wasn’t said would eventually become a topic of debate for an Ontario court.

Fiorillo: Apparently the owner had called the front desk.

Nakhuda: We went to the Toronto Animal Services and sat in the parking lot for some time contemplating the best way to get him back without issue.

Fiorillo: That happens a lot with prohibited animals. Goats. If we pick up a goat, somebody comes in, “I want my goat.” You can’t have the goat.

David Behan (Animal Control Officer, Toronto Animal Services, via deposition): Basically, I spoke to Ms. Nakhuda regarding the monkey Darwin, explained to her that it was a prohibited animal under our bylaw within the city of Toronto, and in the meantime I was in touch with my supervisor to find out … which direction, how we were going to go with this situation.

Nakhuda: He stated that I walked into TAS to ask that Darwin be placed into a sanctuary and of course this is a monstrous falsity. There was no misunderstanding. I was very clear that I wanted Darwin back.

Behan: [Supervisor Carl Bandow] asked me if there was any chance that “you could have Ms. Nakhuda sign the animal over to us for—to Toronto Animal Services.”

Fiorillo: [Behan] said, “You have a choice here to sign it over if you want. You don’t have to sign it over but we’re looking at the animal’s safety and well-being” and that was important.

Behan: [I explained] that she would be signing this paper and signing her animal over to Toronto Animal Services.

Nakhuda: [Behan] did all he could do in his powers to coerce me to sign documents so that he could move the monkey—apparently temporarily given TAS had no facilities to keep a baby monkey at their location—to a primate sanctuary. He would only allow me to see Darwin and check on him if I signed transfer papers.

In a January 2013 deposition, Behan denied he used any form of coercion to convince Nakhuda to sign the form. In court later that year, Behan testified that TAS sometimes turned exotic animals back over to their owners after signing surrender forms but said the decision to retain Darwin was made by his supervisor, Carl Bandow. When asked if she “appeared to be a woman who wanted to surrender her monkey,” Behan replied, “No.” Nakhuda would later testify that she believed she was signing a form to have Darwin tested for diseases and did not know it would grant TAS full ownership of the animal.

Fiorillo: I was surprised when I came back [in the room] that she signed it.

Behan: She was upset. She was still in tears. Our staff … that takes care of the animals at the shelter asked Ms. Nakhuda if she could come to the back of that shelter and please remove the diaper from the animal because the animal had a diaper on.

Fiorillo: Once you sign it over, we can move the animal to a safer place better than the shelter. We don’t look after monkeys here.

II: DARWIN ON TRIAL

A illustration of Darwin's legal struggles
Courtesy of Jason Larche

The day after being captured by Toronto Animal Services, Darwin was delivered to Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary, a rural harbor for animals located in Sunderland, Ontario. He would quickly become the most infamous monkey in Canadian history—a photogenic creature that put a face to a bustling exotic animal trade, said to be one of the largest illicit markets in the world.

Daina Liepa (Co-Owner, Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary): The primates we have basically come from three sources. One is the exotic animal trade, which people don’t think exists, but does. The second is labs. The third is roadside zoos, which are not regulated.

Sherri Delaney (Former Owner, Story Book): People get these animals because there’s less than adequate regulation. Someone says, “I’d love to have something like that,” and the market for selling and breeding grows. You can buy them online.

Liepa: People forget where baby monkeys come from. They were taken from their mother. Transporting them is often done undercover. There’s a huge attrition rate and some die in transit.

Cronin: Baby snow monkeys stay really close to their mother for the first year of life, nursing for up to a year. They’re riding on the mom’s back, staying close, learning. The maternal relationship is key to a normal relationship. That early bond is very important to their later development.

Delaney: With the unregulated zoos, if an animal gets sick, it might alarm someone looking at them, and so the animal is taken off display and warehoused. So we would get some animals from there, some who were pets, some from seizures.

Liepa: We had one famous monkey before Darwin, actually. Pockets Warhol, who paints.

Delaney: Pockets actually originated in the States. He came to Canada as a pet and was housed for many years. He had a good owner who tried very hard to maintain him. He had a cage, a heated enclosure, his own pet guinea pig, his own TV. His owner eventually realized she wasn’t going to be able to take care of him in her golden years, so he came here.

Pockets Warhol working the canvas
Pockets Warhol.
Courtesy of Story Book

Liepa: Most of the monkeys are given up willingly. Darwin was not.

Delaney: I first heard of Darwin when a volunteer saw him on the news. Then I got a call from Toronto Animal Services. As far as I was concerned, they had seized Darwin legally, they couldn’t house him, and so they reached out to us. My first memory of him was that he was so little.

Rachelle Hansen (Board Chair, Story Book): What struck me was how tiny he was and how sad he was.

Liepa: People buy monkeys as babies. You can tell people until you’re blue in the face that they don’t make good pets, but it doesn’t matter. They have very strong teeth. People often have the canines pulled in order to keep them. They’re incredibly strong.

Cronin: You see what someone might call a smile on a primate face, whether it’s a macaque or a chimp. But what looks to us like a smile might well be what primatologists call a fear grimace. They’re pulling their lips back, showing teeth, and it’s actually a fearful response, a submissive response. It’s saying, “I’m not a threat, don’t hurt me.” There’s also an expression with an open mouth, eyes wide, where they look right at you, and that’s threatening behavior. It means, “Back off, I’m not comfortable.”

Hansen: I believe Toronto Animal Services called the Toronto Zoo and they would not or could not take him.

Delaney: The day he arrived, I got a call from Yasmin [Nakhuda]. She had intended to come right out, but I put my foot down and said no. She was very demanding. I wanted to give Darwin a few days to settle down from all of the excitement, and then we could talk about it. She didn’t like that, and that was the end of the conversation.

Hansen: I understood the call did not go well.

Cronin: In most cases, the animal’s welfare improves by being among their own species.

Delaney: I don’t know why macaques are high on the priority list, with people raising them as children. Once they reach sexual maturity, they get confused and aggressive.

Among Nakhuda’s complaints were that Story Book was using Darwin as a way of creating awareness for their fundraising. Days after receiving him, they launched a “Dollars for Darwin” campaign that anthropomorphized him, with Darwin “saying” that a “donation towards my care, this is my Christmas wish.”

Nakhuda: Story Book was given a donation of some $15,000 from IKEA the first week they captured Darwin. From that moment, he was their meal ticket. They had revamped their website within days and were out there to sell his pictures and tickets to visit him. I was angry, hurt, and truly heartbroken to see my baby being peddled for money.

Hansen: IKEA donated $10,000 to us.

Liepa: We’re a charity. We’re always fundraising. When Yasmin questions why we need to do that, the answer is because we’re always striving to improve the environment for the monkeys.

Delaney: The reality is, to provide a diet, a heated barn, the cost becomes astronomical. I spent over $1 million of my own money on the sanctuary.

Absent any other recourse, on December 14, Nakhuda sued Story Book [PDF] for unlawfully detaining Darwin and filed a petition to have Darwin returned to her—or, alternately, be given regular access—until the custody issue could be settled. As the case wore on, allegations from both sides grew contentious, and both retained lawyers.

Kevin Toyne (Attorney for Story Book): I had actually visited the sanctuary a few months prior to all this and told them that if they ever had any legal issues, they could contact me. Fast forward and I’m online and see that a monkey escaped at a local IKEA in Toronto. I thought, “Hmm. I wonder if he’ll end up at the sanctuary,” and so I sent them an email.

Delaney: There was absolutely concern over whether we could afford to get into a legal battle. We were lucky to have Kevin, who volunteered for us before this.

Liepa: There was a question for the board of directors at the time of whether we could afford it financially.

Hansen: There was a lot of harassing on social media, people leaving horrible messages on our voicemail, which was Sherri’s own number. People would wait at the end of the driveway. I had cars following me. It was all very stressful.

Toyne: There were unfortunate comments being made toward the sanctuary and the volunteers. People were saying nasty things about Yasmin, as well.

Nakhuda: I was infamous but that did not seem to affect my existing clientele and daily operations since most of my practice is from return clients who were absolutely satisfied with my services and were unconditionally supportive of my situation. However, mentally and financially, I had become a wreck.

Liepa: I was a volunteer at the time. There were threats against us, people who believed his prior owner was his mother and should be allowed to keep him.

Delaney: We had threats that someone was going to come and burn down the sanctuary itself. There was another threat to kill me. It was draining on everyone.

Toyne: Canada has a constitutional division of power. Certain things are federal or provincial, the equivalent of states. Animals largely fall into provincial government. If you want to bring a monkey into Canada, various federal regulations come into play, but once here, whether it’s imported or born here, provincial legislation would apply. The problem is, virtually no province has a statute that talks about exotic animals. The regulation of exotic animals is done by municipalities.

Delaney: Darwin was getting better, day by day. He had caregivers around him constantly. Not around the clock, but caregivers who would spend hours and hours with him as he acclimated.

Hansen: We spent a lot of time with him, giving him bottles and so on. He had a Curious George stuffy that he liked.

Toyne: Yasmin’s position was that she never gave up ownership and so my clients were not entitled to have him. The sanctuary position was, as soon as he got out of the car at IKEA, he no longer belonged to Yasmin.

Delaney: I was open to discussing a visitation arrangement if she was reasonable. It would’ve benefited not just her, but Darwin as well. But unfortunately, she wasn’t ready to take that position.


Courtesy of Daina Liepa

In the press, Nakhuda stated she was unwilling to see Darwin while being supervised by sanctuary staff and wearing gloves, among other precautions. With Nakhuda unsuccessful in winning either temporary or permanent custody of Darwin, he remained at Story Book through the first half of 2013. Arguments over Darwin’s fate were heard in the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario on May 30 and 31, and June 10 and 11, 2013.

Toyne: What struck me was how many people were interested. There would be media scrums outside the courthouse. That’s very unusual in Canada except in high-profile criminal cases. The courtroom was packed every day.

Delaney: It was phenomenal to me—shocking to me—that we had so much media hype over a monkey. Other cases were unfolding in that building involving domestic assault, homicide, and who knows what else. Something that should have never made it to court was front and center.

Page: People would keep sending me articles about the trial. People would bump into me, people I kind of knew, asking what was going on with Darwin. Like I would know.

Toyne: Yasmin’s position throughout was that she still owned Darwin and never gave up ownership, and so my clients were not entitled to have him.

Liepa: The case was not about who would take better care of Darwin, although we thought we could, but based on property ownership.

Toyne: The primary argument we advanced was the concept of property with respect to wild animals. Most domesticated or agricultural animals are considered to be the same type of property as a book, or chair, or car. If the car is in the shop, it’s still your car. But that concept does not apply to wild animals. The doctrine is called ferae nature. It basically means wild animals are treated differently. You only own it as long as it’s in your possession. If it escapes, it belongs to the person who captures it.

Delaney: I think there was some separation anxiety in the beginning. As time went on and the trial progressed, he would play, explore, and do what babies do.

Toyne: People ask, if the case is about an animal, shouldn’t the animal be there? There was a period of time centuries ago in England when animals were brought into court. Donkeys in the witness box. We don’t really do things like that anymore. My guess is that if the monkey showed up, there would have been a riot. There were very strong opinions on both sides.

Hansen: It was like a child custody case with the kid caught in the middle. I think it would have overwhelmed him to be in court.

Toyne: In this case, possession was ten-tenths of the law. If someone managed to steal him, my client could have lost ownership of him.

After an agonizing judicial silence over the summer, Justice Mary Vallee issued her decision [PDF] in September 2013. She found Nakhuda knew she was signing a surrender form and that Darwin was a wild animal, and as such, could only be possessed by whomever currently possessed him—in this instance, Story Book. Nakhuda appealed in October, but voluntarily dismissed it in February 2014.

Nakhuda: If I recall correctly, [it cost] some $124,000 for my own legal fees, $83,000 court costs to the defendant, some $22,000 or so I believe for opinion for appeal, costs for organizing fundraisers, sale of T-shirts and books—all of which were pure financial losses.

Liepa: Toyne was not quite pro bono. We did get some legal fees at the end of the proceedings.

Toyne: The arrangement I had with the sanctuary was, I would take the case on a pro bono basis, but would be entitled to costs if costs were awarded.

Liepa: In 2015, Sherri put the sanctuary up for sale and we had to create a major fundraising campaign in order to raise enough money to buy the existing property. We didn’t want to move it. You get into things like having to anesthetize a large baboon in order to relocate him. We didn’t want to do that.

III: AN ONGOING CONCERN


Courtesy of Daina Liepa

Following Justice Vallee’s ruling, Darwin has become a permanent resident at Story Book, where he has remained since first arriving in December 2012. In 2015, Delaney sold the property, which remained in its original location.

Liepa: Darwin is about two-thirds of the size he will eventually be as an adult. He’s an adolescent. He’s very energetic, strong, and active. He can bend rebar.

Cronin: Monkeys who have been former pets, and that have spent less time with their biological mother, can be less extroverted than other primates. They show changes in behavior—less time grooming, less time with groups.

Nakhuda: We believe that primates are not meant to be locked behind bars and that the so-called sanctuary failed in its mission in that it never gave a home to Darwin as it claimed it would. His only interaction with other monkeys is behind bars. He will never experience a hug again—and trust me, if you knew anything about primates, you would know how important physical contact is for their psychological well-being.

Delaney: Let’s be honest. Darwin was stolen from his real mother, someone who spoke his own language. Yasmin was his caregiver, not his mother.

Liepa: Yasmin and her supporters criticize us for keeping monkeys in an enclosure, but at a certain age and sexual maturity, it’s a whole different ballgame. Try putting a diaper on a monkey that’s fully grown.

Toyne: Snow macaques look friendly and gentle. They are almost pure muscle with very large fangs. Anyone misguided enough to want to own one of these things has to realize they are basically buying something with the ability to kill you down the road.

Nakhuda: The issue that we find revolting is that [people] who have never owned monkeys believe that just because an organization has the title "sanctuary," that that organization is the best equipped to provide the best life to an animal ... [Darwin is] segregated and is not "with" other monkeys—just in a cage next to other monkeys equally caged. No, he is not running free in a forest or in any type of enclosure that comes close to simulating his natural environment. He is a caged prisoner being showcased for donations by a self-serving sanctuary.

Liepa: He has access to other monkeys through his enclosure. He’s near a baboon, Pierre, and they’ll groom each other. Pierre also teaches him manners. He’ll show he’s unhappy with Darwin if he misbehaves.

Cronin: Monkeys learn behavior when around other monkeys. They’re social creatures.

Hansen: The problem with introducing him to other monkeys during the trial was that monkeys can be aggressive with one another, and if one had bitten Darwin, Yasmin theoretically could have sued us again for damaging what would be her property. So we couldn’t integrate him right away.

Liepa: We’re waiting on two or three lab monkeys that we’re hoping to introduce to Darwin so he has a family. It’s the one thing missing for him.

Hansen: There are two research monkeys Darwin’s age we’re looking to get and we’re hoping we can introduce them.

Liepa: People ask, "Are monkeys happy?" It’s not really quantifiable and can be hard to assess. Monkeys are like people in that they have different personalities. Some can be outgoing and some can be shy.

Hansen: He’s shy, but he’s a sweetheart. He likes to wash his grass for some reason.

Toyne: I don’t expect there to be a significant change in law of property. And for now, animals are property. We own them, kill them, eat them, and some of them we treat like fake children. But in this case, the law was clear on the outcome of property, and a judge agreed.

Darwin depicted in butter
Courtesy of David Salazar

Nakhuda has since relocated to a new area, Kawartha Lakes, that had no laws against owning primates. With the case closed, she acquired more snow macaques. (Kawartha Lakes has since prohibited exotic animals, but Nakhuda and other existing owners are exempt.)

Nakhuda: We knew we wanted another Japanese baby male snow macaque the moment we realized the trial was lost and that Darwin was never going to come back. I also knew that even if he was returned, given the time that had elapsed during the separation, the bond was not going to be the same. I needed to pick up where we left off. I was haunted by him, I missed him, I ached for him. I did not have closure. To have another Darwin had become an obsession.

Hansen: She actually wound up getting two other monkeys.

Nakhuda: Almost three years later we came across Caesar. He was for sale at an animal auction. He was Darwin's replica. We did not hesitate for one moment. In any event we had moved to a farm where the zoning did not prohibit monkey ownership. Yes, a miracle happened. I feel that I proved my love and that it was only natural justice that I get what I was craving for. Yes, the emptiness that Darwin left behind may not have been filled entirely, but Caesar has brought light where darkness was. I felt blessed.

As the fifth anniversary of Darwin’s IKEA adventure nears, his legacy as both a meme and a lightning rod over the exotic animal trade continues.

Liepa: The trial definitely created an awareness of the exotic animal trade.

Toyne: The sheer interest in the fate of that monkey was a bit of a surprise.

Hansen: IKEA just had its 30th anniversary of their store in North York and put Darwin on the cover of the campaign, the poster or something. We actually reached out to them when we were fundraising later on, but they said, “Nah, that was a one-time deal.” I was on Facebook and someone at the Canadian National Exhibition show sculpted Darwin out of butter.

Delaney: I consider it tragic. Darwin is one of many. It was a very stressful time. Would I do it again? Yes. I’m trying to impact lawmakers at this point, so we don’t have any more Darwins.

Liepa: There are not consistent laws across Canada. There aren’t even consistent laws across Ontario. We do what we can to suggest to municipalities that having exotic pets is not a good idea.

Cronin: I understand the appeal of wanting to be around primates. It’s why I’ve spent 20 years studying primates, watching them. I get so much satisfaction watching them interact with each other, getting a glimpse into their world, how they communicate, social relationships. It’s very satisfying. We’re primates. We have a desire to be close.

Hansen: We have a day open to the public once a month and people will ask about Darwin. But they want to see him in the coat.

Toyne: I tell people I was involved in the second most famous and most important Darwin case.

Page: People ask me about it all the time. It’s become my legacy. I was the person who saw the monkey.

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Oral History
Oral History: The Strangest Super Bowl Halftime Show Ever
Dan Witkowski
Dan Witkowski

January 22, 1989: The San Francisco 49ers edge out the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16 to become the National Football League champions at Super Bowl XXIII at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Florida. It was a thrilling game, tied at the half—a Super Bowl first—and decided only in the closing moments with a successful pass from 49ers star quarterback Joe Montana. There was enough action to keep any football fan’s mind occupied for days.

But the next morning, all anyone wanted to talk about was Elvis Presto.

In one of the most unusual halftime presentations in the 50-year history of the event, the NFL commissioned a 1950s musical revue, led by a magician dressed as Elvis Presley who performed “the world’s largest card trick.” It was also, by the estimate of at least one soda company, the world’s largest eye exam: Coca-Cola and NBC presented the entire spectacle in 3-D, urging the show’s 54 million households to pick up a pair of disposable glasses at their local distributor. (They also cautioned that if the effect didn’t work, your lack of eye coordination meant you might need to see an optometrist.) The end result was a curious blend of retro-kitsch performance and a 1980s version of interactive television.

To understand how this uneven mix of magic, music, and carbonation came together, mental_floss spoke with several of the producers and creative partners behind “BeBop Bamboozled,” including the magician who created it, the man whose Elvis was heard but not seen, and the soda marketing genius who turned a 3-D glasses shortage into priceless publicity. As it turns out, Katy Perry's Left Shark has nothing on fire-eaters in poodle skirts.

I. OUT OF THIN AIR


The story of 1989’s Super Bowl begins in 1986, when the NFL started soliciting proposals from entertainment production companies to plan for halftime shows in the years ahead. In addition to fielding presentations from Disney, Paramount, and other massive entities, the league heard from a man in Minnesota named Dan Witkowski. A veteran stage illusionist, Witkowski owned MagicCom, a small business focused on increasing revenue for companies by being “disruptive" and encouraging them to think outside the box.  

Dan Witkowski (Founder, MagicCom): I was looking to sell some network specials, but I would get laughed off. I thought, “Well, what’s bigger than a special? What has a built-in audience?” By going after something big, it would put us on the map. So I went after the Super Bowl.

Jim Steeg (Senior Vice President of Special Events, NFL, 1979 to 2005): Basically, we had the same people producing the halftime show over the years. By the time we did Up with People for a second time in 1986, we decided we wanted to bring in different producers with ideas for the halftime show.

Witkowski: I have something I call the Pretty Girl Theory: Everybody thinks somebody else is calling the pretty blonde to go out on a Saturday night, yet there she sits at home. People are just intimidated to make calls. I wasn’t.

Steeg: We were looking to book people for the 1988, 1989, and 1990 shows. We brought in probably six or seven different producers, and Dan was one of them. He called us.

Witkowski: Obviously, he got a lot of calls. But what I did was put the problem ahead of the pitch. And the problem I presented to the NFL was this: How do they take something big and make it even bigger by attracting more people? Historically, the halftime show meant it was time to get up and get a sandwich.

Steeg: I agreed to meet him in New York and hear him out.

Witkowski: I think he was intrigued about the magic idea. I didn’t give him an idea for a specific type of show, but I told him we’d welcome the opportunity to give an official presentation.

Steeg: [NFL Commissioner] Pete Rozelle only sat through a couple of them. He sat through Dan’s.

Witkowski: What the NFL did that tripped us up was when they requested a written outline sent in advance. It’s like trying to describe a cartoon. You can’t do it. You need visuals and sound. I had one of those projectors for a slide show. But it was in their rules, so I sent everyone there a leather-bound folder with a padlock on it. I had the key. They couldn’t open it until I arrived. I got calls from secretaries saying, “They’re going nuts. They’re trying to pick the locks.” It caused a big stir.

Steeg: Dan kind of wowed everybody at the meeting. He made a bowling ball appear out of a suitcase. It got things rolling.

Witkowski: He remembered that? The funny thing is, I had to do a performance in Nebraska that same night. I couldn’t get out of it, so I had to carry the bowling ball and the suitcase through Kennedy Airport. I got in line at security, put the ball on the conveyor belt, and was immediately surrounded by guards who wanted to know where it had come from.

Steeg: What we decided to do was have him co-produce the 1988 pre-game show so he could get some experience and learn the math. It was important for him to understand the logistics and the magnitude of the Super Bowl.

Witkowski: What I basically presented was the idea of hooking the audience through their involvement. At the time, we had developed a technique that would have allowed us to distribute millions of game cards through McDonald’s with a mechanism that could be triggered by holding them up to the TV screen at a certain point. It would reveal an image. I can’t go into details on how it works, but that was the essence of it.

John Gonzalez (Director, NBC): I recall going to the NFL offices in Manhattan for the first presentation about the magic show. I was excited about it, realizing it would be a challenge in the middle of a huge football production to shoot live magic and not give any of the tricks away. To figure out the correct angles, we were going to have to do it in a very controlled, very planned-out manner.

That planning would eventually grow complicated by another influence over the halftime proceedings. With Witkowski pitching Steeg and the NFL on a magic-themed, participatory show for the 1989 game, the league was also being courted by a more established partner: Coca-Cola, who would wind up becoming the Super Bowl’s first sole sponsor that same year. The company had been working on a promotion involving 3-D glasses with a twist: a California company, Nuoptix, had developed a process where an image would be clear (not distorted or blurry) to a viewer not wearing the cellophane lenses.

Michael Beindorff (Vice President of Marketing, Coca-Cola, 1978-1992): Steve Koonin, who runs the Atlanta Hawks now but worked for Coke back then, came to me with the idea for 3-D glasses. He brought the whole Moonlighting idea to me.

Steve Koonin (Vice President of Sports and Entertainment Marketing, Coca-Cola, 1986-2000): I met Terry Beard from Nuoptix on an airplane. He was a sound guy, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and had invented what was called stereoscopic 3-D. He sent me a demo of it. Basically [by covering one eye with a dark lens, which you can do using sunglasses with the video below], it slows down one eye and tricks the brain. It’s the Pulfrich Effect. At the time, Moonlighting was the hottest show on TV, and I called the producer, Glenn Caron, and sold him on the idea of doing the season finale in 3-D. He loved it. We made 26 million pairs of glasses and wound up on the front page of over 200 newspapers.

Beindorff: They had actually written a script, but then the writer’s strike happened, and the whole deal fell apart.

Koonin: We’re sitting there paying rent on warehouses across the country full of glasses. We had taken over a Kleenex factory in Mexico to make them.

Beindorff: We were still excited by the idea of the 3-D. For its time, it was very well-done. We went to the NFL and NBC with the concept of doing the halftime show in 3-D.

Steeg: Coke was our partner at the time. We were always in constant communication.  

Beindorff: Really, the whole strategy behind the Super Bowl partnership was to launch a campaign around the fact that people were switching from sugary drinks like Pepsi to Diet Coke. It was intended for Diet Coke to surpass Pepsi as the number two drink.

Gonzalez: I first heard it as a rumor: “We might do it in 3-D.” I was excited about the idea, but wondered, “How would we do that?”

II. ELVIS PRESTO


In the summer of 1988, Witkowski had no idea Coca-Cola would come in at virtually the last minute with their 3-D promotion. Instead, he and Steeg tried to hammer out what his stadium-sized magic show was going to look like.

Jack Barkla (Production Designer): I think Dan initially had the idea of a 1950s retro drive-in theater, with dancers carrying picnic baskets onto the field. They’d sit down and pull a ripcord in the basket that would turn them into inflatable cars.

Witkowski: We knew we were going to have a magic theme. Whether it was contemporary or Medieval was all flexible during the presentation. The whole 1950s thing was pretty big at the time. Baby Boomers were trying to relive their youth, so we hooked on that.

Steeg: These things evolve on a daily basis. Whatever we discussed at the pitch meeting wasn’t what wound up happening. There is no, “This is what it is.”

Barkla: There was also something to do with pizza, large colorful slices of pizza being moved around by various people.

Witkowski: There was another illusion where the concept was, as everyone came into the stadium, we were going to take a Polaroid picture that would be developed by the time they got to their seats. At random, one was going to be selected, brought down to the field, and asked to hold up their photo. Everyone else held up a card under their seat, and the whole audience would form a pictogram of the audience member selected. But we realized we didn’t have time to bring people down to the stadium floor for the pictures.    

Steeg: Everything about it was big. I remember we had a press conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York to announce it, which was unusual. No one had ever announced a halftime show before.  


Coca-Cola

Witkowski: For some reason, we had Oscar-Mayer around. They came forward and wanted to supply lunch for all of the dancers. As a kind of joke, I said, “Okay, but I want to ride shotgun in the Wienermobile.” Sure enough, it showed up.

Witkowski would eventually settle on a trick that involved the audience using an “Applause-o-Meter” to pick one of four giant cards in the stadium, with the selected card's edges made up of held-up seat cushions. What he needed now was a master of ceremonies—someone to guide the audience and lead the melody of classic pop songs.

Steeg: Elvis Presto, yes. We felt it was a novel thing that got a lot of play. Who is he? What is he?

Witkowski: It was divine inspiration. [Laughs] I think once we settled on the 1950s music, it was natural to make Elvis Presley the lead magician. It was a nice play on words. We also had the Magic Wandas, who were his back-up singers.

Barkla: I had nothing to do with that.

Witkowski: We cast a guy who had played Elvis on Broadway. He had a very good look and had the moves down. Alex Cole, who had been a back-up dancer on Solid Gold, was his choreographer. And he wouldn’t have to sing. That was all prerecorded in New York.

Jody LoMedico (Vocal Performer, “Elvis Presto”): I had been performing since the 1970s, singing and doing commercial jingles. Someone once told me I sounded like Elvis, and it devastated me. I was never an impersonator.

Witkowski: We went to the Elvis estate. I felt that rather than it be a surprise for them, they would want the courtesy and an opportunity to respond. They couldn’t have been nicer and did it for minimal consideration.

LoMedico: A vocal contractor I knew said she had heard I did a pretty good Elvis. I had been trying to destroy any kind of resemblance to him. You want to be your own person. But it was the Super Bowl, so I was all in. We went in there and sang and sang and sang this seven-minute piece. "Devil in a Blue Dress," "Rock This Town," Stray Cats stuff, everything. I was there probably seven hours. When we were done, I couldn’t talk.

Witkowski: We had Donald Pippin, a Broadway legend, doing all the music.

LoMedico: When they saw me sing, they liked me so much they asked if I wanted to come to Florida and lip-sync my own voice. But I couldn’t be out of town for three weeks for rehearsal and everything else for $1500. They said, “Most people do this for free.” Well, your dancers, these kids from universities, they live to be on television. Great for them. No disrespect. Not for me.

While Witkowski tried to assemble a complete Elvis, Barkla and choreographers were thinking of how best to stage a production on something as volatile as a football field. Only cars made of plywood would be allowed on the grass.

Barkla: The grass in Florida is very different from the grass in Minnesota. It’s like moss. It doesn’t take much to destroy the surface.

Steeg: It’s about protecting the field, and also about what you can move on 100 yards of grass.

Barkla: They’d bring truckloads of dirt and grass seed on the field and dump it. I remember asking one of the NFL guys, “Doesn’t that change the height of the goalposts?” Because you keep raising the ground. He looked at me like no one had ever considered the question before.

III. SHOWTIME


As the clock wound down to perfect an elaborate show full of visual effects, dancers, and a stadium-sized card trick, Witkowski was dealt two of the worst hands possible: His in-person Elvis was about to split, and Coca-Cola was about to introduce a new dimension in frustration.

Witkowski: The guy playing Elvis suddenly had an opportunity to go shoot a commercial in Japan that was going to be very lucrative. We made a mutual decision to recast. My first thought was Alex, since he was essentially the other Elvis’s choreographer and knew a lot of the moves.

LoMedico: The guy who did Elvis—whoever you are, I wasn’t a fan, man. Doing Elvis at that time with anything was just hokey. Maybe in Middle America, but the East and West Coasts were done. It was Elvis and The National Enquirer. It was corny.

Alex Cole had roughly 10 days to learn a complex routine involving dancers and illusions with a hollowed-out jukebox and an electric guitar that materialized out of thin air. At the same time, NBC and Witkowski were struggling to cope with the late addition of 3-D.

Gonzalez: We both understood the sudden importance of the 3-D overlay and all the money it represented. The NFL and the executives at NBC didn’t interfere, but they did say, “This represents a whole lot of valuable promotion, so we need to make it work.” In the final week, the focus largely went away from the magic and onto re-blocking for 3-D.

Witkowski: We recorded the audio track before the 3-D element came into play, so we decided that because of time, we would edit what we had and work with it from that standpoint. We knew the magic would suffer, knew the event would be a bit corny, but felt people would watch.

Barkla: The input we got was way late in the game. That was very frustrating. If it hadn’t been so late, things would’ve been better than they were. It’s typical corporate stuff. The people making decisions didn’t have a clue as to how the whole thing worked.

Gonzalez: The choreographers had been planning their part of the show for months. To tell them two weeks before, “Throw it out, make everything counterclockwise rotational,” was not what they wanted to hear.

Witkowski: We thought of some effects where girls would appear to float outside the image of your TV set and had some other levitating effects. But with the 3-D process, things had to be in constant motion left to right to separate the field of vision for the effect to work. In many ways, the 3-D fought with the way to present magic, which was to keep a continuous camera on something so you’re not cutting away.

Steeg: To do the 3-D, everything had to move left to right. It was basically a mind trick.

Gonzalez: Fearing that the 3-D on the field would be less than what was expected, I went to my bosses at NBC with a request to spend additional funds on some animations. There are three or four spots in the show where we independently developed some effective use of the 3-D apart from the action on the field.

Koonin: Kevin Costner came up to me at a [pre-game] party in Miami. He said, “Hey, I hear you’re the 3-D glasses guy. Want to comp me a pair?”

With a pre-taped introduction by a wry Bob Costas (“This is the single proudest moment of my life”) and a 3-D Diet Coke commercial, “BeBop Bamboozled” got underway. Elvis Presto appears to materialize out of a jukebox; dancers defy gravity by leaning against parking meters horizontally; 102 custom-made Harley-Davidson bikes engulfed the margins of the field.

Gonzalez: Bob Costas was hesitant about pre-recording the opening. “Trust me,” I told him. “I need to do this to guarantee some effective 3-D effects.” We watched it together in the controlled environment of the studio and it looked quite good.

Barkla: Of course, we didn’t wind up using the inflatable cars. Those might have cost $3000 to $4000 each.

Witkowski: I remember in the planning stage, we had some early computer effects that showed how 2000 people would be moving on the field. That was unheard of back then. You could have 200 people fall over and it wouldn’t even be noticed.

Barkla: The question was, how do you get things on and off the field? You have to be able to set it up and dismantle it very quickly.

Presto's inciting of the crowd to "pick a card, concentrate real hard" left most viewers befuddled: the Applause-o-Meter led to the King of Hearts, one of four giant cards on the field and a choice Presto predicted. Because of the camera movements, it was also one of the few illusions actually picked up by the broadcast. 

Witkowski: I will say the card trick is not nearly as effective as what we had anticipated.

Steeg: I don’t think everyone got the card trick. You had to think about it.

Barkla: There was one master box for power, and it was at the 50-yard line. All the skyboxes would need wires running out of it. The place where we stored all the sets underneath wasn’t wired and it wasn’t lit at all. I found that really strange. We were running electric lines all over the place to get power.

Witkowski: We didn’t have theatrical lighting. In magic, you adjust it depending on how the performers are moving. Here, the lights were either on or off. We couldn’t rely on that. Everything was out in the open.

LoMedico: I think I made the right choice [not appearing on camera]. When I saw it, I thought, “Mmm. This isn’t working.”

Witkowski: I would say that Alex, as Elvis, didn’t have the right look. But he didn’t have the opportunity to practice, either. With magic and its complexities, it’s hard to just drop someone in.

LoMedico: The stuff sounded good in the studio. Everyone was really happy. But when it got on the air, whatever they did with the sound processing, somebody mixed that improperly.

Gonzalez: You get one rehearsal Friday night to try to put it all together, and the crew, the best in the business, was excited and cooperative. The next time the camera crew saw it was live at halftime.

IV. OVERTIME


With an estimated 120 million people tuning in, Super Bowl XXIII was a resounding success. Despite some complaints that the card trick made little sense, news media responded favorably to the 3-D effects. This was presuming the viewer had the glasses: Because Coke had only made 26 million pairs, many had to share or go without.

Koonin: There wasn’t time to make more. If it had cost the consumer money, yes, they probably would have been disappointed. But this was about getting past Pepsi. It was just a fun stunt.

Barkla: It was the beginning of a time when the shows got more inflated and slicker.

Witkowski: I remember being interviewed after. Apparently, I was dancing in the stands with the dancers.

Steeg: I think it was a good show. It was just so hyped. People were expecting this Pixar 3-D animation thing. It was just a halftime show.

Beindorff: We got a huge uptick in sales that month. And that went on for some period of time, though you can’t attribute it all to the Super Bowl. We also had George Michael.

Witkowski: Coke was kind enough to send us binders of all the press after the game. I think it was $60 million worth of promotion. It was confirmation that we were successful in creating something people were going to talk about.

Beindorff: I got a call a year or two ago that Diet Coke finally surpassed Pepsi as the number two drink. It took a while.

Steeg: The only one you’re concerned with is the Commissioner, and he [Rozelle] was happy.

Witkowski: Jim said to me, “You’ll reap the benefits of this for years.” And we have. MagicCom has been very successful. I appreciate that the NFL took a chance on the little guy.

Steeg: The next year was the 40th anniversary of Peanuts. They approached us and wanted to get involved, and we liked that.

Gonzalez: If you were to pick a halftime show that would be designed for the rotational 3-D effect, I don’t think it would be something that demands the precision and accuracy of a magic show.

Steeg: We experimented. We took chances. With the Super Bowl, it’s very easy to just say no. We rolled the dice.

LoMedico: At the time, I lived in the Poconos with no cable and had to watch it with rabbit ears. The whole thing was kind of a letdown.

Barkla: I didn’t watch it. I don’t like football.

All images courtesy of Dan Witkowski.

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Oral History
The Dark Side: An Oral History of The Star Wars Holiday Special
Larry Heider
Larry Heider

Summer 1978: Over a year after its debut, Star Wars wasn’t through smashing box office records. Ushered back into theaters for a return engagement that July, it made $10 million in just three days. George Lucas had welded mythological structure, pioneering special effects, and a spectacular production design to create a cinematic phenomenon that redefined how studios selected and marketed big-budget spectacles. Movies would never be the same again.

Neither would television. That same month, filming began on The Star Wars Holiday Special, a 97-minute musical-variety show that featured Bea Arthur serenading a giant rat and Chewbacca’s father, Itchy, being seduced by a virtual reality image of Diahann Carroll. Originally, the show was intended to keep the property viable and licensed merchandise moving off shelves until the inevitable sequel. But with Lucas’s focus on The Empire Strikes Back and producers shrinking his galaxy for a television budget, the Holiday Special suffered. So did viewers.

Mental Floss spoke with many of the principal production team members to find out exactly how Lucas’s original intentions—a sentimental look at Chewbacca’s family during a galactic holiday celebration—turned to the Dark Side.

I. A VERY WOOKIEE CHRISTMAS


Thomas Searle via YouTube

According to onetime Lucasfilm marketing director Charles Lippincott, CBS approached Star Wars distributor 20th Century Fox in 1978 to propose a television special. Fox had seen a boost in box office returns after several aliens from the Cantina scene appeared on Donny and Marie Osmond’s variety show; CBS figured the success of the film would translate into a ratings win; Lucasfilm and Lippincott though it would be a good vehicle to push toys.

With all parties motivated to move forward, two writers—Leonard “Lenny” Ripps and Pat Proft—were brought on to write a script based on an original story by Lucas.

Leonard Ripps (Co-Writer): Pat and I spent the entire day with Lucas. He took out a legal pad and asked how many minutes were in a TV special. He wrote down numbers from one to 90. He was very methodical about it. He had at least a dozen stories he had already written, so we were just helping to fill in a world he knew everything about. His idea was basically for a Wookiee Rosh Hashanah. A furry Earth Day.

Pat Proft (Co-Writer): Wookiees played a big part of it. Stormtroopers were harassing them. I don't have the script. It sure as [hell] wasn't what it ended up being.

Ripps: Pat and I had written for mimes Shields and Yarnell, which is why we were brought on. We had written lots of non-verbal stuff. The challenge was how to get things across. Wookiees aren’t articulate. Even in silent movies, you had subtitles. Whatever we wrote, it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Proft and Ripps delivered their script several weeks after the meeting. It focused on a galactic holiday celebrated by all species, with the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk selected to host the festivities that year. Chewbacca’s family—father Itchy, wife Malla, and son Lumpy—were introduced, with the writers leaving gaps for executive producers Dwight Hemion and Gary Smith to insert celebrity guest stars and musical acts. For the latter, Hemion and Smith turned to producers Ken and Mitzie Welch to arrange original songs and enlist talent.

Elle Puritz (Assistant to the Producer): I was working for the Welches at the time. I remember hearing, “OK, we’re going to do a Star Wars holiday special,” and everyone laughing about it. I thought it was a terrible idea.

Miki Herman (Lucasfilm Consultant): Lippincott requested I be involved with the special. I did a lot of ancillary projects. I knew all the props, all the actors. I hired Stan Winston to create the Wookiee family. [Sound effects artist] Ben Burtt and I were there to basically provide authenticity, to make sure everything was kept in context.

George Lucas (via Empire, 2009): Fox said, "You can promote the film by doing the TV special." So I kind of got talked into doing the special.

Ripps: Lucas told us Han Solo was married to a Wookiee but that we couldn’t mention that because it would be controversial.

Herman: I do remember Gary Smith saying they wanted to have Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ann-Margret involved, high-caliber people that were popular.

Puritz: Ken and Mitzie called Bea Arthur. They wrote a song with her in mind.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Ripps: It never occurred to us to get Bea Arthur. We spent just that one day with Lucas, then got put in touch with [director] David Acomba. Our notion was Acomba was very much Lucas’s guy, so he spoke for Lucas.

Acomba was a Canadian filmmaker who had coincidentally gone to the University of Southern California around the same time as Lucas, though the two never crossed paths at the time. Lippincott knew him, however, and hired him to direct the special in keeping with Lucas’s spirit of finding talent outside the Hollywood system.

Larry Heider (Camera Operator): David came out of a rock 'n' roll world, a documentary world. Smith and Hemion had three different projects going on at the same time, so I think they felt they wouldn’t have time to direct just this one thing.

Puritz: David wasn’t used to shooting television. Using five cameras, everything shooting at the same time. He was very indignant about his own lack of knowledge, and he did not get along with the Welches.

Ripps: I got the impression it was not what he wanted, and had turned into something he didn’t want to do. I don’t want to say he was overwhelmed, but it would’ve been overwhelming for anyone.

II. FORCING IT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

With a budget of roughly $1 million—the 1977 film cost $11 millionThe Star Wars Holiday Special began filming in Burbank, California in the summer of 1978 with a script that had been heavily revised by variety show veterans Bruce Vilanch, Rod Warren, and Mitzie Welch to reflect the Smith-Hemion style of bombastic musical numbers and kitsch. Chewbacca was now trying to race home in time for “Life Day,” with his family watching interstellar musical interludes and comedic sketches—like a four-armed Julia Child parody—on a video screen. 

Ripps: Lucas wanted a show about the holiday. Vilanch and everyone, they were wonderful writers, but they were Carol Burnett writers. In the litany of George’s work, there was never kitsch. Star Wars was always very sincere about Star Wars.

Herman: Personally, I was not a fan of Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, or Art Carney. That wasn’t my generation. But they had relationships with Dwight Hemion and the Welches.

Heider: Bea Arthur was known for being a little cold and demanding. When she was asked to do something a second time, she wanted someone to explain what was wrong. When the script wasn’t making sense for her to say something, she had a hard time translating all of that. She was pretty much [her television character] Maude.

Bea Arthur [via The Portland Mercury, 2005]: I didn't know what that was about at all. I was asked to be in it by the composer of that song I sang—"Goodnight, But Not Goodbye." It was a wonderful time, but I had no idea it was even a part of the whole Star Wars thing … I just remember singing to a bunch of people with funny heads.

After shooting the Cantina scene, it became apparent that Acomba was an ill fit for the constraints of a television schedule.

Heider: David was used to a single camera—run and gun, keep it moving, a real rock 'n' roll pace. This show was anything but. There were huge sets, make-up, costumes. It was slow-paced, and it got to him.

Ripps: I didn’t go down for the filming, but Pat went down. He has a story.

Proft: Took my kid for the Cantina scene. All the characters from the bar were there. However, they forgot [to pump] oxygen into the masks. Characters were fainting left and right.

Heider: Characters would walk around onstage with just their shirts on to stay cool. We were shooting in a very warm part of the year in Los Angeles, and it was difficult, especially with the Wookiees. They took a lot more breaks than they had calculated.

Ripps: I knew how frustrated David was. It wasn’t his vision. He phoned me up and said, “I’m not going to be working on this anymore.”

Acomba left after only shooting a handful of scenes. A frantic Smith phoned Steve Binder, a director with extensive experience in television—he had overseen the famous Elvis ’68 Comeback Special—and told him he needed someone to report to the set the following Monday morning.

Steve Binder (Director): I was between projects and got a call from Gary basically saying they had completely shut down in Burbank and there was talk of shutting it down for good. The first thing I realized was, they had built this phenomenal Chewbacca home on a huge film stage, but it was a 360-degree set. There was no fourth wall to remove to bring multiple cameras into the home. I would think it would be impossible for a crew to even get into the set to shoot anything.

Puritz: I think David was part of that plan.

Heider: I remember when that happened. I don’t think it was David’s idea. It was the way it was conceived by producers on how to make this look really cool, but it didn’t work. You have no lighting control. Steve got it. He’s really a pro. There’s no ego.

Binder: They FedExed me the script. The first thing I looked at was, the first 10 minutes was done with basically no dialogue from the actors. It was strictly Chewbacca sounds. The sound effects people would use bear sounds for the voicing. It concerned me, but there was no time to start changing the script.

Ripps: We had concerns about that. But George said, "This is the story I want to tell."

Binder: The Chewbacca family could only be in the costumes for 45 minutes. Then they’d have the heads taken off, and be given oxygen. It slowed everything down. The suits were so physically cumbersome and heavy. The actress playing Lumpy [Patty Maloney], when she came in, I don’t think she was more than 80 or 90 pounds and she a lost tremendous amount of weight while filming.

In addition to guest stars Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, and Art Carney, Lucasfilm approached most of the principals from the feature for cameo appearances. Feeling indebted to Lucas, they agreed to participate—reluctantly.

Puritz: They had made this big movie, and now they’re doing a TV special. Carrie Fisher did not want to be there.

Herman: They didn’t love doing TV. At that time, movie actors didn’t do TV. There was a stigma against it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Heider: Harrison Ford was not happy to be there at all. Carrie Fisher, I think part of her deal was she got to sing a song, and that was her draw to it. Because Lucas was involved, and if another movie is coming out in two years, there’s pressure to keep going. So they showed up, on time. Mostly.

Binder: My recall with the whole cast was that there was a little mumbling going on with a few of the actors who felt they should’ve been compensated more for the movie. I think Lucas did do that after the special, giving them small percentages.

Heider: We were doing a scene where Ford was sitting in the Millennium Falcon and he just wanted to get his lines done and he made that very clear. “Can we just do this? How long is this going to take?”

Harrison Ford (via press tour, 2011): It was in my contract. There was no known way to get out of it.

Heider: Mark Hamill was a good guy. He just had that normal-guy-trying-to-work vibe.

Mark Hamill (via Reddit, 2014): I thought it was a mistake from the beginning. It was just unlike anything else in the Star Wars universe. And I initially said that I didn't want to do it, but George said it would help keep Star Wars in the consciousness and I wanted to be a team player, so I did it. And I also said that I didn't think Luke should sing, so they cut that number.

Herman: I worked with the actors on a lot of the ancillary stuff. Honestly, they were just all so dopey.

III. BUILDING BOBA FETT


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

 

Before Acomba departed the production, he and Lucas reached out to a Canadian animation company, Nelvana, to prepare a nine-minute cartoon that would formally introduce one of the characters from The Empire Strikes Back: Boba Fett. The bounty hunter originated from a design for an unused Stormtrooper by production designers Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie; he was intended to make public appearances in the interim between films, initially popping up at the San Anselmo County Fair parade in September of 1978.

Michael Hirsh (Nelvana Co-Founder): David knew me personally. Lucas watched a special of ours, A Cosmic Christmas, that was just coming on air at the time. He asked people on his crew, including David, who we were. David said, "Oh, I know these guys." We were not a well-known company at time.

Clive Smith (Nelvana Co-Founder, Animation Director): Lucas supplied a script that he wrote. I think I probably had about two weeks to storyboard, then start character designs.

Hirsh: Frankly, I think the cartoon was more along the lines of what Lucas wanted to do in the first place—if he did the special, there was a possibility Fox and CBS would fund Star Wars cartoons. The variety show itself wasn’t something he was particularly interested in.

Smith: We ended up shooting slides of each storyboard frame. There must’ve been 300 to 400 frames. I loaded them up, put myself on a plane, and went down to San Francisco and did a presentation with a slide projector. I was in this room of people who were absolutely silent. Things that were funny, not a whimper or murmur. But at the end, George clapped.

Hirsh: CBS wanted him to use one of the L.A. studios, like Hanna-Barbera, who did most of the Saturday morning cartoons. But Lucas, from the beginning of his career, had a thing for independent companies, people who weren’t in L.A. The style of animation was modeled after [French artist] Jean “Moebius” Geraud, at Lucas’s request.


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

Smith: A lot of the designs and characters were inspired by Moebius, who did a lot of work for Heavy Metal magazine. We thought it was a good direction to point ourselves in. At the time, there was no Star Wars animation to follow.

Hirsh: There was a big deal made about the introduction of Boba Fett.

Smith: We needed to design Boba Fett, and all we had was some black and white footage of a costumed actor who had been photographed in someone’s backyard moving around. We took what was there and turned it into a graphic idea.

Hirsh: I directed the voice sessions. Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) had the most dialogue, and the other actors came in for short sessions. Harrison Ford and the other performers generally came in and nailed lines, whereas Mark Hamill was anxious to try different things. [Hamill would go on to a successful career in voiceover work.]

Herman: Michael got upset when I told him Princess Leia wore a belt. It was part of her costume, and they didn’t have it. Redoing it was going to cost them a lot of money.

Hirsh: That’s possible. Lucas was happy with how it turned out. After the special, we stayed in touch and we were developing a project with Lucasfilm and the Bee Gees. Nothing ever came of it.

IV. SPACING OUT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Nelvana had a relatively smooth journey to the finish line compared to the live-action production team. By the time Binder was prepared to shoot the climactic “Life Day” celebration with the entire cast and a group of robed Wookiees, there was virtually no money in the budget left for a large-scale spectacle.

Binder: No one ever mentioned there was no set for the closing. I was told by the art director we had no money for it in the budget. So I said, "No problem, just go out and buy every candle you can find in the store." We filled an empty stage with candles. I had experimented with this on another special, maybe a Victor Borge ice skating show. Candles in a dark environment give off an incredibly creative effect.

Herman: The sad truth is, everyone was so overwhelmed. Ken and Mitzie knew that last scene was a disaster. They came to me saying, "Help us." But George was out of the picture. It was a runaway production.

Ripps: Acomba and Lucas had walked away from it. They weren’t there to fight for anything.

Lucas: It just kept getting reworked and reworked, moving away into this bizarre land. They were trying to make one kind of thing and I was trying to make another, and it ended up being a weird hybrid between the two.

Heider: They were spending a lot of money for stage rental, lighting, a TV truck, and everyone was putting in really long hours. It translated into a big below-line budget problem. 

Herman: Honestly, a set wasn’t going to save that scene. All the Wookiees were wearing [consumer licensee] Don Post masks.

Premiering November 17, 1978, The Star Wars Holiday Special was seen by 13 million viewers, a significant but not overly impressive audience for the three-network television landscape of the era. It came in second to The Love Boat on ABC for its first hour, with a marked drop-off following the conclusion of the cartoon at the halfway point. Gurgling, apron-clad Wookiees, low-budget Imperial threats—they do nothing more sinister than trash Lumpy’s room—and an appearance by Jefferson Starship proved too bizarre for viewers.

Binder: I felt you have to open with a bang, really grab the audience, make it worth their time to sit and watch. The opening scene going on as long as it did was a killer for the TV audience.

Ripps: I had no idea what had happened to it. When it was broadcast, I had a party at my house and ordered catering. After the first commercial, I turned it off and said, "Let’s eat."

Binder: The day I finished shooting, I was on to other projects. It’s the only show I never edited or supervised the editing of. The Welches had the whole weight of the unedited special in their hands, and I questioned how much experience they had at that given they were songwriters.

Heider: Somebody made choices in terms of how long each scene would be on TV, and it's really painful.

Herman: I remember I was moving to Marin County the next day. I was staying at a friend’s house, and their son was a Star Wars fan. I had given him all the toys. Watching him watch it, he was really bored.

Binder: What I realized was, the public was not told this wasn’t going to be Star Wars. It was not the second movie. It was going to be a TV show to sell toys to kids. That was the real purpose of the show. It had nowhere near the budget of a feature film. [Lucasfilm and Kenner produced prototype action figures of Chewbacca’s family; they were never released.]

Heider: I didn’t watch it when it was on, but I do have a copy I bought several years ago on eBay. It’s not a great copy, but it’s enough to show how it was cut together. I haven’t been able to sit through whole thing at one time.

Herman: George hated it, but he knew there was nothing he could do about it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Binder: I never met Lucas, never got a phone call, anything. Which was disappointing to me. It was his show, he developed it. To totally walk away from it and critique it negatively was, I felt, not cool.

Ripps: One of the reasons I took the job was I thought it would be an annuity. Every year, I’d get a check for Star Wars.

Hirsh: I did watch it. I was happy with our contribution. It was a phenomenal opportunity for our little company. We got to work on the Droids and Ewoks animated shows later on.

Ripps: I still go out to dinners on the stories. Once, at a dinner party, one of the waiters had Star Wars tattoos up and down both of his arms. When he found out I wrote the special, we got better service than anyone in the restaurant.

Lucas: I’m sort of amused by it, because it is so bizarre. It's definitely avant garde television. It's definitely bad enough to be a classic.

Herman: The interesting thing is, the day after the special aired was the day of the Jonestown Massacre. It was just a bad time for everyone.

Dwight Hemion (via NPR, 2002): It was the worst piece of crap I’ve ever done.

This article originally ran in 2015.

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