Kadner: Bozo’s gorilla lives in Homewood
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org August 1, 2013 7:22PM
Updated: September 3, 2013 7:40AM
As I enter Jay Weicker’s house in Homewood, he explains, “I’m like Zelig or Forrest Gump, only a lot smarter.”
Weicker, 66, telephoned me a couple of days earlier to pitch an idea.
“You know where they want to build a casino in Homewood, around Halsted Street?” he said. “Well, I think they should build a miniature Wrigley Field. Not for the Cubs to play in, although maybe they could, but as a theme park.
“You could have plaques outside of the great players, a walking path and bike trail and inside kids could play softball and baseball games.”
Weicker was talking a mile a minute, but I stopped him cold. I wasn’t interested in a theme park for the North Side ballclub in the Southland.
“But did you say you played the gorilla on ‘Bozo’s Circus?’ ” I said.
“That’s right,” Weicker said. “And I was a bartender in the Pump Room and at Zanie’s on Rush Street and a tour guide on a double-decker bus. ... I had lots of jobs.”
I told Weicker I was more interested in his jobs than in the theme park and asked if we could talk.
And so we met at his home on Thursday, where he had spread out nearly 40 years of memorabilia on a couch.
“You want to hear my Oprah story?” Weicker said at one point, a question I would hear attached to a dozen different names during the course of our conversation.
“Sure,” I said.
Oprah Winfrey was opening up a restaurant/bar with Rich Melman, of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, and Weicker was hired as one of the bartenders. He worked at several Lettuce Entertain You restaurants and bars throughout the years.
“Well, Oprah wanted to have like 20 signature martinis for the place,” Weicker said. “Usually, you have maybe four or five. But she wanted 20. So before the place opens, the bartenders are mixing these drinks and there, sitting at a table, are Oprah and Stedman (Graham, her longtime boyfriend).
“The drink I’m assigned to mix is called ‘Death in the Afternoon’ and it has 4 ounces of tequila. I said, ‘how about three ounces?’ I mean, you give a person a drink with four ounces of tequila and that’s it. They’re going to be done. They’re not ordering a second drink, and if they do, they’re going to be ordering from the floor.”
But 4 ounces it remained, and Weicker insists that as he crossed paths with Oprah over the years she often didn’t remember him until he said, “Death in the Afternoon.”
“She always puckered her lips and made a face,” Weicker laughed.
“You want to hear my Kelly Ripa story?”
Ripa was shooting an episode of her TV show in Chicago, and Weicker was driving a double-decker tour bus at the time. He was parked in front of the Field Museum when Ripa came running up and asked him if he could drive her and her crew around.
“I took them on a tour of the museums, and as we’re driving she sits in front of me and asks if she can sing to me,” he said. “She starts singing ‘Papa Don’t Preach.’ I don’t know why that song. Unfortunately the clip never made it on the show. I really wanted a copy of that.”
He said he also served actress Barbara Eden drinks at Zorine’s and tended bar at a party where Princess Grace and Gregory Peck were the guests of honor.
All right. Great.
But what about the Bozo gig. How does a bartender end up in a gorilla costume on what may be the most popular kids’ TV show in history?
You never go from Point A to Point B in a conversation with Weicker.
To hear about Bozo, I first have to learn that he grew up in Chicago Heights, where he began acting in a local theater company, and attended Southern Illinois University, where he appeared in more plays. He even got a job on a TV show. He pulls out an old copy of TV Guide and shows me a page with a listing for a program called “Stacalee” on Channel 11.
“It was only shown once and never again,” he said.
The description of the show reads, “The Doctor Faustas legend as it might have been told in the Old West.”
“I was Old Scratch, the devil,” Weicker said, with an evil gleam in his eye.
After college, Weicker tended bar at night but appeared in live children’s theater shows during the day. And that’s how he met actors Cesar Romero and Vera Miles, among others.
“They would be appearing at Drury Lane or the old Forum Theater in Summit in plays at night and had nothing to do during the day, so they would sit around and talk to those of us in the children’s theater.”
All right, so about the Bozo show ...
“I’m getting there,” he said. “I was doing children’s theater, “The Nutcracker,” and a woman I was working with often appeared as the gorilla in Bozo. They used a lot of different actors as the gorilla. They used her for the dancing gorilla because she could dance. She was built like Dolly Parton by the way.
“Anyway, she couldn’t do Bozo one day, so she sent me over. I ended up doing the show about 300 times from 1977 to 1992.
“I showed up another 500 times just to hang around the set, and sometimes it turned out the gorilla had been written in the script but the producer had forgotten to call.”
Well, he must have made good money being the gorilla?
“People always say that, and I say it was WGN,” Weicker said. “They didn’t pay anything, just ask anyone who worked for them back then. I got $50 a show. I could have asked for more, I suppose, but I was a gorilla. I mean, you can put anyone in a gorilla suit and the people don’t care.”
People always ask Weicker if he has the gorilla suit.
“You know the warehouse in ‘Citizen Kane?’ Well, that’s probably where the gorilla suit is. Or maybe the Smithsonian. I would love to have that costume.
“But I tell you what, if I walk into any bar and mention I was the gorilla on Bozo I don’t have to pay for drinks. I’ve lived off those Bozo stories for years.”
Correction: Rasul “Rocky” Clark suffered his catastrophic injury while playing in a game against Oak Forest High School, not during a practice.