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The ‘original’ gorilla

Charles Gemora in his gorilla suit (center) with Laurel and Hardy in the short film The Chimp

MANILA, Philippines - When theater actor and singer Audie Gemora recently watched Kong: Skull Island, the Hollywood movie that resurrected big screen’s primal ape, King Kong, Audie immediately remembered his uncle, Charles Gemora, who interestingly started the gorilla portrayals in Hollywood back in the 1930s.

Probably unknown to most Filipinos, the elder Gemora donned gorilla suits and played the monster character in a number of Hollywood movies. IMDb (Internet Movie Database) has a detailed account about Charles’ work as a make-up artist and his name also has a Wikipedia entry.

In Audie’s recent post on his Facebook page, he reminded his social media friends that the late Carlos Cruz Gemora “became a Hollywood legend in his own right playing gorillas and working with luminaries.”

Charles also created the movie set of the first Phantom of the Opera, according to Audie, who shared that additional information also from Charles’ IMDb entry. And then, teasing his nephew, Mio Infante, a noted scenographer in theater, TV and the live concert scene, “Mio, you are not the first scenographer in the family,” Audie said in his post. “So you see, aping around runs in the blood.”

Born on June 15, 1903 in Negros, Charles was a stowaway who arrived in San Francisco but ended up working in a fruit farm in Colusa, California. He later moved to Los Angeles, where he earned his keep doing portrait sketches outside of Universal Studios.

It was at Universal Studios where Charles’ artistic talent was discovered and utilized initially in the sculpture department for 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. His 5’5” frame became ideal to make him don an ape costume, starting with The Leopard Lady in 1928.

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Charles’ Wikipedia entry also detailed that he studied about real gorillas in the San Diego Zoo. “His expertise on make-up gave him an extensive career as a gorilla,” as he shared stellar credits opposite the likes of Bela Lugosi (Murders in the Rue Morgue), Laurel and Hardy (The Chimp and Swiss Miss), Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (Road to Zanzibar) and Robert Mitchum (White Witch Doctor).

His only daughter, Diana, recalled that her fondest memory of her dad, “Charlie,” was going to the studio from the time she was only one-and-a-half years old. “Being around the sets, watching stars go from plain to beautiful and watching him work magic and invent in his special lab. I was his little apprentice.”

Diana’s favorite among Charles’ film appearances is The Monster and the Girl. “It was the most realistic and his acting ability came to the fore front,” she offered. “He showed that gorillas have pathos. Their mouth never moves. He was a great mime.”

Charles had many uncredited gorilla suit appearances. In 1953’s The War of the Worlds, Diana even helped him create the “memorable alien menace” costume overnight. “Being able to be under the floorboards during shooting and pumping the air for the throbbing veins... It was the most memorable of my experiences with him,” she recalls.

Charles is an “ion” in the industry, said Diana proudly. “He invented so many things that contributed to what made the movies what they are today. Charlie was a teacher. He apprenticed just about every major make-up man. He invented studio blood, aging and special effect processes and much more. His main job was as a make-up man, specializing in glamour and special effect aging and scarring. He also did incredible sets in the 1920s and 1930s.”

One of his best contributions was “rubber latex,” Diana said. “He found he could ‘whip’ rubber to make the gorilla suit lighter. It weighed almost 75 pounds with padding. His suit actually shortened his life. The acrobatics and weight were hard on his poor heart.”

Charles died of a heart attack in 1961, while working on the make-up for Jack the Giant Killer, which would have been his last film. The gorilla gig was almost accidental, according to Diana, when a producer figured Charles was the best to work the suit he made.

“Charlie was known for his generosity of spirit. He never held a trade secret to himself. He shared everything he knew about his craft and how it could help others. His feeling was that if you shared what you knew, it enlarged everyone.

“Charlie gave away most of his accomplishments, so as to give the credit to other people. He let them take the spotlight, while he just enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing some great idea become reality. This happened so many times, it drove my mom bonkers. Charlie did not like the spotlight. He was known for his humility and his very funny ways. He was a funny guy without trying, just a natural in so many ways. Did Charlie leave a lasting impression? You can bet your gorilla on that!”

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