This history is based on personal experience with my Dad, from stories of relatives, letters and documents. For corrections contact Diana.
Carlos Cruz Gemora was born in 1903 on the Island of Negros, the youngest of 18 children. The Gemora Family owned outright, one third of the largest island in the Phillipines, having been there since the 15th century. Each child in this branch of the family inherited 3 Haciendas or 1 million acres of land. Charlies's father died when he was very young and the eldest brother took over the assets. Forcing even his own mother to a court case that set requisites in International Law. She was forced to relinquish her rights when oil was discovered.
Carlos ran away to the capitol city of Manila when he was nine and dove for pennies thrown from ships along with the other native youth. He was found by his elder brother and taken back to be sequestered in a monastery until he was old enough to sign his land away. He never did, but years later had to give it up when he didn't return to the Islands after the Second World War for reclamation..
At fifteen (still in the monastery ) he was on death watch with a body when it shot straight up into the sitting position (rigor mortis). That was it! He got up, walked out and never looked back.
Back to Manila and drawing sailors with sea shell frames, begging to be stowed away to the U.S. of A.. He charmed some sailors who took him on board and hid him. Half way through the journey a pressure valve got stuck and they needed a very small person to wrench it open. Here comes Charlie to the rescue! He was hailed a hero and openly taken to the Port of Long Beach to be smuggled past customs. He arrived in 1922.
That year he moved into Mother Westmore’s Boarding House with the 11 Westmore children where he was treated as one of the family. In his papers there are references from Brentwood Fruit Co. and Minicks Dairy, where he worked. He also won his first art contest, he beat out thousands in a competition sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Westmore boys and he would camp out in the alley across from Universal Studios, hoping to be picked up as extras on cattle call jobs. Charlie started drawing people as they exited the studio. He was "discovered" and immediately put into the art department where he started with sets. Once there, he flew to the top and by nineteen he was designing sets for Douglas Fairbanks' art director and also apprenticed with Lon Chaney.
C. B. DeMille made many epics in the twenties and Charlie’s enormous talent was used to sculpt gigantic sets and statues. He was involved in the sculpting of the original facade for the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923). That Cathedral set stood on the Universal Studio back-lot for many years and was used in every remake.
He designed and was in charge building the set for the original "Phantom of the Opera" (1925), it still stands at this writing and bears a plaque explaining it is a "haunted set". Immediately after the original filming, grips kept falling to their deaths from the catwalks. The whole super structure would start shaking, I pray it wasn't Charlie's fault.
Charlie noticed a need for a better gorilla than just throwing an Extra into a mock-up, rug like suit. Thus, his first suit was born! The next thing you know, he’s posing with Sid Grauman and Daryl Zanuck for a promo of "Noah’s Ark" directed by Michael Curtis. He was definitely drawn to and intrigued by the lure of "The Gorilla".
Speaking of promos. In the 20’s and 30’s, the Studios and individual producers put on great promotions. A funny one was when Charlie had to promote a "Road" flick. Dorothy Lamour and he were stationed on Hollywood and Vine to sign autographs, well that was Dorothy’s job, Charlie’s was to be in a cage. Dorothy wore a fur coat over her sarong seeing as how it was winter (it was cold in those days). Charlie, on the other hand, was sweltering in his suit.
Every day a little ole’ lady would come and look with pity at Charlie. He was trying to be fierce, she’d just shake her head and walk away. After 4 days of this, she could stand it no longer and complained to the Humane Society that the Studio was being mean and cruel by freezing this poor gorilla and it was indecent for him to be NAKED on top of that! On their last day he was forced to keep a blanket around him. She almost killed him with kindness and decency.
By l927 he was making $250.00 a week for rental of himself and the suit in "Leopard Lady" (1928) for Cecil B DeMille. By l930 he was making $500.00 per week for actual gorilla characters that had names but never, never got any credit in most movies, such as "The Unholy Three" (1930), "Bear Shooters" (1930), "Ingagi" (1931). Charlie was making as much as the Big Stars. There are numerous clips of the "very famous" being quoted as saying they loved Charlie but hated to work with the Gorilla because he stole all the scenes he was in.
He could be scary and fierce, like in "Murders of the Hue Morgue" (1932) or a funny foil for Oliver Hardy in "Swiss Miss" (1938) or for Lou Costello in "Africa Screams" (1949). Charlie cut a wide swath across the talent field and yet no one knew his name.
Charlie was there for the glory years of the studio system. He innovated many special effects and ways of using latex that had never been done before, including helping soldiers that were terribly disfigured after World War Two. He was famous for giving credit to others and always let them take the glory. He only wanted to see his ideas done right, his generosity of spirit in the sharing of ideas survives in legend today.
Another funny story comes to mind - Charlie loved to tell this one. While filming on the docks in the thirties, the movie company would pretend that Charlie was a real gorilla, strictly for publicity reasons. He would stay in his cage at lunch and not break character until he was taken out of sight in the early afternoon.
When no one was around or not looking, one local sailor would torment him, sticking him with a pointed pole and generally trying to provoke him. It wore Charlie out and frustrated him. On the final day of location Charlie and the Crew decided he needed a good lesson, they loosened the bars and hid to watch. When the mean sailor came to torment the poor gorilla with his sharp pole, Charlie stood up with a roar, beating his chest as he lunged at the bars throwing them to one side. The astonished sailor screamed at the top of his lungs, he turned and ran away so fast, he laid rubber. He was never seen again, not even to pick up his paycheck. Needless to say, he left the crew and Charlie bent over with laughter. A gorilla bent over laughing must have been a sight to see!
Charlie worked every Paramount film which had a gorilla in it or "special" make-up job, such as aging or scars or a monster. Paramount and RKO were only separated by a wall, they could just as well have been one lot - and there was a lot of cross-over work going on. Charlie was a favorite of Hal Roach and did all the Little Rascals films. Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers were all his special friends.
Charlie worked on so many films, he never even knew the name of the one he was on. By the fifties he was sometimes driving to other studios i.e., Fox, MGM, Columbia and the Independents, to troubleshoot or help someone out. He worked on some "Sinbad" and Kerwin Matthews films with Harryhausen where he did make-up and helped with special effects.
I never resented Wally Westmore taking Dad's credit because that was the "deal" they made and it suited them. But when one of the Westmore boys, I can't remember which one, Jerry Merrill - little Oscar Meyer - wanted me to sue him, he was so mad at the Westmores. Jerry Merrill played all the chimps for dad and worked with him building the suits and acting "chimpy".
Charles Cruz Gemora and Isabel Grace Fyffe were first cousins. Mom's mother was Catalina Louise (Mamerta) Gemora, close enough! Charlie was born on Negros and Mom was born on Luzon. The Gemora family was very wealthy and powerful during the time of the Spanish, some remained so, some not, after the Americans took over at the beginning of the 20th century. The city part of the family kissed up to the Americans and ended up with enough of the power to take the money away from the richer country folk who held the Spanish land grants. Our great Uncle became the first Supreme Court Justice. Revolutionaries were either being hid by our family, or our family was being hidden by them. It was just as crazy then is it is now.
My mother, Isabel, came to the USA because friends of the family in "the know" had fears for the safety of the three sisters: Mae, Isabel and Virginia. They knew a war was coming. Isabel was the first to find her way to the States by getting engaged to her American boss and sailing here as his fiancÚ. Once on board she unengaged herself and promptly got engaged to an Admiral's Aide. Isabel toured the United States fleeing from her then ex fiancÚ (s), she ended up with 6. She was written up in Hollywood as quite the gad-about Socialite. On her way through Hollywood in the mid 1930's, she remembered she had a cousin who worked in the Movie Industry whom she had not seen since she was five years old.
She went to her Auntie Rico, Charlie's father's sister who had lived in San Diego for years. She asked her to be taken to meet Charlie. When they drove up he was waiting for the delivery of his French-horned white Chrysler convertible. He had a 'deal' to get the first one that came out in Hollywood every year, he even beat out The Barrymores, so you can imagine he was eagerly looking out the window.
Charlie saw her through the window as she was approaching the house and said to himself, "That's the woman I'm going to marry", without even knowing who she was. She was always very busy with a lot of suitors, but Charlie managed to convince her that he was 'the man' and they got married in 1937. Being cousins he was more than willing to bring over Mae and Virginia, also this became a family matter and he had to "ask permission" from his Auntie Rico.
She told him they shouldn't sleep together till they knew each other better and that should take about a year. They decided to marry sooner than later so Charlie could start taking care of Isabel (Belle) and they could begin the process of bringing her sisters from the Islands. They found it was against the law to marry your first cousin in the State of California so they went to Mexico and bribed the Bishop to marry them there. In the Catholic Church it was also not allowed, although in other countries it happened all the time.
When the youngest sister. Virginia, came to stay with them Auntie Rico visited to be sure they were all alright. To her astonishment Charlie was sleeping in his own room and the sisters were sleeping together. She immediately took Virginia with her and left them to themselves. Charlie had honorably listened to his Auntie Rico.
Charlie built a beautiful home on top of the Hollywood Hills for his new bride. Sitting on a long crest all to ourselves, overlooking Hollywood and Vine with sweeping views from Long Beach to Malibu on one side, the Hollywood Lake and the Hollywoodland sign were on the other. From time to time he would sell off a lot or two to finance one of his ventures.
These ventures were the main reason for the rest of the hill to get sold and also the big beautiful home. He saved one lot and built what most people would call a "Bohemian Home", today you’d call it a Hippie Pad. My brother Pat and I and Charlie, loved it! In this kooky house an enormous amount of creative energy was expended. Charlie built a Lab that wrapped around two sides of an Olympic sized pool, the whole thing sat on a cliff so the Lab was open to a full two-sided view of the city and beyond. The roof was the patio with sweeping city and coastling views. We looked right down to Hollywood and Vine, The City looked like a model, just like in the flicks. It was too good to be true.
At Paramount, each floor of the Studio Make-up building held a department. The bottom floor was "Hair" with Nellie Manley in charge, "Make Up" on the middle floor with Wally Westmore in charge and the top floor was "Wardrobe" with Edith Head in charge. It was Super Charged! That building was a beehive of activity. That was the place to be if you really wanted to know the pulse of Paramount. Nellie and Edith were top notch prima-donnas. It was one continuous opera, good thing the men were between them - except the Body Make-up gals were with the guys.
Oblatt's, the great diner across the street from the famous Paramount Gate was 'the place' to eat, from crew to stars. When Paramount started Channel Five, the first TV station on the West Coast Charlie with me in tow, would dash across the street from the lot to the shooting stage which was one long building abutting Oblatts, just a commercial space like a store. All the shows were set up in a line, in their own little cubicles. Charlie would go down the line and do the-make up for "Cooking with Corliss", Korla Pandit, - he had a 15 minute organ stint, "Space Patrol", etc, etc. Stan Freberg did "Cecil & Beany" there, being puppets, they didn't need make-up. This was all done between shots on whatever film Charlie was also working on. It was great fun for me, and little did I know it was history in the making.
One day Charlie was having his shoes shined at the stand inside the Lot. He noticed these paintings of "The Blue Boy" being paraded right in front of him. He asked what was up and was told they were being taken to a stage to be judged by the Art Director of "Kitty" (1943). It was a national contest open to the public as a promotional for the film which featured the artist Gainsboro. Charlie didn't know if he was scheduled to work on it, though he did all the specialtie and historical films.
His artistic 'bent' took over and he leaped up without his shoes even being finished. Off he went to buy a canvas and rushed home to start on "The Blue Boy". He had only until the Monday morning deadline and this is all taking place on a late Friday afternoon. They had a party to go to that night and while Belle was getting ready, he started painting. When he got home he painted. He was part of a revolving Poker Game and while that was going on, he painted. He painted, day and night, between this and that. Monday morning it was delivered "wet" (one of his trademarks). He won!! He also did all of the rest of the paintings for the film, and made up Paulette Goddard. Double artistry!
Although Charlie was "guilty" of being a Jack of all trades, in the background always loomed "The Gorilla Suit", his nemesis and his family’s. In those days there was no light padding, he had to use stuffed cotton which weighed almost as much as Charlie who stood a slight 5’4". The fact that his body could not breath, plus the weight, caused him to have a major heart attack in 1943. I’m sure part of my gorilla fear was my little brain putting together the fact that this monster had 'done in' my daddy.
On his recovery he could not work the stunts and mostly did just the close ups. Burt Lancaster’s trapeze buddy Angel, from Burt’s circus days, did all the stunt work after that. Perhaps because of this, Charlie’s Gorilla always seemed the most realistic. In fact, the Gorilla could now swing from buildings - Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954 ) - because of Angel’s athletic skill.
After World War II, Charlie got the brilliant idea to open the first drive-ins and Orange Julius’s in the Orient. Being from the Philippines and seeing all the occupying forces from the USA, what better than serving the service men and helping his homelanders. He used quonset huts, it was a terrific idea. Adorable Filipina car-hops and adoring and grateful service men. His other idea, to feed his own film making fantasy, was to make movies here for the Filipino market. To do this he had to have a chain of movie theaters in the Islands, he accomplished this with relatives and by sponsoring many beautiful and handsome actors to come to the States.
This enabled him to put on celluloid all his screenplay ideas. His favorite was "The Gorilla and the Lady", the story of a young noblewoman carried into the jungle when she was six years old by a great ape. Raised by the gorillas, she becomes the Queen of the Jungle and the story goes on to cover the familiar lines. He made the Lady six years old when she gets carried off from her parent’s expedition, guess how old I was?
I will never, never forget my fear at the prospect of being in this film. I 'knew’ the suit wasn’t a real gorilla. Never mind! I still held that fear just as strong as when I was one. I did it shaking all the time, I still remember the feel of the suit against me as he carried me off down a dirt path and into the Hollywood Jungle. Hanging from his arm like a limp rag doll, I’ve got to admit, it broke my physical fear but not my spiritual one.
I have 6 wonderful charcoal drawings done as a storyboard for "The Gorilla and the Lady".
By eight I was helping to refurbish and actually helped make a Gorilla body. The head resided in it's own 'sacred box'. My job was to crochet on the yak hairs and keep them brushed and fluffy. Still, I held a fear of that limp, rubbery and blackened piece of latex, it took me being in my teens to start treating it with the respect it deserved.
In the early 1950's Charlie was involved in developing 3-D technology and and starred in "Bwana Devil" (1952) the first 3-D movie. He was also involved in the making of "House of Wax" (1953), another 3-D movie.
One of Charlie’s last funny acts was an incident that happened involving a neighbor. Mr. Bud Wolfe had built a real castle from the stone out of Bronson Canyon. That’s the quarry they used for every Western and cave shot starting with the silents. This quirky neighbor had two gibbon apes that serenaded all the hills, and one bright morning we wake up to screaming in the living room. It’s one of the gibbons jumpimg and screeching all over the place!
Charlie grabs the Gorilla head, donning it, he starts jumping and grunting trying to make friends. Gibbon apes are long and spidery and they love to scream. This ape refused to quiet down and in fact he got more agitated at seeing the head, jumping from furniture to walls and back. No doubt I would have felt the same too.
Before we know it, the Chinese maid’s 5 year old daughter comes running in, scolding this misbehaving animal like it’s another child. The ape stops immediately and grabs her hand to be walked quietly home. My last image is of a little girl walking down the road, holding the hand of Mr. Gibbon Ape. Charlie is standing there shaking his Gorilla head, wearing his pajamas and lift shoes, hands on hips. I could almost feel him thinking, "Time to retire!"
Shortly afterwards Charlie passed because of a heart attack (1961). It was quick. I’ve never recovered from the loss of such a generous and loving spirit. He lit the world for a brief starry period. He was blessed to be a part of The Industry when raw talent was your only 'resume’.
Charlie made many famous monsters in his career, but when all is said and done, The Gorilla reigned supreme and was ever with us. I can truly say, King Kong may have died for love of a woman, but Charlie died for love of a Gorilla.
Amen to that.
Diana Gemora Jones