Gorilla suits are full-bodied costumes loosely resembling gorillas or other large primates. Gorillas have long fascinated audiences, as a source of both awe and horror (as illustrated by King Kong), but also humor. The traditional gorilla suit embodies both, and as such has become a popular Halloween or masquerade party costume. It has also seen extensive use in film, television, and comics, sometimes to symbolize a "real" gorilla. More often, it's used for a gag in which a character wears a gorilla suit, and at some point, becomes entangled with the real thing (typically, played by another actor in a suit).
The early history of the art of gorilla impersonation is foggy, but seems to date at least to the late 1920s, with the rise of Charles Gemora, an early practitioner of the art in such short films as Circus Lady and the Our Gang entry Bear Shooters. In later decades, in addition to abounding in B movies such as Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, the gorilla suit came to prominence in television, in a wide range of series, from 1960s sitcoms like The Addams Family and The Beverly Hillbillies, which typically attempted to present their gorillas as "real," to more recent series such as L.A. Law and Scrubs, which have contrived to have regular characters don the primate costume. In the arena of children's television, one of the most prominent uses of the gorilla suit was on The Electric Company, through the regular character of the grunting Paul the Gorilla (played by Jim Boyd, named after first season head writer Paul Dooley).
In addition to the movies and Halloween, gorilla suits are recognized through National Gorilla Suit Day, which falls on January 31st every year. The holiday was concocted by MAD cartoonist Don Martin in a 1964 paperback Don Martin Bounces Back!. The most notable story in the tome revolves around a hapless fellow named Fenster, who dares to mock the concept of National Gorilla Suit Day and is thus repeatedly pummeled by men in gorilla suits.
Gorilla suit performance involves pantomime, wearing a heavy costume, broad physical comedy skills, and a partial suspension of disbelief, while still playing on the very artifice involved. In this respect, gorilla suits are not far removed from puppetry. Perhaps recognizing this fact, Jim Henson utilized typical gorilla suits, and never a full-bodied gorilla Muppet, in several productions as a comic throw-away gag. In all such cases, the person inside the gorilla suit is uncredited, and research has yet to identify the performers.
In recent decades, the work of performers/designers such as Rick Baker have altered the mechanics and effect of gorilla suits, often utilizing animatronics, taxidermy eyes, realistic fur, and other aides to provide a more realistic mimicking of genuine apes. Jim Henson's Creature Shop has contributed to this development in its own way, through work on Buddy and George of the Jungle, and many suit performers of Henson creatures have also portrayed gorillas in other productions. However, the Jim Henson Pictures feature film MirrorMask returned the gorilla suit to its roots, with circus performers donning the costume, and accessorizing it with a tutu.
|The Jimmy Dean Show||Rowlf the Dog tries to scare Jimmy Dean in episode 107 by wearing a gorilla Halloween mask.|
|The Jimmy Dean Show Episode 129||Rowlf hosts a makeshift awards show for animal actors. His nominee envelope is delivered by a costumed gorilla (whom Rowlf refers to as "Mr. Price").|
|Time Piece||In an echo of an earlier scene involving boys on pogo sticks, a costumed gorilla (played by Frank Oz) is seen astride his own pogo stick, in front of the Man's house.|
|Kern's||Fred states that he doesn't eat Kern's bread because he does not approve of the violence in their television commercials. In response, a gorilla arm grabs him from off-camera as Tommy watches in ignorance.|
|The Cube||The Man in the Cube is allowed by the manager to leave. The man sarcastically predicts that the moment he steps outside the door, "two gorillas grab me, dressed in ballet costumes, drag me back, throw me on the floor, and dance around me singing 'Home Sweet Home!'" Which is precisely what happens.|
"The Mad Painter #5
|The Painter plies his trade at a zoo and encounters a gorilla, who agreeably assists him in painting a 5.|
|Sesame Street||Two film inserts, in the mode of early movie melodramas, feature a suited gorilla and a woman in a park. In the first sketch, the gorilla chases the woman, who registers her protest by shouting "No." She triumphantly drags the gorilla off.
In a reversal, the gorilla sits on a park bench and generously offers the woman a banana. She eagerly says "Yes" and proceeds to eat all of his bananas.
|Sesame Street insert||One of several scenarios offered by a boy to explain how his glass of milk was spilled includes a gorilla entering the kitchen and pouring the contents of the container on the table. (First: Episode 0212)|
|Sesame Street segment - 'Fred, Get Me a 20!'||A man (played by Danny Epstein) asks Fred (played by Joe Raposo) to go out and get him a 20. In a room marked 19, he finds a gorilla, painting alone. As Fred enters, the two commence in a scuffle ending with Fred in a headlock and the gorilla holding a card with the number 20 pasted to it. (First: Episode 0277)|
|Sesame Street insert||A police officer follows clues that lead to a bathtub stolen by a gorilla. (First: Episode 0491)|
|Sesame Street insert||A film segment (First: Episode 0506) shows various types of toes, supporting that the letter T starts the word. Among the feet shown are a pair of gorilla suit feet.|
"One of These Things"
|In a cast insert, Maria hosts an elegant dinner party. One by one, three suited gorillas arrive, wearing white bowties and wielding their invitations. Bob arrives and shakes hands with the gorillas. This triggers the "One of These Things" song (crooned by Maria off-camera). Bob doesn't belong, since he's the only guest without an invitation, and the gorillas carry him off the premises. (First: Episode 0513)|
|A gorilla suit is one of many disguises Cookie Monster uses to try and coerce some cookies out of Maria.|
|The Muppet Show episode 116||In the Muppet Labs sketch, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew proudly presents his gorilla detector, only to suffer an intrusion from a costumed gorilla. Perhaps demonstrating a keen awareness of the artificiality of the gorilla suit, the detector fails to go off.|
|The Muppet Circus||Waldorf reveals that he's been posing as Quongo in the final photo reel of this 1984 View-Master set.|
|Sesame Street Episode 2464||Big Bird and Anna imagine themselves playing tug-of-war with a trio of apes.|
|The Sesame Street ABC Book of Words||In this 1988 word book, Bert sheepishly wears a gorilla suit to illustrate the letter G.|
|A costumed gorilla has escaped from the zoo and Zookeeper Fred and Tingo try to find it in Niki's basement.|
|MirrorMask||The finale of the Campbell Family Circus' nightly performance involves a choreographed chase with a gorilla, clad in tutu and party hat. The gorilla is traditionally performed by Joanne Campbell, but while halfway into the suit, she falls ill. Unbeknownst to her family, her role is assumed by the circus strongman.|
|Sesamstrasse episode 2242||Pepe turns himself into a gorilla and Sesamstrasse into a jungle.|
|The Muppet Show Comic Book: Muppet Mash issue #10||Fozzie Bear dresses as a gorilla backstage.|
The following Muppet/Creature Shop performers have also portrayed gorillas or related primates in non-Henson productions.
- John Alexander played gorillas in multiple productions, including Planet of the Apes (2001), Baby's Day Out, Jeeves and Wooster, Fierce Creatures, and Gorillas in the Mist
- Bill Barretta was one of several performers for Katie the Gorilla in Born to Be Wild
- Ailsa Berk played Kala in Greystoke
- Deep Roy played primates in Greystoke and Planet of the Apes (2001)
- Kiran Shah played primates in Greystoke
- Leif Tilden played gorillas in Born to Be Wild (with Barretta) and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls
- Mak Wilson played Figs in Greystoke
- Jones, Brian Jay. Jim Henson: The Biography. p.111