“I took you to see Filpper yesterday, didn’t I?”
Jerry on tour! Chicago Tribune, July 3, 1963.
That was Larry’s subtle way of saying there wasn’t a chance in hell we were going to spend Independence Day “meeting” Jerry Lewis in person.
Chicago in the summer of ’63 saw a bounty of 4th of July celebrity cameos. Ray Burr, TV’s Perry Mason, was appearing on stage at the Tenthouse in Oh Men, Oh Women. Gordon and Sheila “TV’s Alternate Alice Kramden” MacRae wowed crowds at the Melody Top with their dinner theatre production of Guys and Dolls.
Lewis was on a two-day, six-theatre tour with The Nutty Professor, while at the Loop Theatre Flipper was slated to make an in-tank personal appearance. Well, not the Flipper. The temperamental cetacean waged war against MGM and producer Ivan Tors, insisting a “no travel” rider be added to his contract in addition to a bowl of assorted fish in Flip’s dressing room with the red snapper removed.
Contractually bunked in Key Biscayne, Florida, the architect of dolphin dispatched in his place a trained co-star, one that probably got cold floating in the shadow of the egocentric mahimahi.
Flippermania: not the real thing, but an incredible simulation. Chicago Tribune, July 3, 1963.
Seven-years-old and a one-sheet engendered notion of switching places with a towheaded gentile riding bareback on a bottlenose dolphin — the dorsal fin doubling as the horn of a western saddle — crowded the brain. Burst another bubble for the kid from Rogers Park. Water exists for three reasons — scrubbing, swigging, flushing — none of which involve swimming in dolphin poop. The original landlubber: 14 years in San Diego and not once has so much as a toe entered the Pacific.
That wasn’t the case in 1963, what with Lake Michigan a scant two blocks away from our spacious apartment at 1057 Thorndale. A sadder and wiser ex-Navy man, Dad was always drawn to the water. He envisioned dying at sea rather than seated in a Sears recliner. We spent many a sunset together at Thorndale Avenue Beach, little Scooter building castles in the sand, Larry staring off into the pink horizon, playing back in his head the bloodshed he witnessed while invading a beach in Normandy.
The conflict set before Larry that holiday weekend was puny and absurd by comparison and an easy one for him to resolve. If given a choice between something with an ocean in it and anything else, the water won. Lewis would have to wait.
Best double-bill ever!
It would be a father-and-son night out. Babe minded the kitchen while Larry adjusted our safety belts and pointed the Rambler in the direction of North Lake Shore Drive.
What has eight wheels, hundreds of gallons of water, and a towbar? Flipper Jr.’s trailer as it posed curbside before the runty State Street cinema, dwarfed by its neighboring picture palace, the 3000-seat Chicago. The fugitive from the tuna net’s accommodations barely allowed enough room for the animal to swing a lox, let alone demonstrate its tail-walking finesse.
It wan’t my first brush with celebrity. That honor went to Miss Nancy, the host of a locally televised rip-off of Romper Room who stopped by the neighborhood Eagle grocery store to host a best-costume competition. Babe transformed a few pieces of cardboard and a roll of Reynolds Wrap into a set of Tin Man threads. Ma went to her grave swearing the contest was rigged.
Flip Jr.’s driver and personal valet resignedly minded the oversized fishbowl, smoking cigarettes and occasionally casting a bite of sushi her way.
Flipper Theme (English/German)
Flipper and the enormously popular TV series it spawned — to this day Antenna TV airs back-to-back episodes Monday through Friday starting at 1 pm — launched countless careers in marine biology. It also transformed dolphins into the world’s most beloved mammal and a license to print money for numerous zoos and vacation destinations across the land.
Flipper came to mind during my one and only visit to SeaWorld. A high school crony and his family were in town for a visit. Working at MoPA had its perks. Back in the day, SeaWorld had an exchange policy that enabled me to pass the six of us in for free.
Talk about getting what you pay for. A swarm of tuxedoed, aquatic birds packed an artificial, glass-enclosed coop, evoking images of a penguin Auschwitz. Children weren’t allowed to drink from plastic straws — for the safety of the animals, plastic straws are strictly verboten — yet at the time parents were invited to slosh down a glass or two of liquid bread at the now-defunct Anheuser-Busch beer garden.
A good chunk of that 4th of July screening was devoted to figuring a way to make it an independent day for a cruelly enslaved animal. It broke my heart to see the dolphin waiting to greet us when the movie let out. Couldn’t somebody have hijacked the rolling aquarium, turned right on Grand Avenue, and deposited Flip Jr. in the lake?
“They’re saltwater animals,” Dad pointed out. “Either way, it’s probably going to die.” This from a man who found humor in the last reel of Bambi.
Larry knew just the trick to take my mind off dead sea life. If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em! Too late to catch the dinner performance of Oh Men, Oh Women, he hooked a right on Grand and before hitting the water, pulled in front of Al’s Fishery for a post-show bag of Flipper’s friends: shrimp, fried golden brown to perfection.