A suburban couple decides to raise a chimpanzee instead of children.” That movie-listing synopsis of Bedtime for Bonzo was hardly portentous in 1951, but Bonzo’s comical imitation of a kid made the film one of co-star Ronald Reagan’s few box office successes. Now, as President-elect, he may unwittingly return the favor. Thanks to the White House connection, Bonzo will be “the hottest merchandising vehicle since Lassie or Bambi”—or so claims Bonzo’s co-creator, Ed Brickman, 66. Adds Brickman’s brother-in-law and partner in the Bonzo biz, Raphael Blau, 68: “It’s like finding a 30-year-old bond in the attic—and all from a B movie.”
The Bonzo boomlet began spontaneously during the primary campaign last spring with the appearance of bootleg Bonzo T-shirts as well as “Bonzo for President” bumper stickers and a coy sign proposing “Bedtime for Jimmy.” Naturally, Brickman and Blau moved to cash in, but before election day stores were reluctant to handle Bonzo merchandise because it seemed partisan. Now the pair argues that stocking Bonzo artifacts has come to seem downright patriotic. Already they have begun selling licenses to manufacture everything from Bonzo suspenders and baseball caps to sheets, pillowcases, china and umbrellas. A Bonzo poster is in its second printing of 75,000, and the chimp is up for his own comic strip and TV special.
It is, of course, not the original Bonzo. He died—along with his stunt-chimp Bonzo II—when a fire swept through Universal Studio’s animal dorm in 1952, a few months after Bonzo Goes to College was produced (without Reagan). Bonzo III is a 5½-year-old chimp named Jeff, who shares the original’s rare white face and floppy right ear. According to Brickman, Jeff may be Bonzo I’s great-grandnephew. “It’s hard to authenticate,” he admits. “But the first Bonzo was kind of a sexpot. Presumably he had his flings like any other star.”
Blau invented Bonzo after reading about a Yale anthropologist who tried raising a chimp like a child in the ’40s. He enlisted Brickman’s help in writing the screenplay. It sold for a disappointing $18,000, but they retained the rights to the Bonzo character. At the time, says Blau of their reasoning, “Mickey Mouse was making lots of money.”
The name Bonzo stayed alive in part because Bedtime’s director, Fred De-Cordova, went on to produce The Tonight Show—and became the brunt of innumerable Bonzo jokes from Johnny Carson. Bedtime was also a popular ad hominem weapon among Reagan’s critics during his years in the California statehouse and became a favorite at campus “Dump Ron” rallies. For that reason, Brickman charges, Republicans among the Universal Pictures brass tried to tie up all the Bedtime prints when Reagan began his presidential bid.
Still, Reagan himself joked about Bonzo on the campaign trail; a toy stand-in was, in fact, the mascot aboard Reagan’s airborne campaign HQ, Leader Ship 80. “Bonzo helped Reagan,” says Brickman. “Sure people laughed, but the whole thing served to humanize him. Supposedly Reagan was this horrible conservative. How could you square that with a guy holding a chimp?”
Brickman and Blau, who were both born and raised in the New York area, met 35 years ago when “Rate” began dating Ed’s sister Helen. Both were fledgling writers, and Bonzo made them a $2,000-a-week team. Later the Blaus moved to Nova Scotia, where Raphael gardens and directs local theater. Brickman, a divorcé, stayed in Santa Barbara, where he studies jazz piano, teaches screenwriting and helps run Bonzo Enterprises from his one-bedroom apartment. Both men are also working on novels, thanks in part to profits already realized on the Bonzo bonanza. Looking beyond the vicissitudes of politics, Brickman is convinced Bonzo will eventually be “as big as TR’s Teddy bear—there is no limit on it. The Reagan connection is important now,” he concedes, “but we’re creating a character people can love forever.”