Carmen Nigro: The man who thought he was King Kong
In the early 1980s, Mrs Evelyn Nigro was thoroughly fed up of having a gorilla costume in her Chicago basement apartment.
The thing was over fifty years old. It had mildew and it was getting smelly. She told her husband, Carmen – a seventy seven year old security guard, that it had to go. It was either the costume or her. It was playing havoc with her allergies.
Reluctantly, Carmen threw the thing away. It was cheaper to do that than to pay for Evelyn’s visiting the doctor every week with her allergies, he said.
Yet it was his claim to fame. Carmen often told the story about how he played the part of King Kong in the 1933 movie of the same name.
Movie historians say his claim is nonsense. They assert that the gorilla seen in the film was entirely animated and that there was no man in a gorilla suit at all. Ever.
Carmen would retort by saying that theses experts knew nothing because they weren’t there and would ask why then. would RKO pay him $150 a week for ten months while he worked on the film, officially listed as a stuntman.
He agreed that yes, many scenes featuring the huge gorilla were featuring an animated model and that there were the famous hairy mechanical hand that so terrified early cinema audiences when it picked up Fay Wray. But, he explained reasonably, that there were many scenes that called for a man in a gorilla suit. Him. Carmen.
He also pointed out, also quite reasonably, that everyone else who was involved with the film has now either disappeared into obscurity or has shuffled off their mortal coil. He maintained that the King Kong seen on the top of the Empire State Building was him. And he described the complexity of the set.
There was a painted New York backdrop, he said, and a large model of the top of the Empire State Building. In his gorilla suit, plus fur-covered ballet shoes that were fixed with non-slip soles, he was stationed on the top. What about the airplanes that tried to zap him? Mostly they were movies that were projected onto the backdrop, he says. But three were gas powered models. This sounds reasonable enough.
He had a doll in his hand, representing Fay Wray, which he had carefully placed on a ledge of the supposed Empire State Building while he lunged for the tiny planes. To support his story, he had newspaper cuttings and other memorabilia in several scrapbooks. That scene, said Carmen, took about four hours to shoot.
When reporter Bob Greene first met him in 1976, Carmen demonstrated to him how gorillas move. ‘Your gorilla’ he explained ‘thrusts his body forward and he weaves. He isn’t very tall when he’s walking but when he stretches out he’s much bigger’. He told Greene that he had been to Africa twice with hunter Frank Buck,and that’s where his specialised knowledge came from.
He also explained that there was another actor who wanted the part of King Kong, named Van Horn. But, Carmen said, he got the part himself because he knew how gorillas moved, plus of course, he already had the suit. He did not, sadly, explain exactly why although he claimed to have been a gorilla in about thirty films including Mighty Joe Young and several Tarzan films. The costume, he said, had cost him $3,500 in 1927 and was made from six full bear skins.
So was Carmen Nigro King Kong?
Carmen died in 1990. Even then, computers wouldn’t be considered as essential mainstream items for another couple of years. And there are certainly no records from 1933. Maybe the makers of King Kong wanted the critics to believe that they had performed wonders of animation?
He maintained that the mechanical Kong was used for various parts of the beast – such as Fay Wray being shown in his grasp – but, as Carmen said, when the whole gorilla was shown,it was him and his gorilla suit. When he signed his contract, it was made plain that he was forbidden to use the King Kong name in any future act or publicity. He was employed only as a stuntman and extra.
After Hollywood, Carmen found work as a cook on the railways then moved onto the security business. When he retired from his job as a security guard he and Evelyn moved to Indiana so that she could be closer to her family.
Bob Greene, the reporter who interviewed Carmen several times, was pretty sure that Carmen was telling the truth.
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