Philip Morris: An Interview With The Man Who Birthed Bigfoot
I grew up on In Search Of... , so I loved hearing about the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti, Bigfoot, and other cryptozoological creatures as ...
I grew up on In Search Of..., so I loved hearing about the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti, Bigfoot, and other cryptozoological creatures as a kid (and still do!). When I heard the Bigfoot seen in the Patterson–Gimlin film, the Holy Grail of Bigfoot footage, was allegedly a gorilla costume created by Philip Morris of Charlotte's Morris Costumes, I had to track the man down and speak with him. Not only did he agree to an interview, he graciously showed me around his store and haunted house, which unfortunately hasn't been open for years. We spoke about what got him into the costume business, his traveling show, the haunted house, and of course, Patterson and Bigfoot.
How did you get started in creating costumes?
Early on as a child, I was really interested in costumes, primarily gorilla suits and so forth. I decided when I grew up, which I never really have, I would eventually become a costumer.
How hard was it to break into the business?
I was born and raised in Michigan and then I moved down here. I found out that they were looking for costumes for shows and that's when I started making them. My wife, she worked with me and we made costumes of all types. Not only for humans but also for strange and weird creatures.
Did you have a traveling show at one time?
Yes I did. We traveled all over, not only the United States, but also in Canada and literally around the world with the show. It was very, very successful. They were times in history that the idea of a gorilla was very important and if they had the opportunity to see one, they went to see it.
Which show was it?
Well, there were several different shows I had on the road. I started out working with WBTV in Charlotte and producing special shows for them. Most of those shows were horror shows. We would have a gorilla that would run out on the stage and then run back and forth across the stage and jump down into the audience. We got a lot of attention with it. Not only attention from the audience, but when patrons left the theater they said, "Oh, you should have seen that! They had a gorilla in there that jumps around!" That would get a lot of patrons for the next show.
We were very successful in those theaters. When it was all over, we'd find out there was still another 200 people standing outside waiting to get a ticket.
One was called Dr. Morris & The Dungeon Of Death. Tell me about the production.
Taking the show on the road, we really needed something more than just a gorilla walking around on stage. We needed something else and I was it. We'd show you different tricks. We'd bring people up out of the audience.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I don't know, but all my life I've been very interested in stage shows probably because as a child, I lived not too far from a major theater in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I really grew up with the idea of making my own show and taking it on the road. That's exactly what happened.
What about for the costumes? Where do you get your inspiration?
Fortunately, I married a young lady who knew how to make costumes. I would design them and tell her we need this and that and she'd make them.
Stuff like the dinosaur here, did you came up with the idea?
Yes, I did. You'll see several of them here in this auditorium. Different dinosaurs made out of different things. Some are made out of plastic. We used those for people who were going to shoot a film and needed characters like this. We made some characters that actually moved back and forth and that is very important to the producers of these films because it really adds a natural, normal atmosphere to these strange and unusual characters.
How long does it take for something to go from an idea in your head to the store floor?
That depends on the article. It's very difficult to ascertain a time limit. You can say you can have something done in two weeks and maybe it will come about, but maybe it will not.
Do you work with any movie licenses?
Yes. Many of them. As a matter of fact, that's one of the things that started me in the costume business. I would go to the theater as a young person and see a movie and say, "Gee whiz, we could really have a lot of fun with this." Change the character into a gorilla, get a fur coat down the street. It became a real hobby.
So did you have a group of friends doing the same thing with you?
No, but I had friends who would come by my house and say, "We'll do this. We can do this." And it's true. Also, in school, I had many of the theatrical teachers. It was just a whole way of life.
What made you start this haunted house part of your store?
When you think about the types of costumes that you would really walk away saying, "Oh, that was the greatest thing I've ever seen," it would have to be from horror films. So that's exactly what we did.
What movies have your works been featured in?
It's been so many. We didn't make anything that would win an Academy Award. These were movies for drive-in theaters. We felt very happy doing this and it really got a nice reaction and was very successful for us.
Did you think you'd still be doing this at this stage of the game?
Yes! I couldn't think of anything else to do so I just did it!
With your name, do you get free cigarettes for life?
No. But I pulled up to their plant one time in Tennessee. The guard said, "Let me see some ID." I handed it to him and he said, "Son of a gun, it's Philip Morris! Hey Joe, come here! Philip Morris is here!"
Tell me about the ghost panel.
In the theaters we played, it was prearranged that the theaters could be blacked out, that the lights would be blacked out. We would do the show and at the very end of the show, these luminous creatures would fly out into the audience, which was just a couple of guys walking up and down the aisle. All the lights would go out, and these characters would appear and disappear.
Let's talk about your involvement with the Patterson–Gimlin film. Did Patterson tell you he was going to be making this film?
He talked to me about the film. He said, "Can you just show me how to do this? You think I could borrow one of your gorilla suits?" At that particular time in history, the idea of gorillas had become very common. King Kong, and so on. It was very successful for him. It was very successful for us. But you had to keep a close eye on Patterson.
So you had no problem with the hoax? You knew he was going to try to fool people?
Yes. My attitude towards that was there was not a lot of difference between what he was trying to do and what we were doing. When we had the stage show, people would go, "I think that was a real gorilla. Did you see that? He grabbed that girl and lifted her up in the air." It was how you presented it that really counted and whether you could be a success with it. Roger Patterson very seldom had two dimes to rub together. But when he came with us and started working with us, money started to flow and he was very, very happy that we were around.
There are a lot of people that think that film is of an actual Bigfoot and think that you're not telling the truth. Do you have anything you'd like to say to those accusations?
First of all, stop and think about it. If that's a real Bigfoot and they turn the Bigfoot loose, you would see it running it down the highway. You would see it grabbing cars and turning them over. And you never see those things! And the reason you don't see those things, they do not exist. What they were originally trying to do was set in your mind that these are real, live characters. That these characters, if you don't watch them, will come over and pick up your car and turn it over. But that's not what it was all about.
Tell me about the wooden foot.
This is a wooden big foot. It was built to twenty-four inches, maybe more. What this was used for was when they finished doing their act, they would go back and turn this mold over and push it into the ground so now you have a pattern. Everybody said, "You don't think Bigfoots are real? Look at that! You see those footprints?"
People have said to me, "I know it's real. I have pictures of Bigfoot walking through the forest." I say, "That's our gorilla suit!"