In Memory Of A True Headliner

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September 30, 1990|By Carleton Jones

One chilly day in November 1949, a cargo plane from Miami landed at Baltimore Municipal Airport and was flagged routinely into the freight depot. Inside the cockpit, the pilots were nervous. During their flight a coffee container hanging from the control room ceiling had suddenly dropped loudly to the floor. The sharp crack it made had scared the plane's crew.

"He may have been dead when we left Miami but we were jittery all the way after that can dropped," said one of the pilots. The "he" was their cargo, Gargantua the Great, the ape of the age -- the great audience attraction said to have lifted the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus out of the red ink in the 1930s.

Gargy was indeed dead, en route to dissecting rooms at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The Ringlings had shipped him to Baltimore packed in dry ice to determine the cause of death of their stellar attraction, worth perhaps a million dollars alive.

The huge crate containing Gargantua's frozen body was duly taken to the medical school and dissected. He had died of double pneumonia the very last day of the circus' season -- refusing food for the last two days of his life and wrapping himself in a blanket in a corner of his luxurious glass-walled circus cage.

In his first three years on the road with the circus, Gargantua was said to have been seen by 10 million paying spectators. Circus authorities surrounded his cage with a cordon of armed men, uniformed guards done up Frank Buck, "bring 'em back alive" style with safari shorts and pith helmets.

Earlier years had been happier. A flurry of international attention hovered over Gargantua and his proposed mate Toto, a lady ape who had been captured in the French Congo in Africa by Kenneth Hoyt, the noted explorer.

Alas, "Gargantua's Courtship Makes Little Headway," the headlines soon read.

Toto had been raised by Mrs. Hoyt as a household pet. The animal had a gentle disposition and she loved to dine on tapioca and cream, a baked apple and a glass of milk; but such refined things seemed beyond her fiance. During World War II, it was necessary to issue Toto sugar rationing coupons to make up her quota of 2 pounds of sugar a day. By contrast, the male ape was a sort of athletic health nut, dining on eggs, liver extract and milk for breakfast and dinner, with nothing but vegetables for lunch.

His most intimate moment with Toto apparently came when he tossed a bridal bouquet of celery tops into Toto's cage. "She gave a shrill, querulous bark, jumped down from her steel bench, grabbed the bars, pounded the floor and shook her whole cage," a reporter wrote. Gargy responded only "with a little growl and a bit of floor stomping."

By May 1941, Baltimore circus fans could see the couple on the tent grounds at Monument and Kresson streets. When the Japanese seized all the rubber plantations in the east, Gargy patriotically donated four of his battered rubber play tires to the war effort.

He remained a headliner to the end; but his weight, variously estimated at anything from 450 to 800 pounds on tour, was wildly exaggerated. At death, he weighed in at only 315 pounds, perhaps outweighed by the Ringling's fat lady, Alice of Dallas. Since he had been subject to autopsy, Gargantua was no candidate for a taxidermist, but his skeleton was donated to Yale University by alumni Henry and John Ringling North.

A patrolman who saw Gargy just before he died said he lay pitifully huddled under his blanket oblivious to everything, even "kids hammering on the glass sides of his cage."

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus starred Gargantua II, said to be 6 inches taller than his predecessor and no relation. Five years ago, Gargy II's stuffed body was sold to a New York interior designer for $20,350.

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