Minnesota Halloween gorilla ends his 45-year run collecting goodies for food shelf
ST. PAUL -- On Halloween night, some brave trick-or-treaters will cautiously walk a long path leading to dark house in St. Paul.
As they climb the stone steps to the front door, spotlights will suddenly flood the entryway and illuminate a large cage. Behind the bars of the cage, a massive gorilla will be pounding its chest and grunting.
“Did you bring a canned good for the food shelf?” the gorilla will ask.
If the answer is yes, a big hairy arm with real monkey fur will hand them two pieces of candy. If the answer is no, they’ll get one. Kids learn quickly that it pays to bring a canned good to the “gorilla house.”
But the tradition will end this year. After 45 Halloweens, the gorilla, named Alice, is retiring.
“It’s time,” said Art Kaemmer, 75, a retired pediatrician. “Alice has gotten old and will be staying at the zoo from now on. She won’t appear again.”
Kaemmer’s wife, Martha, died in April, and Kaemmer plans to sell the house and move into a condo next year.
Alice got her Halloween start in 1973. The Kaemmers had just moved into a house and had their kitchen redone.
“One of the things we had gotten was a new refrigerator, and it came in this huge box,” Kaemmer said. “Our front door opened onto a three-season porch area, which had a screen door, which opened to the outside. I thought, ‘Well, we ought to scare the crap out of kids.’”
Kaemmer cut the refrigerator box to resemble a cage and donned a gorilla costume.
“I got in the box — it’s all dark in there — and when kids would ring the bell, I’d jump out at them,” he said.
Eventually, Alice began requesting bananas. Children who brought bananas would get two pieces of candy.
“Very few kids didn’t have a contribution to offer in exchange for two candies,” said Kaemmer's son Fred. “That was a big deal, especially back when he started. Kids remembered each year to bring a donation — maybe not motivated by altruism, but greed, I know ... but still, they remembered.”
One Halloween, Kaemmer, who had been on call the night before and worked all day, tried to take a break. “I was just dead tired,” he said. “I said, ‘I don’t need to do this anymore. I don’t need to put on a costume.’”
When the doorbell rang, Kaemmer, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, answered the door. A 10-year-old boy stood on the stoop.
“He said, ‘Trick or … ,’ and then stepped back to look at the house number,” Kaemmer said. “He said, ‘Ah, where’s the gorilla?’ I said, ‘Ah, geez, she’s sick. She had to stay at the zoo today, but she’ll be back next year.’ He said, ‘Oh, OK. Well, when you see her, will you give her this banana?’”
Martha Kaemmer told her husband to go upstairs and change. “She said, ‘Did you see that kid’s face? Get that costume on and get out there.’”
Alice never missed another Halloween, Kaemmer said, although one year he was recovering from back surgery and had to have a friend fill in.Banana stories
Kaemmer's got a bunch of banana stories. Once, a 4-year-old boy came to the house carrying a zip-top bag. “The mom said, ‘Danny, are you going to give the gorilla your banana? Walk closer and hand it to the gorilla,’” Kaemmer said. “He finally comes up and hands through the bar, this Ziploc baggie with this amorphous brown fluid in it. The mom says, ‘That banana is six weeks old. Danny came back from Dr. Kaemmer’s office after being told to bring a banana, and he put it in his sock drawer, and it’s been there ever since, and now it’s yours.'”
After a few years of “taking six grocery bags of bananas” to the Dorothy Day Center on the day after Halloween, “Alice thought maybe the hungry people of the world could use something other than a banana, so Alice started asking for a canned good,” Kaemmer said.
It’s a testament to Alice’s popularity that Kaemmer now takes “a significant haul of donations” to the Merriam Park Food Shelf on Nov. 1 each year, Fred Kaemmer said.
Once, Art Kaemmer had to fly to New York the day after Halloween and didn’t deliver the donations until the following week. "When I showed up, the guy said, ‘Geez, Doc, we thought you were dead! When you didn’t show up here with the gorilla stuff, we got worried,’” he said. “They were actually waiting there for me to show up.”
When the Kaemmers moved to Crocus Hill in 1986, one of the first house projects they tackled was a new kitchen. Art Kaemmer also asked the carpenters to build bars for a portable cage for Alice to use on Halloween.
“One day later, I had them,” he said. “They made them out of wood and painted them black. I got some flood lamps that operated with a foot switch, and I put that under the rug, so Alice could sit there in the dark. The kids would come up just to the bars, I’d hit the foot switch and stand up and ‘Grrrr!’ ”
Alice appears from 6 to 8 p.m. on Halloween night. After 8 p.m. Kaemmer leaves the candy bucket out on the front stoop. “When I come out in the morning, there’s a pile of canned goods out there, and people have left money for the food shelf in the candy bucket,” he said. “I can’t believe it.”Alice is out of town
Alice has made several public appearances through the years. Kaemmer, a member of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra board, cut short Alice's candy duties one Halloween and sneaked her head into a concert at O’Shaughnessy Auditorium at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.
“We were sitting dead center in the first balcony, which literally hangs over the stage,” he said. “When they returned to the stage after intermission, they looked up to find Alice in the front row looking down at them.”
Another night, Kaemmer, who had bid on and won the opportunity to lead the orchestra, had just finished conducting Igor Stravinsky’s Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ.
“We all end up on the same note at the same time, and I turn around to take a bow,” he said. “Well, out from the wings comes Alice carrying a long white box with a red rose inside. … Inside Alice was my best friend (Russ Brown), who pilfered the costume when I wasn’t looking — with some help from Martha.”
Martha Hulings and Art Kaemmer met while students at Carleton College in Northfield. It was one of Kaemmer’s college roommates who found Alice’s head while “wandering around downtown Minneapolis one winter” in 1962 or 1963.
“There was some costume party somewhere in one of the hotels, and he’s walking out of the hotel, and here, sitting on the settee, was Alice,” Kaemmer said. “He thought ‘Hmmm,’ and put it under his trench coat and went out the door.”
Kaemmer’s roommate named the gorilla head “Alice,” after his Aunt Alice, and the men hung her over their fireplace in their Severance Hall suite their senior year, said Kaemmer, a 1965 graduate.
Alice made appearances on campus “every once in a while,” he said, and once scared a couple of “townies” when she jumped from a tree onto the windshield of their car while they were parked on a secluded road on campus.
Art and Martha Kaemmer received Alice as a gift at their engagement party; the couple married in 1967.A 'SESAME STREET' MAKEOVER
A few years ago, Alice got a major makeover by VEE Corp., in Minneapolis, the company that makes the puppets for “Sesame Street,” Kaemmer said.
“Her head was starting to show signs of wear — her hair was falling out — so I started asking around about where I could take this thing,” he said. “I called them up, and they said, ‘Sure, bring her over. We can fix her up a little bit.’ ”
Kaemmer, who has a closet full of costumes, just happened to have a fur coat on hand that looked as if it might work, he said.
“They said, ‘You know, this coat is monkey fur — this is a pretty rare thing — and so is the hair on her head,’ so we cut some of the fur off the coat and used it for Alice,” he said.
He also asked the staff at VEE to make him a pair of gorilla gloves with fingers “so that I could pick up candy,” he said.
Kaemmer always hopes for cool weather on Halloween.
“It’s hotter than hell inside there,” he said. “I just come out drenched. The mouth used to be open, but now they put this screen in ….”
“Well, maybe we could cut out part of the screen, so you could get a straw in,” Fred Kaemmer said.
“That would show,” Art Kaemmer said. “No, we don’t need to do that.”
“Well, I don’t want you to die doing this,” Fred Kaemmer said.
“I’ll hydrate,” he said.
Fred Kaemmer said it's a bittersweet time for his family.
"The magic is over, as this story will literally peel the mask away," he said. "I’m sad that time and age have made it hard on my dad to do it, and I’m sad my mom is no longer here to enjoy watching from behind the scenes. I also think it’s OK, however, for some things to run their course. It’s amazing that it lasted 45 years.”
Alice, however, might never leave Crocus Hill. She’s featured in a sculpture at the Kaemmer house called “Conversation in the Garden.” The sculpture, part of a brick wall outside the mansion, features the profiles of people the Kaemmers thought they could "spend an eternity talking to in the garden,” Art Kaemmer said. There, tucked somewhere between their parents, children and other friends and family members, is Alice.
“The artist took us each separately down in the basement, and there was a sheet of white paper on the wall with a big light,” Art Kaemmer said. “You’d sit, and your profile would show up on this white paper. He took the profiles ... and had them carved out of pink Montana sandstone.”
“Jokingly, Alice appeared that night,” Art Kaemmer said. “She’s still out there.”