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Tuesday, July 17, 2012
It’s been 12 years since Kwan endeared himself to a national audience as a signing adolescent gorilla named Sidney in Return to Me. The zoo’s silverback gorilla makes a triumphant return to the silver screen this Wednesday evening, when the Chicago History Museum hosts an outdoor screening of the film, an event cosponsored by Lincoln Park Zoo and Twin Anchors restaurant. The screening is part of the Chicago Park District’s Movies in the Park program.
The film, directed by Chicago native Bonnie Hunt and starring David Duchovny and Minnie Driver, features many scenes shot on location at the zoo in 1999. Duchovny plays Bob Rueland, an architect who builds a modern outdoor gorilla habitat at the zoo after his wife, Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), a primatologist at the zoo’s ape house, dies in an automobile accident. Coincidentally, Bob meets and falls in love with Grace (Minnie Driver), a waitress at an Irish-Italian restaurant (actually Old Town’s Twin Anchors) who received Elizabeth’s heart in a life-saving transplant operation. Of course, neither realizes it at first, and complications ensue.
Kwan, now the 450-pound leader of a western lowland gorilla troop, makes an early appearance in the film, touching palms with Richardson through the hard-wire mesh of an off-exhibit space.
“Roby Elsner [a primate keeper now at Zoo Miami] taught him to do that,” recalls Eric Meyers, a Nutrition Center staff member who then worked as a keeper at the Lester E. Fisher Great Ape House, where filming took place. The facility has since been replaced by the even more advanced Regenstein Center for African Apes (RCAA). “Kwan did his job well. I think there were well over 20 takes, but he's a quick learner.”
As for the french fries fed to Kwan by Duchovny in the movie? Apple slices cut to resemble fries.
Meyers also remembers the extensive faux exhibit the production crew built between the ape house and the Antelope & Zebra Area. “They did a bang-up job,” he says. “Although the ‘new’ outdoor habitat at the end of the film was actually the outdoor yard at the old building.”
The location set extended well beyond the former ape house. Sometimes the animals nearby turned into critics voicing negative reviews.
“I remember Myra [the zoo’s female lion] had an interesting reaction to balloons the crew brought in for one scene,” says Dominic Calderisi, lead keeper at RCAA, who worked at the Kovler Lion House during the shoot. “She had never seen them before and was not so sure about unfamiliar items so close to her newborn cubs. She’s normally such a sweetie, but something about those balloons rubbed her the wrong way and her new mom instincts kicked in. Our photographer snapped a photo of her that day, and I can’t believe the protective mama snarling in that picture is the same easygoing lion I know so well.”
Calderisi also remembers the U.S. Postal Service mailbox placed by the film crew near the outdoor cheetah yard (now an Amur leopard exhibit). During one scene in the film, Minnie Driver deposits a letter in the mailbox—an incongruous action considering mailboxes have never existed on zoo grounds.
Return to Me takes poetic license, like any film, with its depiction of zoo life. But Hunt, who used to live near the zoo, generally portrays it with detailed authenticity, from a gala fundraiser ballroom scene to the culminating scene in which the new gorilla exhibit is publicly dedicated. Zoo President Kevin Bell—then and now still leading Chicago’s landmark zoo—even gets a cameo in the latter, as a VIP seated behind the podium where Duchovny delivers his dedication speech.
Best of all, though, the film highlights the ongoing effort at Lincoln Park Zoo to provide exemplary care and homes for the animals who live here. The state-of-the-art $26 million Regenstein Center for African Apes opened in 2004, just four years after Return to Me’s release, and the film’s popularity at the box office provided both a serendipitous marketing tool for it and a welcome spotlight on how such facilities make a difference for the critically endangered species who live in them.
The free film screening begins at dusk on the back plaza at the Chicago History Museum (CHM), located at the corner of Clark and North streets. Zoo staff will present a short talk and slideshow prior to the screening on advancements in gorilla care. The event will also feature a talk by CHM staff and a Twin Anchors barbecue food station.