Bonzo The Chimpanzee

Bonzo, the Chimpanzee

I was lost.

I had spent the past thirty plus minutes following the directions from the GPS that had me crossing and recrossing Interstates 79 and 90. Those roads that did not pass over the two interstates dead ended at them.

Completely frustrated with technology, I did what I should have done to begin with – I asked for directions. Seeing an older couple walking along one of the roads, I cautiously approached and asked for help. Thankfully they knew the location of the cemetery I sought and with their directions – and the GPS still screaming I was going the wrong direction – I arrived at the cemetery along Rick Road.

I stepped out of the vehicle and looked around the peaceful spot located to the southwest of the junction of Interstates 79 and 90. Here, among the rolling hills of Elk Valley, is the Hearthside Rest Pet Cemetery which is the final resting place of more than three thousand beloved pets. The grave of each pet is marked with a simple flat stone and I knew I had an adventure before me just to find the one particular stone I was looking for within a sea of them.

I unfolded the piece of paper that had vague directions to the grave I sought. I walked among the stones scanning each one, taking in the names of the beloved pets buried here. After walking a couple rows, a truck came to a stop behind my vehicle. The man, who I would soon discover was the caretaker, walked over and asked me if I needed help.

“I heard that you have a celebrity buried here.”

“Oh, you’re searching for Bonzo,” he observed. “You’re in the right area, but he’s a couple more rows over.” I followed him to the resting place of the cemetery’s most famous resident, a chimpanzee known to the world as Bonzo.

However, the identity of the Bonzo who rests here is muddled and exactly which Bonzo it is has been the source of debate.

The first Bonzo was a female chimpanzee named Peggy. Peggy had performed in a number of the Jungle Jim movies and was supposed to appear in a series of Bonzo movies. Sadly, Peggy and her stand-in were among the chimpanzees killed in a fire in 1951, shortly after the release of Bedtime for Bonzo, which also starred Diana Lynn and Ronald Regan.

A second chimpanzee, a male who actually was named Bonzo, starred in the next film in the series, Bonzo Goes to College. This film was about a chimpanzee who goes to college and plays football and starred Maureen O’Sullivan and Edmund Gwenn. During his time in the spotlight, Bonzo toured the country, appearing in a number of television specials. The male chimpanzee known as Bonzo would only make this one appearance on the silver screen, but this appearance would see him earn a PATSY Award.  Note: The PATSY Award (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) was an award given to honor animal by the American Humane Association. The first recipient was given in 1951 to a mule named Francis who appeared in Francis, the Talking Mule. The final award ceremony was in 1986. There were four categories in the PATSY Award: canine, equine, wild and special – oddly, cats did not have their own category but were lumped within other categories.

As the fame of the Bonzo series faded, it was decided a chimpanzee, also named Bonzo, would begin touring with various circuses. In 1969, while the circus was in Erie County, Bonzo became ill and passed away. Bonzo was taken to Hearth Side Rest and was interred in this peaceful location.

Note: Despite the fate of Peggy’s remains being documented, there are many who insist she was taken from California, brought to Erie County and interred here. Peggy, the chimpanzee who played opposite of Ronald Reagan, is not the Bonzo who rests in the small community of McKean.

In a number of modern reports about the death of Bonzo, it is listed that the performer died in a fire in Erie. I believe this story was the result of someone hearing about Peggy’s death and – knowing she played Bonzo – the deaths of the two different Bonzos began to be entwined.

I finished remembering the chimpanzee who entertained the masses in the 1960s, before leaving the quiet garden filled with stories about the loving pets resting there.

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