Loyal Cheeta Fans Reach for a Star : 'Never Doubt the Influence of a Movie Chimpanzee'

Times Staff Writer

They came to praise Cheeta, not to see him buried by indifference.

"If Rick Dees can have his star on Hollywood Boulevard, then so can Cheeta," said Jeff Wildman of Glendale, a movie art director and an apparent observer of fame and its transience between generations. "Cheeta without a star . . . why, that's like Han Solo without his Wookie."

Wildman, it should be noted, came as King Arthur. Without his Guinevere.

Passion and Integrity

"Next to Helen Hayes," added Sitmar Cruise entertainment director Bruce Krumrine, "Cheeta probably is the most important thing on film. Both have passion and integrity."

Krumrine admires such qualities. He was dressed in camouflage cream and dog tags and was passing himself off as John Rambo.

"Never doubt the influence of a movie chimpanzee," advised actor John Harper. He also had followed the theme of the party by arriving dressed as his favorite actor: John Harper. "Never forget what Bonzo did for Ronald Reagan."

So went the dialogue Saturday night at the dowager Park Plaza hotel-cum-mausoleum overlooking MacArthur Park when a new fan club tossed an old-fashioned fund-raiser to finance Cheeta's star on Hollywood Boulevard.

David Linck was the daring behind the do.

Three months ago he read a newspaper story reporting that Cheeta, now 50, and trainer Tony Gentry, 78, were alive and well into the obscurity of retirement at Newbury Park.

Linck, a 31-year-old movie advertising campaigner and boyhood follower of Tarzan's many adventures, visited the pair, became friends and picked up an old man's dream--for a Gentry-Cheeta star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

And if the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce (pending committee approval of Cheeta's nomination) requires $3,000 to manufacture, install and dedicate the brass and terrazzo star, Linck decided, then he and friends would find it.

About those friends. They're a close cluster who formed around the brothers Dave and Dann Linck 10 years ago at San Diego State. Marriage and companions from careers in the entertainment industry have increased the group to 50. They are, Dave Linck says, his personal "Big Chill."

Like to Have Purpose

"We throw big parties for fun things," he explained. "A '60s party, a Halloween party, but as we have fun we also like there to be some purpose. So when Cheeta came along, a fund-raiser for his star was a natural thing to do.

"He's our consensus favorite and an entertainer of all time . . . a party for Cheeta would be offbeat with purpose, just like our group . . . and in turn we'd be giving something back."

To Linck, earning that particular satisfaction would be almost as important as raising the money. For he knows Hollywood and how soon it forgets. He has seen the once-famous living in absolute loneliness. "In a way, Tony Gentry and Cheeta symbolize all those old troupers, all the professionals we just cannot forget."

So the Cheetathon came to be. An estimated 400 persons paid $10 apiece to hear celebrity sing-a-likes and six musicians with a decibel level that could have shaken coconuts from trees.

Masqueraders represented their movie and television fantasies from "Gone With the Wind" (Scarlett, ever the flibbertigibbet, danced all night with Ashley) to "Miami Vice." Judging from all the generic big game hunters present, Abercrombie & Fitch will be back ordered until Labor Day.

Loincloth and Tuxedo

A woman dressed as a banana wasn't sure if she wanted to be remembered as Carmen Miranda's hat or part of Cheeta's diet. Then there was Lord Greystoke--dressed only in loincloth and tuxedo jacket. A silver chimpanzee on a chain dangled from his right earlobe.

Trainer Gentry was there. "It makes me feel good that the old boy is being remembered," he said.

Cheeta stayed home. "I could have brought him but that would have meant bringing the cage and looking after him all night and I just wasn't up to the hassle," explained Gentry. "But I've told him what it's all about. I think I'll save us for the big day when we get our star."

But there sets a question mark.

A Little Bit Short

Linck estimated that attendance by 500 persons would be needed to cover the evening's expenses and cost of the star. Only 400 attended the Cheetathon. Close, but no coconut.

"We'll know more when everything is counted up Monday," he said. "If we fall short, maybe we can find somebody willing to match funds."

There is, however, another alligator to be handled.

Even if the money is raised, even if Cheeta's nomination is considered by the Walk of Fame Committee, there is no guarantee that his star will be approved.

When interviewed Friday, committee chairman Johnny Grant said that more than 300 nominations can be anticipated between now and the close of applications on May 31. Only a dozen celebrities, he said, are likely to be awarded stars.

"Speaking personally," said Grant, "I'd much rather give one (star) to Paul Newman or Angie Dickenson or someone like that.

"I'd much rather plant a tree for Cheeta."

Now there's a thought. Cheeta could swing through the branches in dedication. He certainly wouldn't be out of place among the other wild life on Hollywood Boulevard.

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