It was midday as Gary Mortimer and Karen Hirsh, black bags in hand, headed for West Hollywood on a house call. Sinbad, Johnny Mathis' crested cockatoo, had been booked for his regular grooming.
Sinbad, who is no singer (truthfully, Mortimer noted, "he doesn't do much at all"), is only one of the to-the-manor-born parrots whose fine feathers are clipped and shampooed, beaks buffed and nails trimmed by the staff of Pyramid Birds in Burbank, a parrot spa and hotel otherwise known as Parrotdise.
The birdmen of Burbank are Pyramid proprietors Mortimer, 45, and partner John Ingraham, 42, who are unreservedly dotty about parrots, even though, Ingraham is quick to say, parrots are rowdy, basically anti-social and frequently ill-tempered and "will destroy anything and everything that's chewable."
In fact, Mortimer and Ingraham at one time owned 1,200 parrots. Even so, their menagerie did not begin to include all of the 350 major species and 750 subspecies of parrots, which include cockatoos, macaws, amazons, love birds, cockateels and budgies, among others. "You could have a whole zoo of nothing but parrots," Ingraham said. "I wanted to do that at one time, to have the largest private collection in the world. I love extremes."
Ingraham laughed and said, "I guess I've suppressed that desire." Today, neither he nor Ingraham owns a single parrot, having completed a divestment that began a few years ago when their CPA put her foot down: Their World Parrot Foundation, with its 200 breeding pairs, was a luxury they could no longer afford.
"It was outrageous," Ingraham recalled with obvious pleasure, "an assembly line of parakeets making babies. We kept these elaborate records of eggs, dates, numbers. . . ."
The idea had been to gather information to share with breeders worldwide. But the project somehow got out of hand. "They breed like flies," Ingraham said.
Their salvation was a breeder from Utah who expressed an interest in buying some young birds--300 or 400 young birds. He had a deal.
And then Mortimer and Ingraham went back to running their parrot hotel and spa, the "Parritz."
A green-wing macaw peered between the wrought iron bars of its custom-built king-size cage and gave forth with a squawk that shook the walls. "Morgan is what I call parrotnoid," Ingraham was saying. "He chews his own feathers," a rather unseemly habit not unlike nail biting. Morgan flapped his tattered wings as Ingraham went on to explain that Morgan was a regular hotel guest whose owners were currently visiting England.
From his perch nearby, Caesar, a salmon-crested cockatoo of formidable size, emitted a megadecibel screech and then reached out with his hooked bill to nibble on a visitor's notebook. Caesar was staying at Parrotdise until a new home was found for him; the woman who brought him in had found she was allergic to the fine white powder in cockatoo feathers.
The truth is, Caesar may be a female. "You can't tell by looking," Ingraham said, adding that if there is a need to know (for breeding purposes), a surgical sexing procedure can be performed.
The other bird boarders, some on open perches ("We've never had a bird walk out," Ingraham observed, "but we have had someone walk out with a bird"), the more temperamental and nervous in cages, were being heard from. There were Zorro, Max, Angel, Jake and Salty.
There was Mercedes, a rose-breasted cockatoo carrying a $2,500 price tag on her pretty head. And, in the adjacent cage, a garden-variety English sparrow nursing an injured wing. Parrotdise does not ordinarily cater to sparrows--or, for that matter, to canaries or finches or mynas, just parrots, please--but the sparrow was left on the doorstep in a shoe box. If its wing mended, Ingraham said, the bird would be released to the wild; if not, it would be offered for adoption.
'Patrolled by Attack Cockatoo'
Lady Love, the small black and white house dog, moved freely through Parrotdise, neither disturbing nor disturbed by the birds. After nine years, Mortimer said, "They could land right on her and she'd look the other way." Posted prominently in the front shop area was a warning: "These premises patrolled by an attack cockatoo."
On this day, there were about 100 feathered friends at Parrotdise, half of them "hotel guests," the others brought in on consignment by owners who didn't understand them or, perhaps, needed to "liquidate" them to settle a divorce.
If birds have severe psychological problems, Mortimer and Ingraham will not accept them for sale. "If they're feather pluckers," for example, Mortimer said, it's hard to find a buyer. Severe rowdiness is another problem, though a few blue words are usually acceptable.
Ingraham stooped to scoop up a dropped feather. It would be placed in a jar and saved for trading or selling. A contact in New Mexico takes feathers in barter for pine nuts, sold at Pyramid as bird treats. A man who designs costumes for Las Vegas showgirls comes in regularly to buy feathers.
In response to the question that hadn't been posed, Ingraham smiled and said, "As God is my witness, I have never pulled a feather from a bird. These feathers have good karma."
It all started in 1972, Ingraham was explaining, when he acquired a pet cockateel, Dixie, to help combat loneliness after the breakup of a longtime relationship.
At that time Ingraham was working as a waiter at Studio One in West Hollywood, where Mortimer was a bartender. By the time the two decided to become roommates, Ingraham had about a dozen parrots and then Mortimer started bringing in new birds. Ingraham recalled, "It was wall-to-wall parrots in a two-bedroom apartment. We used to let them out in shifts."
Before long, he said, "The hobby became an obsession. The obsession became a business." In September of 1975 they opened the first Pyramid Birds in Hollywood, with $1,500 in inventory and $500 in the bank. They can't tell you why they called it Pyramid, or what that has to do with birds, but both Mortimer and Ingraham are amateur Egyptologists.
Riding the "bird boom" of the '70s--a boom Ingraham attributes both to landlord-imposed bans on cats and dogs and to the fact that "the eccentrics are here and bird people tend to be eccentric"--Pyramid Birds later moved to Robertson Boulevard in Beverly Hills. There, they said, they were driven out by Beverly Hills rats, ubiquitous roof rats that gnawed through food sacks and at night slipped into the hotel and nibbled at the birds' toes.
Relocated to Inglewood
There followed nine months at Fairfax and Melrose, but a rent hike prompted the decision to relocate to Inglewood. It was there that a browser walked out with an expensive parrot that he stuffed into a plastic garbage bag and tossed over the wall. Later, there was an armed robbery that persuaded Mortimer and Ingraham that it was once again time to move.
The Burbank bird spa is wired for security and its windows barred. By continuing to operate as a "members only" club--i.e., the door is locked and opened only to holders of a "passport to Parrotdise" ($2 per family group) the proprietors have discouraged both bird-lifting and tourism.
The cognoscenti know about Parrotdise through ads in magazines for bird fanciers. Celebrities, apparently, know from word-of-mouth. The list of bird owner clients, past and present, includes Clint Eastwood, Barbra Streisand, Soupy Sales, Muhammad Ali, Phyllis Diller and Burt Reynolds.
Michael Landon and Stefanie Powers are among those whose parrots regularly get house calls ($35, a flat fee). Birds brought into the salon pay $19.50, top price, for their grooming, perhaps every three to four months. An overnight stay at Parrotdise costs $6 to $8, depending on the size of the guest.
All parrots can talk, Mortimer and Ingraham said, but some are better at it. The big macaws and cockatoos may live to be 100 in captivity, the smaller parrots to 75 or so, which means they'll outlive you--and then talk about you.
If any parrot says something that makes sense at a given time, Ingraham observed, "it's coincidental." Mortimer and Ingraham consider the Yellow nape Amazon tops among talkers and they point with pride to one client that sings "God Bless America" all the way through, then asks, "Do you want to vocalize?"
Ingraham stopped for a verbal exchange with a particularly anti-social green parrot. "I don't care how nasty they are," he said, "or what color they are. I just love them unconditionally."
He shrugged. "Some birds only like men. Some only like women. Some don't like anybody. Some like you in the morning but not in the afternoon."
So how did a nice Rhode Islander who was a college French major (Ingraham) and an Iowan who sings in civic light operas (Mortimer) wind up in birdland?
Maybe it's because parrots are so, well, showy. "Give me Vegas, lots of feathers, lights, an extravaganza, I love it! " Ingraham said with a sweep of the arm.
And, in a way, Parrotdise is show biz. Ingraham and Mortimer supply rent-a-birds to dress up social events or fill extras' roles in films. Parrotdise birds have dolled up a wedding at Casa Pacifica, the former Nixon estate in San Clemente, and a bar mitzvah and sit-down dinner for 500 at the Century Plaza Hotel.
Dubonnet, the aperitif people, came to Parrotdise for a bird for a magazine layout. So did Hilton Hotels, for the opening of the Irvine Hilton. "They're icebreakers," Mortimer said of the parrots. "They get people involved with other people."
And as pets, Ingraham contends, the parrot is nonpareil. "You don't have to walk them," he pointed out. "But you should cage them--for their own protection."