Officer Byrd has flown the coop.
The Los Angeles Police Department's performing macaw--arguably the most popular mascot in its history--has quit the force for the glitzy promise of stardom, along with his owner, ex-patrolman Michael I. Simonsen.
"Officer Mike" and Officer Byrd, who together have entertained thousands of schoolchildren while emphasizing the importance of safety and sobriety, resigned in April, because they "needed more space to expand creatively and reach more kids," Simonsen said last week.
However, some in the department contend that Simonsen, 35, had grown increasingly confrontational with supervisors who perceived him as brash and resented his growing desire to perform nationally with his 2 1/2-pound partner. He admits as much.
On Their Own
Whatever the reason, Simonsen and Byrd have headed out on their own. They are hoping to obtain a corporate sponsor and are discussing with producers a possible television show, "The Adventures of Officer Byrd."
The big time is beckoning, Simonsen believes. This week, for example, he and Byrd are jetting to Houston to perform at a safety symposium.
"I was an L.A. cop for 11 years, and I loved it--I still love the LAPD--but I had become an entertainer too, and it was time to move on if I wanted to make Byrd bigger and better," Simonsen said. "It was the hardest choice I ever had to make, but I really believe that if it works out, Officer Byrd will become the national safety symbol."
Still billing himself as "Officer Mike" but wearing a blue jump suit instead of a police uniform, Simonsen continues to perform for free at local schools.
All the same, the Police Department has painted over the bird on its official Officer Byrd van and is phasing out its Officer Byrd billboard campaign, funded by a $150,000 federal grant. Thousands of Officer Byrd coloring books are gathering dust in a department storeroom.
Byrd's departure, meanwhile, has left police administrators pining for an official mascot with a message.
"There's no other bird in the world like that," acknowledged Cmdr. William Booth, a department spokesman. "If some officer came up tomorrow and said, 'I have a pet orangutan that'll convince kids never to use dope,' we'd say, 'Let's give it a try.' "
It was with such an attitude in 1978 that police administrators authorized the jowly, outgoing Simonsen to appear off-duty with Officer Byrd at area schools. After watching a bird show in Van Nuys, Simonsen had purchased the blue and gold South American macaw--a long-tailed, harsh-voiced parrot--for $100 from an El Monte animal trainer.
A bird show, Simonsen thought, could teach safety by holding a child's attention long enough for Simonsen to warn about such evils as drugs, suspicious strangers, unfriendly dogs and not looking both ways before crossing the street.
Using hand signals, he and a professional bird trainer spent six months teaching Officer Byrd to kiss, say "hello" and "goodby" on cue, dunk a tiny basketball, ride a bird-sized bicycle, drive a miniature police car and do more than 20 other tricks.
Finally, Simonsen hit the school gymnasium and cafeteria circuit.
The act was an immediate success. By 1981, Chief Daryl F. Gates had made Officer Byrd an official member of the Police Department. Byrd was issued a badge and Simonsen was plucked from his routine patrol duties in Venice to entertain full time.
Simonsen helped form the Officer Byrd Safety Club, offering kids free membership cards, safety-oriented coloring books and newsletters. By last year, after appearances on a host of television talk shows, more than 100,000 children from as far away as Japan had joined.
Some even confided in Officer Byrd, mailing him letters that told of being tormented by parents or acquaintances. Several letters were formally investigated by detectives, and at least one arrest was made for child abuse, according to Simonsen.
"Byrd's saved kids' lives," Simonsen said. "Kermit the Frog and Mickey Mouse are great, but you can't say that about them."
Today, Simonsen, a divorced father of two, lives with Byrd in a sparsely furnished, one-bedroom apartment in Pasadena. The 11-year-old macaw sleeps in the laundry, but his perch is in the living room, where he enjoys munching on bananas, popcorn or dog food while watching movies.
"He's partial to Superman, because they both have a lot in common," Simonsen pointed out. "They both fly."
When Simonsen leaves the living room, even for a moment, Byrd grows agitated, rocking side to side "in his best Ray Charles" imitation until Simonsen returns.
"He's used to going with me pretty much everywhere," Simonsen noted.
Cruising down the Foothill Freeway one day last week in his red Corvette, Officer Byrd in a cage behind his seat, Simonsen forgot for a moment the preschool gig in Monrovia to which they were headed and dreamed aloud of stardom on a grander scale.
There is the dream of a television show, an action-packed, romantic comedy with a safety message. Imagine a combination of "Mr. Ed," "Moonlighting" and the "A-Team,"--only starring a macaw--and and you've got the picture.
"Officer Byrd would be this superhuman bird who saved lives and everything, but he could only communicate with Officer Mike, who would be this bumbling cop . . .," is how Simonsen describes the plot.
There is the dream of cameo appearances on dramatic shows, like "Hill Street Blues," and on kid shows, like "Sesame Street."
There is the dream of an American Express commercial in which Simonsen would quip: "Hi, you don't know me, but you know my bird. . . . "
Simonsen pondered the image of O-F-F-I-C-E-R M-I-K-E being typed out on a credit card on millions of television screens across America, then turned introspective.
"Hey, I'm not the star," Simonsen said after a moment, pointing behind his seat. "He is."
In his coop, Officer Byrd squawked approvingly.