Beautifying the Beast : Couple Works All Night to Keep King Kong Looking His Scarifying Best

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marilee Canaga has a beastly night ahead of her.

She's got 660 pounds of fur to shampoo, 32 teeth--the size of cinder blocks--to brush and a six-foot-long zipper to mend. "Literally, there's a lot of monkey business to tend to," says Canaga, staring up at a 30-foot model of King Kong.

If, indeed, it was beauty--Fay Wray and later Jessica Lange--who killed the beast, then it is Canaga who grooms it.

Biweekly, she brushes his fake fur, wipes his fiberglass skull and yanks rotten bananas--thrown by tram riders on the Universal Studios tour--from the Big Guy's mouth.

"We've had a thing going on since 1988," she says, and then confesses: "My relationship with him started out as a neck thing."

Four years ago Canaga and her mother, Mae Canaga--independent puppet makers and costumers--were called to Kong's rescue after the back of his neck began to unravel.

They built the ape a better nape.

It was then that Kong's mechanical crew also realized that the $7-million monkey had not been cleaned since his switch was flipped in 1986.

"When it came to cleaning fake fur, they just didn't know what to do," says Canaga, 32. "They did some things like brush his fur with a metal rake, but all that did was tear up the fabric. So they started to panic. They soon realized Kong needed a gentler touch."

And someone who could give him the proper Hollywood image.

"When we first started, they wanted Kong to have really wet lips and wet nostrils and to look like he was drooling," Canaga says. "So we would put mineral oil on his lips and in his nostrils."

"Then somebody else decided that Kong should have a dry look. Then they realized that nobody on the ride was really noticing because they were too busy praying that they didn't get devoured by him," she says, sliding into his mouth to scour his tongue and polish his yellow teeth.

"Oh boy, he's got banana breath tonight."

Canaga works on Kong with her husband, Alex Migliardi, 30, who took over his mother-in-law's chores when she retired last year from cleaning the plastic primate. (Mae still handles a few jobs on the Universal lot, including cleaning Tiger, a large puppet from the "An American Tail: Fievel Goes West" attraction she helped build.)

Migliardi met Canaga last year while he was vacationing in Los Angeles.

"Alex had been here for six days when we met," Canaga says. "He had already been to Universal Studios. I asked him if he saw King Kong. Then I told him about my relationship with the beast."

"I wasn't surprised at all," Migliardi says. "This is Los Angeles!"

But Migliardi never thought he'd end up fluffing a 6 1/2-ton shag rug with rubber hands, face and ears. "Back home (Rome, Italy), I used to be in charge of distribution for men's designer suits such as Byblos and New Man. I've gone from men's suits to monkey suits."

Migliardi and Canaga say their job is most difficult when one of Kong's parts conks out.

"Like tonight," Canaga says. "It's gonna be a long one. Kong has a busted zipper."

The malfunctioning zipper is under Kong's right arm, which, on this night, isn't as pumped up as it should be.

"His arms are constantly moving. You've got the weight of the fabric sloshing back and forth, and this kind of thing just happens," Canaga says.

In the past, she has mended a ripped wrist and Kong's left arm.

"That one was a nightmare. You would think that sewing back a shoulder seam would not be a difficult thing, but when it hangs over a 30-foot drop and you've got to finish it before the trams start in the morning, you learn to hustle."

"Sometimes we are here all night because the trams have got to run the next day."

King Kong is a favorite among tourists, but Canaga believes the best ride in the park is in the belly of the beast, where Kong's computer animation is linked to control panels in another room.

"This is the E-ticket," she says, standing inside Kong, somewhere in the vicinity of his upper lip. "This is the place to be while he is running. It's really scary. There is usually never anyone in here, but occasionally you can talk the guys from animation into giving you the ride of the century."

Canaga spots some chewing gum on Kong's mane and carefully removes it.

"They say here at the park that if one of the other attractions is closed for repairs, people don't complain, but if Kong is down, they get nasty. Kong is everyone's favorite. He's a big shag rug with brown eyes," she says.

"That's what I like about Kong. His eyes. That, and his size. The fact that you can fit into his mouth is awesome. But the banana breath I can do without."

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