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Clark Wilkinson of Baraboo, Wisconsin, with his "Kong"
(© 2005 John Michlig)

A visit to my hometown this past weekend gave me an opportunity to go back to the public library that I used to haunt as a youngster. The building is now entirely new, but all of the materials from the old building have been faithfully preserved, including a fairly voluminous clip file of news articles related to Wisconsin.

Though I was there to get some peace and quiet in a solitary corner so I could work on my EIGHTH WONDER manuscript, the temptation to do some digging was too great. I had in mind an article I'd read when I was twelve years old that claimed King Kong was residing right here in the Midwest.

Impossible, you say? Careful readers of a book called "The Girl in the Hairy Paw" can see a small asterisk note on page 182, referring to "another" Kong puppet. "The other is owned by Clark Wilkinson of Baraboo, Wisconsin. Eds."

Finding the newspaper article was almost too easy. In a file marked "Wisconsin: Motion Pictures, 1970-1979," mixed in with various clippings about the filming and Wausau premiere of THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION a horrendous flick filmed right in my hometown (and starring Alan Hale, Jr. — the Skipper was in my town for a couple of weeks!), was a yellowed article from the Wausau Daily Record-Herald, an Associated Press item dated Thursday, May 5, 1977, entitled "King Kong is Alive and Well in Baraboo."

I hadn't seen the article in decades, but remembered every tantalizing word.

BARABOO, Wis (AP) — Twenty years ago the original King Kong came to visit Clark Wilkinson. The big ape never left.

    But Wilkinson, 69, a retired insurance agent who would probably get an Oscar if there were awards for movie fans, doesn't mind the gorilla guest.

    In fact, Kong holds an honored place in Wilkinson's museum of film memorabilia which takes up all eight rooms of the basement of his ranch style home here.

    He speaks about the hairy star of the 1933 classic as if he were an old friend.

    "He doesn't look like he did," Wilkinson admits about King Kong. "He's lost a lot of hair, but I've got him under a glass dome and the temperature is cool, so he could go on indefinitely."

    The original Kong, the beast that was killed by beauty in the form of Fay Wray, is actually only 18 inches of light steel framework cover by bits of rub­ber and rabbit fur.

    In contrast with the 40-foot hydraulic powered Kong' in the $23 million 1976 remake of "King Kong," the original giant gorilla swatted airplanes from atop the empire state building by means of an antiquated process known as single frame stop action.

    "They could move him a little bit, film one camera frame, move him a little bit again," Wilkinson said. "They had to do this all day and night to get 30 seconds' worth of film."

    Wilkinson received the figurine as a gift from Ernest Schoedsack, co-producer of the original $700,000 version of the movie.

    "I visited Schoedsack in California and afterwards he sent it to me and told me that was Kong," said Wilkinson, who said he may have the only remaining model of the one used in the filming.

    Kong's hallowed place is in Wilkinson's "horror monster room" along with other prizes such as Bela Lugosi's cape from "Dracula," a coffin containing the mannequin of Frankenstein's daughter and the likenesses of Peter Lorre, Bette Davis and other stars who were "decapitated" in thrillers.

    Wilkinson's collection, which also includes 11 of the formal "glamour gowns" worn by starlets in 1930s extravaganzas, has been assembled bit by bit since he saw his first movie in 1916.

    With virtually no connections, he has traveled to Hollywood dozens of times over the years and has met hundreds of actors, writers, directors, producers and technicians. Most of his museum collection has been gifts from the people he has met at studios.

    Wilkinson said his love affair with the silver screen has led him to view an average of 50 films a year - that's more than 3000 movies over the last six decades.

    He said he has already seen 41 movies this year.

    "I really can't say what it is that is so fascinating about the movie to me," he said, "but I know I'm still thrilled as I ever was about every facet of them."

    Wilkinson said he has received letters requesting information on little-known movie industry facts from as far away as Greece.

    "But I've never had any interest in getting into theatre or acting or the movies myself," he said. "No desire at all."

    He said he prefers the movies of Hollywood's golden age, in the 1930s and '40s, because film­makers then were more careful and more patient with their work.

    "And there's no star system flow like there was then," he said. "I still like the movies now, though. I still go to them all."

No pictures accompanied the article. Could it be true?

Since you've undoubtedly read the title of this installment, you know that this will not turn out well, but let's plow forward nonetheless.

The major attraction in Baraboo, Wisconsin — besides Clark Wilkinson's basement museum of Hollywood memorabilia — was the Circus World Museum. Proximity to my childhood home according to MapQuest:

Total Est. Time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Total Est. Distance: 130.49 miles.


So close, and yet so far. I could no sooner convince my dad that we needed to go to south to Baraboo than I could have talked him into driving to Spain. Our family was all about going north (referred to as "Up North") to Rhinelander and Minocqua for fishing and swimming. We made a few excursions to visit family in Milwaukee, but a side trip to see a small monster model in an elderly man's basement was not in the cards.

It wasn't until nearly twenty years later — 1994 — that I resolved to solve the mystery of the "Wisconsin Kong" via a magazine article for a now-defunct publication called Baby Boomer Collectibles. (One of the great aspects of being a writer is the fact that you can, now and then, indulge personal quests for pay.) My article would seek to solve once and for all the enigma of the Baraboo Kong as well as the disposition of other props from the 1933 film that had popped up now and then on TV in the seventies (during the DeLaurentiis heyday) and eighties (as part of various fiftieth anniversary festivities).

Though he'd be nearly ninety years old by this time, my first call was to Baraboo to get a listing for Clark Wilkinson. Imagine my excitement when, after dialing the number for a "C. Wilkinson" in Baraboo, an elderly woman answered the phone. Oh yes, she said, Clark is here.

"This is Clark Wilkinson." He sounded a bit like my wife's grandfather, a man who wore a suit every day of the week. I straightened up in my chair and introduced myself, finally asking: "Do you have King Kong in your basement?" (Perilously close to "do you have Prince Albert in a can?")

"Well, I sure did for many years," he answered. "I received him in response to a letter I wrote to Mr. Schoedsack. He sent it with a note saying, you know, ‘Keep it covered.'"

I was astonished. He explained that he'd since sold it to "a young fellow and his girlfriend," but could not recall the name of the person. He also sold the note from Ernest Schoedsack and had no copy. I would have been completely incredulous if it wasn't for Wilkinson's apparent lack of guile. "I exhibited him under a glass dome, and a lot of people were able to see him in my museum," he went on. It became clear where the "Kong in Baraboo" stories had come from.

"For seventeen years I had eight rooms full of displays in my ‘Hollywood Museum of Movies,'" he explained. "I closed up the museum in 1965...or when I was 65 — one or the other; it's hard for me to remember. I still have a coffin from Hal Roach studios that I plan to be buried in."

So, I asked, do you have a picture of Kong? "One moment," he replied. I could hear him talking with his wife: "He wants to know, do we have a picture." Suddenly I was on the phone with Mrs. Wilkinson.

"We have one picture, a very nice one, in a frame handing on a wall. Would that be all right?"

I spent the next thirty minutes explaining the concept of Federal Express overnight shipping to the Wilkinsons, hanging up briefly to dispatch a truck to their house. I asked them to call me collect when they saw the white van approach, and I talked them step-by-step through the process of packaging the photo for the driver. In twenty-four hours I would finally see for myself the "King Kong of Baraboo!"

A picture taken of the same Mighty Joe Young armature.
(From the collection of Bob Burns)

Yes, once again: the wrong Kong.  That's not to say Mr. Wilkinson doesn't look sharp — on the phone he sounded like a bow tie guy and I was pleased to see my suspicion confirmed — but the stop motion puppet he's holding on a platter is clearly Mighty Joe Young; Wilkinson (and perhaps Schoedsack, whose eyesight was nearly completely gone in later life) had made the same mistake as Desi Arnaz.

I called Mr. Wilkinson and gently explained the situation. He didn't seem greatly pained by the mistaken identity, and the person who eventually bought the Mighty Joe Young puppet from him in the mid-seventies certainly knew what he was getting.

So, one mystery solved. But I wasn't finished, of course. Next on my list was a call to the author of "The Making of King Kong", George Turner — my first step toward locating the Real Deal, and the subject of the next installment of the Kong Files.

(Writer John Michlig's online article KING KONG: LOST AND FOUND can be seen at He's currently working with filmmaker James Mansfield on a documentary entitled EIGHTH WONDER: THE AMAZING TRUE STORY OF CARL DENHAM AND THE BEAST-GOD OF SKULL ISLAND, the startling details of which he promises to share in the very near future.)

THE KONG FILES and contents are © 2004-2006 John Michlig and written for, subsidary of The One Ring®, Inc.

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