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
I hadn't seen the article in decades, but remembered every
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
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
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
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
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
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!"
picture taken of the same Mighty Joe
(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
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 http://www.skullisland.net/KongBoomer.html. 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 KongisKing.net, subsidary of The One Ring®, Inc.