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Giving The Monkey Man his due

I propose we set aside an occasional moment to honor those who, outside the limelight of fame and celebrity-hood, are one of a kind. In relative obscurity they contribute something joyful or memorable to our lives in a distinct and singular fashion. For me, Jerry Brown, who's best known as the Monkey Man, is a candidate for this honor.

For two decades The Monkey Man has entertained and enchanted generations of fans throughout the mid-Atlantic region. With a Capuchin monkey named Django as his sidekick, he has been performing magic tricks, playing music, telling jokes and walking on stilts in carnivals, fairs and schools. Few observers leave his show without a smile or laugh.

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Watching him over the years one cannot help but be impressed by such a talent. In contrast to divas and athletic superstars who perform for two hours before faceless thousands in a darkened arena, the Monkey Man is most often found at carnival grounds for four or five hours entertaining motley individuals face-to-face. His unique blend of energy, intelligence and wit is striking. Consider his act. Donning top hat, colorful jacket, shoes with dangling bells, and with Django nestled on his shoulder, The Monkey Man strolls through a festival and soon catches the attention of youngsters. Detecting their shyness, he approaches them and smiles. "Is Django friendly?" the kids want to know. "What does the monkey do?" The Monkey Man immediately puts them at ease. He stoops to their eye level, looks right at the child and says "You are a tree, your arms are branches. Keep still, and Django will sit on you." He must have said this a million times, but each time he tells this to a child, it is as if it is the first time. Parents can't resist the photo-op of a monkey perched on their child's shoulders, especially if Django also shakes his hand or gives her a quick kiss on the nose.

As some college students gather around his act, The Monkey Man switches gears and initiates a discussion with them. He asks if they believe in physical laws of nature or the powers of the mind. Then he shows a steel fork and requests the student to bend the prongs with his fingers. Can't do it. Use your mental powers, prods The Monkey Man. Impossible, says the budding intellectual. With the patter of a magician, the Monkey Man begins bending the fork's prongs without any apparent physical manipulation before the student and a surprised crowd.

He might then bring out an antique accordion or banjo and sing a song or two. He's a veritable walking jukebox. The Monkey Man's repertoire ranges from forlorn love ballads to Vaudeville standards. His rendition of "The Monkey in All of Us," a spoof on those riled up about evolution, is a classic.

If there is a lull in the action, Jerry Brown patiently answers questions from fans about his work and Django. Time permitting, he relishes telling a joke or two. He talks about the plight of monkeys in various parts of the world, shifts in popular humor and the lasting effects of music. In monkey years, Django is 25 and past middle-aged in monkey years. What strikes me most is the energy, enthusiasm and endless curiosity that underscore the Monkey Man's performance. Am I, for example, able to tell students about Plato's Cave Allegory as if it is completely novel to them, even though I talked about it hundreds of times? Jerry Brown has that uncanny ability.

To celebrate being one of kind is to recognize a talent and intelligence that has momentarily made life a bit sweeter. Beyond the world of fame and celebrity, he or she has brought some good cheer to a stranger or passerby. Jerry Brown, The Monkey Man, is my candidate for such an honor. Who's yours?

Alexander E. Hooke is a philosophy professor at Stevenson University. His email is ahooke@stevenson.edu.

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