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Chimps and Children Make a Video : Lulu and Buster Steal the Show

July 13, 1986|GERALD FARIS | Times Staff Writer

ROLLING HILLS — She was every inch the star--all two feet of her.

And temperamental? What else!

Wearing a pretty pink dress and cast as a brand new kid in school, Lulu was supposed to sit primly and draw a picture of herself in her notebook.

But did she? No, she bolted from her desk and ran screeching around the room.

And when she was supposed to join the other children in reading from her lesson book, did she?

No, she ripped it up instead.

Co-star Buster, in his loud yellow pants and even louder red print shirt, was a little more professional, although he had a hard time sitting at his desk, too.

Welcome to show biz, chimpanzee style, as it unfolded last week in a classroom-turned-video-studio for a day at Rancho del Mar High School.

A lot of patience, a little firmness, and a few bananas and plums were what it took to cajole the frisky 2-year-olds--their stage name is "The Chimples"--as the tape rolled for their first home video feature for children.

Called--surprise!--"The Chimples Go Back to School," it is full of antics, but there is a serious purpose behind it.

Children new to a school are often afraid of new people and strange situations, and the 30-minute tale tells youngsters that fear of the unknown is natural, but that people--other kids and teachers--are willing to become their friends.

"We're trying to instill old-fashioned values about honesty, sharing and caring," said Barbara Russell, a veteran animal trainer who lives but a rope swing away from the Rancho del Mar school. She made it clear that she thinks toys, most movies for children and Saturday morning cartoons are getting away from what she calls the four L's: "Living, Loving, Laughing, Learning."

The school story is the first video for Russell's production company, although she already has a line of Chimples greeting cards that give kids pats on the back for such things as getting good grades or keeping their rooms clean--or just for "being special."

Future videos will focus on such things as sportsmanship and relating to people of different races and cultures, she said.

In their video debut, Lulu and Buster are the new kids in school and the 11 real-live youngsters cast with them are the "veterans." The chimps talk directly to the audience through human narrators. The main role of the children is to react to them, and react they did--with laughter and attempts to snare the stars when they took off running.

"This is fun," said 9-year-old Darby Gebhart of Rolling Hills. "I've never been in a movie, and I've never seen a chimp in my whole life. They're cute."

Director Gil Howe may have thrown his hands up in despair a few times when Lulu and Buster acted up, but the children loved it.

The youngsters, ranging in age from 8 to 10, are the children of Russell's friends, chosen, she said, for their "naturalness and fresh appeal." For three of them, exotic animals like Lulu and Buster were nothing new. Their grandmother has a private zoo in Rolling Hills Estates.

Russell, who started her career 20 years ago with a trained bear act at Knott's Berry Farm, coined "Chimples" by putting together "chimp" and "people."

She bought Lulu and Buster two months ago in Miami, and her daughter Claudette helps out with the training. The chimps don't have a bad life in Rolling Hills, considering that home is nearly five acres and they have rabbits and dogs as playmates.

"They're a part of the family," said Russell, whose husband heads an oil and gas and real estate company.

Videos and greeting cards aren't the chimps' only claim to fame.

Russell likes to dress them up in trendy attire and take them on South Bay outings.

"They're such great imitators," she said. "We go to Carl's Jr. and have picnics and the children love them. They're like Pied Pipers wherever they go."

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