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Welcome to the Monkey House : Dick Shawn Finds Comic Relief Chasing Birds in Brazil and Primates in His Living Room

September 14, 1986|LINDEN GROSS | Linden Gross is special features editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

It's taken 20 minutes and a bribe, but Dick Shawn has finally lured his skittish pet Bahian monkey down from the Roman shade. From her perch on the back of a rattan couch, eight-inch-tall Regine, who looks like a cross between a wind-up monkey and a plump bird, eyes the cherry dangling from Shawn's fingers. Suddenly she darts back to the top of the shade in a corner of the ceiling.

Shawn ignores her for a few moments. Then he starts again, with a soothing voice and exaggerated kisses. Regine sails across the room to a leather armchair, then bolts to the top of the Japanese screen behind it. From there she leaps to a lamp stand, where she clings for five minutes. Then she heads back to the rattan couch to examine the fruit. She sits up, steadies the cherry with her tiny hands and begins to nibble.

Regine is actually the tamer of Shawn's two monkeys (her mate is named Abe). The actor, comedian and writer--winner of the 1986 L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for "The Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World"--lacks control over his pets and at times seems uncomfortable with them, but he says he prefers them to people. "For one thing, they don't talk. And as long as you feed them and pet them once in a while, they're responsive and you feel very close to them. People aren't like that. The more you get to know them, the thornier it gets. Suddenly you find yourself spending half the day explaining yourself and your behavior, and still getting nowhere."

Growing up in Lackawanna, N.Y., Shawn was allowed a single pet, a small black Boston bulldog named Mugsy. In a house where conversation was limited to admonitions to keep clean, "Mugsy was the only one I could talk to," he recalls. "I was about 6 or 7 and very shy. I wore a black baseball cap low over my eyes and always walked with my head down. The only people I knew were the bums in the gutter. If anyone ever came toward me, Mugsy and I would cut through a backyard and circle around the house or jump across the street."

Mugsy lasted six months, then disappeared. "I know my mother took him away," Shawn says. "I have a hunch that she was jealous." Perhaps because of that experience, he didn't have another pet until four years ago, when he began dating a bird-lover. The first time he called her for a date, she couldn't come to the phone because she was giving artificial respiration to her dying parrot, Coco.

The rescue attempt was unsuccessful. To console her, Shawn offered to replace the pet. The woman decided she wanted a scarlet macaw. She and Shawn reasoned that, because macaws cost $100 in Brazil, compared to $2,500 here, they would go to South America in search of a bargain bird. The trip would end up costing $15,000.

The idea was to purchase a single, inexpensive macaw--a bird that Shawn describes as looking like "an eagle in drag." By the time they were ready to leave the coastal city of Bahia, Shawn and his woman friend had acquired two toucans, two parrots, two Bahian monkeys that she had bought him as a thank-you gift and, yes, one macaw.

The night before their departure for home, the entire entourage was trying to get some sleep at the Sunrise Motel outside of Rio de Janeiro when the macaw started to scream, and the people next door started to pound on the walls. The only way to keep the bird quiet, they found, was to put it in bed with them and hold it. "I was scared like hell of the thing," says Shawn. "I'm afraid of birds--little birds, let alone this eagle. Macaws have 2,000 pounds of pressure in their jaws. They can chew off a doorknob. I thought that in the dark he could turn around and bite me." Shawn grabbed a blanket and spent the night in the hall.

The next day, at the airport, Brazilian and U.S. regulations forced the couple to leave behind the toucans and the parrots. Shawn's friend received authorization to export the macaw and he simply slipped the monkeys into his pockets after having them inoculated.

Even as monkeys are swinging from his living room drapes, Shawn still claims that he leads a serene life. "My mind is so complex that my life has to be simple. You can't have a complicated mind and a complicated life. They put people like that away."

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