HARRISONBURG — Jerry Brown double majored in theater and visual arts in college.
He worked in repertory and experimental theater across the country. He helped produce shows.
He performs magic, juggles, plays music, eats fire and walks on stilts.
But what most people remember about their meetings with the multitalented entertainer is his tiny partner.
“I tell people,” Brown said, “‘I used to be an entertainer. Now, I just drive for the monkey.’”
Brown, 70, markets himself professionally as “The Monkey Man” because he performs with Django, a female capuchin monkey.
The Lancaster, Pa., resident will be at the Rockingham County Fair all week, roaming the grounds in his multicolored vest, matching bow tie and brown top hat, interacting with the crowd and encouraging Django — attired in a colorful onesy — to do tricks for them.
The monkey, a cross between a white-faced and a cinnamon capuchin, and her “chauffeur” were a hit with fairgoers Tuesday night.
Both Samira Velazquez, 10, and Trinity Whitmore, 8, said they had no idea they’d encounter a monkey when they came to the fair.
The monkey briefly sat on Samira’s shoulder and messed with her hair a bit.
“It felt funny,” the rising sixth-grader at Wilbur S. Pence Middle School said of the experience.
At Brown’s behest, Django took a quarter from Trinity — a rising third-grader at Plains Elementary — and placed it in a cup, shook her hand by giving her “five,” then gave her a “monkey kiss” by licking her nose.
The smooch, Trinity said, “felt a little slobbery.”
A Kansas native, Brown said during a break Monday night that he graduated from what is now known as Emporia State University in Emporia, Kan., and hit the road as an actor.
But after having to do a bit of everything as a theater student in college, he found life as an actor in repertory theaters “stifling” after 10 years and moved into experimental theater, then show production. He eventually decided he could produce his own shows and transitioned to creating and performing educational theater shows for schoolchildren.
One of Brown’s first shows was about a Gypsy, and he wanted to recreate the old organ-grinder character with a monkey. That led him to Django (named after French gypsy jazz musician Jean-Baptiste “Django” Reinhardt), whom he acquired when she was only 10 days old. For two years, he bottle-fed the young monkey and took her everywhere.
“I took her to her first show when she was 12 days old,” he said. “That’s why she’s able to deal with children, because that’s all she’s ever been around. Most capuchins couldn’t handle these types of crowds.”
Though she was his constant companion, Brown said he waited two years before allowing Django to work with other people during tricks.
“It doesn’t take much to train her. They’re so smart, so quick,” he said. “They pick up concepts.”
Brown said Django, now 23 years old, understands numbers, hot and cold, left and right, and different body parts. She recognizes Lay’s potato chip bags and will beg for them, and she understands most words — sometimes with unexpected consequences.
“One of the things I have to watch out for is a young mother who walks up and points and asks, ‘Does that monkey bite?’” he said. “Because she understands that and she’ll play with them, pretend she’s going to bite them.”
Brown said that as demand for his educational shows waned, he began doing arts and crafts festivals.
Eventually, he got a call to do a county fair, and the next phase of his career took off. This month, he said, he has just three days off.
“Now, I’m just inundated with county fairs,” he said, “because Django is so popular.”
Django, Brown said, loves college-age boys because she used to play with his sons when they were at home.
She loves being around and playing with people, he said, but problems can arise with those who have no idea of what to expect from her, especially people reaching toward her unexpectedly.
“If you don’t know what’s coming, she’ll jump on you and think she’s playing,” Brown said. “If someone got frightened and started to fight her, she’d turn into a buzz saw.”
Most capuchins live to be 35 to 40 years old, and Brown said he has no thoughts of retiring anytime soon.
Django is an annual fixture at many events, he said, and people have had photographs taken with her a decade or more apart. She once entertained an octogenarian woman in a wheelchair, and her family came to him a few years later and said that until the day their mother died she had a photo of her and Django at her bedside and reveled in telling people the story of the time she got to play with the monkey.
“I can’t think of anything I could do at my age that keeps getting better,” Brown said. “I’ve never done anything in my life that’s brought so many people so much joy as that monkey.”
Contact Vic Bradshaw at 574-6279 or firstname.lastname@example.org