“At one point in time, King Kong was hanging on the Carew Tower.”
This sentence, uttered to me in passing by my father sometime in the early-aughts, casually charmed me on and off for years. A replica of King Kong clinging to the prototype for the Empire State Building, the tower to which genuine Kong clung in the film from 1933, was an image I envisioned over and over again. How big was it? Why was it there? When did this happen? How long was it up there? The conviction in his statement reassured me it was true and I did a little digging for information on it at the time, but never turned anything up. I wasn’t as diligent about research back then, and I attribute this lack of success to my own incompetency, so the whole thing took a back seat priority-wise. I would think about it from time to time, make an empty promise to myself to research it further when I had a chance, and end up forgetting about it again.
But this past week has been very different. I was looking online for information about the Lafayette Bloom School in the West End and ended up buying a subscription to the Cincinnati Enquirer’s newspaper archive on Newspapers.com. This access to 170 years of local information spurred me to start looking up different things, from the first Lincoln assassination article to the weather on the day I was born. It was neat coming up with different topics to research because the archive was a previously untapped source of information waiting to be read. Then I remembered the King Kong Carew Tower story; I did a quick search and instantly found several articles from different dates about it. Finally, I confirmed it was real and on paper, bytes of black ink staring me in the face and vindicating my father’s claim from over a decade ago.
So here’s the story in a nutshell: Mark Phillips, an ex-P&G guy, operated a company called Airborne Specialty Advertising Promotions that he started in 1985. In November of 1987, Mark’s company received a commission to hang multiple 2,900 pound, 70 foot tall inflatable gorillas on buildings in 6 cities within the US to promote a Channel 5 rebroadcast of the 3D feature Gorilla at Large, a 1954 B-movie directed by Harmon Jones during the golden era of 3D films. Rax restaurants, a chain specializing in roast beef that peaked in the ‘80s, were selling 3D glasses for a dollar so viewers could watch the movie on November 28th of that year. 60 cents of the dollar was then funneled into the Ruth Lyons Children’s Christmas Fund, a local charity that brought toys and materials to the playrooms of the hospital for many years. Cincinnati was one of those 6 cities set to receive a giant inflatable gorilla (affectionately named Mr. Goliath) with the chosen location being the Carew Tower. And so, on an unseasonably mild autumn day under a sunny sky in late 1987, ten men set out to inflate a massive primate on the upper levels of Cincinnati’s tallest and most iconic skyscraper.
“For King Kong’s* Carew Tower appearance, Phillips and crew had to wedge the deflated beast into an elevator for transportation to the 45th floor, rig a t-shirt to the 50-foot wide gorilla and pop King Kong out of a narrow window before inflating him.”
–Cincinnati Enquirer, December 20th, 1988
Apparently the entire job took 72 hours of work to finish. Mr. Goliath hung on the side of the building in a Rax shirt from November 18th to the 21st of that year. There’s a good photo of it on the eastern side of Carew in the November 19th Enquirer (above). I cannot find any other existing photos of it anywhere else online, but I’m not convinced they don’t exist. There’s also no indication about where the gorilla went after it was removed. If this promotion took place today, social media would be oversaturated with pictures of it for weeks on end. By comparison, last summer's projection of the Cincinnati Reds player during the 2015 All-Star Game on the side of Carew garnered hundreds of photos for weeks. These two examples placed side by side do well to illustrate how two decades’ time can almost completely change the landscape of simple documentation.
And just like that, the mystery was solved. I stared at the image of the awkward, alien gorilla hanging on the familiar tower and marveled at the surrealism of the whole scene. That ape hung out there for four straight days in the urban core of my home town to help a roast beef restaurant sell blue and red-lensed glasses for a film made thirty years prior for charity. I have no idea how much money it helped raise, I’ve never seen Gorilla at Large, I’ve never eaten at a Rax restaurant, and I was too young to remember this first hand, but be sure to note the conviction in my words when I say I love everything about this story.
* this Enquirer article incorrectly referred to Mr. Goliath as “King Kong.”
Knippenberg, Jim. “Bigger and Better.” The Cincinnati Enquirer 13 Nov. 1987: 53. Print.
Keating, Michael E. “Going Ape for Charity.” The Cincinnati Enquirer 19 Nov. 1987: 53. Print.
Kiesewetter, John. “Gorilla at Large.” The Cincinnati Enquirer 26 Nov. 1987: 92. Print.
VonderBrink, Tim. “Big on Santa.” The Cincinnati Enquirer 20 Dec. 1988: 101. Print.