Consul the Great: Top Ape in Vaudeville

Consul disembarks for his 1909 U.S. Tour

“Consul the Great” was the top performing ape in vaudeville, so much so that getting back to the original one takes some digging.

The original chimpanzee was purchased from Wombwell’s Traveling Menageries in 1893 by John Jennison for Belle Vue Zoological Gardens in Manchester, England. Belle Vue was as much of an amusement park as it was a zoo, and true to form, Consul wore clothes, smoked a pipe, and accompanied his boss to board meetings. Unfortunately, this one died in 1894, but he was instantly replaced with another chimp called Consul II or Consul Jr. who could play a violin while riding a trike.

It is not known if this is the same animal or yet another successor whom Martin Beck imported for a tour of the Orpheum circuit in 1909.  This one could roll around on roller skates, thread a needle, cut paper with scissors, and eat a meal with fork and knife.  But there was a bit of Consular controversy that year, for at the same time, William Morris presented his own opposition Consul the Great at his American Music Hall, declaring that his Consul “had the prior claim to the title through his longevity”. This is a transparent dodge. From a legal stand point (if not a public relations one), the imported one, even if younger, clearly had prior claim to the branding. Sadly, the imported one died the following year while touring in Texas.

At any rate, the name “Consul” was to become legendary among performing apes and monkeys in show business (a bit like “Jumbo” among elephants) and it was much copied and pirated over the years. Consul’s nearest competitor Peter the Great, became “Consul Peter the Great”, and there was a female ape touring the circuits named “Consuline”. In the end, the saga of Consul the Great is not unlike that of Famous Ray’s Pizza.

To find out more about  the history of vaudeville, including performing animals like Consul, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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