Willy’s latest gig takes him to a forest fire where he tapes a trained chimp named Ralph

The further adventures of comedy filmmaker Willy Laszlo who left his secure production job and moved to L.A. to follow his dream.

Shortly after agreeing to videotape a monkey, a female producer gave me very little details, then sent me an email with less details:

“9 a.m. Monday, 5N freeway exit Frazier Park, turn left on right side there will be a Shell station and Quiznos. Chimp trainer and seamstress will meet you.”

Late Sunday night, I decided to look at Mapquest to find out where the Frazier Park exit was off of 5N. I figured it was in the general L.A. area since the email didn’t specify a town or area code.

Mapquest was no help, but I wasn’t too worried. I had the Thomas Guide, detailed maps of every street in the L.A. area in my vehicle and could look up Frazier Park the next morning. It had to be somewhere in town.

The next day when I looked through my Thomas Guide I sensed a problem when Frazier Park was not printed in the index.

There was a Fraser Al, Fraser Av., Fraser Pl, and Frazier St. She probably meant Frazer St. I cross-referenced by looking at the maps and Frazier St. crossed over the 5 south of the L.A. area.

I didn’t think this was right because the simple directions said 5N? I checked again and Fraser Al, Fraser Av. and Fraser Pl didn’t cross over the 5 at all.

I denied my man pride and hastily called the contact number given. A man with a grumpy voice answered and I introduced myself. As he gave me directions, I knew I was in trouble because I didn’t recognize any of the exits he said I would pass before I got to the Frazier Park exit.

When he finally got to “north of Santa Clarita” my heart pounded. Santa Clarita to L.A. is the equivalent of Gurnee to Chicago. He said I would pass by the Six Flags Magic Mountain exit, pass Pyramid Lake and drive north of the fires.

How can someone possibly give these directions without mentioning Frazier Park exit is 70 miles north of the L.A. area?

Shortly after passing Pyramid Lake, the letters “Frazier Park” had flashed by on the right side. I also recall seeing “40 miles.” I glanced at my watch and calculated: “I have 25 minutes to go 40 miles; 80 mph will get me there five minutes late. I just might make it if I stay at 90 mph.”

Meanwhile, massive smoke clouds loomed tens of thousands of feet over the mountaintops west of me. All I had to do was check and see if I had passed the sixth largest forest fire in American history.

Minutes later, small fires pocketed along mountainsides. Scorched earth became visible from when the freeway was shutdown a week earlier. In the distance, a small air force of helicopters dumped flame retardant into the black hills.

9AM Monday, 5N freeway exit Frazier Park.

After passing the rising 20-thousand foot smoke cloud, it was finally time to exit right onto the evasive Frazier Park exit. Soon as I reached the bottom of the exit ramp and turned left, I could see the Shell station. The directions were exactly correct.

Pulling into the station, I checked my watch, three minutes to nine. I was early. As I pumped a lot of gas into the empty tank, I noticed a couple sitting at a picnic table.

I recognized the grumpy voice and asked the couple if they happened to be the trainer and the seamstress. They were. The seamstress looked at me and said, “Please don’t tell me you made it here in that amount of time?” I smiled. The producer arrived 10 minutes later.

We followed the trainer and seamstress to the animal training facility. It was located on a road closed to the public because of the fires around us, thick smoke rising rapidly beyond the hilltops.

Fenced cages lined up in two rows. The first cage contained a lion curiously watching the vehicles pull in, while a nearby trainer walked a baby black bear with nothing more than a leash. Behind this sight, a caged Kodiak bear stood up on its hind legs. With both of his arms up over its head the height must have been ten feet, easy.

I prepped my camera as the seamstress and producer brought the chimp’s wardrobe into a small warehouse. Another trainer brought out the chimp, name of Ralph, into the gravel parking lot where he ran around with diapers on.

The chimp stood on a table inside the warehouse. One trainer constantly called out, “stand Ralph,” “keep your head up!” and “arms out!” He dressed the chimp as the other trainer handed him the clothes. The animal changed wardrobes 12 times. Ralph showed more patience than most actors I know.

The producer took pictures of each wardrobe change. Before each picture, the trainer commanded, “Ralph, stand straight and smile!” The chimp stuck his chest out and smiled. Sometimes he did it without being told. Soon as he saw the camera, he stuck his chest out and smiled.

The shoot was over, in a little over an hour. The producer sat down next to Ralph and got a couple of pictures taken with him. Ralph gave the producer a couple high fives and put his arm around her.

I felt envious and wanted to play with the furry primitive being. I figured, I’d never be able to meet a chimp again here in the open.

The other trainer took Ralph outside onto a picnic bench and wrestled around with him. I walked up to the trainer and asked, “Can I say hi to Ralph?” The trainer looked away from me and mumbled, “No, I’m not going to do that.”

I immediately thought: “Animals can be trained, people are born that way.” Suddenly, I imagined the trainer as a temperamental, diaper wearing, five-year old who needed the chimp to keep him busy. I slightly began to see the undertakings of a trainer unfold in front of me. Not caring too much about the discovery, I silently walked away, insulted.

By now, ash had collected on the bottom of the windows of all the vehicles. Visible ash floated down from the sky.

The seamstress told me they had already evacuated the small animals and were prepared to evacuate the large animals if they had to. When we exited back on the closed road, all the helicopters were gone.

The next night, I saw TV footage of Frazier Mountain Park Road. It was the closed road we were allowed to drive on. Both sides of the road were engulfed in flames. California. Here today, burnt tomorrow, like many careers.