NEW YORK (FOX 5 NY) – Every roar, growl, snort and grunt coming out of the toothy mouth of the 20-foot-tall steel and fiberglass gorilla puppet, weighing over 2,000 pounds, Tony winner, who stars in “King Kong from Broadway is not from some Nature Channel audio track recordings but instead from the live vocal cords of a puppeteer named Jon.
“This may be the pinnacle of my career as a puppeteer,” said Jon Hoche.
Nearly a year ago, Hoche auditioned for a spot among the 10 actor-dancers on stage responsible for all of Kong’s manual movements.
“And they saw that I had quite a few puppets in my repertoire,” he said.
The producers called Jon back and asked him to go on stage alone and perform three scenes as Kong.
“I literally got on all fours. I was King Kong,” Hoche said. “I was fighting an imaginary snake and lifting a tiny little Ann Darrow.”
Some performing professionals may have viewed the experience as humiliating or undignified.
“No, because it’s kind of a dream role for me,” Jon said.
As a child, Jon became a monkey on every King Kong movie, the Planet of the Apes franchise, and any other media involving a primate. His audition at Kong wasn’t the first time he impersonated a gorilla.
“Certainly,” said Hoche, “absolutely not.
Eight times a week for two hours at a time every week since November, Jon now stood in a booth making monkey noises into a microphone for 1,700 paying viewers.
“Depending on what the scene needs,” Jon said, “if it’s just like a…” and instead of those ellipsis Jon mimicked a breathy gorilla growl for us “…or If it’s a loud cry I don’t wanna blow the sound here [on your microphone].”
But after an anonymous walk from the office where we interviewed him, through Times Square, 10 blocks north and several flights of stairs to the – still fairly anonymous – perch above the stage of the Broadway Theater where the vocal cords of this human play the voice box of the one-ton gorilla in the room, Jon admonished us on Kong’s range.
“The other two puppeteers have noise canceling headphones,” he said.
Jon also remotely controls Kong’s head and neck, while two other voodoo puppeteers in the cabin next to him maneuver the puppet’s animatronic shoulders, jaw, and face.
“He has endless possibilities of what he can express facially,” Jon said.
And thanks to the 10 athletes on stage from the so-called King’s Company, Kong’s legs, wrists, elbows, hips and feet allow for a range of more physical actions, like smashing helicopters.
“There will actually be someone on Kong’s shoulder,” King’s Company swing Warren Yang said, “and he or she will get a line and actually jump off the puppet.”
A college gymnast, Yang can play every role in the King’s Company, which must pull, push, and drag the puppet in tune with the sounds and movements of Jon and the voodoo puppeteers in the cabin above the stage.
Sixteen hours and sound checks each week spent invoking throaty noises from his chest strain Jon’s vocal cords.”
“If Kong is screaming on stage,” Jon said, “I’m in a sound booth screaming.”
Jon sees an otolaryngologist, meets with a speech therapist, follows a strict diet before the show, and never misses a warm-up or vocal recovery.
“I kind of have to open up all the cavities in my body to resonate,” he said.
While at the start of auditions and rehearsals, Jon admits Kong’s voice sounded like a method game at times.
“I was really on the subway a bit like…” and again Jon growls at us like a monkey. “Once in a while, sometimes it’s just easier to express myself that way.”
Jon no longer worries about being typecast for the rest of his career as “the gorilla guy”, calling Kong the role of a lifetime.
“I’d be totally fine being an ape,” Jon said, “and having a career as an ape.”