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ST. LOUIS • An old summertime hit at the zoo was the chimpanzee show, known to many fans simply as the "monkey show." Dressed in zany costumes, the chimps drove little cars, played baseball, teased their trainers and performed other vaudevillian stunts that probably would offend today's zoological sensibilities. The crowds loved every minute.

In October 1959, the zoo landed a star in Mr. Moke, the chimp who could say "no" and "mamma." The zoo paid $1,575 to Robert Tomarchin of Miami, who taught Mr. Moke the words and got him on Ed Sullivan's television show. Zoo director George P. Vierheller said of Mr. Moke, "He's the makings of the new show for next summer."

On the night of Dec. 21, 1959, Tomarchin slipped into the ape house and broke the lock to Mr. Moke's cage. He left a $1,000 cashiers check and a written promise to send more. He wrote that Mr. Moke was "heartbroken for freedom."

They escaped southward on a Gulf Transport bus, Mr. Moke hidden in a case that supposedly carried a dog. Tomarchin, 27, surrendered in Miami 10 days later and was released on bond, but got to keep Mr. Moke. The Zoo demanded the chimp's return.

Long-delayed trials in St. Louis and Miami led to Tomarchin's conviction for theft and an order that he return Mr. Moke to the zoo. On June 7, 1961, the strange tale turned even stranger.

On the day a Miami jury ruled in the zoo's favor, a deputy had to tell the judge that Tomarchin and Mr. Moke were on the lam. The zoo hired private detectives in Miami, but they came up empty. Tomarchin had been seen working on a sailboat, but nobody knew where the boat was.

There was no word until August, when he contacted his St. Louis lawyer, Norman S. London, and arranged a quiet surrender of the chimp. A Miami go-between put Mr. Moke on a jet to St. Louis on Sept. 3. He popped out of a crate shortly before noon near the zoo's refreshment stand.

"We took Moke up on a motor scooter, and people started running over to it," Vierheller said. "I said, 'This is Moke. He's come home.'"

Mr. Moke played the next day's three shows to hearty applause. He was a regular on the stage until 1971, when he moved on to the Knoxville Zoo. He died a few years later. The St. Louis Zoo phased out the "monkey show" in 1982.

Tomarchin received 18 months probation for stealing. He died in 1995 in Australia, where he was a dog trainer — and named many of his pooches Moko or Mr. Moke. Vierheller retired in April 1962 after 36 years as zoo director.


Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series.