November 10, 2008 — Most people visit the city of Burlington, Vermont, for the pleasant waterfront of Lake Champlain, the quirky shops and restaurants on Church Street, and the various cultural benefits that come with being a university town. Those are all the right reasons. I, on the other hand, went to Burlington for the flying monkeys, the prehistoric lake monster, and the land whales.
This article is only about the flying monkeys, because whenever you can you should give flying monkeys precedence. It’s one of the more interesting phrases in the English language, after all. Whether they’re flying out of the posterior of Mike Myer’s Wayne’s World character or jumping around at the bidding of the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, these creatures are both horribly comical and hilariously terrifying. And for some reason they adorn the roofs of two of the signature buildings of Burlington’s harbor.
If you drive down the hill of Main Street toward Lake Champlain, you’ll see at its terminus the old Union Station, now called the One Main building because of its address. One Main is a tall, dignified stone building beautifully back-dropped by the blue Adirondack Mountains across the lake. It’s quite the screensaver of a sight...that’s completely saved from beauty-to-the-point-of-blandness by a pair of black, jagged-furred flying monkeys made of steel perched atop the building’s roof for no apparent reason.
In fact, the placard near the entrance of One Main that outlines the history of the building is completely unhelpful in regards to this subject. It says little about the sculptures, only noting that they’re there and including a rather redundant picture that you can see in real-time just by looking up.
Actually, I should include exactly what the placard says about the beasts, just for the sake of ridicule. Verbatim and in toto, it goes: “The ‘flying monkeys’ above the clock symbolize the link between Burlington’s proud past and its bold future—with a dash of creativity and fun!” Besides seeming like it was written by a Highlights for Children writer, the statement reaches to the point of dislocated shoulder bones for some generically acceptable meaning. As if it’s not okay to have flying monkeys just for the sake of having flying monkeys. Sheesh.
Vermont’s state bird is the Hermit Thrush, in case you were wondering. It has no state primate. So why is a pair of flying monkeys king-of-the-mountaining in the most visible place in town? Spending their retirement years, is the answer.
You see, this pair of creatures was originally created in the 1970s by a man named Steve Larrabee to expand upon the Wizard of Oz theme of a now defunct local waterbed store called “Emerald City.” Yup, they were in the advertising business. When that store went the way of, well, waterbeds in general, these flying monkeys needed a new home. Eventually, after a couple of decades perched at other locations around the area, they finally settled on One Main, and have been absolutely un-shooable since. I guess they just stuck around long enough that people started digging them. Digging them enough, in fact, that more flying monkeys were called for. You can never have enough flying monkeys, it seems.
The most prominent of the two flying monkeys adorns the central gable of One Main and acts in the auspicious position of standard bearer, its steel claws wrapped protectively around a pole on which hangs, flutters, and whips (depending on weather and mood of the simiavian) the official flag of Vermont, which depicts a deer, a cow, but, sadly, no flying monkeys.
You have to step around to the backside of One Main to see the second flying monkey better, and once you do, you’ll see not just it, but two more, making a total of four flying monkeys so far in our Burlington safari.
These latter two are diminutive enough that to think if them as baby flying monkeys is a decent assumption. The name of the city is carved into the stone of the building just beneath the trio, and the juxtaposition makes one think of words like juxtaposition. Behind the building, the sidewalk becomes an elevated terrace, so you end up closer to these sculptures than you are to the one on the front of the building.
Being so close to the winged primates allows you to see much more clearly how kinda scary these creations are with their serrated black outlines and general flying monkeyness. They’ll also make you think that if evolution had gone in this slightly different direction, we’d be a much cooler species now. Unlike the original two steel flying monkeys on the front of the building, this smaller pair is made of copper, although the material has been darkened to match the hue of the originals to further the familial impression.
Keeping up with the Joneses, though, is the unofficially named Lake and College building located just down the way from One Main. It has flying monkeys roosting atop its roof, as well, although this pair is newer, smoother, and made of undarkened copper so that they’re shiny, at least until time and the elements decide otherwise. They also look a little more like winged sloths than winged monkeys for some reason.
Standing in front of One Main, you can see one of these newer sculptures clinging to a turret of the roof of Lake and College. As you approach the building, you’ll see the other flying monkey howling majestically and oddly wolf-like above the Waterfront Theatre, one of the tenants of the building. The theater has even adopted this howling winged monkey as its symbol and includes a silhouette of the creature on its signage. And why wouldn’t you. It’s not every day that you get to legitimately include a flying monkey in your branding campaign.
I didn’t have time to go back to the original source material of these creatures in preparation for this article, but I did have the chance to go back to the source material once-removed, the 1939 film version of L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Like pretty much everybody else in the developed world, it’s been a long while since the last time I’d watched The Wizard of Oz, and that’s a bit of a tragedy. Any movie that features one of the best villains in cinema history, a musical coroner’s report, and a two-legged lion with a penchant for nasal-sounding vibrato, as well as giving me the perfect euphemism for excusing myself to the restroom (“off to see the wizard”), should be in regular rotation in my DVD player.
Unfortunately, I got so into the movie that I forgot to maintain the cynical distance I need to mine it for all the article filler that I hope you expect to see in an OTIS article. As a result, there are no Oz jokes scattered throughout this article like there should be. One epiphany that I did have, though, that I’m just end-of-article-drunk enough to foolishly divulge, is in regards to the hairstyles of the flying monkeys. They all had mohawks. Right, mohawks. Mo-hawks. Monkey-hawks. Hawk-monkeys. Flying monkeys. Man, that makes my shoulder bones ache.
Anyway, if you lost count or if my writing ability has lived up to its reputation of muddling the most simple descriptive tasks, Burlington has a total of six flying monkey sculptures on the roofs of its harbor buildings. Enough, I think, to merit their own day of Christmas. And I hope that idea pops unbidden into your mind every time that carol’s wassailed in your direction this upcoming Yuletide.
Now all I need to do is to make a quick check to make sure I stuck the words “flying” or “winged” in front of every instance of the word “monkey” in this article so that I can dominate the Google market share on that topic and that I’ve started the paperwork to copyright the term “simiavian,” and I think this article is post-able.