Flying Monkeys

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 cultural benefits that come with being a university town. All the right reasons. I went to Burlington for the flying monkeys, the prehistoric lake monster, and the land whales.

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, flying monkeys 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.

A placard near the entrance of One Main that outlines the history of the building barely mentions them, stating only, “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.

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.

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 baby flying monkeys, adorable and hilarious and terrifying. 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 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.

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 include a flying monkey in your branding campaign.

Anyway, if you lost count or if I've done my usual adept job at muddling the most simple descriptions, 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 into your mind every time that carol’s wassailed in your direction this upcoming Yuletide.