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A showman to the end, his gorilla suits launched a costume empire

Costume maker Philip Morris stands beside replicas of movie characters Batman, ET and Spiderman at his Charlotte company in this 2005 photo. Morris died late Sunday at 83.
Costume maker Philip Morris stands beside replicas of movie characters Batman, ET and Spiderman at his Charlotte company in this 2005 photo. Morris died late Sunday at 83. THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

Philip Morris, the one-time circus ringmaster who made gorilla suits in his basement as he built the world’s largest costume distributorship, died late Sunday at his Mooresville home. He was 83.

A showman to the end, Morris delighted in turning napkins into ghosts and pulling quarters out of kids’ ears even as he struggled with Alzheimer’s disease in his final months.

“He’s up in heaven right now entertaining the angels,” said his son, Scott Morris. “That was my dad.”

Longtime Charlotteans will remember Morris appearing on WBTV’s “Big Bill’s Clubhouse” and “Horror Theater” on late Friday nights in the 1960s.

Younger ones will recognize Dr. Evil (and his son Scott) from the Austin Power movies – a character Morris created for local TV and stage shows in 1959. Scott Morris said his father reached a settlement with film producers over his trademark claim.

By Monday, tributes were being posted to Morris Costumes’ Facebook page.

“He was the PT Barnum of this era and a true Showman’s friend,” read one. “He was a TV star, toured a spook show, produced and starred in (an) international illusion show, was the ringmaster for the Hanneford circus and in his spare time built the world’s largest costume shop, Morris Costumes. Not bad for a runaway kid from Michigan.”

But the family-run Charlotte company, which now ships 20,000 packages a day, much of it wholesale distribution, will forever be linked to gorilla suits.

The son of bakers who heartily disapproved of his fascination with magic, the young Morris toured the U.S. and Canada for 20 years as a magician and as host of creepy “spook shows.” He and his wife Amy had also started a costume company in their Charlotte home in 1960, supplying stage shows, circuses, TV and movie studios.

His time on the road included working as a ringmaster and costumer for the three-ring Royal Hanneford Circus. A sideshow needed a costume for a girl-to-gorilla act, and a specialty was born.

Scott Morris remembers his mother, her husband’s caretaker in later years, sewing the suits while his dad poured plaster of Paris into molds for the faces, chests and feet. The suits were so lifelike that they were used by hundreds of magicians, TV shows and feature films.

Once on a “ghost show” tour in Canada, Philip Morris somehow got arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – while wearing a gorilla suit. Charges were dropped, Scott Morris recalled, but “he wouldn’t take the head off the costume until we got to the police agency because he didn’t want anyone to know it was him.”

In 1967, the company says, a customer named Roger Patterson bought a custom gorilla suit that was used to film the famously grainy footage of a hairy “Bigfoot” striding through the northern California woods.

Over the years, the business grew. The basement operation moved to a small shop, then to a retail store on Monroe Road and a 300,000-square-foot distribution center in University Research Park. Scott Morris and his sister Terri Bate now own the business, but their dad worked until about 18 months ago.

With Halloween approaching, it’s the company’s busiest time of year. The 250 employees are shipping costumes all over the world.

“I don’t know what he was thinking, leaving us at this time of year,” Scott Morris joked. “He just passed away last night and at 8 o’clock this morning, I was at work. We have to do what we have to do, and he just loved what he was doing.”

A memorial service will be held in November, he said, after the busy season.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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