Retro Charlotte

Mystery of the missing mall monkey

“Organ grinder Joseph Lopez had a special pair of glasses made recently for his monkey, but they just gave Pancho a headache. Lopez says he is one of only nine organ grinders still working in America.” Undated.
“Organ grinder Joseph Lopez had a special pair of glasses made recently for his monkey, but they just gave Pancho a headache. Lopez says he is one of only nine organ grinders still working in America.” Undated. AP Wirephoto

**More photos (and some Westpark Mall ads) may be at top or bottom of story, depending on your device**

Pancho the organ grinder monkey escaped from an appearance at Westpark Mall almost 40 years ago. If you spot a 15-inch primate (wearing a patchwork suit) let me know! Last seen at Tyvola Road/I-77, poor thing. - Maria

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March 28, 1978

Runaway

Grinder’s Monkey Dances Out The Door

By Louise Hickman Lione, Observer Staff Writer

Joe Lopez is grieving.

In Monday morning’s drizzle, the boldly mustachioed old organ grinder sat in his silver Airstream trailer parked behind Charlotte’s Westpark Mall, wondering where his lost Pancho might be in the chill and dampness.

Pancho - a female capuchin monkey, star of his troupe of five and easily frightened like all her breed - broke her chain Friday night in the confusion and excitement a the end of the mall’s week-long grand opening.

In her blue patchwork print suit, the 15-inch high Pancho streaked through open doors to a wooded area across Tyvola Road in south Charlotte. She hasn’t been seen since.

“If it was good weather, I got my hope to go around and look for her,” Lopez speculated. “Maybe she got cold and she’s dead. Maybe stay under cover. They know how to take care of themselves.”

In his 35 years as an organ grinder, a dream the Italian native cherished years before realizing it, the childless, 81-year-old Lopez has never lost one of the delicate monkeys.

“It hurts. It’s the same thing you got a kid of your own. Something happen - how you feel?”

Pancho has bolted before, but Lopez always has been able to sweet-talk her back. “Many times get away, I say ‘Come here, come here,’” he crooned.

This time he failed. “Beautiful monkey, beautiful monkey,” he murmured sadly. “Good-natured, you know. But got so scared. Walks straight - as straight as can be. People can’t get over it.”

It took Lopez two years to train the 8-year-old Pancho. He’s been working her four years. Others are coming along but none can match her.

The monkeys live in the camper truck Lopez and his wife call “the monkey home.”

The Florida couple travels 11 months of the year, working fairs, malls and tourist centers. Winter time is given over to Arlen Shopping Centers Co., operators of Westpark and more than 200 other shopping centers.

In pink rubber gloves and clutching a bucket, Rachel Lopez, 54, came in to the Airstream from her chores in the monkey home.

It’s all been too much for her. “I’ve just about cried until I can’t cry no more,” she confessed as she tucked her equipment away. “I didn’t like it - I loved it. It’s really heartbreaking if we never get Pancho back.”

When her husband maintained, “I didn’t cry, but I felt bad,” Rachel Lopez, who also works a monkey, wouldn’t buy it.

“Let me tell you the truth,” she protested, the tears welling up again, “Joe won’t admit it when he’s heartbroken, but Joe Lopez had tears in his eyes. We had that little monkey since it was a baby.”

Mrs. Lopez is fiercely proud of her husband. Asked how many other organ grinders are still around today, she jumped in. “We’ve heard that there are about 10 or 11. I don’t think there’s but one really. He the only one I think even looks like an organ grinder. The other people can’t get jobs - they want him all the time.”

The Lopezes were to start working the season’s last engagement at Burlington’s Holly Hill Mall Monday. They just couldn’t move on with things as they are.

Know where Pancho is? Call 374-xxxx between 8 a.m. and midnight.

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(A May, 1978 update said Pancho had still not been found.)

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