Sunday, March 2, 2008

Peter Sellers: A Man, A Mechanical Elephant, and A Mystery (updated!)

Many biographical writings about
Peter Sellers make at least a small effort to point out eccentricities in his personality and habits - - and there were plenty of examples from which to choose.

Often mention is made of his passion for collecting automobiles, and his ownership of a large mechanical elephant tends to get thrown into the same sentence.
(As it did just now)

Recently, in a tattered old copy of the August 4th, 1975 edition of People Magazine, I found this photo of Sellers perched atop his precious elephant.

I knew I'd read about the elephant in passing before, but finally there was a photo.
He looks happy and proud, and rightly so!

Some curiosity about it led to some mixed information and reasonably interesting discoveries, if not a fully satisfying answer regarding Sellers.

The photo that ran in the People Magazine article was taken many years earlier by award-winning photographer John Sadovy.

Sadovy took many celebrity portraits and art photos in his career, but had gained much of his reputation for his warzone news photos of the Hungarian Revolt of 1956.

As for Sellers, indications are that he purchased the mechanical elephant around 1960, and that the one he owned had a previous life carrying passengers as a tourist attraction on a British seaside promenade.

Sellers was reported as saying that he bought it as a business fallback in the event his film career went flat. Whether he was in any way serious is unclear.

Turns out that Britain would seem to be the birthplace of mechanical elephants, and there has been (and continues to be) a healthy amount of them trundling across British soil over the years.

Historically, the undisputed father of the British Mechanical Elephant industry would have to be
Frank Stuart, often referred to as a visionary.

Certain details appear debatable, however, as different accounts give some contradictory information.

A consensus would indicate that Frank Stuart built his first elephant in 1947, and though the mention is often made of him having built only three, it appears that there were more than that, perhaps of different design, but certainly of different stature.
There were several smaller models out there at work in several locations, which may not have all been of Stuart's design.

Various reminiscences to be found in a BBC-sponsored
North East Wales 'Ask A Local' web forum add to a bit of the
when-where-which muddle.

Nellie, an elephant that appeared in many Christmas parades in Adelaide, Australia, was a
Stuart-built elephant manufactured in England.

Quoting from a web article on the History of Animatronics:

"In 1950, a Scotsman named Frank Stuart built the world’s first robot elephant that stood nearly
nine-foot tall. The elephant was 12 feet long, made from 9,000 different parts, and powered by a
10-horsepower engine. It was covered with a half-inch thick 'hide' made from paper. According to Stuart, 'The sale price of $3,000 is expected to bring many dollars to Britain as parks acquire a popular animal that doesn’t have to be fed.'"

The Automata / Automaton Blog gives some good background, and is one of several web sites that make reference to one of Frank Stuart's 'three' elephants going up for auction in 2007:

"The elephant – a colossus by any measure, at about 20 feet tall – was the brainchild of
Frank Stuart, an English visionary and inventor who built three of the forward-propelled pachyderms in the years following World War II. One is permanently housed in a museum in Austria, one is in a private museum in Chicago, and the third (the one being sold) comes directly from the Stuart family.

"The elephant 'walks' with the help of a
four-cylinder, Chevy-powered engine and an elaborate network of hydraulics neatly tucked inside the body cavity. It literally skates along, at speeds of up to 20 mph, and has been featured over the years in publications like Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Forbes and Architectural Digest Motoring. It has also been in numerous parades and festivals.

"'Its crowning achievement came in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower rode it to the Republican National Convention, in front of a horde of reporters, cameras and well-wishers,' Brown said. 'The elephant is smiling, and it's hard not to smile back when you look at him. It is truly among the most unique mechanical collectibles ever sold at auction.'"

So is the model that Ike rode in '52 the same one that Peter owned in the 1960's? Seems unlikely. - - And whatever happened to the Mechanical Elephant from the Sellers collection?

Could the Sellers elephant be the same one shown below in this bit of vintage British newsreel footage?

There's a higher-resolution version of this same videoclip at the previously mentioned
Automata / Automaton Blog: 'Video of Life Size Elephant Automaton'

So - - Questions answered, new questions raised, and not nearly enough connections to the role of Peter Sellers in this story.

Where does it all fit? What does it all mean?
What factors contributed to the UK leading the race for Mechanical Elephant technology??
A mystery, for now.

Your knowledge, insights, references and theories are all welcome in helping to either shed light on this matter, or to make it still more confusing.

- - But wait! There's more!

ADDENDUM!! - - and how! - - 4/24/08: A very nice and very welcome note came in recently from Larry in Waterford, Michigan. He had some personal insights to add to this story...

"THANK YOU!!!!!! If you will but check out this link, it will explain the thanks and provide bona fides. It's to a short video I posted (at Google Video), showing a rebuilt (in 1978) robot elephant."

(NOTE: Your results may differ, but I'm experiencing occasional problems with that Google Video link.
Here is an alternate link to the same piece of video.)

"I owned him, from 1978 until the late 80's when I sold him to Tim Trager, the person who posted the two videos of the 1950's version."

(referenced in the first part of this post)

"I was impressed by the info you had about the robots, although some 'facts' passed around can't be verified so are in question. I have researched Jumbo and his siblings since purchasing him in
Sept. 1978, and continue to get tidbits of info now and then.

"Two items; There is no proof that Peter Sellers actually owned one, the license on the elephant's nose was registered to (it's creator, Frank) Stuart in 1951. George Lovatt was the driver in Margate when issued, and the engine number used for that registration is the number on the engine of my Jumbo.

"Jumbo came to Detroit in 1951. Eisenhower would not have ridden Jumbo in 1952 - - Jumbo was in Detroit, not at the convention. However, Jumbo did make an appearance in 1956 in New York (I have the LIFE magazine photo) - - but no Ike.

"And lastly, and the best really - - While I sold Jumbo to Tim Trager and he stores him (in Wisconsin I believe), the gaily colored version you have shown was recently purchased by a man in Flint, Michigan and is on display in a mall/museum about 22 minutes from my home. (The Dort Mall)

"I am going up again on Wednesday for a more in depth look than the first time, and was told today that they are receptive to having him operable again. Made my day!"

I think I might know how you felt, Larry. Thanks so much for sharing.

In his message, Larry also went on to mention his intent to round up all the bits and pieces he has pertaining to his mechanical elephant experiences, and to post it online...

"...So that others can realize the uniqueness of these machines and add to the story if they choose.

"Thanks for the kick-start into this project I have so long put off. Just your writing of the elephants proves the interest is there and the time is proper to get the whole story out."

Finally, Larry has included a couple of old photos - - (below)

"A before and after of Jumbo, just for the heck of it."

Bless you, Larry.

Fingers crossed for your plan to get the rest of the story out there.
We'll keep our eyes peeled...

(NOTE: I did later receive a link from Larry with video footage he shot of 'a short tour of the Dort Mall'. It included the smaller elephant housed there that he had mentioned, but again, it seemed to be a slightly buggy link. Stay tuned. He also says he's made progress scanning lots of old pictures and slides...)


The In Crowd said...

Thanks to Timmy for sharing a 1950's US postcard image of an amazing Elephant Hotel!

Anonymous said...

Margate in Kent England used to have a mechanical elephant which took tourists up and down the promenade. This one does look very similar.

Andy from Workshopshed said...

I recently looked into the mechanical elephants made by Frank Stuart. It would appear that the factory collapsed due to financial mismanagement

Workshopshed - Welding the Elephant

Reuben Hoggett said...

Hi, Good article. I, too, have been researching Mechanical Elephants. I have uncovered more information on the Stuart elephants. See my blog here and here for non-Stuart Elephants.
Regards, Reuben Hoggett (cyberneticzoo)

Reuben Hoggett said...

I would like to contact Larry of Michigan. Would you be able to put me in contact with him please?


Reuben Hoggett (Australia)
reubenh at mail dot com .

Freshly-stirred links