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Media Life: Auburn says goodbye to its movie star chimp

“Jackass: 3-D” a first for Placer County; Bela Lugosi’s “Dracula” love interest Helen Chandler has sad link to Auburn
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Auburn has lost one of its more unusual claims to fame. Bernie, the Auburn chimp that starred in 2000’s “MVP: Most Valuable Primate” and “MVP: Most Vertical Primate” has moved to a new home in the Oakland Zoo. Bernie played a fast-skating, hard-shooting hockey player in “Most Valuable Primate” and then showed his versatility a year later by switching to some dazzling skateboarding for the sequel. While he didn’t win any awards for his acting, Bernie won the hearts of plenty of children with his antics. And owners Greg and Carol Lille found themselves touring NHL arenas for between-periods demonstrations of Bernie’s ice skating skills. The Lilles have lived in Auburn since 1980 and locals would occasionally catch sight of the couple and one or two of their dozen or more apes. With the world shifting away from allowing private ownership of captive chimpanzees, however, the Lilles worked with the non-profit animal-welfare group Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan to give the Auburn apes a new home. The Lilles had been attempting for several years to establish their own retirement home for entertainment chimps. The Oakland Zoo welcomed 16-year-old Bernie, as well as his 20-year-old brother, Eddie. They recently joined five chimpanzees already housed at the facility after a socialization process that started last May. Early reports are that they’re all getting along. In all, Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan worked with the Lilleses to relocate 14 chimps to zoos in Houston and Maryland, as well as Oakland. Jackass out in front The release of “Jackass 3-D” next month will be auspicious in at least one way. Turns out it’s the first 3-D film to be shot in Placer County. But there’s an asterisk attached to this one. Beverly Lewis, director of the Placer-Lake Tahoe Film Office, said that winter filming in two Tahoe area locations didn’t actually involve 3-D cameras. Concerned about weather conditions, the crew went with traditional 2-D equipment and snuck it in with the rest of the 3-D footage. “Jackass 3-D” is also notable on a broader scale because it’s the only film out of 70 that received the new state film tax credit that actually shot outside of the Greater Los Angeles Area. Scenes took place at the Kingvale Terrain Project and on private land near Alpine Meadows. DeWitt Hospital housed “Dracula” star The former DeWitt State Hospital, it turns out, is part of a sad footnote to movie history. A news release about the California Memorial Project Remembrance Day revealed the fact that Helen Chandler, an actress who played Mina Harker in the 1931 horror classic “Dracula,” was hospitalized for five years at the North Auburn mental institution because of acute alcoholism. Chandler appeared in 27 films during the 1930s before falling victim to a long-term battle with the bottle. The state Legislature has proclaimed the third Monday each September as a remembrance day to honor and restore dignity to people who lived and died in California institutions like DeWitt. Chandler’s sad life didn’t end at DeWitt. After her discharge, she returned to Hollywood and died there in 1965 at age 59. Chandler was cremated and Jeff Cowen of Placer Independent Resource Services says that to this day, no one has claimed her remains.