The yoga class is full of advanced-level devotees. They bend and balance and knot themselves into pretzel-like positions, following instructor Ottavio Gesmundo’s lead. While everybody else seems to float above their mats, I tumble. Gesmundo helps me up, and I balance for one second before tumbling again. He pats me on the shoulder, the picture of yogi wisdom and patience. “With time,” he says, before moving on.
After class, Gesmundo approaches me. “You’re a writer, right?,” he says, recalling a few conversations we had waiting for class to start. “Do I have a story for you!” With long black hair pulled into a low ponytail and geometric facial hair, he has the mysterious appearance of a gypsy. I didn’t know much about him other than the fact he has a yogi fan base (the majority women), that he’s from a circus family, and that he is a performer and does a crossbow routine with his wife. So I was expecting a pitch about Dragon Vinyasa, the combined practice of yoga and martial arts he and his wife invented to help them prepare to shoot arrows at each other. Journalists hear story ideas all the time. Most never pan out.
Gesmundo met me at a coffee shop after one of his classes. His loose workout clothes hung over a figure that was athletic yet lithe; only the seriousness of his eyes revealed him to be in his early 40s. The story he told was not about yoga at all—it was about how he sacrificed almost everything to stand up for what he believed in. It began 22 years ago when he was a dancer in Lido de Paris, the headlining show at the Stardust. One night when he was onstage, Gesmundo saw headliner Bobby Berosini beat one his orangutans. Back then, Berosini was a star in Las Vegas and around the world, famous for his ability to coax tender, humorous performances out of his orangs. Gesmundo, on the other hand, was an anonymous dancer facing a difficult choice: Should he say something about what he saw, or just keep quiet? Ultimately, his decision would change his life, and alter the course of entertainment in Las Vegas.
Born Bohumil Berousek in Czechoslovakia to a circus family, Berosini immigrated to the United States in 1964 and joined his father in the family business of staging animal shows. With his crisp manner, staccato East European accent, thin build, dark hair and mustache, Berosini looked like a tin soldier.
Above all, he was a skilled performer. It was what he was raised to do. From his 1966 chimpanzee act with his father on The Ed Sullivan Show to his work in movies such as Going Ape, Berosini had that mysterious “it” that directors are always talking about. And make no mistake, his shows were great. He trained animals to comically misbehave, exposing the tenuous divide between humans and apes.
But early on, there were rumblings of the storm that would eventually destroy Berosini’s career. The first to hear them was a young woman whose only connection to the circus was through a casino, where she worked in auditing.
In 1972, Linda Faso took walks during her lunch break around the then-3-year-old Circus Circus with a girlfriend. “We would see this little, tiny Silver Stream trailer outside purchasing and that thing would shake and there’d be noises and hitting and we used to say, ‘What in the world is going on in that thing?’” Faso says, sitting in a Las Vegas coffee shop more than three decades later.
She had asked around and was told that what she heard were the Berosinis preparing their six animals—two baby gorillas, two chimps and two orangutans—for a show. At the time, Bobby Berosini still performed with his father, per the long family tradition of circus families passing on practices and secrets through the generations.
“So a few more times it happened as we were walking by there and I said to my friend, ‘That sounds like they’re beating up those animals.’ So I got closer and I just listened and I knew the animals were getting beat up. I was so upset by it I didn’t know what to do. I think I went inside and vomited, actually,” Faso says, her voice thick with emotion.
She had seen the Berosinis perform at Circus Circus, and what she heard outside the trailer suddenly made sense. “I saw the tomahawks Bobby and his father held, and I realized they must be made of something really strong because those animals were so afraid of them. I’d be in the hallway sometimes when they’d be wheeling [the animals] in on a cage. It was so disturbing to me because the smell would be in the hallway for quite a long time. I used to say to the girls I worked with, ‘That’s the smell of fear.’”
Faso mentioned her concerns to people at Circus Circus. “They all told me the same thing: ‘Linda, they own those animals. Legally, they’re theirs. There are no laws against it. The public loves to see them perform. They’re wild animals. That’s the way they train them.’ At that time, there was no PETA or PAWS to call, so I had to pretty much just eat it because there was nothing else I could do.”
Like Berosini, Gesmundo grew up in a circus family. He was born in Michigan in 1965 while his parents were traveling and grew up within the paradoxes of a circus family trying to make it in a post-circus world.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus brought Gesmundo’s family to the United States. He thinks that he is probably even related to Berosini by marriage at some point in their families’ histories back in the Old World.
“The circus was glamorous back then,” Gesmundo says of his childhood. But by the time he was coming of age, it had lost its luster. Both his father and grandfather had died in circus-related accidents.
Nonetheless, his youth was filled with circus memories. He remembers riding a Big Wheel, pretending to be Coco, his grandfather’s star chimpanzee. As a child in Las Vegas, Gesmundo would venture backstage with his big sister who was in Circus Circus acts by day and an ice show at the Hacienda by night. Topless showgirls would pinch his cheeks, and he knew then that he would spend his life in entertainment.
When he was 14, Gesmundo spent a year in Mexico helping his uncle care for the family’s chimpanzees. It was there that he learned about working with primates. “At some point you have to show your dominance,” he says. “There’s a fine line between dominance and abuse.”
At 17, realizing that the circus was in decline, Gesmundo moved to Reno to be a stagehand. Two years later he crashed a jazz class and soon landed his first professional dancing job in A Chorus Line. By 1989, Gesmundo was a dancer in the popular show Lido de Paris at the now-defunct Stardust hotel-casino. The show featured Bobby Berosini and his orangutans, an act that had replaced Siegfried & Roy as the headliner.
The show featured a large stage with a psychedelic ’70s backdrop and the classic Vegas stairway full of dancers and showgirls. Gesmundo, then 24, was on those stairs, second to the right, in a spangled yellow vest and black tuxedo. He lifted his arms, as did the other dancers, and looked down as Berosini rose from under the stage. From his vantage point, he says he saw something the audience couldn’t: Berosini punching an orangutan before their grand finale entrance.
He complained to Stardust management, but just as Linda Faso had experienced 17 years before, nothing was done. Perhaps Gesmundo’s experience would have mirrored Faso’s, if not for some handy technology. Gesmundo had recently acquired a Super 8 camera, and he used it to film everything. It wasn’t long before he used the camera to confirm what he saw onstage that night.
Before going onstage, Berosini prepped his orangs in a Stardust hallway. The dancers who performed with him in the show heard animal noises coming from the area, but they weren’t allowed to see what was going on. In fact, the area was partitioned off with a black curtain and guarded by a stagehand. Gesmundo set up his camera in the hallway, but his first attempt to find out what was going on failed because it was pointed at the ceiling.
The explosive combination of Berosini’s temper and Gesmundo’s camera had already caused Gesmundo trouble. He openly filmed a meeting at which company manager Michael Bradshaw was fired for an altercation with Berosini, and in return Gesmundo’s six-month contract as a dancer was not renewed.
Having a dance contract terminated wasn’t such a big deal in the ’80s. Back then, every casino had a large production show—many with animal acts—and dancers would flit from show to show. With nothing to lose, Gesmundo continued filming.
He called on the help of Gregg Stokes, a fellow dancer who had performed in Reno in Hello Hollywood, Hello with Berosini six years earlier, and another dancer in Lido de Paris. The trio cut a hole in a box in order to hide the camera, and left it to film the backstage area during the show. This time, they caught a clear picture on the first try. Gesmundo was eager to finally discover what was happening behind the curtain. What he saw shocked him. He called a meeting of the male dancers in the “boy’s locker room.”
“I want your opinion,” Gesmundo said and pushed play. “I don’t think this is right. I don’t know what to do with this.” On the screen appeared a grainy image of Berosini hitting the animals as they stood in a circle around him. The dancers were shocked and many rallied around the cause.
With the help from the other dancers, Gesmundo filmed for a week. The same pattern of abuse occurred night after night. “It was just his method of showing dominance,” Gesmundo says in retrospect. “But it was too much.”
One of the female dancers who saw the footage was a member of the then-9-year-old group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. She suggested Gesmundo send the video to them because it was rumored that Berosini had connections with members of the local chapter of the Humane Society.
“I called them anonymously because I wasn’t sure I really wanted to get involved,” Gesmundo says. “I could send it to them and they could do whatever they wanted to do with it. I just recorded what it is.”
But before he mailed the tape to PETA, Gesmundo transferred the Super 8 to VHS and recorded over the spaces of time between the animal incidents in order to protect the identity of the topless showgirls and others who walked around backstage. That editing later opened him up to charges of “sweetening” the tape to make it look more incriminating.
By exposing Berosini, Gesmundo had broken a longstanding circus (and casino) tradition of insider secrecy. “What I did was very taboo,” he says, “taboo against circuses, taboo against casinos.”
His circus associates wondered how he could do that to one of his own. But Gesmundo’s family understood. “Circus people are generally good and are generally good to animals. It’s a pity that a few bad apples can ruin the bunch.”
PETA received the video in July 1989 and immediately sent an investigator to Las Vegas to gather information in preparation for litigation against Berosini. But PETA wasn’t the only organization to receive the video. Somehow, the Performing Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS, also got a copy. Pat Derby, former Hollywood animal trainer and founder of PAWS, took one look at the video and paused long enough to file a complaint with the USDA before calling a friend who was a producer at Entertainment Tonight. The story went national July 27, 1989.
“I knew this kind of training [was effective],” Derby says via telephone from her animal sanctuary in Galt, Calif. “Part of our mission was to expose it. I wanted the biggest venue we could possibly get. ET at that time was in prime time. I chose that deliberately because millions people went to that show and really believed Bobby Berosini loved the orangutans.”
The day the video surfaced, Linda Faso received a phone call from an acquaintance who was also active with PETA. She had since married an executive from Circus Circus and quit her job there. After watching the video on TV, Faso went out to protest on the Strip that night, in what would begin a 10-month stand of nightly protests against Berosini. Faso started with a homemade sign, but she eventually brought a generator and television to show the infamous video to tourists. One night an employee of Berosini’s broke the TV and ran away. Faso bought another. Every night, Berosini’s wife, Joan, would be alerted by security and would video the protest from the median. Faso instructed her fellow protestors to ignore her because the most important thing was helping the animals. But Faso also had encouragement: “I had dancers come out and talk to me. People from the lighting department and others. They said, ‘We can’t come forward, we’ll get fired, but please continue.’”
A close associate of Berosini at the time, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, offered a different opinion on the protests. “Most of them, 90 percent, were women. All we could figure is that these people have no life; they need a cause, they need a life. Again, this thing took on a life of its own.”
Stokes, the dancer who helped Gesmundo film Berosini, describes what happened next: “Berosini was backed into a corner and reacted like a caged animal.”
On Aug. 2, 1989, within a week of the video’s publication, Berosini filed a lawsuit against Gesmundo, PETA and its former director, PAWS and its founder, a dancer at Lido de Paris who stated she saw Berosini choking his animals, local animal rights activists Linda Levine and Sharon Willard and others on grounds of invasion of privacy, defamation and conspiracy. He claimed damages “in excess of $10 million” on each of five counts, and sought an injunction against PETA and PAWS. His attorneys pushed for an expedited deposition and to obtain the original footage in order to help salvage Berosini’s reputation. According to the affidavit of Michael F. Bohn, one of Berosini’s attorneys, “The plaintiff has had to take himself out of the Lido show on a temporary basis as a result of the publicity.”
Berosini had some ammunition for his fight. On the same day he filed suit, the USDA issued a statement regarding its inspection of the animals, which found no signs of abuse. (The qualification of the USDA inspector was later called into question, however, in research that ended up in the book Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People by Dale Peterson and Jane Goodall, University of Georgia Press, 1980.)
And on Aug. 21, 1989, the Humane Society of Southern Nevada released a special investigative report, which was unequivocally favorable to the Berosinis. This is the report that famously stated it found no signs of abuse, “just freckles” on the orangs. In response to the death threats against the Berosinis, the Society stationed a security guard at the Berosini’s house in addition to having a Humane Society representative present at each show.
PETA pushed for its own investigation on Aug. 17, 1989, and after a back-and-forth with the lawyers, succeeded in getting access to the orangs on Sept. 12. PETA’s three expert investigators found, among other things: “Physical lesions consistent with those that would be produced by the blows shown in the … videotape”; apprehension and distress, including vocalizations and urination; inadequate housing; routine surgical extraction of canine teeth; and social deprivation. Inspector Rob Shumaker, a biologist at the National Zoological Park, stated in the report that “the animals had no vitality—they seemed like concentration-camp victims, completely broken in spirit and will.”
The reports agreed on two things: that the primates look to Berosini for support; and that the animals were housed individually in stainless steel cages in a 1970 General Motors Coach. Of course, each interpreted these facts differently. Where the Humane Society saw mutual love, PETA viewed the orangs’ reliance on Berosini as a result of his emotional manipulation, derived from his keeping them isolated in small metal cages.
In the weeks following the suit, dancer affidavits poured in and PETA collected letters from primate experts around the world. Most notably, famed primate expert Jane Goodall stated: “I was shocked, sickened and saddened by the actions of the humans shown in this footage.”
The case became an epic “he-said/she-said” contest, with both sides claiming to care for the animals while accusing the other side of greed. “The cash that was involved to get people to say this or that, I couldn’t believe it,” says Berosini’s unnamed associate. “It all started with the animals. Everybody made a buck off the animals.”
The trial took place a year after tape was released. In true Old Vegas fashion, it started with Bobby Berosini performing his orangutan act for the jury. “He made a circus out of the trial,” says Phil Hirschkop, PETA’s lead counsel.
The trial lasted six weeks and was sequestered, highly unusual for a civil trial. Gesmundo would breakfast with the defense at the Golden Nugget. “My attorney Rob Martin would say, ‘Just maybe think about not ordering bacon and eggs,’” he recalls, a plea for him to look sympathetic to PETA’s cause. “I thought about it and decided it was my right to eat meat. This is exactly the kind of thing others could use against me.”
Indeed, others did. Gesmundo got death threats and random phone calls from angry strangers asking him if he played football or wore leather, because doing either meant he wasn’t a true animal lover. Gesmundo maintained that he was neither an animal rights activist, nor a vegetarian, nor a member of PETA.
The threats cut both ways. Harold P. Gewerter, Berosini’s lawyer, received death threats and was shot at, “all emanating from the defendants and their associates,” he stated in a December 1989 affidavit. In a February 1990 affidavit, Berosini stated, “My residence has been the target of terrorist activities, trespassers have been present (both on the ground and on the roof of my house) … death threats have been directed at my family, threats were made that my orangutans were going to be stolen from my property and killed by animal activists.”
In August 1990, a jury found in favor of Berosini, awarding him $4.2 million for libel and invasion of privacy. “The judge’s rulings were the worst I’ve ever seen,” says Hirschkop. “I’ve tried civil rights cases in the ’60s in Mississippi that weren’t so biased.”
PETA appealed. Meanwhile, Gesmundo moved on to dance in the show Abracadabra at the Aladdin, but says he was denied a job with Siegfried & Roy due to his involvement in the Berosini case. By 1991, he felt compelled to leave town because of the controversy, and performed in the first European tour of Chippendales. He returned to perform in the exotic, animal-heavy show Wings of the Gods at Luxor in time to see the Supreme Court of Nevada overturn the District Court’s verdict in 1995. Vindicating the defense, the court stated, “What is shown on the tape is clear and unequivocal: Berosini is shown, immediately before going on stage, grabbing, slapping, punching and shaking the animals while several handlers hold the animals in position.”
“I actually think the Nevada Supreme Court did an excellent job looking at it dispassionately,” says Martin, who handled the appeal. “I think ultimately justice was served. I think they protected the first amendment, which is important. Whether you like or don’t like PETA doesn’t matter.”
After winning on appeal, PETA sued for legal fees in a battle that dragged on for years. At one point, it forced Berosini to return $2 million from overseas. By 1999, Berosini’s former attorney was trying to force him into involuntary bankruptcy to pay legal fees.
While his career was effectively finished, Berosini still performed occasionally, mainly at one-off events. In 1997, Berosini and his wife made a last-ditch appeal to the public through a letter to the Las Vegas Sun:
“Everyone who knows our act is aware of our absence from show business. They have succeeded in destroying our livelihood but we still love and care for our animals and nothing will change that regardless of the work and expense involved. They are our family and we’ll keep them together no matter what!”
A year later, in response to continued PETA protests, the Tropicana hotel-casino ended Berosini’s “photo concession,” where he would charge tourists to pose for photos with his animals in the hotel lobby. Berosini also had a short-lived show in Branson, Mo., though the protesters followed him there as well.
In 2000—the same year that he was ordered to return $2 million to the States—Berosini was spotted in the audience of a show at the Flamingo. Eventually, he moved to Costa Rica, and then he disappeared. Author and naturalist Ward M. Clark is the only person I could find who had any news of his whereabouts since.
In an e-mail, Clark wrote, “I last spoke with Bobby in 2003. He was planning then to move to some land he owns in Brazil, but I do not know how to contact him now. The publicity resulting from PETA’s campaign against him effectively drove him from the country.” Clark described PETA’s actions as character assassination: “The allegations of animal abuse were patently false, as anybody who bothered to visit Bobby and see his facility would realize. PETA refused to do so.”
After paying PETA a $350,000 judgment, Berosini was ordered to pay the organization an additional $256,000 in legal fees in 2004, according to an article in the Nov. 23, 2004, Las Vegas Sun. That is the last mention I could find about Berosini, a sad and anticlimatic end for a person whom in court documents was referred to as “a world renown performer and trainer who performs at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.”
His orangutans were sent to a Hollywood animal trainer, and at least one (Popi) was later moved to the Great Ape Trust, a non-invasive cognitive and communication research facility in Des Moines, Iowa.
Gesmundo has spent years recovering from his decision to film Berosini. As recently as 2004, he lost a job with Ringling Bros. after they did a background check. But as he says often while teaching yoga, “with time” things are coming together. He performed his crossbow act on The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien with his wife in September and then went on a national tour with Dos Equis’ The Most Interesting Show in the World. He periodically performs in New York City and is shopping around a new show in Las Vegas called The Viper Vixens (think burlesque ninjas). In the meantime, he hopes to audition for Cirque du Soleil.
Gesmundo says that if he could do it all again, he’d probably have sent the video “to the USDA or somebody in Washington.”
“I’m not an animal rights activist,” he says. “But I think it’s our responsibility to do something about injustices.”
In Berosini’s heyday, animal acts ruled the Strip—from the menagerie of acts at Circus Circus to Siegfried & Roy, to the rotating acts that populated large production shows such as Folies Bergere at Tropicana. Not anymore. “The animal industry here is pretty much dead. Cirque de Soleil has taken over and dominated,” says the Birdman (a.k.a. Joe Krathwohl), a top free-flight bird trainer who has performed in various locations on the Strip and provides doves for Le Rêve. “Now, unfortunately, there’s only six animal attractions left in the Strip corridor. The MGM lions and the Mirage Secret Garden are holding their own. Then you have Dirk Arthur, Rick Thomas, Gregory Popovich and me.” (Dirk Arthur’s show, Xtreme Magic at the Tropicana, ended in March.)
The wheel of entertainment has turned away from animal acts. The slide started by Berosini was accelerated by the 2003 Siegfried & Roy incident, in which Roy Horn was bitten and almost killed by one of his trained tigers.
“Berosini went down as a loner,” says The Birdman. “He was working with a type of animal that not many people work with. And what I can see, there was no residual collateral damage from that on the rest of us—other than there may have been a general kind of ‘Las Vegas animal acts are bad.’”
While the debate about whether wild animal performances are inherently abusive continues, the outcome is less important in Las Vegas because other acts are in vogue. “With 20 years of hindsight, we’ve evolved as humans,” says dancer Gregg Stokes. “Berosini did what he was raised to do. There was no other way to train these animals, but that era was ending. Las Vegas was the Wild Wild West of showbiz.” Stokes, who is neither an animal activist nor a vegetarian, pauses and grows contemplative. “Perhaps that’s what had to happen to be where we are now. It’s a good thing. Wild animals belong in the wild. We’ll look back 100 years from now and say ‘wow.’”
Additional reporting by Cristina Olson.
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