The puppeteer who brings King Kong's face and voice to life on Broadway
NEW YORK (FOX 5 NY) - Every roar, grunt, snort and growl out of the toothy mouth of the 20-foot tall, more-than-2,000-pound, Tony-winning, steel and fiberglass gorilla puppet that stars in Broadway's "King Kong" originates not from some recorded Nature Channel audio track but instead from the live vocal cords of a puppeteer named Jon.
"This is maybe the pinnacle of my puppetry career," Jon Hoche said.
Nearly a year ago, Hoche auditioned for a spot among the 10 on-stage actor-dancers responsible for all of Kong's manual movements.
"And they saw I had quite a bit of puppetry in my repertoire," he said.
Producers called Jon back and asked him to get up on stage alone and act out three scenes as Kong.
"I literally got on all fours. I was King Kong," Hoche said. "I was fighting an imaginary snake and lifting up a very tiny Ann Darrow."
Some stage professionals might've considered that experience humiliating or undignified.
"No, because it's kind of a dream role for me," Jon said.
As a kid, Jon went ape over all the King Kong movies, the Planet of the Apes franchise and any other media involving a primate. His Kong audition was not the first time he'd mimicked a gorilla.
"Admittedly," Hoche said, "absolutely not."
Eight times a week for two hours at a time every week since November, Jon's now stood in a booth making ape noises into a microphone for 1,700 paying theatergoers.
"Depending on what the scene needs," Jon said, "if it's just like a ..." and in the place of that ellipsis Jon imitated for us a panting gorilla grunt "... or if it's a big scream. I don't want to blow out the sound here [on your microphone]."
But after an anonymous stroll from the office where we interviewed him, through Times Square, 10 blocks north and several flights of stairs up to the — still pretty anonymous — perch above the Broadway Theater stage where this human's vocal cords play the voice box of the one-ton gorilla in the room, Jon remonstrated for us Kong's range.
"The other two puppeteers have noise-canceling headphones," he said.
Jon also remotely controls Kong's head and neck, while two other voodoo puppeteers in the booth beside him maneuver the puppet's animatronic shoulders, jaw and face.
"He has endless possibilities of what he can facially express," Jon said.
And thanks to the 10 athletes on stage in the so-called King's Company, Kong's paws, wrists, elbows, hips and feet allow for a range of more physical actions, like swatting helicopters.
"There will actually be someone on Kong's shoulder," King's Company swing Warren Yang said, "and he or she will receive a line and actually jump off the puppet."
A college gymnast, Yang can play every role in the King's Company, which must pull, push and drag the puppet in harmony with the sounds and movements of Jon and the voodoo puppeteers in the booth above the stage.
Sixteen hours plus sound checks every week spent summoning guttural noises from his chest taxes Jon's vocal cords."
"If Kong is screaming on stage," Jon said, "I'm in a sound booth screaming."
Jon sees an ear, nose and throat doctor, meets with a speech therapist, follows a strict pre-show diet and never misses a vocal warmup or cool-down.
"I kind of have to open up all the cavities in my body to resonate," he said.
While in the early days of auditioning and rehearsing, Jon admits, voicing Kong at times resembled method acting.
"I definitely was just on the subway kind of like ..." and again Jon grunts at us like an ape. "Once in a while, sometimes it's just easier to express myself that way."
Jon now worries not about being typecast for the rest of his career as "the gorilla guy," calling Kong the role of a lifetime.
"I would be completely fine being an ape," Jon said, "and making a career of being an ape."