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A lifetime of critters

Sep 28, 2017 01:57PM ● Published by J. Chambless

Jungle John at home in Newark with the latest Larry Boa.

Gallery: Jungle John [6 Images] Click any image to expand.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

John LaMedica could hardly have avoided devoting his life to animals and insects. As a boy in the 1960s, he loved trips to the Bronx Zoo, which conveniently had a pet shop right across from the entrance. He was thrilled by visits to the Central Park Zoo and the Museum of Natural History. When his family moved to New Jersey a few years later, “I found out you could go into the woods behind my house and catch your own frogs,” he said, grinning. “That's how it really got started.”

For generations of people in the tri-state area, he has always been Jungle John. Even today, at 59, his enthusiasm for creatures that creep and slither can barely be contained. During an interview at his Newark home, on a rare day off from putting on a pith helmet and handling snakes, LaMedica explained how his unconventional career came to be.

He was a biology major at the University of Delaware when he discovered that Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla., offered a degree in zookeeping. Two years later, he graduated from the school. He heard about an opening for a supervisor at the small Brandywine Zoo in Wilmington, Del., and landed the job. He was there just over six years, getting experience in the business of running a zoo.

As part of the zoo's outreach, it provided a traveling show that went to local schools and events. “Mark Thurston, who did some of the shows, took me to Sanford Library,” LaMedica said. “We had five or six animals. I watched him do the show and he said, 'Now you're on your own.' There was no script, no guidelines. Nothing. I winged it. I knew about the animals, so I would try things out. For my job evaluation that year, the comments said, 'Schools keep calling and asking for you.' They liked me. Nobody else was doing things like this, so I had nobody to learn from.”

In 1988, he left the zoo to pursue his dream of being Jungle John full time. And he's been doing it ever since.

“My wife, Susan, has always supported me,” he said. “When I started this, she said, 'Yes, go ahead. Quit the zoo.' She had faith in me.”

Of course, to do a show about reptiles and insects, he needed his own alligator. “I called the Fish and Game Department in Florida, filled out the paperwork and purchased one from one of the Florida gator farms,” he recalled. “They shipped me a three-foot-long alligator. My nephew, who was 5 years old at the time, went with me to pick it up at the airport. It was a big crate. We opened it up in the back of the car. The mouth was taped shut, but we had no way to close the crate again. We drove back with it in the car. So we had our first alligator.”

That first Wally Gator, as the alligator has been known ever since, was replaced when he got too big. The same goes for Larry Boa, a boa constrictor that's a staple of Jungle John's animal show. At about 10 feet long, the boa is impressive, but docile, content to spend his time in his traveling quarters of a plastic storage tote. To keep Larry and his other creatures fed, LaMedica has frozen rats delivered to his home from a company called Rodent Pro.

“When it comes to the snakes, people usually gave them to me,” he said. “One time, I got a call from a guy in Wilmington who had a Burmese python. About a 15-footer, very tame. I found out that his girlfriend had used it as part of her employment. She was dancer,” LaMedica said, laughing. “I said, 'Oh, so the snake has already been in show business.'”

LaMedica takes the one-hour Jungle John show to festivals, birthday parties, camps, schools and special events whenever he's asked, and he has logged countless miles over the years. When he's appearing in front of younger audiences, the squeal of excitement when he takes Larry or Wally out of their crates is a rush of excitement. “The first thing they ask is, 'Is that real?'” LaMedica said. “Mostly, they're just speechless. I tell them, 'Yes, all the animals are real.'”

There's a lot of showmanship and humor in a Jungle John show, which can be tailored to groups of four or five, to a gym full of 1,000 kids, or at fairs across the region. At every show, “I make sure to give facts about the animals,” LaMedica said, adjusting the level of detail for each crowd. He makes sure to caution young audiences not to go out and pick up every snake they see, for instance, but mostly what he finds is that children are totally unfamiliar with seeing reptiles and amphibians in real life.

“As kids, we had to create our own fun, and go out and play,” he said. “I was always in the woods finding snakes, turning over rocks, walking through the creek. Luckily, I've never come across a copperhead or lived in Texas, where they have a lot of rattlesnakes.”

Bugs are another highlight of any Jungle John show, and he calls the Madagascar hissing cockroaches “The bug that made me famous.” He brought out several of the brownish black insects, which are several inches long and emit a hiss as a warning. They are harmless but impressive, particularly for anyone squeamish about insects. And they have been great for LaMedica's career. “In my show, I put one of the cockroaches in my mouth. It gets a big round of applause. Some moms leave the room,” he said.

LaMedica and cockroaches go way back.

“In 1999, the boxer Dave Tiberi had a cable TV talk show,” he recalled. “I was on it to talk about animals. That fall, the Guinness Book of World Records people had a TV show. Dave and I were talking about that. When I finished doing the show, he said, 'You need national exposure.' I said as a joke, 'I could cover my whole body with cockroaches.' I went home and found their phone number. A few days later, they called back. They wanted a video, so we did a video where I put 1,000 roaches on me. We sent it to them. Six months later, we were out in L.A., producing it. My record is for Most Number of Cockroaches in a Coffin with a Live Person. The record is 20,050. Each one was counted, too. If you go online now and Google 'cockroach coffin world record,' there's the clip.”

LaMedica did the show a second time, when he put cockroaches in his mouth. He won the record for Most Live Cockroaches Held in a Person's Mouth for 10 Seconds or More.

At the time, the rival organization Ripley's Believe it or Not had a syndicated TV show, so they invited LaMedica to New York City to do the coffin stunt. Instead, he ended up putting roaches in his mouth for them.

“America's Got Talent” came calling four years ago, perhaps after producers saw LaMedica on the Guinness show. “I got a phone message from them after I got back one night. They wanted me to go to L.A. to put cockroaches in my mouth,” he said. “I never thought they'd call me for anything. So my wife is texting my son, who's on tour with 'War Horse,' the Broadway play. Nick's texting back during intermission. He said he'd go out with me to do the show.”

Knowing full well that he was being asked to audition as a gross-out novelty, LaMedica decided to go for it. Four years ago, on Easter Sunday, he flew to L.A. and filmed his audition in front of the panel of judges in Los Angeles.

“I was backstage, getting ready to go on, and the sound guy comes over and says, 'Wait a minute. You look familiar. Ocean City, N.J., New Year's Eve, in the library. We saw you three years in a row!',” LaMedica said, laughing.

“Anyway, I put 10 cockroaches in my mouth. Howard Stern gave us an X. Everybody was grossed out. Howard said to Nick, 'Is that your dad? Blink twice if he's holding you captive.'”

While he didn't go through to the next round, LaMedica got national exposure on a top TV show, adding to his Guinness and Ripley's appearances. “Come on! Not bad for a Delaware boy,” he said, smiling.

With a full slate of bookings, particularly during the school year, as Jungle John, LaMedica has branched out to offer “Jungle John's Man-Eating Balloon Show,” in which he creates a wide range of objects out of balloons and then caps the act by stepping into one up to his neck. He has shows tailored to Halloween safety, and a new “Winter Wonderland Show” with magic tricks, balloons and Frostbite the Snowman puppet. He works with three puppeteers and fellow performers when necessary.

Learning balloon sculpting, LaMedica said, came about because he often shared performances with magic acts or clowns and wanted to pick up some new tricks. He brings the balloons and banter to Kid Shelleen's in Wilmington on Monday nights, and to Klondike Kate's in Newark on Wednesday nights. Tableside, he can whip up swords and flowers for youngsters, or play off college students who are out for an evening of fun.

And then there's the dinosaurs.

Two years ago, well aware of children's fascination with prehistoric critters, LaMedica saw a whole-body costume that turned an upright person into a walking dinosaur. It wasn't cheap, so he consulted his son and wife about adding the puppet to his act. He got the 65-pound costume delivered in October 2015, but had already booked shows using it, “so I had to write the show quickly,” he said. Along with other dinosaur puppets -- including Montana, a duck-billed dino that charms audiences from a sling under his arm -- the new dinosaur show has his trademark humor and razzle-dazzle.

“There's a hatching egg puppet, a pterodactyl that perches on my arm, a velociraptor, and the finale is the big dinosaur,” LaMedica said. “Kids can come up and examine the T. Rex. We have a giant toothbrush, a giant thermometer, a working stethoscope – my puppeteers know exactly when to tap inside the costume as a heartbeat – then they can feed her a a rubber chicken.”

As a capper to the act, the pterodactyl sneezes water out of its nose and sprays the front row of kids with “pterodactyl snot,” guaranteeing giggles.

“We have education, comedy, lots of audience participation, great puppetry, all in one show,” LaMedica said. “No kid wants a college lecture on dinosaurs. They need excitement.”

After doing countless shows virtually everywhere in the region, LaMedica is easily recognized – especially when he's wearing his pith helmet. And occasionally, “I'll meet someone – mostly boys – who have grown up to be zookeepers because of me,” he said, beaming. “I have inspired some people. My son says that if he hadn't become an actor, he would have been a zookeeper.”

And LaMedica is getting his next generation of customers. “I will have a mom call me for a booking for her child's birthday party and she'll say, 'Well, when I was 8, you did my birthday party.

“I've been very lucky to do something that I don't consider work,” he said. “I took a hobby as a kid and made it a profession. I could work seven days a week. I'm constantly writing notes about the act, and I have to force myself to take a day off. That's what happens when you love your job. When I'm 80, I want to get a world record for Most Amount of Paying Birthday Parties for Someone 80 or Older in One Year,” he said, grinning. “I might have to create my own category.”

For more information, and a list of upcoming shows, visit www.junglejohn.com.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.


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