Iconoclastic `Monkey Man' recalled fondly
BY ELINOR J. BRECHER
Leonard Ross Schendowich -- aka Lenny the Monkey Man -- an
old-style organ grinder who, with his simian sidekicks, was
a regular on the South Florida birthday party/special-events
circuit, died May 17 of a heart attack. He was 63.
Enamoured of all animals, even those with an elevated
''ick'' factor, he had 17 monkeys and a variety of odd pets.
''He raised those big [Madagascar hissing] cockroaches and
giant frogs,'' said his sister, North Miami Beach
Councilwoman Phyllis Smith. ``When my kids were little, he
brought them a groundhog.''
Schendowich kept scorpions, lizards and snakes. A baby
alligator currently resides at his North Miami Beach home,
along with a variety of bulbous exotic frogs in a stack of
water-filled plastic drawers -- legal under his state and
With white hair and whiskers, Schendowich -- whose weight
sometimes mirrored jolly St. Nick's -- played Santa Claus
for his city since his teens.
Car dealerships hired him and his monkeys to lure patrons,
carnival-barker style. They worked swap meets, fairs,
festivals and store openings.
One monkey recently helped a South Florida man propose to
his girlfriend, handing her a diamond ring.
''Lenny was a very well-known, old-time organ grinder,''
said Steve Jacques, director of Monkey Jungle, the Southwest
Miami-Dade tourist attraction. ''Anytime someone called''
for monkey entertainment, complete with antique hurdy-gurdy,
``we'd refer them to him, and we always had a positive
Various Schendowich monkeys -- capuchins, about the size of
house cats -- have appeared in television commercials, a
Vogue magazine layout, a Super Bowl halftime show, a Home
Shopping Network segment and the Florida Grand Opera's
recent production of La Bohème.
His best-known monkey, Finster, starred as Dodger opposite
Harvey Keitel and Thora Birch in the 1994 Hollywood feature
film Monkey Trouble just before Schendowich acquired him.
Lenny Schendowich grew up in Pittsburgh, the middle of three
children. He was 2 when his father, Robert, died of a heart
His mother, the former Gertrude Rubin, moved her children to
Miami when Lenny was 11, supporting them by making draperies
Born Jewish, ''his religion was kindness,'' his sister said.
He attended William Jennings Bryan Elementary School and
North Miami junior and senior high schools, working as a
groundskeeper through his teens. He worked at the Miami
Beach public golf course before becoming grounds-keeping
supervisor at Mount Sinai Medical Center from the 1970s
until he was laid off in the late 1990s.
That's when he decided to enter the monkey business full
time, as ``The Monkey's Uncle.''
Son Michael will continue the act.
''I've helped him my whole life,'' he said. 'He always said,
`There ain't no Tuesday; the show must go on.' ''
Schendowich, who belonged to the Simian Society of America,
got involved during an animal-rights campaign to send King,
Monkey Jungle's western lowland gorilla, to an Atlanta zoo
The nonprofit society works for the betterment of primates
in captivity and agreed that King had lived too long in one
environment to be moved.
''Lenny came out of nowhere as a support person,'' said
Monkey Jungle's Jacques. ''The Simian Society stepped
forward and raised funds'' toward a one-acre habitat for
FOUGHT CITY HALL
He also successfully helped fight a proposed ban on
live-animal acts in Boca Raton in 1993.
''We can protect our animals from everything there is except
two things, an animal with teeth and animal-rights
activists,'' he told the City Council.
In 1970, he married the former Victoria Phillips, a
hairdresser. She says they met at a Moose Lodge.
''He had his horses with him and asked me if I wanted to go
for a ride,'' she said. ``It was very different.''
Their first simian was a spider monkey, but ``the landlord
found out and we had to move.''
'There was always a neighbor at our house: `I have a snake
in my yard,' so he was doing snake rescue,'' Vicki
Schendowich said. ``I didn't care for the snakes.''
When the kids got good grades, he rewarded them with
''I remember riding my bike with training wheels and a
monkey on the handlebars,'' said son Garrett of Grassy Key.
A QUIRKY WIT
Lenny's sense of humor was as quirky as his taste in pets.
He once told Vicki, ''I named my truck after you.'' But the
pickup did not, in fact, bear her name. He had painted on
it: ``After You.''
He battled obesity for much of his life, but after his
sister put him on a strict diet and he lost 100 pounds,
''nobody really liked him so thin,'' Vicki said.
On May 24, Schendowich was to have played a new role: father
of the groom. The eldest of his three sons, Robert, was
married in Tallahassee.
The family decided he'd have wanted the wedding to proceed.
''Lenny was the party,'' said Smith. 'He woke up every
morning and said, `This is going to be the best day of my
In addition to his wife and sons, Schendowich is survived by
brother Irwin of Coral Springs, and Chrystal, Misty, JoJo,
Munchie, ET, Skipper, Toby, Benina, Digit, Buddy,
Butterfingers, Molly, Wally, Precious, Yeknom -- monkey
spelled backward -- and the baby born to Finster and Misty
within days of his death.
His name is Lenny.
A private service was held. Said his sister: ``We buried him
in his monkey outfit, with the suspenders.''
A celebration of life is planned at Monkey Jungle. Call
305-MONKEYS (666-5397) for details.