Philip Morris may own one of the nation's largest wholesale costume retailers, but in his heart the 70-year-old is still a suave magician and storyteller.
Now, one of Morris' stories has put him at the center of a debate over one of America's most enduring legends -- Bigfoot.
Since starting his Charlotte business in the early 1960s, the entrepreneur has built Morris Costumes into an empire, whose costumes have appeared in big Hollywood films. Some 10,000 businesses buy his costumes, props and other stage products. On Friday he'll hold court at his Monroe Road store to host a dinner and tour of its haunted house for HauntCon, a trade and convention show for the amusement industry at the Adams' Mark this weekend.
Although a giant in his field, the tale of one of his gorilla suits is generating buzz outside the amusement industry and has some Bigfoot believers stomping mad.
In "The Making of Bigfoot: The Inside Story," (Prometheus Books) published in March, author Greg Long devoted a chapter to telling Morris' alleged connection to the famed Bigfoot film shot by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin. The film, which has aired on TV specials, shows a grainy image supposedly of Sasquatch walking in a Northern California national forest in October 1967.
Morris says the Patterson-Gimlin film depicts a man wearing a gorilla suit, which had been hand-sewn in the basement of his Kistler Avenue home.
When he started his costume business more than 40 years ago, Morris, a Michigan native, was a touring magician who recruited his wife and her friends to help make gorilla suits from their Charlotte house.
In 1967, a man called, identified himself as Roger Patterson and said he was a rodeo cowboy who wanted to buy a gorilla suit for a gag, Morris recalled.
Morris Costumes was one of the few companies making relatively inexpensive gorilla suits. The suits were in demand because of the popular carnival trick in which a woman morphed into a crazed gorilla and sent patrons screaming from fair tents. Patterson paid $435 plus shipping and handling for the suit.
"I didn't think it was a real big deal," said Morris. "It was just another sale."
Patterson later called asking how to make it more realistic, Morris said. Use a stick to extend the arms, brush the fur to cover the zipper and wear football pads to make the shoulders bigger, Morris told him.
He never heard from Patterson again.
Sometime in October 1967, Morris was in his living room when he saw the now-famous Bigfoot footage on TV.
Even after what would become known as the Patterson-Gimlin film became a disputed piece of Bigfoot evidence, Morris said he never heard from Patterson. Morris told friends and relatives that the creature shot with a 16 mm camera was actually someone wearing his gorilla suit.
He says he refrained from going public because he didn't want to undermine the still-popular girl-to-gorilla trick, or expose a fellow illusionist.
"In my mind it was a magic trick," he said.
Morris never met Patterson, Gimlin or Bob Heironimus, the man identified in Long's book as the wearer of the suit.
"I wasn't there when they shot the film," Morris said. "I didn't know they were going to do that."
Morris didn't start speaking publicly about the Bigfoot suit until Patterson died in 1972. Even then, he mostly told his story at trade conventions. By then, his white gorilla suit appeared in the James Bond movie "Diamonds Are Forever." His masks were used in the movie "Point Break," starring Keanu Reeves.
Long, a Washington state-based writer, found Morris after a Bigfoot researcher sent him an e-mail about a Morris interview on a Charlotte radio station in 2002.
When Long called Morris, he had finished most of his book. After interviewing Morris four times last November, the writer believed the Charlotte costume maker because many of his comments corroborated things Heironimus said about the suit.
"I couldn't see any motive beyond that he wanted to tell the truth," Long said. "This was just a good story that he decided to tell."
Bigfoot researchers say Morris' claim is just that -- a story.
"For him to suggest that is just wishful thinking on his part," said Jeff Meldrum, an associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University, who's studied the Patterson film. "Everyone in the film industry wishes they can do something as compelling as the Patterson film, but no one has."
Bigfoot researchers save most of their venom for Long, who they say assassinates Patterson's character in the book. Still, on the Internet and in interviews, they question Morris' motives and dissect his statements about why the creature moves the way it does in the film.
Among other things, they say the bend of the human elbow debunks Morris' theory that a stick extended the arms because the creature's elbow joint is proportional to its body, its fur looks real and its torso is longer and wider than an average person's.
"Morris' costumes are fine for circuses, fine for movies, but the hair doesn't lie down in the same way as the hair shown on the Patterson Bigfoot, on the live creature," said researcher Loren Coleman, author of "Bigfoot! The True Story of Apes In America."
Morris ignores the skeptics.
"You're interfering with their belief system," he said, with his wide grin. "It's like telling a child there's no Santa Claus."
1962 Begins manufacturing gorilla suits from his house on Kistler Avenue. Ships an average of one suit every month or so.
Late '70s Bought national costume distributors House of Drane in Chicago and House of Humor in Los Angeles.
Early '80s Built retail store on Monroe Road in Charlotte to separate retail from distribution.
1999 Branched into the amusement park industry; provides costumes, props, Halloween attractions.
2004 Ships about 5,000 costumes to stores during Halloween season.