“I never wanted to be part of my family's freak show. Ever,” says Molly Morgan. The pale goth beauty, clad in all-black clothes she designed, looks at her younger sibling. A riot of color, Bonnie Morgan has curly, flaming-red pigtails and bright blue eyes. She has paired her purple-and-turquoise dress with black-and-white–striped jester stockings.
“We were definitely not friends growing up,” Bonnie says. “But I loved Molly and I worshipped her.”
“And I hated Bonnie,” Molly says. “She was not cool.”
Unfazed, Bonnie simply nods in agreement.
High above the streets of Los Angeles on a peak in Laurel Canyon sits Morgan Castle, an eccentric home to an eccentric family. If Cirque du Soleil combined with Disney to mount a production of Alice in Wonderland starring the Addams Family, you'd have the Morgans: 63-year-old stuntman/actor Gary Morgan; his wife, Suzy, a painter and gallery owner; and their 30-something daughters, Molly and Bonnie, both working actresses since childhood.
Bonnie is also an aerialist, stuntwoman and contortionist, while Molly is a belly dancer: Her troupe, Les Petites Bonbons, performs a 1920s-themed belly dancer flapper revue. Together, the sisters have a variety show called The Morgan Sisters (altered to The Morbid Sisters around Halloween). And the family's Doll Act, in which Bonnie emerges from a tiny box, dressed as a porcelain doll, has been booked by both Katy Perry and Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei, the latter for his daughter's birthday party.
The Morgans are perhaps the coolest family in all of Los Angeles — simply because they couldn't care less about being cool. They know everyone who's artsy and smart and does creative things. They throw legendary parties. Yet they seem to enjoy nothing more than one another's company — and the sort of kooky, goofy, quirky fun that most people only dream of having.
Gary and Suzy Morgan purchased their 3,000-square-foot home in 1982. The family was living in the Hollywood Hills, Gary says, “and we'd go for a run or walk to look at the view, and we'd always see that house. It was my dream house. Suzy came home one day and said, 'You won't believe it, but that house is on the market.' When we got it, it was in such bad shape. … The whole house was under a remodel and the owners had run out of money.”
For the next 30 years, Gary bought up surrounding lots and slowly worked, he says, to make the house “more magical.” Pretty in pink, turquoise and purple, it now features flags, battlements and turrets: “It's like the Barbie Dream Castle, something out of Disneyland.”
Walking up the long driveway, high up in the sky, past Bonnie's bright yellow Smart car with its clown nose and CLWNCAB license plate, feels like crossing into a dreamland. Within seconds of ringing the doorbell, you are greeted by the entire Morgan clan and Picasso, their talkative cockatoo, who is part of the family's extended bird crew: an emu, a goose, a rooster, a hen and 13 chickens, all named after various preparations of the fowl (Marsala, Cacciatore, Coq au Vin). Inside the castle, previous pets, including a marmoset and a goat, have been stuffed and are displayed among puppets, dried insects, sculptures, trinkets, paintings, skulls, porcelain masks and old black-and-white photographs. A disco ball hangs above a hurdy-gurdy in the living room. Located just off the kitchen is an aerial rig, up which Bonnie climbs to a trapeze. As she swings back and forth across the room, no one bats an eye.
“We are a strange family,” Molly says. “I feel like the worst thing I could have done to my parents was to become an accountant.”
“But we genuinely love each other,” Gary says. “It's like Avalon.”
Los Angeles is the current setting, but the Morgans' real-life fairy tale begins on the other coast. Gary Morgan was born Gary Panansky in New Jersey in 1950 to vaudevillian parents, whose acrobatic act, Morgan & May, opened for Jimmy Durante and Frank Sinatra. (His parents eventually opened a dance school in New Jersey.) Little Gary traveled around in a trailer with them. Among his baby sitters? The Andrews Sisters.
Unconventional as they were, his parents did have limits. “We often shared dressing rooms,” Gary says. “We'd do nightclubs and work with strippers, who were always so sweet to me. And I'd ask my dad, 'Hey, why can't I watch Fifi's act?' and my dad would say, 'Stay in the dressing room with your mother, son.' One of the strippers did an act where a monkey took her clothes off. I did not understand why I couldn't watch the chimp act.”
Almost as soon as Gary could speak, he was incorporated into his parents' show, performing short, stand-up comedy routines with his dad, which ultimately led to commercial and theatrical work. As a child, Gary played the son of Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland in Garson Kanin's A Gift of Time on Broadway. Thanks to his parents' training, he also could dance, do trapeze and perform acrobatics. (Among other things, that later led to a gig as an assistant choreographer for the 1984 Summer Olympics opening ceremony.)
When he was 18, Gary, a self-professed hippie, drove across the country in his Volkswagen bus and settled in Los Angeles. He's never left. As an actor he has appeared in a variety of films and TV shows: The Partridge Family, Outrageous Fortune, NCIS. As a stunt double, he's worked in films including Batman Forever, The Muppets and the second and third Rush Hour movies.
“I segued into doing stunts when I didn't look like a teenager anymore,” Gary says. At just 5 feet 5 inches tall, he admits, “People didn't buy me as an adult. When you think of a dad, you don't think of me.”
His petite size, however, led to work as an animal stunt double. “When you're little,” he says, “they put you in animal suits.”
He did stunts for the titular dog in Cujo and the eponymous boxing kangaroo in the Elliott Gould film Matilda, among others.
Bonnie says, “Dad has done the things animals are too smart to do. You can't teach a dog to hurt himself. Cut to Gary, who will ram his head into the car door.”
“I have had about 10 orthopedic surgeries, stitches and broken bones,” her father admits. “You get banged up doing stunts. When you sign up to do stunts, it's stunts. It's part of the gig.”
The family is only about two degrees of separation from everyone in Hollywood. The father of Oscar-winning actor Joel Grey choreographed Gary's parents' vaudeville show. Gary hired actor Emilio Estevez, before he was famous, to work his booth at the Renaissance Fair, as well as some of Emilio's “Malibu buddies,” who included Sean Penn. Rob Lowe worked in the dunk tank for a day. Molly's godfather is Estevez's father, Martin Sheen. And Bonnie's godmother, Paula Dell Boelsems, is a veteran Muscle Beach gymnast who was inducted into the World Acrobatic Society Gallery of Legends. (She's also the flying woman on the cover of a Taschen book about Los Angeles.)
As for Gary's sister, Robbi Morgan Walberg, she's not just married to Antiques Roadshow host Mark Walberg. She's also an answer in Trivial Pursuit: She was Jason's first victim in the original Friday the 13th.
As the family runs through some of its greatest hits, minutiae exploding like popcorn, they all sit together on the same couch. Pixie-like Bonnie, cross-legged, sits between her demure older sister and her mother. As for her mom, her arms are entwined with her husband's. Quiet though she is, Suzy Morgan has showbiz connections herself: She's a former model and actress who, her daughters boast, dated director Hal Ashby and was actress Ruth Gordon's stand-in in Ashby's Harold and Maude. But she's also the shy Morgan — happy not to be a part of the family's performances.
In fact, Suzy initially rejected Gary's advances. She wasn't interested in a man who wore sequined suspenders and owned a duck named Mick.
They'd met in 1972 at a party in Laurel Canyon. When he later showed up at her apartment with a cousin who was there to see her housemate, Suzy wanted nothing to do with him. “She was the cutest girl I had ever seen,” Gary says. “But she wasn't interested.”
Eventually, as part of a group of friends who'd swim at Gary's pool on weekends, Suzy became smitten with the young actor. “He was so cool and adorable,” she recalls. “I thought I must have missed the boat, and I thought, 'Oh no, what did I do?' ”
When Gary asked her out again, she said yes. “We went to a swap meet, we rode the carousel in Santa Monica, we went to a drive-in, and then she slept over that night and never left,” he says.
Suzy blushes and laughs as Gary tells their story. He says the pair was married thanks to an acid trip that turned him into a “Jesus freak.”
“I got zapped!” he says. “I'm Jewish, but I came home from a trip to New York and I told Suzy about Jesus. Then she got saved and said we should be married, so I said, 'Let's get married.' ” And that was that: They've been married 39 years.
Though Gary was born Jewish and Suzy was born Catholic, the pair consider themselves to be Messianic Jews.
Gary reveals the secret to their longevity: “You have to treat your wife as if it's your first date and you're hoping to get laid at the end of it.”
When you're hanging out with the Morgans, anything can happen. Often, anything does. Gary has been known to treat visitors to impromptu performances of Beethoven's “Ode to Joy” featuring a pair of cymbals strapped to his knees and three recorders — one in his mouth and one in each nostril. As they sit on the couch, telling their story, it's somehow not the least bit surprising when actor Marc Price, best known as Skippy on Family Ties, pops in through a back door. Apparently, he lives in a shed on the property. (After a brief chat, he leaves almost as quickly as he appears.)
Molly and Bonnie may have had a troubled start to their sisterly relationship, but you'd never know that watching them today. They are warm and physically demonstrative, finishing one another's sentences and telling affectionate stories about each other.
It took adulthood for the sisters to connect. “I was living in Australia for a year,” Bonnie says.
“And she came back knowing how to turn off the clown and hang out and be a normal person,” Molly says. “At the same time, I became a nicer human being and more tolerant of insanity. We've been best friends ever since.”
Growing up in a world where stage moms famously exert pressure on their children, the Morgans' approach to their daughters' careers was atypical.
“My mom didn't do a lot of things that stage moms did,” Molly says. “Other girls had acrylic nails and they were 5 and 6 years old. Their hair was done in rollers and the whole bit. But Mom would let us go into the auditions in overalls. We'd have ice cream in our hair and we had just come out of dirt piles. We were real kids, even though we were in that industry.”
“When I was a kid,” Gary says, “my dad took me on auditions and he said, 'Go in and if you get it, great. If you don't, the hell with them.' ”
“Our parents were like that, too,” Molly says.
“I taught them that your life doesn't hinge on getting jobs,” Gary says.
Three years younger than her sister, Bonnie has followed more closely in her father's footsteps (“I followed Dad around when I was younger,” she says. “I was Dad's son.”). Now an actress, contortionist and stunt double, her résumé includes TV shows and films such as Blossom, Justified, Shameless, The Muppets and Burt Wonderstone. Molly has appeared on TV shows including The Big Bang Theory, Dexter, Weeds and Bones.
Bonnie jokes that their mother, who gave up acting because of her extreme anxiety over both auditions and performances, is the only true grown-up in the family.
The sisters had a rough time in school. Molly says, “Whatever it is about being locked in that setting makes kids vicious — I don't know if it was their jealousy or if the moms were saying to them, 'Look at that girl. You are better,' but they were awful to me. All the way through elementary, it was torturous. Within a week of being at junior high, people were, like, 'Weren't you that girl on blah blah blah, and I'd say, 'Yeah, I did that.' But the very next day it was, like, 'You're a conceited bitch, and you think you're better than us.' I would think, 'Wait a minute, yesterday I was cool, but today I'm not?' They tried to beat me up a lot.”
“Molly had a harder time,” Bonnie says. “We were academically skilled. We just had no social skills. When I found out about home schooling, I figured out that I'd never have to step foot in a classroom again, so I started working on Mom, and Molly started helping. I said, 'Mom, I can't take it anymore. You've got to get us out of here.' And she did.”
Suzy educated them at home from the time Molly was 12 and Bonnie was 9.
Where the girls fit in perfectly, however, was at the Original Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Gary still owns booths at the annual festival, held weekends throughout April and May in Irwindale. “We planned the birth of our children to coincide with Renaissance Faire,” he says. “The kids were brought up there.”
“It was the most amazing thing ever,” Molly says. “It was like a magical fairyland that happened once a year. And that was a funny thing, too, about our socialization. Here were all these people who did not care about conventional people. It was, like, 'Oh, you were on TV. How nice for you. I don't own a TV.' So it was just a bunch of kids playing in the mud with adults in costumes. We got to be princesses for eight weeks a year. And that is also where I got obsessed with belly dancing.”
“And I was obsessed with the jesters, and the Shakespeare actors,” Bonnie says. “So when I was 12, I was asked to join a Shakespeare troupe, and they were thrilled to have a contortionist.”
“I was a serious actress,” Molly says, mocking her younger self with her snotty tone. “When Bonnie was doing contortions with the troupe, I said, 'I love that troupe. Introduce me so I can be their Ophelia or Juliet,' and suddenly I was.”
“While I was the fool, the Puck, Touchstone,” Bonnie says. “I was all the great Renaissance jesters.”
“They honed a lot of their performance skills and life lessons at the Renaissance Faire in this fantasy setting,” Gary says. “And I taught them how to hustle a crowd. Bonnie would pick wildflowers and I'd say to sell them for a penny, knowing that no one would give her a penny. She was so cute. She'd always get a quarter or something. Suzy made the costumes, and the kids would hustle and come back with bags of money.”
“We would come up with schemes to get money from adults,” Molly says. “We'd juggle, and they'd put money in a hat. If you put a hat on the ground and did something interesting, adults would put money in the hat and it was, like, 'Are you fricking kidding me?' ”
It was a fantastical environment. Not only were the girls hustling for money but they were doing it in a place where Hells Angels worked as security guards. But like his parents before him, Gary set boundaries with his girls. “The way we raised our kids was, 'Innocence can't exist unless it's protected,' ” Gary says. “We are a wild family and we're fun, but we raised them to protect their innocence.”
“People say, 'You grew up at the Renaissance Faire. How were you not into bondage and orgies?' But we were sheltered. We had the most sheltered lives you can imagine,” Bonnie says. “Dad would take us to major clubs and places kids don't go, but if anything untoward started to happen, they'd turn us around and walk us the other way.”
“When I was swing-dancing,” Gary says, “I'd sneak Bonnie into clubs.”
“Dad got me fake ID so I could be his swing-dance partner,” Bonnie says.
“But they weren't allowed to drink. It was just to dance,” Gary adds.
“I went to a movie with my mom when I was 25 years old and they started to have sex on-screen, and my mom reached over and covered my eyes,” Molly says.
In fact, Bonnie still lives with her parents, sleeping in the treehouse-shaped bunk bed she used to share with Molly. She may be a grown woman, but she's still Daddy's girl.
Fourteen years ago, something happened to the Morgans that might have broken up a lesser sister act. Molly fell in love — and with not just a man but a man who wasn't in showbiz. Eventually she got married and moved out of the castle.
Molly and Aaron Jacobs actually met 20 years ago, when Gary hired him to work at the Renaissance Faire. Today an entrepreneur who works as a fiduciary managing trusts, conservatorships and estates, Jacobs has a surprisingly artistic background: He was a figure skater and a dancer who did both jazz and ballet.
“We were friends for years,” Molly says. But it wasn't until they were both single that the friendship became something stronger: “We kissed one night, and you don't get to kiss your good friend without it meaning something or the other.” After dating for six years, they wed in 2005.
“I thought that it would be so hard to be a part of this family, because you can't compete,” Jacobs admits. “Gary once said to me, 'You're never going to be the most funny and most talented, but a family like this needs an audience and you're a great audience.' On some level I'm a traveling audience and I am there to make sure everyone thinks they are funny.”
He's endured some gentle hazing. “Of course, one of the things my dad does is make sure guys can hold him while he stands on their shoulders. If they can't, they're out,” Molly recalls. “And one of the things in our family is, 'Can you juggle?' Of course, Aaron knew how to juggle.” Of course.
Molly and her husband now live in Eagle Rock, but Molly returns to Morgan Castle as often as five times a week. And she and Bonnie often go shopping together. “Bonnie joins me whenever I am shopping downtown because she is an insane shopper looking for costume pieces,” Molly says.
Jacobs isn't the only businessman in the family. Gary Morgan's real estate holdings demonstrate his shrewd business acumen. At 21 years old, using his acting money, Gary bought his first house, in Laurel Canyon. He lived in the guest house and rented out the big one. “Anytime I made money, I bought a better house,” he says. “I'd buy run-down places, fix them up and put in tenants.”
“He started us in real estate when we were under 12,” Bonnie says. “Dad took all of our money.”
“He took our money and purchased four units on Laurel Canyon that we still own to this day and put renters in,” Molly says. “We had to go through hoops to access money.”
“I would put in some money,” Gary says. “And then when they had money, I'd let them buy my end of it so they would have a little legacy.”
Gary has another business venture: He designed Big John oversize toilet seats. Meant for oversized people, the seats are 75 percent bigger than the average toilet seat.
“I had some money and I had an idea for a bidet,” Gary recalls, “so I told a friend who worked at a plumbing store. He said, 'A lot of people make that already. But people come in all the time looking for a big toilet seat,' so I said, 'Maybe I'll make a big toilet seat.' ”
Naturally, because it's Gary Morgan, he asked special effects foreman Tony Centonze (Rush Hour 3, The Matrix Reloaded) to design the prototype. Today the company he started sells thousands of units worldwide every year.
“Your butt's not too big,” says the elfin Gary. “Your seat's too small.”
Throughout her life, Molly Morgan was the straitlaced one. The dark-haired, smart older sister to Bonnie's bubbly tomboy, she wanted to be a serious actress — none of this vaudeville stuff. It was literally by accident that Molly ended up on the trapeze. When Bonnie was injured a few years ago (she broke her nose on the bottom of a pool) and had three trapeze jobs lined up, her doctor forbade her to perform. She asked her older sister to substitute.
“Molly said, 'You have the wrong daughter,' ” Gary recalls. “That was always her line.”
“Molly said, 'If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, I do not do circus, trapeze or the freak crap that you and Dad do,' ” Bonnie says. “But she was working as a waitress, and I said that she could be paid $800 a job.”
“And I was, like, 'When do I start?' ” Molly says. “I was making $8 an hour, plus tips, so I was, like, 'How much? And I get to wear a pretty costume and no one asks me, 'Where the hell are my fries?'
“Meanwhile,” she continues, “I have an aerial rig in my backyard now. It's so much fun and it's such great exercise. How much more fun it is to be the pretty and fabulous entertainer!”
The moral to this story, perhaps, is that our family shapes us more than we want to admit. And when you're Molly Morgan, your godfather is Martin Sheen. Your dad was Cujo's stunt double. Your sister is a contortionist. Of course you were born for the flying trapeze.
And, perhaps, another moral to the story is this: You can take the girl out of the castle. But you can't take the castle out of the girl.
When you're having as much fun as the Morgans, why would you want to?
Bonnie says, “Life is a lot more fun when you stop judging people who are having more fun than you are.”