The success of the documentary film, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, came as a big surprise. Never in my life had I imagined working on something like it. While I was feeding the flock I had been hoping that someone would come along wanting to make a little video. The birds were so colorful and individually recognizable to me that I wanted some way of documenting and retaining my memories of them. So when Judy came along with the idea of making an actual movie, I was eager to help. I was a bit shy at first, and she thought I was inarticulate—too much of a hermit—to have me as the center of the film, which was fine with me. I didn’t want the film to be about me. I wanted it to be about the parrots. I broached the idea with her of leaving me out of it entirely, that my role would simply be to provide access to the birds. But she didn’t think that would work. She decided to try to make it a children’s film, using child actors as the center of the story, but that didn’t work either. During the inevitable delays that happen during film shoots, I told the children parrot stories to keep them interested. Judy saw then that I did know how to talk, and that’s when the focus shifted to telling the story of my relationship with the flock.
I really had been something of a hermit for the previous 30 years or so, and suddenly I was flying all over the country, renting cars, staying in hotels, giving interviews, doing readings, and attending film openings. The film took me to Canada, England, and Australia as well. The funny thing was that I was very comfortable doing it. I knew my subject inside out, so I felt at ease. I liked talking to crowds. It wasn’t all that different from performing as a singer, which I’d done before my days living on the street. By the end of it, though, I was drained and occasionally seeing double. I was happy to move beyond it.
The film went from theaters, to television, to DVD, and finally to streaming. But its availability on streaming services has diminished considerably. It’s currently available only on Kanopy, a free service that many libraries use. The reason for its diminished availability is that the digital version is in standard definition, and streaming services want high definition. Judy’s company is a nonprofit, and it ain’t rolling in the dough. Fortunately, AMPAS, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Oscar), through its Academy Film Archive donated a 4k scan of the original 16mm negative. The film is currently undergoing a total restoration so that it meets the current standards of the larger streaming services. It’s a tedious job. Each individual frame has to be inspected—approximately 120,000 frames. The project should be completed by this summer.