Home Books Cokey Goes Hollywood: The bear from ‘Bluegrass Conspiracy’ gets his day

Cokey Goes Hollywood: The bear from ‘Bluegrass Conspiracy’ gets his day

By Kevin Nance

He was never your average bear, at least in death. Since his bizarre demise from a drug overdose in the Chattahoochee National Forest in 1985, the Cocaine Bear — Cokey for short — has had a notably nomadic afterlife. His taxidermied remains are said to have been displayed in a visitor center, a Nashville pawnshop, a Las Vegas mansion and a Chinese medicine shop in Reno, before landing at Lexington’s Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall, where he has served as the store’s official mascot and primary tourist draw since 2015.

Now Cokey is going Hollywood. Cocaine Bear is a dark comedy starring Ray Liotta (in his final screen performance), Keri Russell, and Margo Martindale (well known as the lethal Mags Bennett in the Kentucky-set Justified, which devoted all of Season 4’s arc to a loose fictionalization of The Bluegrass Conspiracy). The film is directed by Elizabeth Banks and opens nationwide on Feb. 24, 2023.

The real-life bear likely died almost immediately after consuming a bellyful of cocaine dropped from a drug-runner’s plane into his Georgia habitat. But in the movie’s raucous trailer (which has gotten more than nine million views on YouTube), a CGI version of the bear gobbles the cocaine and then goes on a goofily murderous rampage to get his paws on more of the stuff. The drug-crazed bear snacks on at least one park visitor (Jesse Tyler Ferguson of Modern Family), licks cocaine off a dismembered corpse, and takes a running leap into the back of a fleeing ambulance. He’s last seen humping a pine tree before dragging a female hiker offscreen, presumably with unwholesome intentions.  

The movie has little to do with the aforementioned drug-runner, former Lexington narcotics cop Andrew Thornton, who dumped the cocaine from the plane and then plummeted to his death (with an additional 150 pounds of drugs strapped to his body) when his parachute failed to open over Knoxville. Although Thornton achieved considerable posthumous fame, thanks in large part to Sally Denton’s book The Bluegrass Conspiracy (1990), he’s now being left in the dust, so to speak, by the Cocaine Bear, whose cinematic version now has 52,400 followers on Twitter. 

It will be a sort of karmic payback, according to the movie’s director. “I felt a lot of sympathy for the bear,” Banks told Entertainment Weekly last fall. “Like, wow, this bear — which, in real life, ended up dead after eating all this coke — ended up being sort of collateral damage in this War on Drugs. And I just thought, Well, then this movie can be a revenge story for the bear. And it just gave me a point of view and a purpose for making it. Like, there’s a real message here: We should not f— with nature, nature will win.”

Cokey has been winning, in something like the Charlie Sheen sense, for years now at the Fun Mall. He’s far and away the main attraction at the Bryan Avenue emporium of Kentucky-themed apparel and souvenir tchotchkes, drawing visitors from all over the world. 

“He’s our pride and joy,” retail manager Adam Lewis says one recent afternoon, standing a few feet away from the niche — a bit like a chapel inside a Gothic cathedral — where the stuffed Cokey stands resplendent, currently sporting a Kentucky blue felt hat vaguely reminiscent of Smokey Bear’s. “I would say from 75 to 80 percent of the people who come into the store come in just for Cocaine Bear. Now with the movie coming out, folks have been asking, ‘How many people did he kill?’ Of course he didn’t kill anybody.” A sign next to the bear spells out the obligatory moral of the story:

Don’t do drugs or you’ll end up dead
(and maybe stuffed) like poor
“Cocaine Bear”

After acquiring Cokey — originally dubbed Pablo EscoBear, after the Mexican drug cartel kingpin, although “we’re getting away from that,” Lewis says — the Fun Mall has built a cottage industry around him. The store now offers Cokey T-shirts, sweatshirts and hats, Cokey teddy bears, Cokey jigsaw puzzles, Cokey candles and Cokey snow globes — “blow globes,” as they’re called, complete with a merry “Y’allidays” version featuring Cokey wearing a Santa hat.

From an animal rights perspective in particular, this commercial exploitation of a bear who died a horrible death might appear unseemly, even cruel. “That’s understandable,” Lewis says. “I have to say, we have not harmed any animals. This bear, it’s a tragedy, what happened to him. But he didn’t suffer, which is a good thing.”

Of course you can’t fight Hollywood, even if you wanted to, any more than you can fight City Hall; the local calculation is that you might as well go with it. The Kentucky Theatre, one of several cinemas around town set to show Cocaine Bear, is angling to get in on Cokeymania by borrowing the stuffed bear from the Fun Mall and displaying him in the lobby during the movie’s run. Asked whether the theater would have shown the movie if it weren’t for the bear’s prominence in the region’s folklore, the Kentucky’s manager, Fred Mills, said probably not. “But you know, the bear being in Lexington, that local connection is more or less what drew us to the film.” 

Getting into the spirit of things, Mills says The Kentucky Theatre is planning to offer special Cokey treats at its concession stand. “We’ve contacted a baker,” he says. “We’re going to see if they can make a bear cookie and put some sugar on his nose.”

At press, however, it was unclear whether Cokey will be ready for his closeup at the Kentucky, if only because he may be otherwise engaged. “That’s in discussion,” Lewis says. “There are one of two places he could be on Feb. 24. He could be at the Kentucky, or he could be at the premiere in Hollywood.”

This article also appears on pages 16-17 of the February 2023 print edition of Ace.
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