Chris Urban: Welcome to the jungle

Chris Urban: Welcome to the jungle

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Do you have someone on your gift list who already seems to have everything? Chances are, you could find something they don’t have — or never even heard of — at ILLExotics, a new specialty store in South Philadelphia.

How about a beautiful Oophaga pumilio? Or a dramatic-looking Hemitheconyx caudicinctus? The otherworldly axolotyl? Or choose a Monstera deliciosa, which sounds like something from a Harry Potter movie but is actually a lovely piece of fauna. The rest are, respectively, an exotic dart frog, an African fat-tail gecko and a salamander known as the Mexican walking fish.

Chris Urban, half of the ILLExotics duo, is a man of many trades. In addition to opening the business with partner Franco Franchina, Urban moonlights as a bartender, DJ, choreographer, dancer and teacher.

PGN: When do you sleep?

CU: I sleep a good five-six hours a night. Luckily my partner Franco is the co-owner and we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to hire a few employees to help us out. I’ve also gotten naps down to an art form. A good disco nap before I DJ saves the day. 

PGN: Tell me a little about the fam.

CU: I have a younger brother and sister. I just lost my mom two years ago, which was hard. My siblings still live out in Bucks County. My dad is a contractor.

PGN: So how did your construction-worker dad feel about you becoming a dancer?

CU: He didn’t approve of it. Obviously.

PGN: I don’t know, sometimes the most macho guys can surprise you.

CU: Absolutely — some parents are supportive for sure [laughing]; just not mine. It’s a different story now, but when I was young, going from playing baseball and being a handy guy alongside my dad to when I told him I wanted to dance, it was weird. Not comfortable at all. We completely disconnected.

PGN: For a little bit?

CU: For a lotta bit. Until I went away to college at the University of the Arts here in Philly and began growing into who I was. Sadly my financial aid fell through after two years. I worked hard in the restaurant industry and began to DJ while I was studying dance and then I got hired to go on tour with Sesame Street Live and it was amazing. I toured with them for six years and got to travel the entire world.

PGN: Wow. Which characters did you play?

CU: I was Big Bird and Cookie Monster, among other things. We played in large arenas across the U.S. and around the world, so every week we were in a different city. We’d do more than 10 shows a week. It was awesome. Everywhere we went, I was captivated by the natural beauty and the animals unique to each environment.

PGN: What was your favorite role?

CU: I’d have to say The Count. I mean, he gets to wear that fantastic cape and I have to say I think I gave him a little extra swagger.

PGN: So to your other interest, when did you discover a love for herpetology?

CU: I’ve always loved reptiles and as a kid I had iguanas. My mom was always screaming because they’d get loose and be climbing the walls in the kitchen and she was afraid to touch them. I was that kid, always pushing the boundaries and wanting something I probably shouldn’t have had. But for a real interest, Franco is the one with the degree in herpetology and botany. All of my knowledge is residual from him. We’ve been dating for almost five years and sometimes I feel like I’ve learned so much that I went to school too.

PGN: What was the wildest thing you had?

CU: Well, my mom did put some restraints on what I could bring home, but an iguana that I had for several years got to be 3- or 4-feet long. That was pretty wild.

PGN: And now you have a shop with no end to interesting creatures.

CU: Yes, as a kid I had mostly desert animals, but Franco got me into tropical amphibians like dart frogs and tree frogs. I hope to share that excitement by taking ILLExotics into Center City schools and teaching children about conservation and the need to preserve the world’s natural environments. We just did a program at Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter School. We brought animals that they could touch and hold, and at the end we gave each of them a plant to take home.

PGN: Cool. I want to hold one, but I always thought that the frogs with the crazy colors like the vibrant blues and yellows were poisonous.

CU: No, the poison comes from what they eat, so when they’re captive-bred and fed a diet of fruit flies, they never develop toxins like they would in the wild. For example in Costa Rica, they might be eating fire ants, which have highly poisonous toxins the frogs then secrete through their skin after eating them. The reason they are sometimes called poison arrow or dart frogs is because the native people of that region would rub their weapons on the back of the frog to get the poison on the tips. But rest assured, we don’t have anything poisonous in the store.

PGN: I also saw on your website that you don’t guarantee sex. Does that mean with you or …

CU: [Laughing] No! No, it means that we can’t guarantee the sex of the animal. Sometime people want a male or female specifically so they can breed them, but in a lot of the species, there’s no way to tell when they’re young without being invasive.

PGN: When you’re not playing with frogs and snakes, what do you like to do?

CU: I love DJing; it’s an artistic outlet for me. It’s not a job; it’s another type of performing. I’m a dancer at heart and I love keeping it new and fresh but you have to remember where you came from and educate the kids — show them the roots of the music.

PGN: What is the background of the name Urban?

CU: It’s Polish-Hungarian. It was originally Urbanski, but when my great-grandmother came here, they shortened it. What’s interesting is that my grandparents were both named Urban when they met, but thankfully they weren’t related. People always think my name DJ Urban is made up.

PGN: Something of Franco’s you’d love to throw away?

CU: Oh gosh [looks at Franco], I don’t know … The snack food in the pantry. It’s too tempting.

FF: Sorry!

PGN: I’m addicted to …

CU: Moving. I just can’t keep still. It’s the bane of my existence. I can’t just sit home and do nothing.

PGN: An early sign you were gay?

CU: I remember a moment when I was home alone and I had this black, bold Sharpie in my hand and I was faux ribbon dancing with it. I was getting all of my life on with Madonna or maybe it was Janet [Jackson] on MTV. What I didn’t realize was that the marker was bleeding as I was twirling for the gods. When my mom and stepdad came in, they had a conniption because the walls and everything in the living room were splattered with black ink. The couch looked like a Dalmatian. That was probably an early hint.

PGN: You should have said you were channeling Jackson Pollock! Any paranormal experiences?

CU: Oh yeah, we’ve had some right here at the store. The craziest one was caught on camera. Franco was in the basement and a friend of ours was upstairs when he heard a loud thump on the ceiling. He went running upstairs to see if she was OK only to find her running to see what happened as well. They were both standing in the doorframe to the back room and there was a pile of wedding magazines thrown across the room. We later looked at the cameras and you can see that there was no one in the room before the magazines got tossed across the room. We’ve come in and found chameleons sitting on top of their cages with the door wide open and that was before we had any employees. We were the last ones in the store and the cages were definitely closed when we left. We later found out that someone did pass away upstairs, so we just said, “You’re welcome to stay. Just please don’t open the cages anymore.” And we haven’t had any problems since, though we did put locks on the snake cages just in case.

PGN: Where do you see ILLExotics going from here?

CU: Well, we have three big sales coming up: a Black Friday sale, a Small Business Saturday sale and a Cyber Monday sale. Each of them will be different. We share the space with Marianna Coppola from Creations by Coppola, who you profiled over the summer. Together we are Floral and Fauna. In the future, we’d love to see a few more locations, including a bigger space that can be used as an educational facility and a breathtaking event venue. We want to bring the rainforest to Philadelphia. 

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