SCHERERVILLE | He rocked out to the Backstreet Boys in a groove that catapulted him into international fame, and now Tri-Town's famous dancing cockatoo has hit the small screen.
Snowball stars in a Taco Bell commercial advertising Frutista Freeze, a frozen drink. The medium sulfur-crested Eleanora cockatoo belongs to Irena and Chuck Schulz and lives at their home-based sanctuary, Bird Lovers Only Rescue in Schererville.
In the commercial, Snowball is shown on a perch in front of a tropical background. With palm trees, a white sand beach and blue-green ocean water behind him, he bobs his head and lifts his legs to the beat of "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" by Rupert Holmes.
"The best part is when he waves at the end," Irena Schulz said.
At first, Schulz and her husband did not know if Snowball would dance to the catchy tune.
"My concern was the song because the song didn't have a strong 'boom, boom, boom, boom' beat," she said. "Scientifically, it shows he likes a very steady rhythm and 'The Pina Colada Song' doesn't have that."
When Schulz and her husband played the song and danced to it, Snowball looked at them and didn't move. Schulz played it again, and when she turned back toward Snowball, "he was rocking out to it," she said.
It only took three takes for a film crew to capture him dancing to the song in front of a green screen. The tropical backdrop was added during the editing process.
Snowball also appears in a commercial for a Swedish bottled water company. A local film crew taped his dancing and sent it to company representatives in Sweden, who had e-mailed Schulz.
With the poor economy, donations to the bird sanctuary have dropped drastically. The money Snowball earns helps his feathered friends there.
"He's supporting the entire rescue," she said.
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Although Snowball has appeared on "Good Morning America" and "Late Show with David Letterman," not every commercial or television offer makes the cut. Schulz wants Snowball portrayed in a positive, fun-loving light.
Still, the cockatoo's fame has soared higher than his owners ever dreamed.
"We brought in a bird thinking, 'Oh, he's adorable, he's funny,'" Schulz said. "We never would've planned this."
There is a serious side to the dancing bird. Scientists studying Snowball are researching how he links his dance moves to the beat of the music.
The research will be discussed Aug. 5 in Indianapolis at the biennial conference of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition, Schulz said.
Snowball also was featured last month at a science festival in New York City.
"When he is around a crowd of people, he is so 'on,' posturing, talking," Schulz said. "He was laughing like I never heard him laugh before."
His fame drew a swarm of photographers, she said.
"After the show, they had to lead us out the other way, because there were paparazzi there ... for a bird," she said.
To check out Snowball's performance in a Taco Bell commercial, visit http://www.birdloversonly.org/sb_tacobell
To read about the science behind Snowball's dancing, visit: vesicle.nsi.edu/users/patel/Patel_Iversen_Bregman_Schulz_Schulz_ICMPC10_in_press.pdf