The Selig Zoo, in Cement and Engineering News.
From its humble beginnings as merely a boarding home for William Selig’s wild animal film stars, the Selig Zoo at 3800 Mission Road in East Los Angeles eventually became one of the metropolis’ top tourist attractions in the 1910s and 1920s. Featuring exotic wild animals from around the world, extensive landscaped grounds, and elaborate amenities, the Zoo served as the impetus for the city of Los Angeles to organize a permanent public zoo for its citizens, and served as the city’s first theme park.
Col. (honorary) William N. Selig served as an itinerant traveling magician and managed minstrel companies before establishing a fledgling moving picture technology and production company in Chicago in 1896. A California resident in the late 1800s, Selig eventually established a permanent Los Angeles studio in 1909.
Mary Mallory’s “Hollywoodland: Tales Lost and Found” is available for the Kindle.
The Selig Zoo, in Cement and Engineering News.
After learning that President Theodore Roosevelt proposed to travel to Africa for a yearlong safari after leaving office in 1909, Selig pitched the idea of documenting the entire trip to the President. Roosevelt unfortunately declined the offer, revealing that the Smithsonian Institution, one of the trip’s sponsors, objected to any outside commercial enterprises taking part.
Crafty Selig decided to create his own version of the president’s trip, hiring animals and trainers from “Big” Otto Breitkreutz’s circus in spring 1909, bringing them to Chicago, and employing them in a staged re-creation of Roosevelt’s trip called “Hunting Big Game in Africa,” released before Roosevelt even landed on the continent. From this nucleus, the producer began producing elaborate animal pictures. After lending Breitkreutz money, which the circus promoter was unable to pay back, Selig gained ownership of the animals in autumn 1910. Selig’s Zoo was born.
Filmmaker Selig produced wild animal films with his four-legged troupe in Florida in 1910-1911, before transporting them to Los Angeles. In 1911, Selig purchased 33 three acres on Mission Road in East Los Angeles from Henry Huntington to house the extensive menagerie at what was called the Selig Wild Animal Farm. A July 1911 Motography article claimed that the park housed 12 lions, nine cub lions, one elephant, three camels, 10 leopards, seven leopard cubs, five pumas, one monkey, three bears, two deer, 10 Eskimo dogs, eight grey wolves, mules, geese, dogs, horses, and the like. “This menagerie gives the Selig plant a distinct character among the places of its kind, and has enabled it to lead all others in the production of animal stories, or what might be termed the drama of the jungle.” Ironically, Selig’s farm sat across the street from Los Angeles’ first zoo, a miniscule establishment constructed at the northeast corner of Eastlake Park in 1885.
The Selig Polyscope Co. drained the swampland and built administration buildings, cottages, and animal enclosures architecturally similar to buildings in India, Africa, and Southeast Asia. It churned out exotic animal pictures at this location, such as its elaborate action serial, “The Adventures of Kathlyn,” and other two-reelers. It also featured sights such as baby animals, daily feedings, elephant and camel rides, and animal training in its Hearst-Selig News Pictorial.
The Dec. 20, 1913, Southwest Contractor and Manufacturer magazine noted that M. D. L. Scott had secured a permit for Selig to construct a $25,300, 22 x 265 feet wild animal house with concrete foundation, brick walls, plastered exterior, cement floor, sheet metal, and composite and clay tile roof. Selig soon announced intentions to construct a zoo.
As Andrew Erish points out in his excellent biography, “Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood,” “He reasoned that since the jungle-adventure films were such a profitable and high-profile component of his company, why not exploit the connection further by constructing the largest privately owned zoo in the United States,” in essence, dreaming up the first motion picture theme park.
Producer Selig hired Arthur Benton, architect of Riverside’s Mission Inn, in summer 1914 to design elegant Mission-Style buildings such as animal houses, exterior sets, dance pavilion, and the like for the new park, which would include the animals’ native flora to rival any botanical garden. John G. Robinson, scion of a Cincinnati circus family, was hired to manage the animals. The Washington Times described the planned establishment in these words: “The site, a tract of 50 acres situated in the city of Los Angeles, is being planned within attractive boundary walls and will have an imposing interest as unique as it is artistically attractive.”
Moving Picture World reported that fall that “Mr. Selig had made arrangements with a prominent sculptor, who is building groups of elephants and other groups showing lions, tigers, and other wild beasts in picturesque and artistic attitudes…Mr. Selig has ambitions to create for the American public a place of entertainment, and devised especially for education purposes.”
Selig commissioned sculptor Carlo Romanelli to design majestic, concrete “figurerinos” and friezes of the exotic animals to line the zoo’s imposing entrance. Born in Florence, Italy, Romanelli studied in Rome and Paris before immigrating to America and working in Chicago and Detroit creating stone figures. The Los Angeles Times noted that “Romanelli is doing some tremendously big and interesting things for Selig, as may be seen from the original plastic sketches…” Eight animated, life-size stone elephants adorned a pedestal supporting a flagpole, with life-size concrete lions at the side of the arches.
Along with the dramatic entry, Romanelli designed an interior fountain with a group of five of Neptune’s lovely daughters, one standing a la Venus rising from the water and the others as spirited mermaids, more than life-size, with water trickling over their bodies.
The June 20, 1915, Los Angeles Times called the new zoo wonderful in a review of its opening, noting the $1-million facility featured giant botanical gardens, a daily animal show featuring “Leopard Lady” Olga Celeste interacting with the animals, picnic groves, barbecue pits, night illumination, and a gigantic dance pavilion. The entrance cost a reputed $75,000, the animal house $25,000, and the animals themselves worth $35,000, dazzling the 8,000 to 10,000 people that attended the opening.
Selig stars such as Kathlyn Williams, Tom Santschi, Tom Mix, and Bessie Eyton greeted guests. The Hays Free Press stated, “This big show place, built at an expense of more than two hundred thousand dollars, contains thirty-eight acres—thirty of which filled up in animal houses, pens, and beautiful lawns and grounds…” It claimed that extensive grounds duplicating the animals’ natural habitats had been created at the site, but the animals spent virtually all their time in massive, concrete cells, escaping only to shoot films.
The Selig Zoo immediately attracted huge numbers of visitors to its grounds, the only place on the Pacific Coast for the public to view wild animals up close. All manner of groups — conventions, service groups, charities, war veterans, schools, state organizations, churches, city departments—arranged picnics, carnivals, pageants, and other forms of entertainment at the facility. California Gov. Hiram Johnson spoke to over 2,000 laborers on work conditions during Labor Day events. Ex-President William Howard Taft greeted attendees of Mexican-Indian Day. Tourists flocked to the site as well, drawn not only to the largest private zoo in the world but also to the opportunity to watch motion picture stars shoot films. It ranked as one of Los Angeles’ top tourist attractions.
For the final festivities in a third and final grand opening zoo celebration, the Selig company organized “The Selig Exposition Special” in the summer of 1915 to carry motion picture executives, reporters, and celebrities from Chicago to Los Angeles via the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Ads invited the general public to purchase $128 round-trip tickets that included all hotel accommodations, transfers, and baggage handling. Departing Chicago July 8, 1915, on special Pullman locomotives that featured the daily printing of a newspaper called “The Daily Yelp,” a ballroom with string orchestra, player piano, talking machine, and a screening room to view the Selig-Hearst newsreel during the trip. Staff photographers from the newsreel would shoot the entire excursion for a later edition of the newsreel.
The 17-day trip included stops in Denver, Salt Lake City, Santa Barbara to visit the mission, Riverside to see orange groves, San Diego for the Panama-California Exposition, and San Francisco for the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Guests would spend 3 1/2 days in San Francisco and three days in Los Angeles, with the highlight of their Los Angeles stay being greeted by Selig stars Kathlyn Williams, Thomas Santschi, Tom Mix, Guy Oliver, Bessie Eyton, and Wheeler Oakman at the Selig Zoo, with the added bonus of viewing actual filming. Contest winners could win free trips along the way, and attractive young women might be asked to participate in a movie being shot throughout the trip.
Many incidents good and ill occurred throughout the years at the Selig Zoo. The company experienced a well-dressed and behaved monkey escaped it in November 1915 and wandered all the way to Garvanza and Highland Park, ending up in the Lincoln High School gymnasium before being returned to the zoo. A few months earlier, Chang, the zoo’s orangutan, drank the contents of a bucket filled with paint and died. Floods in several years washed away parts of the park as well as animals.
Though the zoo was ahead of others in attempting to re-create the animals’ natural environments and giving them some freedom, at least during filming and live performances, the forced imprisonment caused dangerous reactions from some animals. Trainer Adolph Hilderbruner “grappled in a life and death struggle with an enraged tigress” attempting to teach her stunts in late 1915. A leopard and lion attacked trainers in September 1922, causing severe injuries. Tragedy occurred on Aug. 27, 1930, when four 12-year-olds slid under a fence and cut through a safety fence to enter the artificial jungle and animals’ enclosure for close-up views of the animals A Siberian tiger pounced and began attacking and slashing one of the boys before a trainer shot it dead. The boy later died.
For the next several years, the Selig Co. continued producing films at the Mission Road location and welcoming guests at the zoo. It also rented out the animals to other companies for use in making films, or allowed other companies to shoot on-site. By the early 1920s, the studio ceased operations and producers Louis B. Mayer and B. P. Schulberg moved in.
Selig shut down the zoo in 1922. Businessmen bought the property, which they hoped to turn into Los Angeles’ version of Coney Island. Besides continuing to operate the original attractions at the zoo, the group played up plans to build a water plunge, artificial pool with sand beach and waves, Ferris wheels, loop-to-loops, and rides. While the zoo remained open, they never completed any of the other attractions, and passed it on to a group, which renamed it Luna Park, exhibiting animals to the public and offering dances in the pavilion. A group operated it as Los Angeles Wild Animal Farms beginning in late November 1931. In May 1932, they announced the site would reopen as California Zoological Gardens. For a while it hung on, offering pony and elephant rides, animal shows, and the like.
Terrible floods in 1938 caused major damage to the park, washing away land and forcing costly repairs, with animals facing starvation after the group decimated their funds to stay open. Film players like Richard Dix, Katharine Hepburn, Stu Erwin, Kathlyn Williams, and others threw their financial support behind their animal friends. Belmont High School student body President Jack Webb organized a benefit show, saying that the animals were much valued by zoological classes. Approximately 20,000 people attended a nine-hour benefit at the park on April 21, 1938, hosted by Leo Carrillo. The group remained open only a few more years before finally shutting their doors. The animals were farmed out to other locations while the site continued operating as a park.
Crowds slowly disappeared and the lovely buildings disintegrated, before eventually being torn down and turned into another faceless strip mall.
There is somewhat of a happy ending regarding the Selig Zoo, however. Administrator Manuel Moullinedo and volunteers at the Los Angeles Zoo were discussing the old Selig Zoo in the late 1990s and wondering what happened to the gorgeous concrete figures which welcomed guests at the front entrance. They discovered that after the park closed in the 1950s, the statues were pulled down and relegated to storage. Larry Davis, Carnival Time Shows owner, purchased them from a Paramount crane operator in the 1960s, relocating them to his steel fabrication factory, where they sat for decades.
Another stood proudly in the yard of a home nearby. All were donated to the Los Angeles Zoo in 2000, which finally began restoring 14 of the cast stone works with $150,000 donated money. Seven roaring lion statues were unveiled in 2009, decorating the current entrance to the zoo. Elegant remnants of Los Angeles’ first major zoo proudly greet guests at the city’s modern marvel.