Celebrities & Other Animals I Met at the Zoo

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I came to San Diego in the ’60s without a job – and wound up working in their famous zoo, meeting both human and animal stars from Lassie and King Tut to Art Linkletter, Jimmy Stewart and the world-renowned “chimp lady” from Africa, Jane Goodall.

Being close to Hollywood, many stars over the years donned dark glasses and popped in to visit our menagerie incognito, including Andy Griffith, Shirley Temple, Jerry Lewis and Cary Grant (who often stopped by when he was in town for a weekend of tennis).

During my seven years as the zoo’s PR director, I had occasion to lunch with, or personally tour, a dozen or so popular celebs. On occasion, I engaged one, such as radio-TV notable Art Linkletter, a San Diego native, to cut a ribbon for a new exhibit or ride.

Several, including Arte Johnson, of the ’60s TV hit, “Laugh-In,” and long-time comedian, Phyllis Diller, became personal friends. I found them to be warm and genuinely humorous people. I subsequently exchanged calls and Christmas cards with both. And years later, they even endorsed my first book of humor.

One afternoon, I drove a zoo car to the airport to pick up TV/radio star, Arthur Godfrey when he landed in his private Lear Jet. An admitted long-time San Diego Zoo fan, he had agreed to judge my “children’s zoo art contest” and present the top prize for a segment of our own syndicated TV show, “Zoorama.” His fellow judges were Linkletter and San Diegan, Ted Geisel, better known as “Dr. Seuss.”

The controversial Godfrey had once filmed a “live” segment of his top-rated show from our Children’s Zoo. An un-diapered infant orangutan he held had excitedly wet on his shirt. Mike in hand, Arthur commented to his national audience, without missing a beat: “Honey, thousands have wanted to do that – but you are the first to succeed!”

A big name in the book world in the ’60s was Dr. David Rueben, best-selling author of “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).” He called me one day, saying he planned to make a ten-grand donation to the zoo for a new primate exhibit. I managed to get plenty of press coverage for his philanthropy – but was afraid to ask him the several personal questions I had in mind.

For special zoo events, I occasionally retained the always cooperative Marshall Thompson, star of the then top-rated Ivan Tors TV production, “Daktari,” an African adventure show. With much of it filmed in Thousand Oaks, northeast of Los Angeles, Marshall invited me to bring the family to visit the set.

One day, we drove up to observe an afternoon’s filming in a faux-jungle setting. The script called for a menacing black leopard – but one was not available. We watched in awe when the director called for a cougar, which the crew proceeded to spray-paint black.

A few years later, a CBS-TV producer asked my eight-year-old son, Gary, to appear in a non-speaking scene with David Janssen, during a TV-movie, “Night Chase,” being filmed in our zoo. Gary later admitted it was a fun experience but had cured him of any latent desire to act. He’d had to wait around for six hours to do a one-minute scene in the kiddie zoo with the star. And further disillusioned when his $35 CBS check arrived.

Janssen, star of “The Fugitive” television show, had set the hearts of many of our female staffers atwitter while in the zoo. Upon leaving the park one day, he impulsively stopped to bestow a kiss on an admiring sales girl’s cheek. Badly shaken, she asked to be excused to go home for the remainder of the day.

Wild-life buffs Gloria and Jimmy Stewart appeared at a special zoo dinner one evening. Afterward, they told me that Gregory Peck’s half-brother once drove one of our zoo tour buses during a summer in college. Therefore, when a zoo inhabitant called a Peccary, (a swine-like animal from Mexico and South America), gave birth, we had our tour guides point out the little porker as our new star, “Gregory Peck-ary.”

Nearby, another former star resided in our elephant exhibit. Visitors on passing busses were informed that a little Asian with long, Hollywood eyelashes was “Hatari,” sent to the zoo after appearing with John Wayne in the movie of the same name.

Our official zoo greeter since 1951, “King Tut,” also had stage and screen credits I had been surprised to learn that the salmon-crested cockatoo, who whistled and danced for visitors from his special perch at the entrance plaza, once appeared at a world’s fair in San Diego with the flamboyant fan dancer, Sally Rand (as her zipper puller).

The regal-looking Tut had been brought from Singapore by noted animal trader Frank “Brink-’em-Back-Alive Buck.” The people-loving bird was named after King Tutankhamen, whose spectacular discovery occurred only a few years before Buck brought the cockatoo to San Diego. I always enjoyed the bird’s raucous greeting when I would enter the zoo mornings. Tut on occasion would meow like a cat, cluck like a chicken or sing snatches of opera.

Hollywood’s biggest animal star, “Lassie,” came to the zoo one spring to test the reaction of our famous performing seals prior to an up-coming movie scene. The story of how she “attacked” me on stage at our Seal Bowl is detailed in my book of zoo memoirs.

Looking back, I would have to say my favorite human celebrity to visit the zoo during my tour was Jane Goodall, the British scientist who studied the life of chimps at the Gombe Stream Game Reserve in Tanzania, Africa. I had the good fortune to meet and escort this most-dedicated young lady during the zoo’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Jane was so sweet and soft-spoken and knowledgeable and REAL, I am moved whenever I read today of her continued devotion to wildlife causes and conservation. The universe should have produced many more like her.

write by Jezebel

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