by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Small collections of animals available for public viewing can be found in Los Angeles back to the late nineteenth century, including the 35-acre Washington Gardens, between Grand Avenue and Main Street (west and east) and Washington Boulevard and 21st Street (north and south) and one in Eastlake Park that lasted from the late 1880s to the early 1910s and was followed in 1912 by a zoo in Griffith Park.
Across from Eastlake Park, renamed Lincoln Park, was the Selig Zoo, later Luna Park Zoo. William Selig (1864-1948), a native of Chicago, worked in vaudeville and produced minstrel shows in his early years, but when he saw, at age 30, an early example of film technology made by Thomas Edison, he decided that was his future. In 1896, he launched the Selig Polyscope Company.
The firm produced very short comedic films and then, thanks to a contract with Armour and Company, which was combating negative attitudes about meat production in the era of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, moved into industrial films. Later, Selig developed early film versions of The Wizard of Oz, made westerns and action flicks, and so-called “animal pictures,” using a stable of creatures he owned as stars in films depicting big game hunting in African jungles and the like.
While Selig continued to work in Chicago, he built a studio in Los Angeles, in what was then the neighborhood of Edendale, now sections of Echo Park and Silver Lake. Opening in 1909 as the first studio in Los Angeles (one early actress was William Workman’s granddaughter, Josephine Workman, who used the stage name “Princess Mona Darkfeather” in some seventy short and one full-length film through 1917). Selig imported many of his animals for use in his films.
However, realizing that his menagerie were mostly creating expenses in the down time between films in which they were needed, Selig decided to open up the Selig Zoo, along with additional studio space, in 1915. He built an elaborate entrance, depicted above in a photograph from the Homestead’s collection, with tall arched openings on the side with neo-classical gabled roofs and a central pedestal with statues of elephants on it and the zoo name emblazoned on the front.
The facility, with hundreds of animals, was popular upon its opening, but the film company struggled during the World War I years and went bankrupt and shut down. In 1923, the studio’s assets were sold off and the zoo soon closed. However, a new zoo opened at the location and was known for about seven or so years as the Luna Park Zoo. It maintained the same entrance, as can be seen in the other highlighted photograph also from the museum collection.
Luna Park Zoo essentially kept the same layout and functionality as Selig Zoo and the studio portion continued to be utilized for movie production. For example, an early talking film, First National’s “The Girl from Woolworth’s,” starring Alice White, was shot there in 1929. Another celebrity connection to the facility was in 1930 when famed evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson visited and was photographed with an elephant and a tiger.
In fact, the very common phenomenon of guests interacting directly with wild animals was found at other like facilities at the time, including the Los Angeles Alligator Farm, located near the zoo, and Gay’s Lion Farm, another supplier of film animals, in El Monte. The proximity of people to animals, of course, occasionally involves problems.
In early 1929, an employee of Luna Park Zoo was mauled by two lions. Clarence Koontz, 24, who’d begun working at the zoo six years before when it was still under Zelig’s ownership, had fourteen wounds, but screams from women witnessing the mauling saved his life as other employees rushed to the scene and used a hose to scare off the animals. Clarence was not listed as having a job in the 1930 census and died just two years later in 1932–perhaps his injuries contributed to his death.
In summer 1930, Alfred Hill, who was 12 years old, climbed into a tiger’s cage with two friends and was attacked. It was said the boys were inspired by a children’s book about a man who lived with wild animals in a jungle. While young Alfred’s playmates were able to escape, he was mauled and killed. Remarkably, the zoo employee who shot and killed the tiger was identified as Melvin Koontz, the younger brother of Clarence.
The mauling of Alfred Hill led the coroner’s jury that deliberated over the young man’s death to recommend an investigation into whether the county’s zoos had proper conditions for housing animals and whether they were being properly guarded. Of course, the concern was for human safety given the recent incidents.
Whether it was the publicity from the maulings or the worsening of the Great Depression, the Luna Park Zoo closed in 1932 and was replaced by the California Zoological Gardens (also known as Zoopark), but it, too, closed by the end of the decade from the economic meltdown and damage from the major floods of 1938.
The Los Angeles Zoo opened in 1966 and went through problems in subsequent decades with conditions that led to its losing its accreditation from the American Zoological Association in the mid-1990s. However, a link to the past emerged in the 1980s, when historian Mike Davis, author of The City of Quartz, came across some of the statues from the Selig/Luna Park Zoo entrance in storage. A Los Angeles zoo docent embarked on a successful quest to get the survivors donated to the facility in 2000 and they remain on the grounds today.
For more on the Selig/Luna Park zoos, check out this article by the photo curator at the Los Angeles Public Library. More about William Selig can be found in this 2009 article from the Los Angeles Times. Finally, the Selig Polyscope Company was revived ten years ago in Texas and here is the website for the reinvented firm.