At Our Leisure at the Selig/Luna Park Zoo, Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles, 1920s

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.

Selig Zoo ca 1920s

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 Entrance 2003.239.1.1

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.

A wire service article printed in the Ogden (Utah) Standard Examiner, 12 March 1929 concerning the attack of two lions upon Luna Park Zoo employee Clarence Koontz.  Koontz survived, but let the employ of the zoo and died three years later at age 27.

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.

Another wire service piece from the San Bernardino County Sun of 30 August 1930 about a mauling at Luna Park Zoo, this one involving a tiger killing 12-year old Alfred Hill, who sneaked into the animal’s cage with two friends who managed to escape.  Notably, the tiger was killed by Clarence Koontz’ younger brother, Melvin.

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.


5 thoughts

  1. I read this article with great interest since I have been doing research on Melvin Koontz for several years. I can add a bit of information to your article:

    Clarence Koontz – the 1930 census lists him as “animal trainer” working at “zoo”. Unfortunately, the information is incorrectly listed by his wife’s name. His wife, Lucille, had nothing to do with animals. Clarence continued to work at the zoo until his death in 1932. His death was unrelated to the lion attack. He died from typhoid which he contracted from drinking bad water while on a movie shoot in Death Valley.

    FYI – a third Koontz brother also worked at the zoo – Leslie Koontz. He was the youngest of the three brothers.

    The newspaper article is also incorrect about the number of boys. There were 4 boys involved in the incident: Alfred Hill (12), Willie Weberg (13), Carl Sabins Jr (13) and Ralph Weberg (10).

    I see you have information on the coroner’s jury ruling it an accidental death, but do you have any information about the case where Alfred’s father sued the zoo? The trial took place in August 1932 and his father was awarded some money, but I haven’t been able to find out why he sued – wrongful death? Negligence? Burial expenses? Just wondering if you had any information on that.

    Susan Koontz

  2. Hi Susan, thanks for the interesting additional information about the Koontz brothers and the Selig/Luna Park Zoo. As for the civil suit you mentioned, the case file might still be in the county’s Hall of Records, though unearthing it could take some digging. Otherwise, there may be newspaper coverage of the trial from the time. We’ll look into some newspaper sources and see what we can find.

  3. Hi there. I don’t know if anyone ever checks this, but I am trying to determine if the Selig Zoo was on Selig Place where the East Los Angeles Skills Center is now. Are there any interior pictures of the zoo or its layout, like buildings and cages?

  4. From: BuddyHackett.TV (Facebook Post)
    Several stories and questions have been raised regarding the elephant that graced my parents front yard for 50 years. I have a little footage of Buddy speaking about his elephant, Buddy always referred to the elephant as Al.
    Growing up, the story I remember had always been….
    In the late 60’s Gene Shacove was THE Beverly Hills hairdresser. (Warren Beatty went on to make the movie “Shampoo” about Gene.) At that time, Gene lived on a large property in Bel Air, and Al lived in front of his home in the garden. It was 1970 or ’71 when Gene sold his home and moved into a condo in Beverly Hills. Buddy and Gene were dear friends and Buddy asked Gene if he could have the elephant. Gene said, “You move him, he’s yours.” I remember the crane arriving at our then home on Walden Dr., and flying Al into place; Al moved again in ’75 to our new home and has been there ever since.
    I’ve attached a little video of Buddy telling about Al’s history. The story was, Al was a part of the original LA Zoo. There were pedestals with life size baby animals at the entrance of the children’s zoo, and Al, who is indeed a life size baby elephant, was one of those animals. The zoo closed due to damage sustained in an earthquake, much of what was there was destroyed, not long after, The Griffith Park Zoo was built and opened. Al was one of a few remaining artifacts from the original zoo.
    I went looking for clues about the original LA Zoo, its history, LA earthquake history and if by any chance, I might find an image of the children’s zoo entrance. Long story short, allow me to give you a link to a wonderful story of early LA, the man who built the first movie studio, and how the property was a multi use parcel with the first movie studio, a zoo, and later became one of the first and finest parks in the early days of Los Angeles.
    Turns out that it was hard times rather than an earthquake that closed the property. Amazingly, I found this stunning historical photo of the pedestal at the main entrance of Luna Park Zoo with a family of elephants to greet you, Al included, front and center!!…/at-our-leisure-at-the…/
    My mother sold the home about a year ago, Al remains on the property and sits where he has been since ’75.

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