Do you remember talking yellow boxes and zoo keys? Or the lyrics to this zoo tune from the 1960s?
All the animals in the zoo
are jumping up and down for you,
asking you to be sure to plan
to visit the zoo as soon as you can.
Storybooks that really talk, you turn on with a key,
tell fascinating things about the animals you see.
Storybooks and zoo keys together guide you through,
a world of new excitement awaits you at the zoo!
I visited the with my 2-year-old grandson Asher recently. Actually, we only made it as far as the penguinarium and the butterfly house due to fairly short attention spans for both of us.
Whoever came up with the idea for a butterfly house is one inspired person. Even though winter hasn’t really visited us yet, on a gray, wet, midweek morning (I was playing a little hooky from work) it was delight to sit in the tropical air and watch the butterflies silently flit and flirt with us.
We had the place to ourselves, and while Asher was engaged in an entertaining conversation with a luminescent purple butterfly, I did what any self-respecting guy getting dangerously near to 60 does: I waxed nostalgically!
A memory like an elephant
As anyone over 50 who grew up in the Detroit area can attest, the lyrics above and tune to the zoo's 1960s television commercial are still clanging around inside our often misfiring memory banks. The commercial urged us to visit the zoo, pay 50 cents for one of those red elephant-shaped keys and get the play-by-play from the bright yellow boxes in front of various exhibits. At the front of zoo, there was one free box with a button that played the song.
As readers of this column know, I was a rule-challenged youth and not only was 50 cents a ridiculous amount to pay for information, but any zoo visitor under the age of 12 knew to wait for the rich kid to show up, pay the four-bits and then follow him around the zoo as he plugged the key into the yellow box.
I heard that even more aggressive delinquents would simply request the rich kid “lend” the key for a short while. This was usually done on the secluded paths that wound past the goldfish streams on the north side of the zoo.
Kids and guards on bikes; monkeys on unicycles
Oh man, did I love the zoo when I was a kid. First, it was free. Yep, it cost nothing to walk in. Next, anyone who was within biking distance could go to the zoo without parents.
Talk about freedom. When I was 11 years old, I spent most of my summer vacation at the zoo. I would love to report that it was for a budding interest in zoology and exotic animals, but nope, mostly it was the coolest place in the world to hang out and be mischievous boy.
My guide that summer was David Fitzpatrick and my short column won’t allow me to do justice to his youthful genius. David taught me how to hitch a ride on the back of the guided tour cars that patrolled the 125-acre zoo and how to properly grab a snapping turtle out of the zoo’s pond without getting bit.
There was also sex education available at the zoo. I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to erase the memory of the seemingly impossible mating dance between two giraffes, or at the other end of the spectrum, two frisky hippos.
Of course, no visit to the zoo was complete without timing the visit for the fabled chimpanzee show. I can visualize the powder blue open-air auditorium; I think it was named the Holden Auditorium. Is that right?
The zoo put on the chimp shows for 50 years before ending them in 1982. I’m glad I didn’t know then how those chimps were made to perform.
As a kid, all I saw was the magic in watching Jo-Jo ride a unicycle in cowboy attire or some other crazy garb. The place would be packed with kids and parents who paid the dime to sit in the bleachers out of the sun for a half-hour show before exiting out the top of the auditorium and down the ramp back into the zoo proper.
As a teenager, David Fitz also showed me that the zoo was a completely different place at night. Yes it was closed, but the walls were easily scalable and who could turn down the dare of a run through the zoo dodging the bicycle-riding security guards? Especially after being bribed with a Big Barny and Barnbuster hamburger, fries and a refreshing soft drink at the Red Barn fast food restaurant across the street.
Gampy, Gimpy, Gumpy or Grumpy?
The zoo today is dramatically different than the zoo of my youth. It is still a place of delight to bring children and grandchildren. I can sit in the butterfly house and watch my progeny begin to build their own memories with “Gampy” as their first tour guide, and still reach back to when I was kid in PF Flyers gym shoes tearing through the Detroit Zoo without a worry in the world. (I suppose Gampy isn’t a bad grandpa moniker, especially because it’s dangerously close to Gimpy, Gumpy or Grumpy!)
These are the best of times.
I bet you have fond memories of the zoo, too. Share them with Patch readers and you could win four tickets to the Detroit Zoo. Click on the link below for details.
It’s Monday, let’s go!
Gerry Boylan is the author of a collection of short stories, Gerry Tales, and a novel, Getting There. Both books are available at Amazon.com and the Yellow Door Artists Market in Berkley.