Putting on a Show

23, August 2010

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of articles exploring the history of the Saint Louis Zoo as it celebrates its centennial. The History Museum has partnered with the Zoo to develop an exhibit chronicling its first 100 years. The Zootennial exhibit is located on the Zoo grounds in the 1917 Elephant House, now Peabody Hall. To read the first article in this series, click here. To read about the Zoo's first elephant, click here.

For much of its early history, the Saint Louis Zoo felt more like a circus than what most people would now consider a zoo. Animal shows, complete with costumed animals and elaborate sets, earned the Zoo a worldwide reputation and led Life magazine to call the Zoo “the most entertaining ever known in the U.S.”

The Zoo shows had a humble beginning; in 1924, Sam the orangutan would entertain visitors on the lawn outside his holding area by drinking out of a bottle and performing a few other tricks. The popularity of that performance led George Vierheller, the Zoo’s first and longest serving director, to create Broadway-style extravaganzas that would eventually draw thousands to specially built arenas and would be seen by countless more in movie theaters around the world.

Mike Kostial served as the Zoo's chimpanzee director for 37 years until his death in 1976. Courtesy of Saint Louis Zoo.

Elephants, lions, tigers, and the occasional bear would perform, but it was the chimps that garnered the most attention. “At the end of the 30-minute show, the audience has seen chimpanzees ride ponies, drive battery-powered automobiles with the skill of a cabbie, operate gasoline-powered motorcycles, jump rope, swing from a trapeze, etc.,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote in its review of one show.

The performers became important ambassadors for the Zoo. Each season’s shows would receive full-page previews in local newspapers. Retirements and deaths of animal stars were reported like those of any other celebrities. Visiting dignitaries from Red Skelton to Babe Ruth came to see the performers, and the chimps were sought after by Hollywood studios and traveling circuses. All this attention often made staff from other zoos a little jealous. Visitors from the Bronx Zoo explained a 1941 visit to Saint Louis this way: “We just want to find out why we see films of the Saint Louis Zoo when we go to the movies in New York and why there are frequent pictures and stories of the Saint Louis Zoo attractions carried in New York newspapers.”

Vierheller said visitors would learn more about animals if lessons were presented in an entertaining way rather than “a dull, ultra-scientific manner.” The director would often appear alongside his performing animals in newsreels and television specials. He would sometimes drive newly acquired animals throughout the city in his car before bringing them to the Zoo and once took a couple of chimps to the Fox Theatre so they could see themselves in the movies. “Rival zoo directors say that George Vierheller would allow himself to be impaled by a rhinoceros if he thought it would bring people to the Zoo,” Time magazine once reported.

Trainer Donn Gibson worked for the Zoo from 1961 to 1990. Courtesy of Saint Louis Zoo.

The thinking about animal shows has evolved as the Zoo has aged. Attention shifted to conservation as more animals become endangered. In the 1970s, the lion shows were stopped and a sea lion show was begun. The Zoo phased out the chimp show in 1982, and by the end of 1991, the elephant show gave way to preparations for the Zoo’s first ever elephant birth. The Zoo has also moved away from showing costumed animals displaying human-like characteristics toward showcasing them in naturalistic habitats and performing behaviors that would be found in the wild.

The Zoo still features shows including the Sea Lion Show and live animal presentations in the Children’s Zoo, but Zoo officials say they have designed these to highlight naturalistic behaviors and to promote respect for the animals.

Although the shows have changed, the spirit that led Vierheller to start them remains. “All I have ever asked was that the Saint Louis Zoo be a means of telling the world about St. Louis, and that people from everywhere find here not only a recreational haven, but a means of learning and developing more appreciation and love of animal life,” Vierheller said soon after his retirement in 1962.

—Jody Sowell, Public Historian