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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 14: San Francisco Zoo

Bricks of pink popcorn, the Little Puffer train, Storyland, lions, tigers, and bears... join Woody and David in remembering the history of the San Francisco Zoo.
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Apr 12, 2013

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 14: San Francisco Zoo Outside Lands Podcast Episode 14: San Francisco Zoo

(above) SF Zoo, Feb 1964

Seal lion performing at Fleishhacker Zoo


Podcast Transcription

WNP14 – SF Zoo

Woody: [00:00:00] All right. It's the Outside Lands San Francisco podcast. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: And David?

David: Yes. Woody.

Woody: We're gonna talk about…

David: This is how all our conversations start.

Woody: I always say, David, and you always say, Woody. How come? You should start. Okay you start.

David: Woody?

Woody: Yes, David?

David: You had something to tell me.

Woody: So last week we asked for people to tell us if they actually…

David: We asked everybody who could hear us, not just four people.

Woody: You always look on the negative side of this. We asked people if they were hearing the podcast and what they thought and if they liked it. Did anybody write in?

David: Two out of the four.

Woody: No. What did they say? What did they say? Let's give 'em their credit.

David: They said that they're really enjoying the podcast. Jason wrote in that he enjoyed the podcast with Paul Rosenberg because Paul is the foremost font of [00:01:00] information regarding West side of the city and city politics generally.

Woody: Oh. So, he liked our talk with Paul Rosenberg about Richmond District streetcars.

David: Right, right. We need to have Paul on again.

Woody: We can have Paul on again.

David: And we got another message from Mark. And he said, I am loving the podcast. Really great material. Dot dot dot.

Woody: Mark doesn't get out much. Is that what you're gonna say? I know the way you think, David. But today, well, that's great. Thank you, Jason and Mark and anybody else who hears our voices. Please write in, let us know you appreciate this and you want us to do more.

David: We really want the other two of you to write in.

Woody: Yeah. But what are we gonna talk about today?

David: Today we're going to talk about the San Francisco Zoo.

Woody: Aah, good subject, David. I'm glad you picked it.

David: Thank you.

Woody: Because you know, we have, we talk about some of these things that are old, but we have memories of the zoo.

David: Yeah, I went to the zoo and I didn't even grow up in San [00:02:00] Francisco.

Woody: It was kind of a thing for area youth to come. It was a destination.

David: That's right.

Woody: I guess it still is. It's kind of hard to know. I'm not a kid anymore and my daughter's too old for the zoo in some ways. But yeah, a big part of all of our childhood and I think the zoo definitely used to cater more to what kids are interested in. It definitely felt that way when I was a kid.

David: Right. Well, the whole area started more as a play field, right? I mean, for recreation, and the zoo came afterwards.

Woody: That's right. So that whole area down there, just north of Lake Merced, south of Sloat Boulevard, was kind of just sand dunes and maybe a little creek or pond going through there from Lake Merced. Not a creek, what would you call that? What’s that, estuary?

David: Estuary, yeah.

Woody: Yeah. And the city in the ‘20s actually moved in to try to make it a recreation area for San Franciscans, the Park and Rec.

David: So, what was the first thing that was there?

Woody: It was not the zoo. [00:03:00]

David: No.

Woody: And it was not a play field either. The Fleishhacker Pool was the first thing that really was the anchor thing that started that whole area as a recreation site. But the city had thought of having some kind of park there for a long time. And here's an interesting thing you probably never heard, and I just found out recently. Willis Polk, who was a preeminent architect in San Francisco. He presented this whole idea of having like a little mini amusement park there that he would design.

David: Ah, neat.

Woody: In the teens, which never got off the ground.

David: I saw a picture of a, of a shipwreck near there. This predates this by quite a bit.

Woody: 1800s.

David: Yeah. And a whole sort of mini amusement park grew up right around the shipwreck.

Woody: Yeah. So whenever like a big walrus, or I don't know if walrus, but whales or anything came a washed ashore at the beach and shipwrecks, it always drew big crowds. And so, people would try to [00:04:00] create little amusements to sell things to the people who came out to see the shipwreck or the beached whale. And that was a little weird Japanese village they called it.

David: Yeah.

Woody: That went around that shipwreck. I can't remember which shipwreck offhand, but there's a picture of little rides put up around it.

David: Right.

Woody: And things.

David: And that area was already on the coursing route of the roadhouses and the carriage riders.

Woody: Right.

David: And car drivers who would make that trip. I think we talked about that earlier.

Woody: Yeah, there was a roadhouse just across the road, you know, also. But it was saved as a city park. And in the mid-1920s, led by Mortimer Fleishhacker, who was one of the park commissioners, they built the world's, or was advertised as the world's largest outdoor swimming pool there. Fleishhacker Pool, which deserves its own podcast. But that was really what started the zoo complex because when they had the pool open, they had a little play field with [00:05:00] play structures for children, right to the east of the pool.

David: Right. And then they built the Mother's Building there.

Woody: That's right. The mother's building, which is still there in the zoo. And then out of that they started displaying animals. And it was, I think like late ‘20s, ‘29, something like that is what the zoo actually gets started.

David: There were tennis courts out there too, I think.

Woody: Yeah. It was a recreation area, and the zoo, having animals was just one more feature. And then that grew. And then they used to call it, which I don't know if you remember, they used to call it Fleishhacker Zoo.

David: That's what my parents always called it. I don't know if it still had the Fleishhacker name when I was going to it, which kind of was in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s when I first started going.

Woody: That's when it officially, I think it officially became the San Francisco Zoo in the ‘40s, but everybody called it Fleishhacker’s. It was on maps as Fleishhacker Zoo until I'd say at least the late ‘60s.

David: Right.

Woody: So, it was there a long time. But it also grew a lot in the [00:06:00] ‘30s with the WPA and the sort of New Deal programs. They built a lot of the little grottos where, you remember…

David: Like the Bear Grotto.

Woody: The Lion House.

David: The Elephant House and the Lion House. I think they built both of those.

Woody: Yeah, all that was improvements.

David: Those were cutting edge. They were, they had no bars, no cages.

Woody: Yeah.

David: But by the ‘70s it was just like, oh, this is a pretty stark environment for an animal. I mean, it wasn't exactly wild looking.

Woody: It looked like a set from Barbarella or something, I always remember, because it was like the little fake stalactites or drippings on the cliff side.

David: Right.

Woody: But yet they were all lined up very orderly. You go from one to another to another with a pit, you know, between you and the animals. But then they were on this other side that just totally looked like something out of what Disney would've come up with.

David: You used to try to feed the animals. I remember reaching across and feeding the [00:07:00] elephants peanuts and they could reach across the moat there.

Woody: Yeah. Remember the seals?

David: Yeah. Yeah. Oh yeah.

Woody: That was the coolest thing.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Because you'd buy a little anchovy or something.

David: Yeah, you buy a little package of fish.

Woody: And then you walk over and the seals were going by, it felt like 30 miles an hour, in this like roundabout right there. And you just drop your fish and they would just zip. Take it away.

David: Eat it up.

Woody: But, when you think of the zoo, what do you think of as a kid? What did you remember most about the zoo?

David: Well, I remember you would come in on Sloat and you would walk down the, down the path.

Woody: The winding path, which isn't, that's not the main entrance anymore. That's the old entrance.

David: And you go right into the play area there, right by the Mother's Building. And that was the front door of the zoo. And now it's just kind of a backwater. So, what was there? There was a cable car there, I recall.

Woody: A [00:08:00] real cable car.

David: Yeah.

Woody: To climb on.

David: Yeah. And there was a steam locomotive.

Woody: Giant.

David: Was it steam? Yeah, I think it was steam.

Woody: It was, it was a big old steam locomotive that they had set up there as another play structure. They put some bars on it to help you climb it.

David: Right. You climb up on it and you can get in the cab or get on top of it. I have to imagine that there were a lot of broken arms on that thing and that's why it's not there anymore.

Woody: Well, it was a big black steam engine. I remember that very well. I think we have pictures of it on our website.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Do you remember, and maybe I'm imagining this, but I thought over towards the east of those two things, there was some slides that came down the hill, sort of like they have in Golden Gate Park, and I might be mixing it up with Golden Gate Park.

David: That I don't remember. I do remember the circular swings.

Woody: Oh yeah.

David: They had those swings. That was like a two-person swing. You could sit on it.

Woody: Like a wheel.

David: Yeah. And so that was something that I didn't have at home. That was really pretty cool.

Woody: I also remember when you walked in, they had the zoo [00:09:00] train, which was right there. And they were all parked on the right.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And the zoo train was essentially, I don't think they have it there anymore. It was like a little motorized car.

David: The elephant train.

Woody: Elephant train. We call it the zoo train. But they looked like animals. So, the front would look like an elephant, and the cars behind would be gray. Or a zebra in the front, and they were painted all zebra colors. And there were little cars behind the little motorized vehicle.

David: I think that was something that came from the Golden Gate International Exposition.

Woody: In 1939, ‘40.

David: Yeah.

Woody: On Treasure Island.

David: On Treasure Island, and then it came to the zoo.

Woody: I always wanted to get on those elephant trains, and my dad was like, we're not spending that extra money to go on the elephant train. It did a tour, I think.

David: Am I your brother? Because that's what, that's what my parents said too.

Woody: We were all deprived. That dollar or 50 cents it cost to get on.

David: And then there's a carousel that's right there and we would get to ride that.

Woody: It’s still there.

David: Between there, between the Mother's [00:10:00] Building and the carousel was the Children's Zoo.

Woody: Storyland.

David: And Storyland.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Together. And what I remember as Storyland was it was pretty decrepit. And there wasn't much left of it, and you could still run around and go into the little houses and things.

Woody: Yeah.

David: But, it was kind of on the downslide.

Woody: I think our childhoods, most of things were on the downslide. I mean, people today, these kids today, they don't know how lucky they are. Because in the late sixties, early seventies, everything was sort of at the end of its life span, I think. But Storyland was like a little, they had little scenes in which they had almost like life-sized dioramas.

David: Of nursery rhymes.

Woody: Of nursery rhymes. Old Mother Hubbard.

David: Like Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater or something.

Woody: Right. Like the woman who lived in a shoe.

David: Yeah.

Woody: There was a shoe house for you to climb in. And you could see where the three blind mice were hanging out. And little [00:11:00] sculptures and houses that you could climb through and on. It was cool. I liked it.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Storyland came around in the ‘50s, and when it opened, it was, you had to pay to get in. It was like 50 cents where the rest of the zoo was free. And then by the time we were around, I think it was just part of the zoo because the zoo cost money to get in at that point.

David: I think one thing I liked about Storyland was that it had an adult door and a kid sized door.

Woody: To get into the area.

David: To get into the area.

Woody: Yeah.

David: So, I thought that was really cool to have a small sized door.

Woody: Your own door.

David: Yeah.

Woody: It's funny. So, we're talking about all this, and this is what happens. As a kid, you walked in, you had all these things to do.

David: And we haven't seen any animals yet.

Woody: Exactly. We haven't mentioned an animal yet, and that's what we think of with the zoo. So, do you remember animals when you were a kid? Did you see any? Were there any animals at the zoo?

David: Yeah. Yeah. You used to walk in, so you'd keep walking straight. And you would come to one of those WPA enclosures with a moat and it was the, I [00:12:00] think it was the orangutans, or it might have been the big chimpanzees, the first thing right facing you as you walked in. I think that structure is still there. It's to the right of where the new monkey house is, or primate center is.

Woody: Right.

David: But you would go there and I remember the animals.

Woody: The primates.

David: The primates. I remember them not being very friendly to people. Not being very happy or engaged.

Woody: Well, you wouldn't be happy either if you're in a stone moat area and all these kids are yelling at you, which is what most of the kids seem to do, as I remember.

David: Right.

Woody: And the kids and the people were taunt these apes. And the apes would usually throw something, every now and then, at people.

David: Pink popcorn?

Woody: No, not pink popcorn.

David: Formerly pink popcorn?

Woody: Whatever was at hand, these apes would throw at the people. And that was what everybody seemed to be waiting for.

David: Yeah.

Woody: To goad the poor animals into throwing something.

David: Goad them into throwing poo.

Woody: [00:13:00] Exactly. But the pink popcorn, since we're talking about appetizing subjects like that, that was great. We used to get the little bricks of pink popcorn.

David: Still can, still can get that stuff.

Woody: Which…

David: I like it.

Woody: Have you had it recently?

David: I'll admit that I like it and I still get it from time to time. We’ve have had it at our own WNP events.

Woody: Yeah. Where do you get it?

David: You can get it from the Wright Popcorn Company on Potrero Avenue or Patrera…

Woody: Patrera Avenue?

David: Yeah.

Woody: Over there. So, you can still get it, and it still tastes as good as it did when we were kids, right?

David: I'm not sure about that. Maybe I'm misremembering how good it was. I still like it. I like it. I can't, I'll admit.

Woody: And we used to see the lions get fed. They still do that, I think. But that was always a big deal. We wanted to get there. I think it was like two o'clock in the afternoon.

David: Two o'clock to see 'em get a big old hunk of meat.

Woody: And the elephants were there [00:14:00] then. They, they had just gotten the penguins when I was still a kid. And that was a big deal too, cause the penguins got fed and things. But yeah, I remember the animals were all, it was all about the apes and it was all about the, what are those, what are those apes that swing around. The gibbons, I guess.

David: Macaques.

Woody: Macaques. The woop woop woop. We'd hear 'em across, as kids, we all imitated them.

David: We hear a lot of stories about people who grew up across Sloat in the Sunset District. They could hear the animals at night making their noises.

Woody: All the way across the Sunset, sometimes I think, when the fog was right. I also remember the zoo keys.

David: Yeah. Zoo keys.

Woody: Explain what a zoo key is, David, to younger people.

David: So, well, it's a little plastic key that's in the shape of an elephant. And the end of the key is the elephant's trunk. And you stick it in this talking story box that was in front of the [00:15:00] various displays.

Woody: The animal cages.

David: The animal cages, yeah. And so, you put it in there. And then some local celebrity, like Joe Carccione, the Green Grocer.

Woody: Or Terry Lowry.

David: Or Terry Lowry.

Woody: Or somebody like that.

David: From the TV news would tell you about the animals that you were looking at. And that was a technology created here in the Bay Area.

Woody: By?

David: Skipper Sedley.

Woody: Captain Satellite.

David: No.

Woody: Wasn't it Captain Satellite?

David: No, it was Skipper Sedley, who I didn't know as a kid.

Woody: Right.

David: He kind of predated us. But he came up with this technology for the talking storybook. Initially they put him in Children's Fairyland and then they did put them in the San Francisco Zoo also. Maybe a couple other places.

Woody: And he was an afterschool afternoon children's TV show host.

David: Right. He was early ‘60s, maybe late ‘50s.

Woody: Right. [00:16:00] I thought he had something to do with Captain Satellite.

David: Captain, no.

Woody: That's a different thing.

David: No. Captain Satellite was later. I remember Captain Satellite. He was on Channel 2. Bob Marsh played him.

Woody: Oh, alright. All right. I get him mixed up.

David: That's different guys. Anyway, talking story book.

Woody: Yeah.

David: And the zoo keys, zoo keys, you still see around. They still have 'em, but they don't, I don't think they look like an elephant anymore.

Woody: They don't have the talking story boxes.

David: They don't?

Woody: I don't think. Well, maybe you…

David: We are sorely…

Woody: We gotta get to the zoo.

David: We are misinformed.

Woody: Now we have been to the zoo recently, but it was for a WNP reason. What do we have at the zoo nowadays that somebody can still go see? Not a giant fire engine, not a giant train, or the cable car.

David: No. We have the 1906 earthquake refugee cottage that we restored.

Woody: Saved from the Sunset District.

David: Right. 2002. And we displayed it on Market Street during the earthquake centennial in 2006. And it has found a [00:17:00] permanent home in Greenie's Conservation Corner.

Woody: That’s right.

David: At the zoo.

Woody: That's right. It's a little, it looks like a little house. It's all surrounded by exhibits about reclaiming rainwater and recycling and composting. And you'll see our earthquake cottage that we saved sitting there. And inside, they still have, there's signage about the history of the earthquake cottages, which were built for the refugees after the 1906 earthquake and fire. So, we have a little piece of the zoo that's in there, which is great.

David: No animals in it though.

Woody: No animals in that exhibit. In fact, you know, it's funny, I mentioned when we were kids it seemed very kid-centric. And so, if it was something a kid would like, like to climb over a cable car or the Little Puffer, which was a little train, which is still there.

David: Yeah, it's back.

Woody: It's back. It went away and came back.

David: It went away for a while and then got restored.

Woody: It was very much focused on rides and kid amusements, carousels, things like that. Storyland. And then it seemed to transition into being more what [00:18:00] zoos, I guess, are commonly thought of now today is conservation education on animal sort of things. You know, more animal focused, which I guess makes sense. But no more train, no more cable car, no more Storyland.

David: No more feeding the animals.

Woody: Yeah. They do have some nice exhibits. I like the Africa exhibit they have now, where you kind of see the giraffes and wildebeests and whatever.

David: Right.

Woody: Walking around on a savannah. The gorillas are in a much nicer place than when we were kids, for sure.

David: Not heaven?

Woody: No, maybe those gorillas are in heaven. I don't know, but they have, uh, yeah…

David: No, the gorilla world is great.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Yeah. The exhibits are a lot better than they were when I was a kid.

Woody: Yeah.

David: No elephants anymore though.

Woody: Nope. Elephants are gone. They're doing…

David: And you can't make the bears do tricks.

Woody: No.

David: You used to be able to get the bears to dance around.

Woody: Yeah.

David: For a peanut, and now if you wave a peanut at 'em, they won't do anything. [00:19:00]

Woody: Good for them. They have some respect. But they do have grizzly bears.

David: I'm ashamed to say I did that sort of thing.

Woody: Well, zoos were different back then. They were more geared towards entertaining people, not about educating them necessarily about animals. But I think things are starting to change a little again. I do think that the zoo's best customer is our families bringing their kids.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, it does seem like they're getting a little more focused on things to educate wee ones about stuff. I really loved when my daughter was little, and only about 10 years ago, you would go feed the lorikeets, the little birds.

David: Right.

Woody: And you would have a little cup of sugar water or something they liked, and they would just sit on your arm and dip their beaks in these little cups. It was really neat.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Yeah.

David: What's missing from the zoo now?

Woody: From when we were kids?

David: Yeah.

Woody: Well, there's no more train. There's no more, there's the Little Puffer still, but there's not the big train to climb over. There's no more cable car. The Mother's Building has been closed [00:20:00] for about 10 years. It used to be a gift shop. No more elephant train. No more Storyland. That's become sort of a children's, I mean the children's zoo area's still there where they have the barnyard and you feed the goats.

David: Right.

Woody: But they…

David: You're forgetting one major attraction for when, from when we were kids.

Woody: That's missing from the zoo.

David: Yeah.

Woody: What is it?

David: Dun dun dun… Monkey Island.

Woody: Oh, Monkey Island.

David: Come on.

Woody: Now that was a WPA thing too, I think.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Monkey Island was, it was a big, it was an island, but…

David: It was a communal space for monkeys to live and enjoy themselves.

Woody: It looked like a giant pyramid of paving stones or something.

David: Yeah, it looked like a bunch of blocks that stacked up in a pyramid. Yeah.

Woody: And they had all these little spider monkeys.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Or something like that, that ran all over. They had a moat around it.

David: And they had ropes and things to swing [00:21:00] on and tires and things to play with.

Woody: Right.

David: And I guess they, and they had a living space inside Monkey Island, and there was a tunnel for the, for the zookeepers to get in and out of there from underneath, underneath the moat.

Woody: Monkey Island was cool. We have footage of Monkey Island just a little bit on our website too that's from my family actually. An old home movie in my family. But, you know, those things were always a little, I don't wanna say disappointing, but a little bit like, I think I felt like as a kid I was in an amusement park and I should be able to go to the island.

David: Yeah.

Woody: You know, like, cause it had monkeys crawling all over it. But really you just looked at 'em.

David: Yeah.

Woody: You’re right. Monkey Island is gone too.

David: One thing that I like now that I really had no time for when I was a kid.

Woody: No appreciation. Yeah.

David: Is the aviary. The aviary is a really nice building.

Woody: I can smell it now.

David: It's just so [00:22:00] humid and hot in there. It's weird.

Woody: Oh, the smell.

David: And the animals and the birds are flying around inside it all loose.

Woody: Right. Aren't they restoring it? It's under…

David: They did. I think they did restore it.

Woody: Oh, they're done with it already.

David: Again. We haven't…

Woody: We gotta go. We're talking history though, David. This is the zoo we remember, not the zoo that's there now.

David: If you work at the zoo and you want us to come and do an updated version.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Send us some tickets.

Woody: We do know some people at the zoo. Maybe we can get them to let us in. Do a little podcast from inside the zoo. I like the giraffes too. They have a giraffe house that's really neat.

David: Right. And you have a little loft that you can walk right up and be at giraffe head height.

Woody: Yeah.

David: And they hang a branch of eucalyptus leaves or something that the giraffe will eat.

Woody: We're obviously not naturalists. I have no idea what giraffe’s eat.

David: They just eat a branch of leaves, but I don't, it may not be eucalyptus.

Woody: It's not eucalyptus though, I don't think. I don't know though. We're gonna have to go check it out, I guess. [00:23:00] Especially now. We've been there recently because the Fleishhacker Pool building burned down, but we haven't been in the zoo in a while, so we're gonna go.

David: We're going.

Woody: We gotta find some kids.

David: We gotta find some kids.

Woody: Take 'em to the zoo.

David: And take 'em to the zoo.

Woody: But that's it.

David: Go on a sunny day though.

Woody: Today's a good day. That's it. If you have memories of the zoo, please go to our website outsidelands.org and tell us your memories. We have a whole message board there and we'd love to see any old pictures.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Things like that.

David: Send 'em in. The other two of you who need to write in.

Woody: No, there's dozens.

David: You said four before.

Woody: You said that. There's dozens of people who listen to us. Dozens. But that's it for this week. You know, next week, David, I think we're getting close to the anniversary.

David: Earthquake anniversary.

Woody: Of the 1906 earthquake, which will be on April 18th. So maybe next week we should talk about the earthquake refugee cottages we touched on today.

David: All right.

Woody: Something like that. But for now, this is Woody [00:24:00] LaBounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: And this is the Outside Lands San Francisco podcast from the Western Neighborhoods Project.

Learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history at outsidelands.org.

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