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Detroit Zoo Edition: Do You Remember When ...

A visit to the zoo prompts new and old memories for columnist Gerry Boylan. Take a walk through the zoo through the decades with Gerry, and share your own memories.

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.

Win tickets

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.

carole calverley wilson February 07, 2012 at 01:39 AM
wow that was a blast from the past! thanks! I have many great memories of the zoo,,many of them skipping school and hanging out on blueberry hill!!haha,,loved the visual of the chimp show!and the key boxes! wow I had forgotten that! we were so very lucky to grow up 1/2 mile form the zoo, thanks for reminding me Gerry!
C. Westwood February 07, 2012 at 02:02 AM
Yep. Coins in the fountain, trips on the train, real life *wild* animal adventures. Great trips down memory lane. "It's half-time America," ...and we got this gregarious columnist and his commentributors - laying down a vibe - in the Patch.
marcia angel February 08, 2012 at 12:20 AM
My sister worked at the chimp show so we saw it endlessly and never tired of it's charm. I suppose that's why I have such a penchant for the little fellows to this day! The train was such fun, providing a breeze on a sweltering summer day and not have to walk to get clear across the zoo...utter bliss!!! Marcia Angel
Gerry Boylan February 08, 2012 at 01:39 AM
Wonderful comments on the Zoo, zoo, zoo! I received a call today with news that a highly secretive friend has a special, confidential zoo film that he is considering sharing with us. Negotiations are underway and I'll keep you updated on the progress!
Chas Holman March 23, 2012 at 05:58 AM
I was born in Detroit.. although like the Hoyt Axton song goes 'I really don't remember'. The family relocated and growing up for years, this BLUE (not red) elephant key followed us around and they told tales of this fantastic zoo.. I think they kept the key to taunt me.. I never got to go. I think it has been 20 years since I have seen the key, I imagine my sister still has it somewhere.. waiting to taunt me again some day, to remind me of all the great family times they had at the Detroit Zoo.. until I came along.. Anyway, I stumbled across this post by accident, but I can at least say that after 50 years I now know what the key was for.. but now the mystery deepens.. what is the difference between the red and blue keys?

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