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Monkey Business: The Lost Monkey Islands of Los Angeles

Monkey and Man
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We snickered at their antics on the island from across the moat, but when we learned that the scrambling simians had had as many as 5,000 bags of peanuts thrown at them in an afternoon, we wondered if they weren’t pretty shrewd monkey businessmen.”Gene Sherman, Los Angeles Times

On July 4, 1929, the Los Angeles Times announced that there would be a ceremony held at Bill H. Rice’s Los Angeles Monkey Farms, in Culver City, to celebrate the opening of the private zoo’s latest attraction:

Dedication tomorrow of the recently completed monkey island at the Los Angeles Monkey Farms, on Washington Boulevard, just east of here, where more than 50 simians already have taken up residence on the water encircled monkey playground, will mark the introduction here of an attraction enjoyed only by a few other communities. Patterned after the most famous of all monkey islands, that of the Washington Park Zoo of Milwaukee…The island here permits the monkeys entire freedom of the mound, a high wall surrounding the encircling canal forbidding escape of the simians.

Many Angelenos would have already heard of monkey islands; these artificial animal kingdoms were all the rage in America and Europe during the inter-war period. “A towering island of fake stone would rise from an artificial pond,” author Daniel E. Bender explains in “The Animal Game: Searching for Wildness at the American Zoo.” “Monkeys, crowded onto the island, would scamper, fight, and entertain.” Visitors, already fascinated with jungle life thanks to popular movies and books, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs “Tarzan” series, were encouraged to throw peanuts and other food on the island, and watch the fracas that resulted.

Monkey Island, Hollywood, 1949
Monkey Island, Hollywood, 1949. Photo courtesy of the California State Library.

In the fall of 1938, a new Monkey Island opened at 3300 Cahuenga Blvd. in the San Fernando Valley. According to Lindsay William-Ross of LAist, this so-called Paradise of Primates was located roughly where the El Paseo del Cahuenga Park is today. William-Ross believes that a B-movie producer named Louis Weiss, known for films including “Jungle Menace,” was the owner of this newest Monkey Island. This theory is supported by the fact that in November of 1938, Weiss imported 500 Asian monkeys, the “largest single collection of monkeys ever to arrive in America,” through the Long Beach Harbor. 

According to the Los Angeles Public Library, Monkey Island was designed by architect George Sprague, engineer R. McBeanfield, and art director and set designer Paul Palmentola. The park included a six-story administration building – which ominously included a monkey hospital and labs – along with the concrete island itself, which featured a towering fake mountain topped with palm trees and surrounded by an artificial lake.

"Sour Puss" walking the wire blindfolded at Monkey Island, Hollywood, Calif.
"Sour Puss" walking the wire blindfolded at Monkey Island, Hollywood. Undated photo courtesy of the California State Library.

Once a monkey island was completed, the animals were released into their new artificial habitat. In “The Animal Game,” Bender describes the monkeys’ brutal introduction to their new home at the Cleveland Zoo:

 “…the action began.” A tangle of arms, legs and tails, the monkeys dashed-bewildered-to the top of the mountain. Some tried to run back inside their storage room, only to be shooed outdoors again by keepers with brooms. In shock and confusion, they huddled on the top of the island. They began inspecting trees and waterfalls only after the “historical day for the zoo” ended.

During the Depression, these attractions were a cheap way to entertain the masses. Unlike other animals, monkeys were easy to get and could be taken care of at a relatively low cost. Monkeys, in many respects so like humans, were personified in the media and became local celebrities. Fluff pieces in the Los Angeles Times ran charming stories about Nellie, the Los Angeles Monkey Farms’ simian “school teacher,” who taught baby monkeys new tricks so that they could be rented out for film shoots. When Rowdy, a baby dwarf chimpanzee, turned two, keepers at the Farms dressed selected monkeys in human “gala attire,” and sat them at a long banquet table reminiscent of the Last Supper. At Monkey Island in the Valley, the simians were joined by four goats- Sneezy, Marie, Cecile, and Yvonne. During one particularly hot September day in 1939, it was reported:

Monkeys at Monkey Island on Cahuenga Blvd. huddled together at miniature waterfalls as the sun’s rays poured down on their bowed heads, but their elder brothers, Jiggs, an orangutan, and Sammy and Sourpuss, chimpanzees, reveled in a cake of ice, a streaming hose, lemonade and ice-cold watermelon.
Orangutan tug o' war at Monkey Island
Orangutan tug o' war at Monkey Island. Circa 1939 photo courtesy of the Herman J. Schultheis Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

Even Hollywood came calling. That same year, gossip-maven Hedda Hopper wrote of an event soon to be held at Monkey Island, featuring famous faces from across the Cahuenga Pass:

“If Bette Davis can organize the Tail Waggers for her dogs, we can do something for our monkeys,” said Bradley Page. So he’s banded together other owners of simian pets and we now have in our midst “the Tail Wrappers.” Page is chief Tail Wrapper; Anne Shirley, simian secretary; Jimmy Gleason, primatologist (monkey expert to you); and Adrian, designer. Other members are…Carole E. Landis…you can see them and their pets at the Monkey Island in the Valley, where they’ll hold their first show, April 28.

Of course, life was not so glamorous for the animals exiled onto these fake islands of plastic, concrete and papier-mâché. According to Bender:

Life wasn’t easy on depression-era monkey islands. Eager for little rivalries, brawls, and comic belly flops into moats, zoos crammed far too many monkeys onto their islands. Animals fought. Some died. Others drowned…To visitors, especially kids, fights over dominance on the crowded monkey islands seemed like games of “capture the castle.” In the midst of the Great Depression, zoos presented heartwarming stories that turned monkeys into miniature children-only funnier, cuter, and with fur and tails. Of course, for the monkeys, squabbles were hardly cute.
A nurse treats a chimpanzee at the Luna Park Monkey Farm
A nurse treats a chimpanzee at the Luna Park Monkey Farm in this undated photo courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

Sometimes, practices at monkey islands could be downright sinister. “Many of the chattering little animals from the island, we learned, became funny faced martyrs,” Los Angeles Times columnist Gene Sherman reported in a shockingly breezy column in 1940, recounting a visit to the Monkey Island on Cahuenga Blvd. “[Louis] Weiss, before the war, supplied local hospitals with 150 or more a month for serum testing. There’s an embargo on monkeys now and not so many jungle clowns are being received from northern India.” That same year, the prisoners of Monkey Island almost broke free of their very own Alcatraz. The Times reported:   

The sociological episode of the animal kingdom was enacted at Monkey Island…. escaping from the island where an attendant drained the water from a moat surrounding the area, the simians scattered far and wide. Monkey-wise…Weiss, operator of the animal attraction, refused to be alarmed. “They’ll be back,” he assured police who had been summoned by residents in the district. Scattering grapes over the island, Weiss just leaned back in his easy chair and waited. One by one the monkeys began returning, until by breakfast hour each animal had been accounted for. “It’s the food that does it,” said Weiss. “They like their freedom, of course, but they like to have their stomachs full even more.” Boasting he never has lost a single monkey in an escape, Weiss viewed the simians in the same light as the proverbial prodigal son, saying “they always return.” “The island,” he said, “is the only home they know. They wouldn’t feel right if they didn’t have the comfort and protection it offers.”

The phenomenon of monkey islands would not last long. By the mid-1940s they were no longer the rage. It is unknown when exactly the Los Angeles Monkey Farms and the Cahuenga Monkey Island closed. Also unknown is what became of the hundreds of animals in their care. There was at least one other Monkey Island in the area: F. Dewey Lockman’s Monkey Island in La Habra, which opened in the late 1940s. Today, not a trace is left of these bizarre attractions in L.A. – no more monkey business.

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