Diagnosis: Bananas

Douglas TowneJuly 1, 2013
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Dr. Kenneth Hall operated a Sunnyslope hospital with a primate zoo until unauthorized medical surgeries used to illegally finance a nearby bowling alley led to his downfall

Mixing apes and appendectomies seems like an ill-advised business practice, but not to Dr. Kenneth Hall. In 1955, the maverick physician opened Sunnyslope’s North Mountain Hospital, a resort-like medical facility with stunning views of Phoenix. Even more sensational was the bizarre attraction located on the hospital grounds: a monkey zoo.

The weird combination provoked gossip about what occurred at the facility. “The most popular rumor was that my father did medical experiments on monkeys,” says Dr. Hall’s son Walter Hall, who is retired from the City of Phoenix finance department. “That was an urban legend; he just liked having animals around.”

However, some rumors were true, such as an incident involving an escaped baboon in 1967. The resulting monkey chase by the police was emblematic of the odd, untamed nature of Hall’s medical empire, which would ultimately collapse under debt and malpractice lawsuits.  “My father was a physician who had become the pariah of the local medical community by the mid-1960s,” Walter says. “His ambition wasn’t well-anchored. His inner gyroscope showed an increasing wobble as time went on. It would eventually destroy his career.”

Compared with his eccentric life in Phoenix, Hall’s upbringing seems conventional. He attended the University of Oklahoma in the 1930s and married Nancy Champlin, whose wealthy oil relatives would later establish the former Champlin Fighter Museum at Falcon Field in Mesa. During World War II, Hall enlisted in the army, graduated from the University of Arkansas Medical School, and was honorably discharged after a brief deployment to Italy in 1945. After a medical residency in Brooklyn, Dr. Hall was in the midst of moving the family to Santa Barbara, California when fate intervened. “Our woodie station wagon broke down in Wickenburg,” Walter Hall says, remembering the day in 1948. “We didn’t have enough money for repairs, so my father went to a doctor’s office asking for work. He later visited St. Monica’s Hospital in Phoenix and met [founder] Emmett McLoughlin, the ex-Catholic priest, whom he much admired. My father was a very liberal Oklahoma populist.”

Hall went to work at St. Monica’s, later renamed Phoenix Memorial, but had a short stint. “He was caught lying about a routine matter and dismissed for a breach of ethics,” Walter Hall recalls. “I remember him later saying that he left because ‘I didn’t want any goddamn nurse telling me what to do!’” Dr. Hall subsequently opened up clinics in south Phoenix and Sunnyslope.

Dr. Kenneth Hall at North Mountain Hospital’s dining room

In Sunnyslope, Dr. Hall purchased a 900-square-foot house and expanded it to 4,500 square feet. “It’s as if my father wanted to become the ‘King of Sunnyslope’ by having the biggest house in the neighborhood,” Walter Hall says. “He was a compulsive builder, and our house had a crazy layout – bedrooms attached to bedrooms with no hallway between. Out front was an indoor-outdoor fish pond, by the entryway was a macaw perch, and there was even space for giraffes, but he couldn’t get the import license.”

In 1953, Dr. Hall began building a 40-bed hospital on five acres of government surplus land where Central Avenue ends in a box canyon at North Mountain in Sunnyslope. To reduce construction costs, Hall charmed people into providing volunteer labor and used scavenged materials. Much of the hospital’s equipment was military surplus. Dr. Hall changed the name of the facility – initially called Allergy Valley Hospital – to North Mountain Hospital when it opened in 1955.

Dr. Hall had a loyal following of devoted patients despite his volatile bedside manner. “When my older sister, Beverly, had an allergic reaction in 1958, my family didn’t have the money to take her anywhere else,” former Sunnyslope resident Connie Garnell says. “Dr. Hall treated her, and she quickly recovered. I’m forever grateful to him.”

Hall’s reputation as an eccentric but brilliant healer grew. “He became the personal physician of Governor Ernest McFarland and held political fundraisers for him and Congressman John Rhodes. He had the drive and charisma to run for political office,” Walter Hall says.

Ultimately, the doctor’s outside-the-box tendencies got the better of him, according to his son. He started “rubbing shoulders” with members of the mob. He fancied himself a Rat Pack-style bon vivant, “chasing women, doing crazy things, and making money.” He cultivated a bad boy reputation.

 “By the mid-1960s, though, he was losing his golden touch, becoming increasingly isolated as only hired help, often alcoholics, could put up with his narcissistic ways,” Walter Hall says. “He was a bright guy but so self-absorbed that his judgment suffered.”

Dr. Hall started performing unsanctioned medical operations. “My father was the first in Arizona to do gastric bypass surgery; it was a big money maker,” Walter Hall says. “Another lucrative operation removed the glomus gland from the neck to allegedly cure asthma. For these surgeries, my father was put on notice by the medical community, but the era wasn’t as regulated, so he could call his own shots.”

Then Dr. Hall’s baboon got loose.

“We had a dozen apes, orangutans, and baboons at the hospital and a few at our home,” Walter Hall says. “It was the most woebegone zoo you could imagine. My father never took good care of the animals. He had a gibbon ape on a chain, and it accidentally strangled itself.”

The fugitive baboon had escaped previously but had been lured back into its cage with food. When the baboon escaped its cage again in 1967 and scrambled into the nearby steep terrain of North Mountain, the police were summoned. “The baboon weighed 50 pounds, had an arm strength reportedly seven times that of a human, teeth 2 ½ inches long, and could easily kill a person,” remembers former Phoenix policeman Derald Dougherty, who pursued the primate. “The creature was very nimble and suddenly emerged on an outcrop above a cop. [We] unloaded about a dozen .38 rounds into the animal before it dropped dead.” 

Medical improprieties finally caught up with Dr. Hall and ended his career. The state revoked the hospital’s license in 1971, and he turned the facility into a nursing home and later leased it to a drug rehabilitation clinic. Dr. Hall eventually lost the $150,000 building to settle a malpractice suit, and the former hospital was razed in the late 1970s. Hall’s physician’s license was revoked in 1971 after four patients died during gastric bypass surgery. In 1974, he pleaded guilty to diverting $16,564 in Medicare funds to help construct another grand venture, the Spanish Trails Bowling Alley at 19th Avenue and Cholla Street in Sunnyslope (see sidebar).

At age 80, ever the dreamer, Dr. Hall attempted to get on the heart transplant list at Mayo Clinic but died four years later in 2001.

“Growing up, kids taunted me that my father was a quack,” his son says. “I always wished he would just be a normal doctor who would play golf on the weekends.”

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