Gorilla Theater

Douglas TowneJanuary 2018
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In 1970, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner flew a gorilla from Baltimore in his DC-9 “Bunny Jet” hoping the ape would find love at the Phoenix Zoo

One of the most celebrated crash pads during the swinging ‘60s was Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner’s elliptical bed, outfitted with silk sheets and a Tasmanian possum fur cover, located in his personal DC-9 “Bunny Jet.” Hefner enjoyed posing in his airborne bedroom surrounded by a bevy of nubile Bunnies lounging on the oversize mattress. Of all the visitors to that legendary bed, and surely there were many, none caused as much of a stir as the one sprawled out in a drugged stupor when the jetliner landed at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on July 22, 1970.

As the plane’s passengers exited, the focus of the crowd on the tarmac shifted from the mini-skirted Bunny Jet flight attendants to a 300-pound male being carried on a stretcher to an awaiting ambulance. This beast was no ordinary Lothario, but rather Baltimore Jack, a gorilla that Hefner had transported to the Valley for a tryst at the Phoenix Zoo.

Baltimore Jack boarding the Bunny Jet in Baltimore; Photo courtesy Baltimore Sun newspaperHow the late bon vivant who helped launch the sexual revolution came to be involved in primate breeding unfolds like a vintage Playboy centerfold. The Maytag Zoo opened in Papago Park in 1962 and quickly became one of Phoenix’s most popular attractions. Robert Maytag, of appliance fame, funded the attraction, which was renamed the Phoenix Zoo the following year to more closely identify it with the city.

One of the zoo’s most popular animals was Hazel, a female gorilla shipped from the West African nation of Cameroon in 1962. “Until the day she died, Hazel was the main attraction [of the zoo] luring visitors with her engaging personality,” journalist Julia Patrick wrote on frontdoorsmedia.com in 2013. “She never just wallowed around her enclosure. She ruled it!”

Hazel had a companion named Mongo, but they never mated. When Mongo died in 1969, the Phoenix Zoo began looking for a new mate for Hazel in hopes of filling her habitat with cute baby gorillas. Female gorillas typically begin breeding at around 10 years of age and have two to six offspring, with an average lifespan of 35-40 years (in captivity, gorillas have lived in excess of 50 years). They chose Jack, a lonely gorilla at the Baltimore City Zoo, who had been taken from Africa in 1954. The ape’s owners agreed to sell “Baltimore Jack” to their Phoenix counterparts for $5,000, along with the rights to the couple’s first infant.

The blind date was set. The Arizona Air National Guard initially offered to provide free transportation of the 6-foot-3-inch gorilla from Baltimore to Phoenix, but the offer was rescinded because military regulations forbade Jack’s civilian veterinarians from the flight. Commercial airlines wanted $5,000 to transport the primate, which the zoo couldn’t afford.

Fortunately, Baltimore Jack had an advocate in actress Amanda Blake, who played flame-haired saloon proprietress Miss Kitty Russell on TV’s Gunsmoke series for 19 years. Blake had a home in Phoenix, and was both an animal welfare advocate and a member of the Zebra Ladies of the Phoenix Zoological Society. She lobbied CBS, which aired Gunsmoke, for transportation help. The best the network could offer was a Learjet for $3,500 – also out of the zoo’s budget.

Blake asked Hefner if he would provide, pro bono, his personal black McDonnell Douglas DC-9 jetliner with the iconic white rabbit symbol on its tail. “I don’t know the exact connection between them, but Hollywood was much smaller then,” Beckey Burgoyne, author of the book Perfectly Amanda: Gunsmoke’s “Miss Kitty” To Dodge and Beyond, says. “I doubt he could turn down Miss Kitty. And who wouldn’t want that great heroic reputation of saving the day for Hazel and Jack?”

Two days later, Hefner’s jet, aka “Hare Force One,” took off from Baltimore. Aboard were a heavily sedated Baltimore Jack, veterinarians from the Johns Hopkins University School of Animal Medicine, the assistant director of the Baltimore City Zoo, Bunny Jet flight attendants and reporters. “When my wife found out I was hauling a gorilla, it was the first time she wasn’t jealous,” pilot Warren Hampton told the Arizona Republic.

Hefner’s oversize bed facilitated rotating the anesthetized gorilla to aid his circulation. The flight, however, was not without its challenges. “I can also report that Baltimore Jack was something less than toilet-trained, a fact easily discernible during my quick check of his quarters,” Bob Sanders, a Playboy publicist who accompanied the flight, wrote in his blog.

Sanders recalled the nervous onboard veterinarian, who brought along a .45-caliber handgun for safety. “He later told me over an understandably large number of drinks that Baltimore Jack ‘moved five or six times’ during the flight.”

Baltimore Jack, however, never awakened enough to feel hungry. “An in-flight luncheon – a bunch of bananas sent aboard the aircraft by an admirer in Baltimore – was left untouched,” according to the Republic.

Hazel and Fabayo; Photo courtesy ArizooThe Bunny Jet was greeted by 150 people at Sky Harbor, more than had met President Richard Nixon on a previous stopover. The crowd included Blake’s Zebra Ladies group, who accompanied an Associated Gorilla Ambulance – Phoenix’s Associated Ambulance added “Gorilla” for the event – in taking Baltimore Jack to the zoo.

At the Phoenix Zoo, Baltimore Jack was subject to further indignities. “One of the Bunnies agreed to enter Jack’s cage at the zoo, and the brave woman posed with one foot atop his chest,” Sanders wrote. “As they used to say, we got a lot of ink.”

Hazel and Jack grabbed headlines across the country. A Baltimore Sun reporter wrote that the gorillas were the talk of Phoenix. “I remember the story was a big deal at the time, especially with the Hefner angle,” Jim Bolek, a Phoenix graphic designer, says. “It made us kids giggle, and I recall getting an ‘autographed’ photo of Baltimore Jack.”

Others were more animated with their affection for the gorillas. “I remember Baltimore Jack,” says a former Sunnyslope resident, who, wisely, wishes to remain anonymous. “I would imitate him in my underwear for my wife. Woo ha!”

Gorillas are picky in choosing mates, especially in captivity, and Hazel and Jack were no exception. Observers meticulously detailed what they played with, their diets, and any hints of attraction. In the end, it was all for naught. “Arizona is considered to be one vast desert and Baltimore Jack, the gorilla, is considered by some to be one vast disappointment,” a Sun reporter wrote.

Baltimore Jack died of pneumonia in 1972. The following year, Hazel was transported to the San Diego Wild Animal Park in a van on Halloween night. She mated with a gorilla there named Trib and became pregnant. In 1974, Hazel was being transported back to Phoenix from San Diego in a U-Haul van, which was pulled over for speeding outside Gila Bend. When the driver informed the highway patrolman he was in a hurry to get a gorilla to Phoenix, the wide-eyed officer responded, “So you mean you have Hazel in there?” according to ARIZOO, the quarterly publication of the Arizona Zoological Society, which operates the Phoenix Zoo.

She gave birth to a male named Fabayo in 1975. Fabayo died at age 28 at the Memphis Zoo without fathering any offspring. After Hazel died in 1991, the zoo commissioned a statue of her in testimony to her popularity.

Some still wonder why Baltimore Jack never went ape over Hazel. Blame for the couple’s lack of interest includes the man who brought them together. “My theory is that things might have worked out differently if Jack hadn’t been distracted by the mere sight of Mr. Hefner’s flight attendants on his way to make love to Hazel,” G. Jefferson Price III wrote in the Sun.

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