LAistory: Monkey Island

MonkeyIsland.jpg
Image from "Hollywood 1900-1950 in Vintage Postcards" Arcadia Publishing/ (No publisher of image given)

As Los Angeles began to reach out in all directions from its tenuous core in the early part of the 20th Century, the city became a place for families and for visitors, and finding ways to make money off keeping them entertained was a frequent pursuit of many visionaries and entrepreneurs. Although a massive theme park like Disneyland didn't come on the scene until the 1950s, in the 1940s animals were the stars at many local attractions.

Sitting on prime real estate where the Cahuenga Pass at opens its mouth into—what was then the largely untamed land of—the San Fernando Valley was an attraction called Monkey Island. Home to hundreds of monkeys who mostly just cavorted as spectators watched, the attraction—a "Paradise of Primates!"—opened in 1938 and enjoyed a brief period of great success, then ostensibly disappeared and was forgotten.

The street address for Monkey Island was given as 3300 Cahuenga Boulevard, which would, in the present day, put it where the El Paseo Del Cahuenga Park is now--and nary a trace of monkeys in sight. The park occupied three acres, and would have taken up space where a lot of businesses currently operate on Cahuenga and northward towards what's now Universal City. To make matters more confusing, in the LA Times' quintessential habit of lousing up local geography, Monkey Island was often attributed as being on Ventura Boulevard, which is actually what Highland turns into at the end of the Pass.


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Monkey Island is often credited as being the product of a man named Adolph Weiss' fancy. While there was an Adolph Weiss who was a classical musician active in the Los Angeles music community at the time, he is not the monkey man. There is, however, one 1940 LA Times article that mistakenly names the owner as Adolph Weiss. As one commenter on a blog offering some insight into Monkey Island notes:

It seems to have been conceived by Louis Weiss--no Adolph involved. And there is indeed a movie producer Louis Weiss who abruptly stopped making movies in 1938, with one of his last titles being "Jungle Menace" (and a few later titles like "The White Gorilla" and "Jungle Terror").
Louis Weiss, is, in fact, the correct person who brought the monkeys to Los Angeles. Actually, to be precise, he and a Jack Cone were responsible for bringing 500 monkeys to the port in Long Beach on November 3, 1938--the "largest single collection of monkeys ever to arrive in America," ("India Monkey").

mined-monkeyislandflyer.jpg
Via Outside the Berm
Opening a theme park based on monkeys was not entirely novel, in fact, it was part of a national trend, as zoos and independent businessmen were launching "Monkey Islands" in several US cities. (The Mohawk Park View Zoo in Tulsa, OK has a Monkey Island that inspired a visitor in 1938 to nickname a development in the state's Grand Lake area as "Monkey Island" and the name stuck!)

It seems likely that developers of Monkey Islands were inspired by talk of Cayo Santiago, an uninhabited island in Puerto Rico which was populated by a "group of 409 monkeys imported from India that were used for scientific research in 1938," (and whose offspring still roam the island today!), and banked on the popularity of the event by creating monkey islands regular Americans could experience right here at home.

Monkey Island's opening was delayed by a couple of months in late 1938, but there was plenty of buzz around town about it. In his December 8, 1938 LA Times column "Lee Side O' L.A." Lee Shippey writes: "Painful Suspicion: A lot of newspaper boys recently have received free tickets to Monkey Island, where 500 monkeys are said to be running around loose. Could this possibly be an effort to confuse the public as to how many real monkeys are out there?" (Shippey begins this column with this witticism: "Pretty warm weather for December lately, but don't let it worry you. As any girl who marries an old man knows, December warmth never lasts very long.")

Just how many monkeys were really there is also an amusing point of obscurity; we know Weiss and Cone imported 500 monkeys initially, but some promo material may have doubled that figure, and some who remember visiting may recall only being lured by 100.

Of course, Los Angeles had to make our monkeys more show-bizzy than any others. "Monkey Island was designed by pioneer Hollywood studio art director Paul Palmentola with assistance from architect George Sprague," explained the blog Outside the Berm (now offline, but viewable via cache). Guidebooks touted its construction as being steel reinforced concrete, oval, and surrounded by a moat fifteen feet wide and filled with three feet of clear, circulating water. Having the moat meant that the monkeys could roam freely without the restriction of cages. The center of the attraction was a 40-foot high plastic mountain that the monkeys could climb and scamper around. Gavin Elster of the blog Sequoia Sempervirens adds that "there were palm trees, swings and billy goats for the monkeys to amuse themselves, and waterfalls where they could keep cool. Visitors paid to come in and watch the monkeys and feed them peanuts and vegetables."

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via Sequoia Sempervirens
Outside the Berm explains that the hilly landscape, with its "two palm fringed mountains, [was] meant to duplicate the look of active volcanoes. Which is a little odd considering that the monkeys were imported from Calcutta, India - not an area especially known for Volcanic activity."

The monkeys lived in "dormitories" that could house up to 2000 simians, and were hauled out to frolic for guests of the park, then sent back in to sleep on steel shelves covered in straw. Would contemporary animal rights activists have a fit at how these monkeys handled life in Hollywood?

A hot spell in September 1939 caused one reporter to write up an article for the Times on the 22nd about how animals cope with the heat. Seems like the monkeys of Monkey Island had it made in the shade--or at least the celebrity monkeys did: "[Most monkeys] 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" ("Owners of Pets").

But roaming about and accepting tossed peanuts wasn't all the monkeys would do. There was some "talent" in the bunch. "A very talented Orangutan named Jiggs would walk around and greet visitors and climb up and down the ladders in the center ticket area." (Hollywood 1900-1950). There were also, eventually, more than just monkeys cavorting around the plastic hill on Cahuenga.

In March of 1939, a Burbank woman's goat gave birth to quadruplets, who were then given to Monkey Island so the monkeys could have some playmates. "The monkeys and the goats find each other mutually amusing," apparently. ("Nannie"). The goats came into play the following summer, when 100 monkeys fled (do you blame them?) when their moat was drained, only to be lured back to captivity by food. The LA Times explains:

Softened by civilization, 100 monkeys yesterday exchanged their freedom for a handful of ripe grapes. [...] Escaping from the island when an attendant drained the water from ta moat surrounding the area, the simians scattered far and wide. [...] Scattering grapes over the island [operator Louis, here named as Adolph] Weiss just leaned back in his easy chair and waited. One by one the monkeys began returning. [...] Boasting he never has lost a single mon[k]ey as 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 article features a picture of monkeys being fed by attendant John Kosik, with one of the monkeys riding on the back of a goat. The monkeys were also used by area hospitals for experimental purposes, which Weiss seems to have conducted as a side project perhaps to compensate for the fact that some might believe the monkeys were being exploited uselessly.


mined-monkeyislandneon.jpg
via Outside the Berm
In a 1940 LA Times article, Gene Sherman writes:
Many of the chattering little animals from the island, we learned, become funny faced martyrs. 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.

The monkeys weren't the only thing "celeb" about Monkey Island, either. It was, in fact, and not just as advertising gimmickry, a place where celebrities went. Some even engaged in a regular stage show inspired by pint-sized dancing wonder Shirley Temple's animal acts going on at the time elsewhere in Hollywood, and some were captured in short films cavorting among the simians, like in the "Documentary short Screen Snapshots Series 19, No 6: Hollywood Recreations" (1940) where "Hollywood stars are glimpsed at a Hollywood Stars baseball team game, on the golf course, at a swimming exhibition, at Monkey Island and an amusement park." According to Outside the Berm:

Heavily promoted to tourists as a place where one could rub elbows with Hollywood stars and celebrities, Monkey Island took strong advantage of its Hollywood location. This from the guide book: ' Nowhere else in Hollywood can the visitor to Southern California come closer to the screen celebrities than at Monkey Island. There are no police, no ropes, no barriers between the great people of the cinema and those who come to Hollywood to view them at close range.'
Was this how a young Warren Miller, later film-maker, author and skiing columnist, was convinced to visit Monkey Island as a young boy? He recalls:
I had come to visit a new tourist attraction that was built right near the first Valley stop on The Pacific Electric Railroad, the route of the Big Red Cars. Some investor had built a 40-foot-high, fake plaster and cement mountain and surrounded it with a 20-foot-wide moat of slimy, green, stagnant water. The attraction was 100 undernourished, morose monkeys sitting on the concrete mountain watching you watching them. For 10 cents, you could watch the monkeys. For another five cents, you could buy a bag of peanuts and throw them to the monkeys. (via The Valley Observed)
That doesn't sound very fun, does it? But to so many it was, and gossip columns about Hollywood stars often mentioned trips to Monkey Island, and it seemed to have been popular, if only for a short while. Says Gene Sherman, in his trip write up:
We snicked at [the monkeys'] antics on the island from across the moat, but when we learned that the scrambling simians had had as many as 5000 bags of peanuts thrown at them in an afternoon we wondered if they weren't pretty shrewd monkey business men.

So, what happened to Monkey Island?

Well, it's hard to say. At some point--we don't know when--it ceased to exist. There is no mention of the attraction closing or being demolished in the LA Times archives, and no books or websites seem to be able to pinpoint the when or why as to its end. Sadly, all that's left for us to do is to use clues from old photos and the info available about the era to piece together reasoning.

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Google Maps' Street View shows us 3300 Cahuenga, where Oakshire ends. It's a small City Park now.

HistoricAerials.com has an overhead shot of 3300 Cahuenga Boulevard and surroundings in the Pass, and in 1948, it appears that the structure of Monkey Island was in place, although it may have been closed down by then--there is no way to tell from the image. The site shows the same location in several following decades, but the next one jumps to 1972, and by then, of course, Monkey Island was long gone, replaced by parkland.

It seems plausible that two important events brought about the demise of Monkey Island (the fading trend of monkeys-as-recreation notwithstanding). First, with the US joining WWII following the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor came a dramatic change in how Americans spent their time and money. It seems likely that a business like Monkey Island could not survive the times and may have folded as a consequence. Second, as explained in our story about the Pilgrimage Bridge over the 101 Freeway, by 1944 the Pacific Electric Railway was no longer running service through the area, and by 1954 the last segment of the 101 Hollywood Freeway through the pass and into Studio City/North Hollywood was completed. Construction of the freeway may have impacted Monkey Island, if it were still in operation by the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Some people have speculated that some ruins remain, but in another nearby location, although they may unfortunately be incorrect. The blog Sequoia Sempervirens noted "some interesting foundations just on the other side of the freeway [which] closely matched the description of Monkey Island. [...] This may simply be the remains of the estate that once was at the corner of Barham and Cahuenga. The interesting thing is that it has a mock hill and a little cave and about a 150 foot foundation." Indeed, that would not be part of Monkey Island. Others have also attributed the land as being part of the Hanna-Barbera property, which opened there in 1961; with a street address of 3400 Cahuenga, and the parkland in place by 1972, that seems unlikely as well.

This is truly a place that disappeared without a trace...

References (unless attributed via link)
"Escaped Monkeys Surrender for Handful of Ripe Grapes." LA Times. Aug. 31, 1940
Hollywood 1900-1950 in Vintage Postcards Ed. Tommy Dangcil. Arcadia Publishing, 2002.
"Indian Monkey Cargo Arrives." LA Times. Nov. 3, 1938
"Nannie Goat at Burbank Upsets Neighborhood With Quadruplets." LA Times. March 12, 1939
"Owners of Pets Have Troubles." LA Times Sept. 22, 1939
Sherman, Gene. "Vacationer Finds Old West Inside Los Angeles County." LA Times. Aug. 6, 1940.
Shippey, Lee. "Lee Side O'LA." LA Times. December 8, 1938

LAistory is our series that takes us on a journey to what came before to help us understand where we are today.

Check out our other entries in the series:

Val Verde; Thelma Todd's Roadside Cafe; An eclectic house in Beverly Hills; Echo Park's Bonnie Brae House; Marineland of the Pacific; Grand Central Air Terminal; LA's Own Wrigley Field; How LA got its name; The wreck of the Dominator; The 1925 "Hollywood Subway."; The Pink Lady of Malibu; Lions Drag Strip; Disneyland...when it was cheap to get in; The ugliest building in the city; Union Station; Union Station's Fred Harvey Room; A Smelly Mystery at another train station; The Egyptian Theatre; Pilgrimage Bridge; The "It" Girl, Clara Bow; Elias J. "Lucky" Baldwin; Get Involved!; Houdini's House; Spanish Kitchen; The Platinum Blonde; Chutes Park; Fatty Arbuckle; The Brown Derby; Griffith Park; The Outpost Sign; Cross Roads of the World; Sowden House.