Written by John H. Meyer, firstname.lastname@example.org Saturday, 27 July 2013 00:00
How many residents living in the Massapequas know that during the 1930s and 40s there was a zoo located on Sunrise Highway?
Yes, it’s true, Frank Buck of “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” fame had an award-winning zoo stocked with his prize collection of wild animals, birds and reptiles.
It all happened shortly after the building of the new Sunrise Highway and railroad trestle by the current Westfield Mall. My father worked on the trestle construction. Back then, the land where the mall now stands was thickly wooded, vacant and owned by a New York water company.The buildings that housed the animals were constructed with plain concrete blocks and wood gabled roofs. There was a huge two-story Tudor style building close to the road that housed the reptiles and many of the 100,000 wild birds Buck brought back from his hunting expeditions. Souvenirs, refreshments and his promotional movie posters—along with large photographs of his travels—were displayed in the full glass windowed building. And, in the center of the grounds Buck had a pit with a simulated mountain constructed for his many monkeys to play on. It was a real treat when my Uncle Herman would take me to the zoo, usually after a family holiday dinner at my grandfather’s Hicksville Road farm.
While operating the zoo, Frank Buck made his home at East 50th Street in Manhattan, however, he did not spend much of his time at either place. During his 25 years as a gatherer of live animals he traveled much of the world. (see sidebar)
Along the way, Buck authored seven books and numerous articles and wrote, directed and appeared in five motion pictures. Buck was not only a man of courage, but a man of many talents. His favorite among his books was not “Bring ‘Em Back Alive,” but “On Jungle Trails,” a story-textbook that was read in schools all over the country.
He also lectured. Radio appearances broadened his popularity. It was said that Buck received as many as 125,000 fan letters a week.
In 1938, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus made Buck a lucrative offer to tour as their star attraction and to enter the show astride an elephant. But Buck did not see himself as an entertainer. He refused to join the American Federation of Actors because he was “a scientist, not an actor.” Though there was a threat of a strike if he did not join the union, he maintained that it would compromise his principles. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m with the working man. I worked like a dog once myself and my heart is with the fellow who works,” he said. “But I don’t want some union delegate telling me when to get on or off an elephant.” Eventually, the union gave Buck a special dispensation to introduce Gargantua the gorilla without registering as an actor.
On August 22, 1934, Buck’s zoo made headlines when 150 of his monkeys escaped. By the following day, 39 had been recaptured with help from members of the fire department. Old-time Massapequa residents can recall the playful monkeys perched on the yard-arms of the zoo’s flagpoles, watching zookeepers hoist up crates of bananas in hopes the monkeys would jump down to fetch the fruit. Few of the monkeys fell for the ruse, and later that month, 35 of them could be seen playing and strolling about local streets, causing several near accidents one actual fender bender, and an editorial in the New York Times. By the last day of August, all but four had been accounted for.
The Frank Buck Zoo finally closed and in the early 1950s the land to the rear of the once famous zoo was developed as a drive-in movie theater. A much smaller zoo—a petting zoo for the kiddies—opened. That, too, has closed and remains a memory for a few of us old timers. But both zoos are a part of Massapequa’s history.
Frank Buck was proud of his wildlife collection. Records verify that in the course of his life he collected:
63 assorted leopards
100 Gibbon apes
over 5,000 monkeys of different varieties
120 Asiatic antelopes and deer
9 pigmy water buffalos
1 pair of seladang guar
40 wild goats and sheep
40 kangaroos and wallabies
5 Indian rhinoceroses
90 large pythons
10 king cobras
over 100 small snakes
25 giant monitor lizards
more than 500 small mammals of different species
more than 100,000 birds from the giant cassowaries of the Panpan Islands to Australian finches as small as hummingbirds.