“Golden age of television” survivor had caregivers influential in the rise of animal rights opposition to zoos and circuses
SAN FRANCISCO––The San Francisco Zoo chimpanzee Cobby, 63, who died on June 5, 2021, was remembered by mass media as “the oldest male chimp living in an accredited North American zoo.”
But that may have been the least of Cobby’s distinctions. Cobby was among the last survivors among the many chimp stars of the “golden age” of television.
Cobby was also among the last living animals associated with several people who in very different ways helped to build opposition to animal use in entertainment.
Arlan Seidon, a.k.a. Murray Hill
One of those people, ironically, was entertainer Arlan Seidon, who mostly performed as Murray Hill.
As Murray Hill, Seidon had both baby chimpanzees and baby elephants performing with him at an earlier age than anyone else of his time, after they were captured from the wild at the probable cost of killing their mothers.
Concealing his past, however, Seidon for nearly five years became an early animal rights movement hero, albeit in a seldom seen capacity.
Violet & Carroll Soo-Hoo
The others whose lives intersected with Cobby were Violet and Carroll Soo-Hoo. The Soo-Hoos initially funded much of the major animal acquisition by the San Francisco Zoo, the Chaffee Zoo in Fresno, California, and the Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California.
Becoming disillusioned with zoo animal care and the quality of education that zoos provide about animals, the Soo-Hoos turned vehement zoo critics even before the rise of animal rights advocacy, and instead became major funders of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, Primarily Primates, In Defense of Animals, Friends of Animals, and the San Francisco SPCA, among many other animal charities.
Cobby: The Other Side of Cute
Much of Cobby’s story, and much of Arlan Seidon’s story, was exposed in 2018 by Australian documentary film maker Donna McRae in Cobby: The Other Side of Cute.
Recounted reviewer and film historian Lee Gambin, for Diabolique magazine in 2019, “Cobby’s Hobbies was a children’s television program that aired in Adelaide, Australia, for a year during the sixties,” in syndication after initially airing in the U.S. in 1964.
A 156-episode sequel to What’s the Matter, Chatter?, a 154-episode series starring a different chimp, made in 1960, Cobby’s Hobbies “featured a young chimpanzee named Cobby who would undertake varied jobs in each episode and get up to silly antics whilst narrated by a voice-over,” described Gambin.
“Haunted” film maker Donna McRae
“Hobbies haunted the film maker for many years to come,” Gambin continued, “and as much as the show was a half an hour of fun for a young Donna McRae, it also hit a nerve in the adult Donna, who began questioning the appeal of such a show, the concept behind having a chimp be a TV star and the ethical issues concerning animals in entertainment.”
McRae went on to uncover “an involving story about Cobby and his human family, which stems from the incredible legacy of Jewish immigrant entertainment history,” Gambin assessed.
Accordion player & stand-up comic
Born in 1929 in Brooklyn, New York, the diminutive Arlan Seidon debuted on stage at age 10 as an accordion player and stand-up comedian.
Standing barely five feet tall as an adult, performing initially as “Shorty Seidon,” Seidon did whatever he could in show business, wherever he could, in the Catskills, along the New Jersey shore, and occasionally in New York City, all the while trying to break into television, which he recognized early would become the dominant entertainment medium of the future.
Seidon for a time was a band leader, but anything resembling enduring success eluded him, even after he hired a booking agent.
“The agent wanted a different name, so he looked in the New York Phone Exchange, and saw listings for an area called Murray Hill,” son Adam told Steve Pokin of the Springfield News-Leader in 2018. “So Arlan Seidon became Murray Hill.”
“I wasn’t funny, but the chimp was funny”
“The first time I got drunk, I got married,” Seidon told a different Springfield News-Leader reporter in 1992. “The second time I got drunk, I bought a chimpanzee. I wasn’t funny, but the chimp was funny. Then I quit drinking and sobered up and ended up with elephants.”
Drunk or sober, Seidon married a showgirl, who thereafter performed with him.
Together they had daughters Nada and Robin, and twin boys Adam and Allan. They lived mostly out of suitcases, on the road, the daughters recalled to McRae.
Seidon’s first chimpanzee, Chatter, raised with Nada and Robin before Adam and Allan were born, brought the family a little more stability than they had previously known.
What’s the Matter, Chatter?
The Calvin Company, a Kansas City industrial film maker, initially included Chatter in some promotional films. The Calvin Company then made the What’s the Matter, Chatter? series for “Murray Hill Enterprises.”
The series was initially broadcast by WGN television, of Chicago.
Tractable enough to use in entertainment only until about age five, Chatter was eventually sold and replaced by Cobby.
“There was a set that Cobby would be put in and he’d play all of the parts, including his wife, Cobina, and also his own conscience, which was dressed as an angel,” McRae said.
“Cobby’s inner monologue would narrate the episodes. Cobina sounded a bit like Zsa Zsa Gabor, while his conscience sounded like a classically trained English actor. Cobby himself sounded like he was from the Bronx,” McRae added.
The Cobby’s Hobbies show reached its aesthetic climax, judged Bay Area Reporter fiim critic Erin Blackwell, when “A mellifluous announcer asked, ‘What, besides the right equipment, does it take for the job of film editing?’ as Cobby started messing with an editing station.”
Continued the announcer, “It takes an individual with these qualities: manual dexterity, dramatic judgment, storytelling sense, a feel for pacing and tempo, endless patience, and most of all,” as Cobby unspooled reels of film, “an ability to take genuine pleasure in ruthlessly discarding most of what so many have worked so long and so hard to produce.”
Cobby’s Hobbies may have reached and touched more children in Australia than in the U.S., where the show is little remembered. As well as inspiring McRae herself, McRae learned, Cobby’s Hobbies was a lasting influence on others including Adelaide drummer Clare Moore of The Moodists and another professional musician who as a boy was nicknamed Cobby, which he took as a compliment.
When Cobby’s Hobbies came to an end, Seidon is said to have donated Cobby to the San Francisco Zoo. But Cobby, in Kansas City, was far from San Francisco.
Carroll Soo-Hoo, who funded the acquisition of most of the San Francisco Zoo chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants and other African wildlife in that era, very likely funded the acquisition of Cobby, as well.
Hill’s Great American Circus
Meanwhile, between filming What’s the Matter, Chatter? and Cobby’s Hobbies, Seidon in 1963 founded Hill’s Great American Circus, headquartered in Burlington, Wisconsin.
Hill’s Great American Circus over the next two decades reputedly traveled about 45,000 miles a year, featuring at various times both chimps, seven elephants, two monkeys, three llamas, several horses, and a variety of birds, reptiles, and sheep.
All six of the human Seidon family members were involved.
Recounted Pokin, “Nada worked with ponies and did aerial rings; Robin was a trapeze artist; and the twin brothers had a dog show and a ‘twin’ trapezes act.”
Son Adam told Pokin, “We worked every day, seven days a week.”
Robin and Nada recalled a similar grueling work pace to McRae in Cobby: The Other Side of Cute.
Hard to work with
Adam, Robin, and Nada also agreed that their father was very difficult to work with and get along with.
Noted Pokin, “When his father died in 2013,” at age 84, “Adam posted the following on Facebook: ‘What a lot of people didn’t know (is that) he did a lot of firsts — first to put an elephant ride in malls. (First) to use a chimp as an elephant girl just to name a few.’”
Wrote Pokin, “Adam went on to work with elephants at various circuses,” before becoming a metal worker. “Brother Allan once worked with elephants at Dickerson Park Zoo,” in Springfield, Missouri, “and then headed the elephant program at the El Paso Zoo,” in Texas, before becoming a teacher.
Robin and Nada married, raised families, and thereafter pursued non-performing, non-animal-related vocations, having little to do with their father after their mother died in 2001.
Seidon in 1975 bought a 136-acre farm near Fordland, Missouri, as the new Hill’s Great American Circus headquarters, but by then the era of the traveling circus was already reaching an end, with smaller crowds and ever fewer places to perform.
Seidon in 1980 sold his bull elephant, Onyx, to the Dickerson Park Zoo, where the elephant became known as Big Mac––and became subject of a lawsuit after Seidon claimed royalties on his sperm. The outcome of the case is unclear.
The female elephants Tory, 27, and Duchess, 25, were sold in 1981 to exotic animal farm owners Richard and Edward Drake, of Tehachapi, California, for $74,000.
In 1984 Seidon disbanded the circus, selling the remaining animals. He then journeyed to California.
Repossessed Tory & Duchess
There, United Press International reported on February 29, 1988, “Seidon repossessed the elephants because he said the Drakes had fallen behind in their payments,” which were supposed to have been $1,000 per month.
Seidon also “found that the animals had hook boils,” United Press International said, describing the injuries as “wounds in the hide caused by the hooks [ankuses] used for training.”
Seidon alleged that both elephants had lost significant weight.
Seidon had “imported the two elephants from India when they were still at the bottle-feeding stage. They became his constant companions,” reported Kirk Makin of the Toronto Globe & Mail.
FBI failed to find elephant poop
Seidon turned up next in Monmouth County, New Jersey. The Drakes won a court order obliging Seidon to return Tory and Duchess to them, “but he refused,” United Press International summarized. “Instead, Seidon abandoned his farm and family in Fordland, Missouri, and fled with the elephants to a still-secret location.”
That put the FBI on Seidon’s trail––rather ineptly, in view that two elephants are not easily hidden. Even the odor of their dung could have been detected by a good search dog from miles away.
“Hillbilly from Missouri”
Questioned about the veracity of his story, Seidon told the Newark Star-Ledger, “I’m just a hillbilly from Missouri. All I know how to do is tell the truth. I didn’t know you had to prove it.”
Somehow, despite Seidon’s own history of allegedly abusive animal acquisition and training, the notion of a retired elephant trainer trying to save his “girls” from abuse caught on among animal rights advocates.
And, claiming to be a “hillbilly from Missouri” who ran away as a boy to join the circus, Seidon avoided having his past catch up to him.
“Hill hid for about four years at the northern New Jersey farm of a wealthy investment banker who sympathized with the animal rights movement,” recounted Josh Lemieux of Associated Press in 1992.
Factions never compared notes
Several then-young animal rights organizations apparently also helped Seidon in various ways during his five years on the run with the elephants, as did what Canadian journalist Gary Ross called “the circus underground.”
But the animal rights and “circus underground” factions supporting Seidon appear to have never compared notes.
The success of appeals for funds on Seidon’s behalf appears to have inspired the immediately subsequent rise of animal rights advocacy against animal use in entertainment, including in zoos and circuses.
Indirectly, the Seidon episode may have been ancestral to the campaigns against the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, likewise based on shaky testimony from a former circus elephant caretaker, which led to the American SPCA paying Ringling $9.3 million in damages in December 2012, followed by the Humane Society of the U.S. paying Ringling $15.75 million in May 2014.
Ringling quit touring with elephants two years later.
Caught running for the Mexican border
Ross flew from Toronto to Louisiana to interview Seidon at a hotel. The interview eventually became a book, At Large: The Fugitive Odyssey of Murray Hill and His Elephants, published in 1992.
Ross described to McRae in Cobby: The Other Side of Cute how far out of touch with reality he found Seidon. Seidon appeared to believe that if he could just somehow sneak the elephants across the border into Mexico, all would live happily ever after.
Apprehended, with the elephants, near Jefferson, Texas, in October 1989, Seidon claimed to have taken them to Florida every winter.
Tory and Duchess were returned to the Drakes, who sold them to the George Carden International Circus.
Seidon, sentenced to serve 100 hours of community service, set about turning the Fordland farm into an elephant sanctuary, hoping to get Tory and Duchess back.
The Seidon children had in 1986 incorporated the nonprofit Animal Education, Protection & Information Foundation. This became the umbrella for the sanctuary.
Adam Seidon told Pokin that “Only about five elephants ever lived at the sanctuary and the most at any one time was two or three.”
Added Pokin, “A news story in the Southeast Missourian mentions that there was one elephant on the property in 2004.”
At Seidon’s death, Pokin finished, he “had been in poor health for years, and before his death, the farm had stopped housing elephants for several years.”
San Francisco & the Soo-Hoos
As to Cobby, McRae explained in Cobby: The Other Side of Cute, “Most chimps in entertainment suffered horrific retirements. They ended up in roadside zoos, kept in cages, or worse, they were used for biomedical research. We’re talking about animals who have very long lives, and are as intelligent as a four-year old human. These are horrible conditions for them to live out their lives.”
Cobby, however, had the good fortune to come under the patronage of first Carroll Soo-Hoo (1912-1998), and two years later, his wife Violet (1918-2008).
“One of 11 children of a Chinese immigrant family,” according to San Francisco Examiner obituarist Irma Lemus, Carroll Soo-Hoo “was born in San Rafael, California, and attended Berkeley High School,” where he met and became a lifelong friend of David Brower (1912-2000), later the two-time executive director of the Sierra Club, founder of Friends of the Earth, and founder of Earth Island Institute.
David Brower, during his first stint as Sierra Club executive director, 1952-1969, racially integrated the Sierra Club by admitting Carroll Soo-Hoo to membership.
Carroll Soo-Hoo studied electrical engineering at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, before World War II disrupted his education, and spent the next 28 years as a senior technician and instructor of instrumentation for nuclear submarines at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California.
Shrewdly investing his Navy wages, Carroll Soo-Hoo donated 40 animals worth more than $350,000 to the San Francisco Zoo, then called the Fleishacker Zoo, between 1958 and his 1967 marriage to Violet Soo-Hoo.
Had key to the gorilla compound
Among the donated menagerie were “gorillas, Barbary apes, cheetahs, Siberian tigers, a jaguar, zebra, hippopotamus, orangutan, spotted hyena, wild dogs, wolves, ostriches, and kookaburras,” according to Lemus, all bought “with the understanding he could visit and play with them.”
Carroll Soo-Hoo at that time “had his own key to the gorilla compound,” Lemus reported.
Recalled former San Francisco Zoo director David Anderson, “He would come on the weekends with his bullhorn and tell people not to yell at the animals.”
Violet the orangutan
Violet Soo-Hoo, born Violet Howard, in Oak Park, Illinois, had already enjoyed a long career teaching English and drama at Balboa High School in San Francisco when she met Carroll Soo-Hoo on a 1966 visit to Africa to observe wildlife.
After the Soo-Hoos were married, Violet Soo-Hoo helped to raise many of the young animals whom Carroll Soo-Hoo had acquired.
Among the animals Violet helped to care for was an orangutan born at the San Francisco Zoo in November 1977, named Violet in her honor, residing at the Honolulu Zoo since 2005.
Minnie & Maggie
The Soo-Hoos also actively participated in dog and cat rescue and multifaceted animal advocacy.
Strongly critical of many zoo practices, including captures of animals from the wild and culling older and genetically redundant animals in the name of conservation, the Soo-Hoos quit donating animals after their marriage, eventually parting company with the entire zoo community.
They did, however, continue to visit and keep track of the animals they had donated and worked with, Cobby and his longtime companions Minnie and Maggie among them.
About a dozen years younger, but also raised originally in human families, Minnie and Maggie survive Cobby.
maybe former indentured servant more appropriate than child star chimo?
Merritt Clifton says
An indentured servant, by law if not always in practice, voluntarily entered into a contract to work for a specified length of time, after which he/she would regain the right of self-determination. This was a distinctly different arrangement from slavery, entered into involuntarily, with no eventual right to freedom. Cobby neither voluntarily entered into his relationship with Arlan Seidon, nor ever gained any actual freedom beyond the right to do more or less as he pleased within the confines of a zoo exhibit.