recess radio program

5/31/04
Zoo Parade
    by John Cech

Over a half a century ago this month, in 1952, one of the first wildlife shows for children reached television -- NBC's Zoo Parade, which was hosted by the urbane, Marlin Perkins, with his neat, regimental moustache, and was set in Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. It was certainly a calmer, more controlled approach to introducing children and adults to wild animals -- especially through Perkins' dapper, soothing demeanor. Today, of course, the extreme nature shows have taken over the airways, and flambouyant, fearless hosts are nightly snatching deadly vipers from the tall grass with their bare hands.

Zoo Parade began as a low-budget, relatively local affair, filmed in the reptile house of the zoo. Perkins was the zoo director and was in the vanguard of naturalists who believed the exposure of the general public to the creatures of the wild would help to ensure the animals' preservation. And Perkins shrewdly used the new medium of television to reach a multi-generational audience. Within a decade, the show went national, became Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and began filming on location in the natural habitats of the animals. Now Perkins had young assistants like Jim Fowler, who often got assigned the task of wrestling alligators into submission or staring down angry musk-oxen, and who in their turn have continued this tradition of providing intelligent, sensitive introductions to the animal world.

Yet Perkins' Zoo Parade, mild-mannered as it may seem today, was not without its dangers. And even before Wild Kingdom had become enormously popular, Zoo Parade had generated its own mythology. According to Barbara and David Mikkelson, in their "Urban legends Reference Pages", Perkins was alleged to have been bitten by a rattlesnake, live on television, while stunned children and parents watched in horror. Perkins had been bitten in rehearsals, but the event was never filmed, and after a few weeks' recovery, Perkins was back on the air. Still, as the Mikkelsons report, the legend quickly spread, and with it Perkins' fame. Years later, Perkins even tried to debunk the myth in his autobiography. He was a scientist, after all, and didn't want people to continue to insist, as they often seemed to do when they met him in public, that they had actually witnessed the accident. But we all know how persistent legends can be, especially those about keeping your cool despite the ebb and flow (or the fangs) of fortune.

Sources:

"Wild Kingdom" by Jim Wehmeyer on the Web at: www.mbcnet.org/archives/etv/W/htmlW/wildkingdom/wildkingdom.htm
"Snake Bit" by Barbara and David Mikkelson on the Web at: www.snopes2.com/radiotv/tv/perkins.htm

Copyright 2004 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."