Mid-July in Seattle means Seafair events, the actual arrival of summer and – if you lived here in the 1950s and '60s – it meant the annual birthday celebration for the city’s most famous primate, Bobo the gorilla.
The Woodland Park Zoo gorilla was so famous back in the day that even Bill Cosby noticed and mentioned Bobo on his 1964 comedy album, “I Started Out As A Child.”
“In Seattle they have this gorilla and his name is Bobo,” Cosby said on the album. “And the veterinarians have been going mad trying to get Bobo to mate. This is the truth.”
Bobo was national news in the early 1960s because he couldn’t produce any offspring and wasn’t even interested in trying. But the primate’s first time in the national spotlight came more than a decade earlier.
It all began in 1951 when a fisherman from Anacortes named Bill Lowman wanted to buy a pet chimpanzee. One theory is that Lowman was inspired by a movie that came out earlier that year starring future president Ronald Reagan.
In the film “Bedtime for Bonzo,” Reagan’s character tries to raise a chimp like a human — in a regular human household, wearing clothes and eating at the dinner table.
But Lowman couldn’t find a chimp for sale. So instead, he bought a baby gorilla in Ohio and drove him cross-country in a new convertible.
The Lowman family adopted Bobo and raised him like a human — just like Bonzo. But baby gorillas grow into giant, full-sized gorillas. By the autumn of 1953, Bobo was too big and too strong to live with the family. So they sold him to Woodland Park Zoo.
Bobo quickly became a media sensation and one of the biggest celebrities the city had ever seen. People waited for hours to get a glimpse of him, and the charismatic primate dazzled crowds throughout the 1950s.
A big highlight every year was Bobo’s birthday celebration the third week in July. Zookeepers would give him a giant cake and everyone would cheer as Bobo smashed it to bits.
By the early 1960s, the zoo decided to expand its gorilla program. So they brought in a female named Fifi. But Bobo never showed any interest.
As it turned out, Bobo’s troubles were only just beginning. By Christmas 1967, visitors noticed that he wasn’t his normal chest-pounding self, and zoo veterinarians could tell his health was declining fast. The bad news came one cold winter’s day in February 1968, and it made the front page of the city's daily newspapers. Bobo was dead at age 16 and the city went into mourning.
But by then, the region had another gorilla celebrity, Ivan, who lived at a shopping center in Tacoma. As for Bobo, not even death could keep Seattleites and their beloved gorilla apart. That September, a familiar furry artifact went on display at the Museum of History and Industry in Montlake.
Just like at the zoo in the 1950s, people lined up to get a closer look at their old friend, thanks to a local taxidermist.
On the Web
- Bobo's Facebook page
- "The Life and Death and Life of Bobo," The Stranger
- "Bobo: A History Lesson," Crosscut
This story originally aired July 18, 2013.