Sunday, July 24, 2011

Dietch's Zoo


Look at the temperature Friday in Newark, New Jersey, five miles from the property. Weather reporters said it was 108, but it felt like 115. As if I would otherwise say to myself, oh it's only 108 outside, I will put on the running shoes. As if I can tell the difference between how 108 feels and 115. As if.

Because of the heat here in War of Yesterday headquarters, I have not taken time to edit this week's installment as much as usual.

Dietch's Kiddie Zoo, Fair Lawn, New Jersey, circa 1960,
from the Zito Photography Collection.

The pop musique in Kings supermarket is not predictable. Somebody at the music service takes time to go beyond the usual stuff. Once in a while I'll stop and examine the breads or spaghetti sauces to listen to a choice selection.

I forget whether I ever mentioned to you that sometimes I'll stay a couple of minutes in the car, in a parking lot or my own driveway, to catch the end of a good song I haven't heard in a while. Only when I'm alone.

Sheryl Crow's "My Favorite Mistake" is such a perfect record. It goes along well for a couple of verses and choruses, and that's enough to make it a good one, but then it spins off into that end section that never repeats, and when she casually hits the lines "Did you see me walking by? Did it ever make you cry?" it's as if she never did that and it's not the heart of the matter.

A few months ago Kings came up with "Walk Away Renee". Who pulled that one out of the vault? I mean, there are songs I haven't heard in years, but this is one I have not even given a thought to. And it sounded great! I don't recall what food aisle I paused in, but it was just before I was leaving, and at the register the very young clerk was singing the tune softly to one of her coworkers and asking if she knew what it was. Go to Youtube and choose any version by the Left Banke. Yes, "Banke". It's like French or something. Let that go. Just play the song.

Left Banke. At one time I though "rive gauche" meant something like "silly laughter". Consider the French cheese from "la vache qui rit". If that can be "the cow who laughs"... French. I never took French. I took German. Consider "die lachende Kuh": that's almost English with a funny accent.

We don't have laughing cows. Borden Dairy had contented cows.

Borden's mascot Elsie the Cow lived in New Jersey. She has a gravestone in central Jersey, giving her real name, You'll Do Lobelia, but the burial site itself is nearby, under houses. No one knows exactly where, but the residents of one house sometimes hear a cowbell at night.

I am not certain whether her husband Elmer should have been contented. It depends on what that glue was made from. If it was casein, not his problem. But it seems to me hooved animals would never be contented when the subject of glue is brought up. Change the subject.

This week at Kings it was Debbie Boone singing "You Light Up My Life". It sounded awful.

Well, duh, you say. But I'm not here to knock that style of music. I can go for a big sappy ballad. I just want the singers to throw themselves into it. "If it's worth doing it's worth overdoing" as Bruce Springsteen said. Remember Whitney Houston's "One Moment in Time"? Well if you didn't like that you just don't like this kind of song. I don't know what to tell you.

The version of "You Light Up My Life" in my head was a lot better than the one they were playing. The version in my head has the same deliberate two-finger piano, dum dum dadum, but it's got a strong female voice going through the steps to get to the big chorus. OK not Whitney Houston in her prime. But a strong voice. What happened?

Were they playing an alternate take from a Debbie Boone box set? I can't prove it didn't happen. But chances are it was the original.

This happens to me sometimes. It will be some song I haven't heard since the Johnson administration, and then I happen to hear the record, and it's too fast, or too slow, or a different singer, or there's a part I forgot was there, or the words changed.

I told you about hearing the Hollies' "Carrie Anne" last year and noticing that the instrumental break is played on steel drums. Steel drums? What the? Was that always in there? And it was funny hearing Graham Nash singing the lead. "Teach Your Children", man.

So here's this iconic "You Light Up My Life", Billboard number 1 for ten weeks in a row, biggest deal single of the 1970s apparently. Let's say it has not aged well. As if it used to sound better.

The next Billboard number 1 was "How Deep Is Your Love". Rival Cashbox
allowed Deb only eight weeks at number 1, giving Crystal Gayle's "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" a couple of weeks before they too cut over to the Bee Gees. I've heard the Bee Gees song too many times for it to surprise me. But Crystal Gayle. I wonder. Should I seek it out? Sometimes they're better than I remember.

OK, I did. It's not. The singing is corny and the instrumental backing is worse.

I checked Debbie Boone's Wikipedia page. She's a Jersey girl! Born in Hackensack. That's just a few miles from where boy Joe was living at the time. I never knew this.

Before the Garden State Plaza and Bergen Mall opened (both 1957), my parents took me to places like Packard's Department Store in Hackensack. That means I may have been in Hackensack on the fateful Saturday in 1956 when Debbie Boone was born.

What could I have told her? Nothing really. She was a baby.

Packard's. Before Christmas, and it may well be 1956 that I am remembering, they had a train ride in the store. Probably a 18-inch gauge. If I am recalling right, they just laid the track on the floor. Is this even possible? What power did this indoor train run on?

Some other wanderer on the web has written, "At Christmas time they had a great train set up, and Santa would give you a toy and a lollipop!". So it really happened.

And the old Packard's building was a masonry structure with wooden floors, according to another web contributor. My father was a firefighter and he always noticed things like that. He must have checked where the exits as when we went in. Just in case. I don't blame him.

It make me think of Dietch's Kiddie Zoo, which was right in town in Fair Lawn. That had a train too. And I have only mixed-up memories of it, but check this out, from the Bandwagon for September 1961:

Located on several acres of ground, this enterprise is fronted by a park full of kiddie rides and concession stands. To get to the zoo, the customers must pay a small fee but what they get for their money is really something worthwhile. Here is a conglomeration of pens, stalls, barns, cages and ponds filled with just about any type of animal worth seeing. Following the paths toward the back end, you finally emerge in a grove of trees where the Ringling cages are on display. Surrounding the whole area is a train with reproduction of old cars that carry passengers for a small fee.

The Ringling cages. Fifteen circus animal wagons of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Combined Show. The decorative painted wagons of a bygone age, from the old travelling tent show. They held the Menagerie. The cages and some of the animals were trucked to Manhattan once a year for viewing while the Show was at Madison Square Garden. The article lists the wagons.

The location is not quite right in the article. It was on Saddle River Road, between the road and the river, near the end of Berdan Avenue.

EVERYTHING will be on the Internet soon. There's a home movie of Dietch's Kiddie Zoo on Youtube, and below I'll give you a few screen shots from it.

Was this "The Caterpillar" or something else? It has a little derby hat. Most of the rides were like this. Different shaped things ran in a circle. This one had rubber tires under it that ran on the pathway— you can't see the tires in the movie but I actually remember that.

This ride was different. Handcars. You had to make them move yourself, using your arms to turn the wheel. See the video. Since some kids couldn't keep it going the whole distance, the man there had to encourage them or just plain push them. I might have been one of those kids. This ride was a challenge.

I wonder what the chimp is in for? It looks like he regrets his sorry life. They don't have zoos like this any more. Good.

As you can see in the video, the elephant kept swinging side to side. What I just said about the chimp.

The "No American Buffalo", in the first image on this page, seem more peaceful. I think they take to domestication like cows and are happy to just lump around and eat grass. Maybe I am deluding myself.

For the train geeks, here's the non-operating engine from Maine.

Watch the home movie to the end! There's a bonus. The last several seconds show Kind's Dairy, which was also on the east side of Saddle River Road, down near Route 4. We just called it the Dairy. "Do you want to go to the Dairy?", my father would ask, as if we would ever have replied, "Oh no Dad, we've had too much ice cream this week". That would not have happened. Fans of Moderne lettering, take note.

This is very self indulgent, but these images really tickled the memory cells, and I'm putting them here in case anyone searches Kind's Dairy and Ice Cream Bar, Fair Lawn, New Jersey.

Billboard, the same magazine with the pop music charts, originally covered the entire "variety" industry from circuses to vaudeville. A sideshow like Dietch's Kiddie Zoo was in scope.

From a lengthy article in 1954, we learn that the zoo opened three years earlier. Bob Dietch had a farm and was asked whether he thought he could tame a couple of llamas for a petting zoo, and Bob was the kind of guy who figured why not? This led him into wanting to run a small zoo of his own. He found someone else who wanted to run some carnival rides for kids, and someone else who wanted to run a small railroad. That's how these things go. The Ringling wagons and animals came a few years later.

The railroad equipment came from a Maine two-footer, including two engines from 1893 and 1895, and flatcars that were adapted for people to ride. The train owner had converted the engine that was running to gasoline power.

A webster somewhere asks the dates of the zoo. I'd just gleaned that the opening season was 1951. Another net denizen recalled from memory that it closed when the Saddle River flooded and destroyed much of the property.

So when did it close? Billboard reported on it in 1967. So it closed that year or later. I felt the need to settle the matter.

In the age of the Internet, the answers come almost too fast. Here we go. The New York Times reported on September 14, 1971, "Violent 3-Day Rainstorm Slackens", a stalled front that caused disastrous flooding all over northern New Jersey, only two weeks after the same region had been drenched by tropical storm Doria. The official gauge on the Saddle River at Lodi got stuck at almost 11 feet above normal, but officials said the river had certainly been higher. That would have been enough to flood Dietch's riverside property.

But not so fast! A post on in 2005 says that Dietch's closed in 1968. The contributor seems well versed on the topic. He lets us know that the loop was 5/8 of a mile, and that the train had brakes only on the engine, with link and pin couplers to the cars. He says the two engines are now at Boothbay Railway Village, Maine. And they are still there in 2011. The roster online shows two engines originally of S D Warren Co, Maine, sold to Van Walsh of Ridgewood, New Jersey, who I know was the operator at Dietch's, and then sold to the museum in 1969. So I think we have established that the railroad ride ended in 1968.

Elsewhere on the net, I find a discussion of where the RBBB giraffes were housed when not being shown in New York. One commenter says that Dietch told him in May 1967 that he had one of them, and the writer thinks the giraffe may have gone to and from Dietch's until about 1972. But in a reply, a longtime Fair Lawn resident thinks Dietch's closed "around 1967". So there, support for both 1971 and 1968 in the same exchange.

And then, as I realized that not only was I was reading a discussion of where Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey giraffes were kept, but reporting to you on what it said, I realized it is TOO FREAKIN HOT and I am losing my mind.

See you next time.



  1. And I'm *reading* that report! It's 2215 CDT where I am and it's *still* 97 F.

    Like the man said, it is TOO FREAKIN HOT!


  2. If you go the the I hung out at Dunkerhook Park on facebook, all your questions will be answered. There are quite a few local historians that know everything!

  3. Joe, the Garden State Plaza opened in 1957. The bergen mall in 1959. I have lived in Paramus area since 1950. Mike O'leary ("Elkeeper")

  4. The zoo was closed in I think 1967 or 68. Dad made my tree fort out of the picnic tables. The engines from Maine went back to Maine to the Boothbay Railway Village and are undergoing restoration.

  5. my father worked at this zoo in his youth, most of the stories he told us were really sad

  6. We came to live in Fair Lawn in 1965. I remember waking up on hearing lions roar at night. We found out that we had a zoo up Saddle River Rd from where we lived. I often took my two boys up there to see the animals and have a train ride. We were told that the animals were retired from the circus. Fair Lawn was truly the "country" then with golf at the corner of Saddle River Rd and Fair Lawn Ave. and a dairy farm on River Rd at the end of Morlot Ave. My happiest years spent were and are in Fair Lawn.