William Selig and Chimpanzee “lighting up for a quiet smoke after rehearsal”, c. 1917
Selig was a vaudeville performer and producer of traveling minstrel shows who eventually turned to motion picture production, founding the Selig Polyscope Company in Chicago, one of the first motion picture studios in America, in 1896. In 1909, he expanded his business from Chicago to Los Angeles, becoming the first film producer to establish West Coast operations.
In 1912, he purchased acreage in east LA to house the huge collection of animals he had amassed for his studio’s jungle pictures. Always the businessman, he decided to convert part of the studio into a public zoo, where the animals could earn money, even when they weren’t acting. The Selig Jungle Zoo opened in 1915, and with over 700 residents, became the largest collection of wild animals in the world.
WWI, the waning popularity of jungle films, and Selig’s health problems forced the studio to fold in 1918, but Selig still had hopes for the zoo, planning to turn it into a pre-Disneyland amusement park and resort. The plans never came to fruition. For a time he was able to rent space on the lot for wild animal “location” shooting and other projects, but this side of the business soon dwindled into an animal rental service, and in 1923, Selig auctioned off the assets of the studio. Selig continued to work as an independent producer and expedition promoter into the 1930’s but ultimately lost the zoo and his remaining assets during the Great Depression.