Before Anaheim was invaded by Disney rodents, a large theme park was drawing crowds of up to 30,000 guests a month. Instead of a mouse, the main attraction was a human-like chimpanzee. The year was 1952, three years before uncle Walty opened Disneyland, and Dutton's Jungle Gardens sprawled across 7-acres at the intersection of Orangethorpe and Raymond Avenues. Anaheim native Jack Dutton transformed the small orange grove into a lush tropical wonderland replete with an aviary and populated by a menagerie of jungle critters. Despite the fact that Dutton would go on to serve on Fullerton's planning commission, become Anaheim's mayor (four times), and is credited with helping to bring the Angels to town, folks typically give blank stares when asked about this once grand attraction.
Not surprisingly, the spot where Jungle Gardens sat is now a drab business park. But stacks of newspaper clippings and assorted ephemera housed in the Fullerton and Anaheim libraries tell the tale of a homegrown entrepeneur–part politician, part carnival barker (one and the same?)–who was inspired by his pet chimp to create a world out of a Rudyard Kipling novel and generously share it with the public.
Jack Dutton was born in Anaheim in 1910. After his parents divorced, he lived with his grandmother on a local ranch. Photos from the Anaheim High School yearbook show he was an accomplished athlete who played baseball, basketball, and in 1926 was captain of the football team.
He got his start in business selling wiping rags to service stations. According to a Los Angeles Times obituary, he'd become a millionaire by the time he reached his 40s. In 1950, he and his first wife Dorothy acquired a chimpanzee named Jerry. Billed as the world's most domesticated chimp, Jerry was toilet trained, could brush his own teeth and dress himself. Dutton would lend Jerry out for television work, but neighbors were leery of having the wild primate living so close to families.
“Our neighbors were afraid our 'little monster' was going to eat their 'little monsters,” Dutton once told the Orange County Register. “So we decided to open up a place on Orangethorpe.”
When it was completed, the seven-acre-plus property was covered with more than 500 palm trees and crawled with assorted megafauna: an alligator, bear, lion, three elephants, orangutans and more. Admission to the jungle was free and large paths led people through the dense canopy where they could get close to the animals, which inevitably caused liability issues.
A 1993 LA Times article reported that Dutton had to rescue a three-year-old boy whose parents, thinking the animals were tame, put their son in a lion's cage. Another story circulated that Jerry the Chimp once got a hold of a child and began throwing the youngster ten feet in the air and catching him. Though nobody was seriously injured in these encounters, lawsuits forced Dutton to sell off his larger animals.
Courtesy Fullerton Public Library
Dutton offset the cost of running the animal attraction with a swanky Polynesian joint known as the Palms Restaurant. Serving exotic gourmet food, it hosted parties of up to 1,000 people. Menus housed in the Anaheim library show Lobster dinners were served for $3.50; Hawaiian dinners such as Barbecued Pork and Opae Teriyaki were served for around $5 a plate.
Guests included such glitterati actor Dale Robertson (Dynasty) as well as CatwomanEartha Kitt.
But ultimately the operation was too much for Dutton to handle. In 1974 thieves raided the jungle making off with two flamingos, two silver pheasants, a Ghigi Golden pheasant and other birds totaling a loss of $1,200. In 1976 police responded to reports of an unruly party of approximately 700 guests at the Palms. According to the Santa Ana Register a “free-for-all” broke out with people launching rocks and bottles at police forcing cops to use mace and batons to break up the throng. Three people were arrested for assault on a police officer and one lawman was hospitalized.
After stepping down from his fourth term as mayor in 1973, Dutton tried unsuccessfully to declare bankruptcy. Claiming debts of $600,000, he blamed his money woes on the distractions caused by his civic duties.
On May 17, 1976 restaurant employees reporting for work were greeted with signs on locked doors stating the Palms would be closed for 30 days while kitchen remodeling was completed. But the building had been stripped. Dutton told one employee who showed up on his front porch that a special fund had been set aside for workers and they would be paid in three or four days. Weeks later, they were still waiting for their final checks.
In July, then Mayor William J. Thom released a report stating several businesses owed the city $100,000 on delinquent electrical accounts. Among these, The Palms Restaurant owed $10,000. Thom pointed to a mysterious, unidentified city employee who was playing fast and loose with delinquent accounts.
“In essence what he was doing was loaning out city money without authorization,” Thom told the Anaheim Bulletin. “He was reporting commercial accounts current, when actually they were seriously delinquent.”
In an attempt to collect $3,528 Dutton still owed, Anaheim sued him in Superior Court in 1977. An agreement was eventually reached over 196 new stacking chairs Dutton provided to the Anaheim Convention Center years earlier.
After standing vacant for two years, a fire gutted one of the park's buildings in 1978. By that time, the property was owned by Imperial Realty Services of Garden Grove. An LA Times photo shows a firefighter soaking the building's charred remains. The caption attributes unidentified firemen as saying the incident looked suspicious.
Dutton died June 19, 2002 at West Anaheim Medical Center following a bout with pneumonia. A memorial service was held at Edison Field.
Today, the unremarkable appearance of asphalt and boxy concrete buildings belies the inspired creation that graced the city more than half a century ago. Look at faded pictures of the Jungle Gardens brochures and it's clear that Jack Dutton wasn't blowing smoke when he boasted that he beat Disney to the punch.
Sadly, the brochures may be the most vivid evidence of what once existed. Even sadder however, is the story of what became of Dutton's favorite chimp.
As Jerry matured, he became difficult to care for.
Dutton tried unsuccessfully to hire caretakers as well as attempted to give Jerry to a zoo, but was told the creature was too domesticated. Seemingly out of options, Dutton took a page out of the Nazi book of war and gave Jerry a shovel with which to dig a hole. When the little bugger finished, Dutton told Jerry to get inside. A cop friend of Dutton's then dispatched the poor beast with a shot to the head.
As cruel as it seems, it probably wasn't a decision Dutton took lightly. Recounting the story to the Times in 1993, his eyes welled up with tears as he explained that he would never humanize a chimp again. Recounting a conversation he once had with Walt Disney, Dutton added, “I always told Walt he was smarter than me. He made his animals animated. I had to feed mine.”