1936 : Detroit Zoo’s Star Performer Suzie Dies From Heat Exhaustion

When:
July 12, 2024 all-day
2024-07-12T00:00:00-04:00
2024-07-13T00:00:00-04:00

The heat was on, and so was Suzie. For the ninth time on a broiling hot Sunday in 1936, the headline actress of the Jo Mendi Theatre at the Detroit Zoo gave a crowd of admirers a gracefully vigorous show, roller-skating, pedaling a bicycle, pushing a scooter, walking a tight wire, and performing other tricks with her fellow chimpanzees.

She was adorable, she was beloved, and by the following morning she was dead. The 6-year-old chimpanzee had succumbed to heat exhaustion after an entire day of nearly nonstop performing. “With her checkered skirt and blouse awry, she was carried from the caged arena,” The Detroit News reported, “a limp and hairy heroine of public demand.”

Mary Lou, another chimpanzee, also collapsed, but she recovered. Zoo director John Millen admitted afterward that it “really was too hot for Suzie and the others to go on, especially for nine performances.” But all of the chimps “were good troupers, and they were willing when they saw the great crowd that had gathered Sunday to see them perform.” Millen insisted the zoo was “going to hunt up another educated chimp to fill her place for the rest of the season. In other words, the show will go on as usual, the way Suzie would want it to. She was a trouper.”

For the full article, see Richard Bak, “Michigan’s Killer Heat Wave”, Hour Detroit, July 2010.

Bonus:

How did the Jo Mendi Theater Get Its Name?

Pictured here is Zoo Director John Millen with the chimp Jo Mendi, a popular attraction during the Depression, signing a check. He was actually the second Jo Mendi and, like the former, had been a vaudevillian star on Broadway. But his owner fell on hard times and Jo was abused. Along came Director Millen who bought him with his own funds and brought him to the zoo. Jo entertained visitors by counting, dressing up, pouring tea, dancing, and more. He was so popular that even at just 10 cents a ticket, despite the Depression, he brought in over $30,000 during his three years. Sadly, in 1934 he became ill with hoof and mouth disease and died. Other equally talented chimps named Jo Mendi would follow.

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