The Big Day

I’m from a large family of four boys and three girls, and I’m number three in the bunch. Or third oldest, as I always seem to say.

A large blue collar family dependent upon urban transportation had limited entertainment options. We had a few Big Day events per year, and some of the most anticipated, beyond Christmas and Halloween, were the Summer outings.

The Summer outings were these:

• The Union Picnic (very important to our United Auto Worker father).

• The School Picnic (very important for us who endured 9 months of hardship to enjoy the reward of The Scrambler and the Fish Pond Grab Bag.

• The Admiral, a deluxe Mississippi River Art Deco Air Conditioned Excursion Boat featuring an arcade, three decks above, a sun deck, a ballroom, and a calliope played by a consummate musician who knew “Popeye the Sailor Man”.

• And the Zoo.

The St. Louis Zoo really is one of our country’s best zoos. That’s not local braggadocio; it is regularly listed as one of America’s best zoos by those who list things like best zoos. It’s totally free to you and me, thanks to our generous Zoo Museum Tax District. Come and visit, you’ll not be disappointed.

There was one time when I was a tad disappointed with our zoo. It happened when I was about 7 years old.

When the Big Day came our mom would take us on the two buses (she didn’t drive) that carried us to the Zoo. One of the anticipated highlights, if funds allowed, was to take in an animal show. There was a sea lion show, a regular lion show, an elephant show, and a chimpanzee show, which no one called a chimpanzee show. It was, and is to this day, known locally as The Monkey Show.

The Monkey Show

The Monkey Show was the favorite. Elephants stood on two legs (yawn), Seals balanced beach balls on their noses and clapped their fins (a little better), Lions looked menacing, obeying the crack of a whip (okay, that’s good for a seven year old boy), but the Monkeys played sports, rode bikes, and, well, monkeyed around.

And then, there was Mr. Moke.

Mr. Moke did all of the above and then some.

Riding bus number 2, my mom informed us that funds allowed a seat in The Monkey Show. The Zoo is free, but the shows cost. I believe they were a quarter a head in those days. Multiply that by several kids and you’ve put out quite a bit of sparse dough to see a monkey ride a bike.

We couldn’t always see a show, but on this grand day, flush with quarters, we would see a show; the best show: the Monkey Show!

Then, as though it could get any better, mom assured us we would see Mr. Moke, THE TALKING MONKEY!!!

Be still my little boy heart! A TALKING MONKEY?! I couldn’t wait.

You should understand that at age seven I thought St. Louis was the center of known civilization. We built the Mercury (and later Gemini) space capsules at McDonnell Douglas, were building the nation’s tallest monument, the Gateway Arch. We had Chevrolet (where my dad worked), Ford, and Chrysler Auto plants, The Brewery, already had a World’s Fair, Harry Carey (before he was removed to the Cubs), and now this: A Talking Monkey.

Athens, Rome, Paris, move over, St. Louis was now the cultural axis upon which Earth spun.

Arriving at the Zoo, we walked anxiously past the usual cages, pits, aviaries, and assorted exhibits to edge our way closer to the amphitheater wherein Mr. Moke would deliver his oratory.

And Now, Mr. Moke, Talk to the Kids

Multiple quarters paid from mom’s purse, we marched into the amphitheater and found our seats. A small group of monkeys (yeah, yeah, chimpanzees) walked onstage, lead by their noble spokesmonkey, Mr. Moke.

With some impatience I watched as they rode bikes, played baseball, jumped on see-saws, and did a routine of mincing, prancing, practical joking, and general monkeying. Fine entertainment to be sure, but I wanted to HEAR Mr. Moke.

What would he say? What did he know? Would he sing? Dispense wisdom? Answer questions?

After an appropriate build up, the trainer came forth with microphone in hand. Hear it comes! Mr. Moke will speak.

“Get ready kids!”

“Mr. Moke, What Have You to SAY?”

“meh, meh”.


What was that? I mean, What Was That?

“Say it again, Mr. Moke!” ordered the trainer.

“meh, meh”

“Did you hear it kids?” “Mr. Moke said MAMA!!!”

Oh brother.

All these months of waiting for glorious Summer. All those precious quarters from mom’s sparse resources, the endurance of two buses, 100º heat, and we get “meh, meh”?

What I was expecting? The Gettysburg Address? A joke or two? The National Anthem or Take Me Out to the Ballgame (Mr. Moke wore a Cardinals uniform, for crying out loud). Perhaps a Haiku? Nope. Just a less than articulate “meh meh” passed off as MAMA.

I didn’t show my disappointment. Devaluing mom’s financial sacrifice and the reputation of our fine zoo was too much to risk by showing dissatisfaction with the world’s one and only talking monkey.

I rode the two buses home happy for the annual zoo outing, and surely happy to see a monkey ride a bike, but the talking shtick needed work. I couldn’t blame Mr. Moke; he probably said more than most monkeys. He probably would have been sufficient for another zoo in some second tier city like Paris or Rome. But this was St. Louis, cultural epicenter, with our Brewery, Mercury spacecraft, three auto plants, soaring Arch, and Harry Carey.

As I got older I realized that cities like St. Louis were not Paris and Rome and their civic leaders tended to oversell their local treasures. Make no mistake, even without the “talking” Mr. Moke, our Zoo really is great, and our penchant for exaggerating ourselves is somewhat endearing.

Maybe it can be chalked up to whimsy. While I was a slightly disappointed seven year old expecting a mouthful of monkey musings, I still came away with a good warm feeling that our mom wanted to share what she could with the kids she loved. Mom loved St. Louis with its local and quaint offerings, and had no need of Paris or Rome, so long as we had The Admiral, The Arch (whose 630 feet she never ascended), Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, The Fox Theater, and a great Zoo that had a talking monkey, albeit one with a limited vocabulary.

Thanks mom!

Do come visit our Zoo. Mr. Moke is long gone and I actually miss the little ape. You’ll have a good time and if you listen closely you might hear a chimp murmur “MAMA”.

Thanks for reading!

Mr. Moke Illustration ©2016 Ed Koehler