Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Buy Me Some Peanuts: Elephants Playing Baseball

Back in 2010, as part of his always-entertaining "There's No Service Like Wire Service" series, Paul Lukas of Uni-Watch posted a link to this photograph of elephants donning baseball gear:

I thought I'd research the photo to see what I could learn.

First, I focused on trying to determine the location of the image. Thankfully, the buildings in the background provided a number of clues.

Beyond the right-most elephant's rump we see the words "GOLDE" and the phrase "2 PANTS SUITS." Other signs nearby read "GOLDE CLOTHES." Using these key words, I found a promising lead in "The Catalogue of Copyright Entries for 1923" available at Google Books":

Apparently the Golde Clothes Shop had obtained a copyright on an illustrated sheet (a poster?) that promoted a special offering. This suggested that the building in the background was Golde Clothes Shop in New York, and that the photo was taken sometime around 1923.

Unfortunately, when I researched Golde Clothes Shop, I found that the retail clothier had over two dozen stores across the country in the 1920s. Maybe the photograph wasn't taken in New York City after all.

I next turned my sites toward the building in the background at center topped with the letters "HUDSO." It seemed likely that these were the first letters in the word "HUDSON." Was there a city street somewhere in the country that featured both a Gold Clothes Shop and an establishment with the word "HUDSON" in it's title? Indeed there was.

Take a look at this photograph found at the Library of Congress web site:

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-D4-500950

The photo is titled "Looking up Woodward Avenue, Detroit, Mich." and is dated c. 1917. While the exact styles of the building advertisements do not match those seen in the elephants photo, the buildings themselves match quite well. The location is identical, but the two pictures were certainly taken in different years.

Here's a detail from the Library of Congress's photograph showing the word "Hudson's" painted atop the building at center and the signage for "Golde Clothes":

... and here's another detail showing the building at far left:

This was Detroit's 14-story tall Majestic Building, built in 1896 and located at the northwest corner of Woodward and Michigan. The following photo of the Majestic Building (at center) shows its proximity to Detroit's City Hall (at left):

Historic Detroit

The photo of elephants was taken just south of the Majestic Building, on the southwest corner of Woodward and Michigan, in front of City Hall. Here's a modern-day map of the area, with the pink marker marking denoting the spot where the elephants made their ball-playing appearance.

With the location of the shot determined, I turned my attention to the elephants.

Believe it or not, as early as the 1910s there were a number of different acts that featured ball playing pachyderms. Here's an image of elephants from the Gentry Brothers Circus doing their act in 1917:

Circus Historical Society

... and here's a 1913 promotional poster for Mooney's ball-playing elephants featured in the Barnum & Bailey Circus:

Robert Edwards Auction

It appears that the elephants in our Detroit-based photograph were Powers' Elephants (sometimes called Powers' Dancing Elephants), a popular act that played for many years at the Hippodrome in New York City, but by 1923 was traveling around the country.

On June 23, 1923, the Titusville (PA) Herald promoted the act as it was scheduled to appear at a local fair in mid-September:

The directors of the Titusville fair ... take pleasure in announcing the engagement of Power's [sic] Dancing Elephants for the entire four days of the fair with exhibitions afternoon and evening.
Those four mammoth, pachyderms have been entertaining hundreds of thousands of people annually from the stage of the famous Hippodrome in New York for the past eighteen years, but owing to the tearing down of the amusement place, the manager of these elephants has taken them on the road this season. The elephants do amazing tricks and their baseball game Is said to be the marvel in its line of animal training.
In the ball game everything is included, even one of the "pitchers" retiring from the box when ordered and the substitute allows the "batter" to make a home run, the elephant runner even "sliding" to the home plate.
And according to an article in the New York Evening Telegram of August 4, 1923,

At the Shadukiam Grotto Pageant, Detroit, the principal feature was the act of Powers' Elephants, under the management of Jimmy Dunedin, a well-known Keith Exchange booking agent. The engagement was by courtesy of E.F. Albee in answer to a request of the Mayor of Detroit, a friend of the Keith executive. The every appearance of the mastodons on the streets of Detroit drew crowds who watched the animals do stunts.
There is little doubt that this photo captured Powers' elephants doing one of their "stunts" in promoting their appearance in Detroit in August of 1923.


  1. Great stuff, Tom. Gilding the lily, I add this bit from Dumbo (1941 Disney):
    Ringmaster: Ladies and gentlemen! We will now present for your entertainment the most stupendous, magnificent, super-colossal spectacle! On this tiny, little, insignificant ball, we will construct for you a pyramid! Not of wood, not of stone...
    Prissy: To hear him talk, you'd think he was going to do it.
    Elephant Matriarch: The stuffed shirt!
    Ringmaster: ...pyramid, of ponderous, pulsating, pulchritudinous pachyderms! I give you the elephants.

  2. Very good work. I posted a small bit on baseball elephants at Baseball Nuggets earlier this year.

  3. My great great grandfather created Golde Clothes. Thank you for this post. It is very special to have. Still in NYC! Headquarters were once on 14th st and 5th avenue in NYC. Bless you for sharing this information.