Sunday, May 28, 2023

B'wana Don in Jungle-La with Bongo Bailey

B'wana Don and Bongo Bailey

B'wana Don in Jungle-La ran on WJBK-TV, channel 2 in Detroit, Michigan, from 1960 to 1963. The program's host, Don Hunt, was born in 1931 in Ferndale, Michigan. While a child, Don convinced his mother to allow him to purchase and raise mating pairs of Mallard ducks and Ringneck pheasants. When both pairs produced chicks, Don sold them to his friends. Little could he imagine then that animal propagation would become an important part of his life's work.

While attending St. James School in Ferndale, Don began working at Ferndale Feed and Pet Supply. After graduating in 1948, Don spent three years at the University of Detroit before being drafted and serving two years in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.

Upon his return home, Don heard the pet store he worked at was being sold. With the help of his parents, he bought a half-interest in the store for $20,000. Two stores later, Don took on the brand name B'wana Don and opened his own pet shop in 1959. He started wearing a safari outfit and hat with a leopard print headband. B'wana Don promoted his pet shop by making appearences on local Detroit television programs like Lunch with Soupy Sales and Popeye and Friends. He brought animals with him to teach Detroit youth about caring for their pets and being kind to animals.

These short cameo appearances led to WJBK-TV hiring Don Hunt to host his own weekend show aptly named B'wana Don in Jungle-La. The station built him an African trading post set known as Jungle-La. A large part of the program's success was Don's unpredictable chimpanzee co-star Bongo Bailey.

It soon became clear to the audience of mostly children that Bongo Bailey did not always follow the script, much to their delight. B'wana Don and Bongo Bailey regularly made appearances at the Michigan State Fair in the summer and the J.L. Hudson Thanksgiving Day Parade in late autumn.

When WJBK-TV's parent company Storer Broadcasting saw how popular the show was, they decided to fly Hunt and Bongo Bailey weekly in a private plane to Cleveland. The live Detroit show was filmed in the morning, and the Cleveland show was repeated live in the afternoon.

The show was a big hit and Storer Broadcasting syndicated it nationally. Hunt's weekly salary instantly rose to $5,000 a week. Storer Broadcasting began sending Hunt around Europe and Africa to showcase the world's animals in special programs.

While in Rome, Italy, to film segments for his B'wana Don program, Italian customs officials impounded the film crew's thirteen cases of equipment. It took a full nine hours to clear customs. After the film crew got their equipment, they began work on their project called B'wana Don and Topalino Visit Rome

Topalino was a small, white mouse that usually rode on Don's safari hat, but when Don knelt down to pet some neighborhood cats at the Roman Forum, Topalino retreated to B'wana Don's safari shirt breast pocket. The film crew also visited the Trevi Fountain and the Amphitheater. Much to Topalino's terror, everywhere they went, there were "cats, cats, cats."

Hunt traveled to Africa with his wife Iris, and they fell in love with Kenya. Don decided to move there to establish a game preserve for endangered African wild animals. WJBK-TV reported that Don Hunt quit his job over a contract dispute, but Don fell under the spell of Africa and found his calling as a preservationist and environmentalist. B'wana Don's dedicated kiddie audience was disappointed.

On December 25, 1964, Mrs. Irene Poremba from Redford, Michigan, was outraged enough that she wrote and complained to the Detroit Free Press on Christmas Day, "I'd like to know why B'wana Don is off WJBK-TV, and why it was replaced with that Happyland thing? My children loved watching B'wana Don. They cried when he went off the air and won't even watch Happyland."

Don Hunt in 1964.

In Kenya, Oscar-winning actor William Holden went on several photographic safaris lead by Don Hunt, and the men became friends. Together, they jointly created the 1,200 acre Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy in Nanyuki, Kenya, about 110 miles outside of Narobi. Hunt managed the conservancy while Holden continued making Hollywood films to raise money to help support the operation.

Because of a worldwide shortage of African animals for zoos, endangered animals were bred and sold to zoological societies to help finance the animal preserve. The game preserve included thirty-seven species of breeding herds to counteract diminishing herds due to over-hunting, poaching, and human demands made upon the land.

In 1969, Holden and Hunt filmed a promotional documentary called "Adventures at the Jade Sea." Rather than another program with big game hunters armed with elephant guns and local people of color carrying their gear, this program was different. The documentary showcased the deeply held beliefs of William Holden and Don Hunt in wildlife conservation and preservation. Holden was the on screen talent while Hunt worked behind the scenes. Back in Ferndale, Don's brother continued to run the B'wana Don Pet Shop.

Stephanie Powers and William Holden

A year after William Holden's death at the age of sixty-three on November 12, 1981, the William Holden Wildlife Federation was founded to honor Holden's dedication to wildlife and habitat conservation. The founders were Hollywood actress Stephanie Powers (Holden's life partner) and Don and Iris Hunt.

The charitable trust's Education Center strives to inspire a personal commitment to protect wildlife and the environment. The foundation teaches alternatives to habitat destruction and promotes innovations in energy production techniques with low environmental impact.

(B'wana) Don Hunt and Iris lived in Africa for almost fifty years. After Don suffered a stroke, the Hunts returned to Michigan. Several months later on April 29, 2016, Don Hunt died at the age of eighty-four at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. He was survived by his wife, four brothers, and a sister. Don and Iris had two children, Kevin and Kimberly, and two grandchildren, Ryan and Alex.

Don Hunt's Detroit Public Television interview excerpt

More information on the William Holden Wildlife Federation

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Detroit Tobacco Industry Once Known as the Tampa of the North

The following is a guest post researched and written by Mark Lawrence Gade, a Michigan State University graduate and Detroit history enthusiast and docent.

Only four years after becoming a state, the tobacco industry in Michigan got its start when George Miller became the first tobacconist in the city of Detroit in 1841. By the 1850s--with the help of New York's Erie Canal--many Germans migrated to Detroit. These Germans enjoyed smoking and knew how to produce excellent cigars; soon they dominated the city's industry.

Raw material was nearby in Southwestern Ontario. The Canadians produced a high-quality tobacco crop in sandy and silt-loam soil. With tobacco so close at hand, demand for Detroit's quality wrapped cigars turned a cottage industry into an early form of mass production employing thousands of workers throughout the Detroit area.

Long before Henry Ford's assembly-line, the cigar industry deconstructed the rolling of cigars into specialized tasks. Each worker performed one part of the process, so few people had the skill to make a whole cigar. Baskets or crates of cigars were moved from station to station down long tables. The process was efficient and Detroit cigars became known for their consistent quality.  

Then came the American Civil War and the soldier's high demand for tobacco products. To the Yankee or Rebel soldier, tobacco represented the convenience and consolation of home. The hand-rolled cigarette was still an item of luxury, but the cigar represented victory, and the pipe comfort and solace. Soldiers North and South often relaxed by chomping on rich, gooey plugs of chewing tobacco or by smoking delicate clay pipes before, during, and after battles. Much of this tobacco was processed and packaged in Detroit.

Sixteenth governor of the State of Michigan (1873-1877) John Judson Bagley moved to Detroit in 1847. In his early twenties, he started his working career as a humble apprentice in a small chewing tobacco shop. After seven years, he bought the business and renamed it Mayflower Tobacco Company turning his company into an industry leader. Bagley manufactured a rectangular form of chewing tobacco in a tin with a friction-fitted lid that became an industry standard. Bagley made a fortune and helped make Detroit a leader in the manufacture of tobacco products.

At the turn of the twentieth-century, the tobacco industry employed many young women--mostly Polish immigrants. In 1913, the ten largest Detroit tobacco companies employed 302 men and 3,896 women, making the cigar industry the largest employer of women in the city. The process of hand rolling cigars was labor intensive and involved some skill. Too tight and the cigar would not draw properly, too loose and the cigar fell apart. Although women were not organized into labor unions, they were able to make $25 to $40 a week. That was a good wage a hundred years ago.

A cigar company sit-down strike.
On June 26, 1916, Detroit's San Telmo Company signed a contract with its unionized male cigar makers giving them a significant pay increase. The women wanted equal pay for equal work. Three days later, women at the Lilies Cigar Company walked off the job. Soon there were strikes shutting down all the major Detroit cigar producers. Through their united action, women workers achieved some of their demands.

The center of the tobacco industry remained in the North until the 1920s. When Prohibition went into effect with the passage of the nineteenth amendment in 1920, the major marketplace for cigars--saloons and hotel bars--were closed and the social patterns of America were shaken.

Patent office drawing of automatic cigarette making machine.
But the writing was on the wall for Detroit's cigar and tobacco industry. The invention of the automatic cigarette rolling machine in 1881 reduced demand for cigars and other tobacco products. James Albert Bonsack's machine was patented and installed throughout many Southern states causing a shift in the tobacco industry away from the North. Inexpensive mass-produced cigarettes were all the rage in the fast approaching twentieth century. Detroit's ambition shifted too--towards the automobile business which would revolutionize the new century.

In 1966, the last cigar manufacturer in Detroit--Schwartz-Wemmer-Gilbert--closed its doors. Detroit was once home to thirty-eight tobacco companies.

Another German dominated industry in Detroit was the brewing of beer. Here is the story of the Strohs family:

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Remembering My Kid Brother--Rick J. Fournier

Rick's graduation photo--1968
People in Allen Park, Michigan have asked me about my brother Rick. We grew up in Dearborn Township in the 1950s before the streets were paved and the sewer lines were put in. My father built our house with his friends on the weekends. When my mom and dad had two more sons, we moved into a slightly larger home less than five miles away in Allen Park. That was 1963. My parents bought a bar on Allen Road called the Cork & Bottle--now the Wheat & Rye.

Rick graduated from APHS in 1968 through the sheer will and determination of our mother. Rick played the guitar and had no interest in earning a high school diploma. Once he graduated by the skin of his teeth, he hung around never getting a job or any job training. To avoid the Army draft, my parents pushed him into enlisting in the Air Force. Several months after basic training, he went to Okinawa but was given a general discharge. He wouldn't take or follow orders and was insubordinate to his commanding officer.

From there, Rick drifted into psychedelics and became a transient in the college towns of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. My brother wandering aimlessly during an LSD trip in 1970 was taken into custody by the Ypsilanti police one brutal winter night. The police didn't know what to do with him, so they called my parents. My parents didn't know what to do with him, so they called Wayne County Mental Health [Eloise]. Rick was locked in a  mental ward for over a year before he was released with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. I don't know what they did to him, but he was never the same. From there, things went from bad to worse. No need to describe his further descent.

Last known photo of Rick from the 1980s.
Rick died in Silverthorn, Colorado, on November 17th, 1994 at the age of forty-four. He died of a massive heart attack while walking down the street. Because he wasn't carrying any identification, it took over a week before authorities were able to identify him.

Rick's obit listed him as an artist and photographer to mask the reality of his sad life. People tried but nobody was able to help him.

Rick was born on May 9, 1950.  Had he lived past the age of forty-four, Rick would have been seventy-three today. Happy trails, my brother.