The man of the stuffed platypuses

Baltimore Glimpses

September 18, 1990|By GILBERT SANDLER

IF YOU are strolling through the Pratt Street pavilion of Harborplace, you will happen upon a shop called "Arthur Watson's Zoos."

Arthur Watson . . . Wasn't he the guy who? . . .

The very same. What some say Henry Barnes did for Baltimore's traffic and what some say William Donald Schaefer did for Baltimore's spirit, some say Arthur Watson did for the Baltimore Zoo. Few of Baltimore's municipal institutions have been as closely identified with one person. Watson came to Baltimore in 1948. Twenty years later Watson was the zoo, and the zoo was Watson. In the civic mind, they were inseparable.

After retiring in 1980, Watson opened what was eventually to be called Arthur Watson's Zoos. It was -- and still is -- a fantasy land of stuffed animals, offering some pretty bizarre species: duck-billed platypuses, armadillos, hedgehogs, lemurs, possums.

But for 42 years before that, Watson brought energy, imagination and enormous political and public relations skills to his job. Do you remember, for example, his TV show on WAAM (later WJZ), "This Is Your Zoo"? For a decade, beginning in 1949, he brought his animals right into the studio and put them through their paces. He proved to be a master, pioneering a new kind of show biz.

Some strange things happened on camera, he recalls. "Once, I was putting a snake back into a bag and somehow it bit me on the hand -- which started bleeding badly. I kept talking while the cameraman kept his shots on my face, well above the blood -- and the frantic attempts by me and everyone around me to wipe the thing clean with paper towels. Nobody watching ever knew."

And do you remember "Babs," a chimpanzee who was not only Watson's mistress of ceremonies, but won national recognition for her sartorial splendor on TV?

In 1963 Watson arranged to go to Rhodesia to acquire animals for the zoo. He also arranged for some of the best media coverage this side of a presidential convention. His every move was brought home to Baltimoreans in romanticized detail. Watson returned home a hero, and brought back alive a number of exotic animals, such as a secretary bird.

Possibly Watson's best-known creation was "Betsy."

This was the chimp heard 'round the world. Watson had Betsy slosh her fingers in paint and then apply them to canvas. The result was a series (she could turn out four or five an hour) of "paintings" that sold for as high as $110 each (in the 1950s). Her work was likened to the famous abstract art of Paul Klee. A newspaper in Canada commissioned her to paint a picture titled (in advance) "Winnipeg in Winter." One wire service called Betsy's creations "the work of a genius."

Arthur Watson, though retired today, comes into his Harborplace store a few days a week. (He owns three other stores now, in Lancaster, Pa.; Princeton, N.J., and Norfolk, Va.) He says the secret to his stores' success is that he still features the offbeat in stuffed animals.

0 He's added snakes. The kind that don't bite.

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