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A Contented Turkey

November 26, 2020

A Contented Turkey

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Rebekah Burgess Rebekah Burgess

Four-term New York State Governor Al Smith (1919-20 and 1923-28) was a long-time advocate for the zoos of New York City. As a resident of 820 Fifth Avenue, directly across the street from the entrance of the Central Park Zoo, Smith was known to appear with snacks for the animals or to launch into impromptu lectures for visitors.

Opening day of the newly reconstructed Central Park Menagerie was December 2, 1934. New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses orchestrated a special surprise for the animal-loving politician. Former Governor Smith was given the honorary title of Night Superintendent, a non-salaried position that carried unique benefits—permanent ownership of a master key to the zoo building, along with an open invitation to stop by day or night.

The Night Superintendent proclaimed the title better than any honorary university degree, and assured the audience, “if you people hear any roaring in the zoo at night that sounds like lions and tigers, you needn’t be afraid. It’ll just mean that I’m on the job talkin’ to ‘em.”

A horse-drawn cart loaded with children from the Lower East Side’s Fourth Ward, Smith’s own childhood neighborhood, pulled to a stop in front of Governor Smith and Mayor LaGuardia (above). With approximately 15,000 children in attendance, eleven-year-old Eddie McKeon of 87 Jackson Street precariously balanced on top of the cart to transfer an unwieldy Christmas turkey into the arms of Smith below. According to reports, the turkey immediately settled into the former Governor’s arms, comfortable after the long journey by cart from the Lower East Side. The children on the cart led the crowd in a rendition of Smith’s campaign song, ‘East Side – West Side’ as they wheeled away.

Al Smith took his honorary title to heart. Throughout the rest of his life, Smith could often be found attending to the animals at the zookeepers’ sides during open hours. At night, Smith visited with guests, or more often, one-on-one with the animals.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Several historical publications were used as reference for this post. Caro, Robert A. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Vintage Books, 1975. “Biggest Kids in City See the Animal Fair,” Daily News [New York] (3 December 1934). “New Zoo Opens, Al Smith Gets Job as Honorary Night Superintendent,” The New York Times (3 December 1934).

According to reports, the turkey immediately settled into former Governor Al Smith’s arms, comfortable after the long journey by cart from the Lower East Side. –Rebekah Burgess. Photo ©NYC Parks Photo Archive.

New York City, US Map It


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