In the mid 1920s there was no more popular animal personality
than Jo Mendi. The talented
chimpanzee was a star of Broadway, vaudeville and motion pictures and the center
of attraction at the Scopes Monkey Trial. But by the time he was purchased by
the director of the Detroit Zoo, Jo Mendi, was found used and abused, cowering
in a damp basement. During the Great Depression Jo brought smiles to thousands
of Detroiters and put thousands of dollars into the Detroit Zoo’s coffers. His
death in 1934 made the front page of Detroit’s newspapers. All told, there
were four chimpanzees named Jo Mendi. Here are their stories.
In 1923, circus owner Lew Backenstoe purchased a three-month
old chimpanzee that he named Jo Mendi from an animal broker in Cape Town, South
Africa. Backenstoe, an old school circus showman, was an expert at ballyhoo- the
art of promotion. He saw Jo as his claim to fame and his next meal ticket.
Backenstoe’s wife Gertrude Bauman trained the young chimp to perform many
human-like tricks. In 1925, Bauman was ready to take the new act on the road.
In April of 1925 Jo made his debut at the Hippodrome, the
largest vaudeville theater in New York City. He was billed as “Jo Mendi, the
eighteen-month old chimpanzee with the intelligence of a five year old child.”
Billboard, a show business trade newspaper, described the act as follows:
“Mendi strolls on the stage as calm and serene as an
old-timer, carrying a cane and a kid’s golf bag. He wears a tux and felt hat,
looking every bit a gentleman… Mendi’s tricks are all done without the
slightest reluctance. He minds Miss Bauman like a good child. Among the things
he does to amuse the folks are riding a kiddie car, sweeping the floor with a
broom, riding a hobby horse, dolling himself up at a dressing table, playing at
a toy piano and partaking of a meal… At the table scene he uses a fork, rings
the bell for the waiter when he wants further edibles and drinks from a cup in
the latest Fifth Avenue fashion.”
During the Hippodrome engagement Backenstoe announced that Jo
would soon be en route to London, to be studied by the noted anthropologist Dr.
F.G. Crookshank to “prove their theory that Darwin is right.”
This set the stage for Jo’s next big appearance.
On July 10,1925, the eyes and ears of the nation were focused
on the small town of Dayton, Tennessee for what was deemed the “Trial of the
Century,” the Scopes Monkey Trial. A handful of newsreel camera men, scores of
telegraph operators, hundreds of print and broadcast journalists and thousands
of curious onlookers gathered around the town courthouse as Clarence Darrow
defended high school science teacher John Scopes for teaching evolution in his
classroom while William Jennings Bryan argued for the prosecution. Time magazine
described the proceedings as ”the fantastic cross between a circus and a holy
war.” And holding court in the center ring of this media circus was an
impeccably tailored Jo Mendi.
The Scopes Trial was the first trial in American history to be
covered by the broadcast media, a fact Backenstoe intended to take full
advantage of. Gertrude Bauman put Jo thru his paces for the eight days of the
trial. Dressed to the nines, he played his miniature piano on the sidewalks of
Dayton, posed for countless photos, mugged for the newsreel cameras and even
sipped a coke at the counter of Robinson’s Drug Store. Frank Robinson, the
store’s owner, also happened to be the president of the local school board.
Publicity like this couldn’t be bought at any price.
Jo’s 1926 vaudeville tour was financed by a group of New York State
bankers, and no expense was spared. A $100,000 life insurance policy was taken
out on Jo thru Lloyd’s of London. A special automobile costing $50,000 was
built to chauffer Jo around town in style. It was 38 feet long and could
accommodate 150 people. Jo’s itinerary was always published in the local
newspaper the day before he arrived. Backenstoe would cut a deal with local
merchants for cash or merchandise in exchange for having Jo Mendi shop in their
store. Jo always drew a crowd, which was a good deal for the shop owners and a
great deal for the theater.
Over the next two years, Jo Mendi and troupe toured the
Keith-Albee and Orpheum vaudeville circuits, made a return engagement to the
Hippodrome, appeared as an extra in a few Hollywood films and travelled across
the country to appear in countless circuses and carnivals.
In 1929 Jo opened at the Palace Theatre in New York City, with
a revised act. Gertrude Bauman was now out of the picture. Lew Backenstoe was
Jo’s official handler, both offstage and on. A new promotional campaign was
also created. “More man than animal—What Is He? Who Is He?’
As the interlocutor, Backenstoe worked up a cleverly fashioned
spiel while Jo went thru his paces. His appearance at the Scopes Monkey Trial
was always mentioned. “Jo Mendi was asked to appear, but he did not
testify.” Jo had also added a few new tricks to his repertoire.
The August 2, 1930 edition of Billboard Magazine reported “BACKENSTOE
TO COLLECT $100,000 ON JO MENDI. Jo Mendi, headliner of the RKO Circuit, died at
7:30 this evening of ptomaine poisoning.” Jo became sick on the road several
weeks earlier and proper treatment was never sought. It was later determined
that Jo’s demise was actually caused by an abdominal growth. In death, Jo
Mendi still made money for Lew Backenstoe. Jo’s body was skinned and stuffed
for a travelling exhibit.
Backenstoe wasted no time finding a replacement chimpanzee. He
purchased a two-year-old chimp named Buster from show business agent Irene Lee
for $1,000. The agreement was to pay Lee in weekly installments of $100.The
trade papers announced that Lew Backenstoe would be returning to vaudeville soon
with the “Son of Jo Mendi”, who was learning all of the tricks of his
Jo Mendi II was on exhibition in an Indianapolis department
store in December of 1930 when Irene Lee filed a complaint in Indianapolis
Superior Court alleging that Backenstoe failed to keep his agreement regarding
the purchase of the chimp. Lee located Backenstoe thru a detective agency and
placed an attachment on Jo.
Lee filed a replevin suit in February of 1931 when Backenstoe
was discovered performing with Jo Mendi II at a Louisville, Kentucky theater.
Backenstoe recognized the sheriff backstage and quickly skipped town with Jo
before the law could take possession. He ultimately settled his debt with Lee,
but Backenstoe’s legal troubles were far from over.
Jo Mendi II appeared on Broadway from May thru July of 1931 in
Billy Rose’s Crazy Quilt- A Musical Revue for 79 performances.
The law caught up with Lew Backenstoe once again on October
10, 1931 when he was arraigned on a fugitive warrant in Chicago, charging
larceny by bailee of $1,500 in conjunction with Jo’s earnings. The plaintiff
in this case was Dr. Alfred Munson, a prominent Detroit dentist and Jo Mendi
II’s new owner, who claimed that Backenstoe owed him $1,500. Munson filed a
bill of sale at City Hall in Detroit, which detailed the sale of Jo Mendi II by
Backenstoe to Munson in February of 1931. Both Backenstoe and Jo were held in a
Chicago jail cell. Bond was set at $1,000.
Munson took possession of Jo and brought him back to Detroit.
He kept the chimp in his basement until he contacted Detroit Zoo director John
T. Millen about boarding the animal. Millen offered to buy Jo for $1,000, then
appealed to the City of Detroit for funds. With the country in the midst of the
Great Depression and so many Detroiters in dire straits, the city council felt
that it couldn’t possibly approve the sale. Millen paid for the chimp out of
his own pocket.
Millen created a stage show around Jo that entertained zoo
patrons with as many as 14 shows a day. The admission charge was ten cents. It
is estimated that Jo generated more than $30,000 in revenue during his three
years at the zoo.
In 1932 Jo appeared onstage at the Michigan Theater in downtown Detroit for a vaudeville revue. Making his first headliner appearance was a young comedian named Bob Hope. Hope recalled the gig in a 1944 Detroit News interview. “There I was in the dough at last, and I felt so good I invited my folks over from Cleveland to witness my triumph.” When Hope arrived at the theater, he stopped to look at his name on the marquee. “But it wasn’t my name up there. It was that of Jo Mendi, a locally famous chimpanzee. I dashed to the manager with a protest. His reply was “Jo Mendi has a big name in this city—you haven’t.”
When Jo became ill in the fall of 1932, the head pathologists
from Grace and Herman Keifer Hospitals were consulted. Millen stayed by Jo’s
bedside, feeding him medicine and broth until he recovered. He had hundreds of
visitors and received more than $500 worth of flowers and several thousand cards
Jo entertained the crowds at the zoo until August of 1934,
when a serious illness kept him bedridden. A Henry Ford Hospital physician
diagnosed Jo with trench mouth and treated him with an arsenic preparation. Jo
died on September 7 at the age of 10, with John Millen at his bedside. Millen
told a Detroit Free Press reporter, “He was the greatest doggone monkey who
The Jo Mendi Chimpanzee Theater was built in 1935 as a
memorial to the beloved chimp. Four chimpanzees purchased from Jo’s earnings
in 1933 were now the stars of the show.
Jo Mendi II was purchased in 1945. This new Jo gave his
namesake a run for his money. The Detroit News reported that Jo Mendi II could
roller skate, walk a tightrope, ride a scooter, unicycle, bicycle and
motorcycle, balance on stilts, roller skate and drive his own electric car. Jo
was arguably the zoo’s most popular animal star. His photograph appeared
dozens of times in the rotogravure section of Detroit’s three newspapers.
Jo was retired from the chimp show after eight seasons when he
became too aggressive to work with. Unlike other chimps that were retired and
sold for research after five to eight years, Jo lived the rest of his days as
the zoo’s “trained chimp emeritus.” Popular Detroit TV weatherman Sonny
Eliot regularly visited Jo to bring him cartons of cigarettes. Jo died in 1980
at 38 years of age.
The chimp shows continued at the zoo until 1983, when Zoo
Director Steve Graham deemed the shows cruel treatment of the animals. The Jo
Mendi Theater was dismantled and a new four-acre habitat called Harambee was
created. It was the most naturalistic habitat of any chimp exhibit in the world.
A fourth chimpanzee named Jo Mendi was one of six adult
chimpanzees donated by The Detroit Zoo in 1991 to the John Ball Zoological
Garden in Grand Rapids, MI. Jo was the alpha male among the tribe. He died in
2005 following what was supposed to be routine dental work. Jo was 26.
After Lew Backenstoe lost Jo Mendi, he operated the Gorilla
Villa at the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair. He retired from show business in
1936 and died of congestive heart disease in 1937.
Detroit Zoo director John Millen kept Jo Mendi’s ashes on a
shelf in his office. . Millen retired from the zoo in 1944 and died in 1956.