Jack Hanna's antics on TV put Columbus Zoo in national spotlight
When he cradled twin baby gorillas in his arms on ABC’s "Good Morning America" show on Oct. 31, 1983, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium director emeritus Jack Hanna could not have predicted where that would lead.
A producer for David Letterman's show saw the GMA segment and contacted Hanna a few months later.
One invitation led to another, and over the next 35 years, Hanna’s folksy charm and the often-chaotic menagerie of animals he brought made him a national celebrity and helped the zoo mushroom into a world-renowned institution.
“Good Morning America and David Letterman made us a national zoo,” Hanna said. “I can’t stand it when the newspapers say 'celebrity.' I’ve begged them to say 'animal ambassador’ instead of 'celebrity.’ I would tell them I don't care about my name, I just want the Columbus Zoo mentioned every single time, and they mentioned the zoo every single time.”
Hanna has appeared on national TV likely more than a thousand times, including 102 appearances on Letterman’s shows. Zoo officials estimate that in 2016 alone, his national TV appearances were worth more than $25 million in advertising value.
The publicity has been a game-changer to a zoo that, when Hanna arrived in Columbus in 1978, covered about 90 acres and attracted 358,000 visitors.
Today, the grounds sprawl 588 acres, and 2.3 million visit annually.
"Jack Hanna put the Columbus Zoo on the map, but the national exposure took it to the next level," said Suzi Rapp, a zoo employee since 1979 and now its vice president of animal programs. "Jack being on all those shows played a huge part in that."
Hanna’s TV career started locally. On Dec. 13, 1980, he appeared on a WBNS-TV (Channel 10) show, called “Front Page, Saturday Night.”
That helped lead to his own local show, “Hanna’s Ark” in 1981.
But it was the baby gorillas, the first set of twin gorillas born alive in a United States zoo, that brought the national attention here.
Laurie Lennard was the Letterman producer who saw the GMA segment and contacted Hanna, and he made his first appearance on that show on Feb. 14, 1985.
The first animals Hanna brought out were two capuchin monkeys.
Hanna told Letterman, “They hate women, by the way,” and when Letterman asked what they would do if they were around a woman, Hanna answered, “probably pull their hair out.”
That was the beginning of a chemistry that blossomed into a friendship over the next 30 years. Hanna and Letterman jousted often, with Hanna playing the naïve, “aw-shucks” role and Letterman peppering him with his trademark verbal jabs.
“Jack was ratings gold — anytime we could get him in town, we would,” said Brian Teta, a former booker and producer for Letterman’s shows. “He and Dave had something very special together, they respected each other.”
Soon, he was a regular on Letterman and "Good Morning America", but other shows were clamoring for Hanna, as well: "ABC World News Tonight", "Inside Edition", "Access Hollywood", "Larry King", "The Ellen DeGeneres Show", and many others.
Part of the attraction, said Patty Neger, who produced that first GMA show in Columbus and many other Hanna appearances, was the unpredictability of both the animals and Hanna himself.
“Jack is a force of nature, and you never really know what he’s going to say,” Neger said. “People have said to me, `What’s it like to produce Jack?’ and I tell them you don’t. You can’t. You just point him in the right direction and you pray.”
Prayers probably were in order numerous times over the years among producers and zoo staffers alike.
Getting wild animals to New York City and onto a studio stage is no easy task.
Dallas Zoo CEO Sean Greene worked for Hanna in Columbus from 1991 and 1996 and accompanied him on several TV trips.
“We had quite a few memorable moments, traveling up to New York with animals in air-conditioned vans,” Greene said. “I remember driving an extended trailer full of camels in downtown Manhattan. So I can put that on my resume.”
IN THE SERIES:
Jack’s wife, Suzi Egli, once smuggled a wallaby onto an airplane by wearing an oversize maternity shirt and hiding the animal in it.
Neger said there are numerous stories of zoo staffers being kicked out of New York hotels because they had animals in the rooms.
“I got called one night that they had been kicked out because they had taken a sandhill crane for a walk in the marble lobby,” Neger said.
“They used to put penguins in the hotel room bath tubs. I remember walking into a room and seeing straw in the closet so the animals could be comfy in there.
“They always tipped the housekeepers quite well, to clean up.”
Hanna’s final appearance on Letterman — on April 29, 2015 — was typical, featuring leopards and hyenas, among other animals, scrambling around the set.
As the segment drew to a close, Hanna presented Letterman with a lifetime membership to the Columbus Zoo and told him that a baby southern white rhinoceros born in 2014 at the Wilds was named Letterman, in the host’s honor.
Letterman than played a montage clip of Hanna’s appearances over the years. When it ended, Hanna was openly crying.
“That man gave so many people in singing and comedy and people like me huge breaks in helping launch their careers,” Hanna said. “And he helped do wonders for our zoo.”
That wasn’t the end of Hanna’s TV career, however.
"Into the Wild," syndicated nationally and aired locally on WBNS-TV, has earned 12 Emmy nominations and five wins since it debuted in 2007.
And "Wild Countdown," which debuted in 2011 on ABC nationally, also continues today.
Hanna also continues to be a sought-after guest. Teta now works for "The View" and has had Hanna on that show, where he reports Hanna and Whoopi Goldberg, one of the hosts, instantly hit it off.
Hanna has appeared on "The Late Late Show with James Corden" several times, as recently as March.
All of this from a man who said he never dreamed of being on TV: “It just happened,” he said.
“The TV stuff is whatever. I am proud of it, and I am proud of those Emmys and that we have exposed millions to animals and habitats they may never get to see in real life.
Dispatch reporter Mike Wagner contributed to this report.