U-T: Zoro Gardens: A Nudist Colony In Balboa Park

Committee Of 100 Looks Back At 1935 Park Attraction

Some urban legends fade away in fiction when the historians track down the truth.

 

» Sign Up For Breaking News Alerts» Like Us On Facebook» Follow Us On Twitter

But one legend that proved correct is the presence of a nudist colony in Balboa Park.

Welton Jones, retired UT San Diego drama critic and Sunday editor, professed to the park support group, the Committee of 100's annual luncheon Friday that he was no professional historian.

But through diligent digging, he pieced together the story of Zoro Gardens, a 6-acre section, now a butterfly garden just west of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.

And indeed, nudists were there for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition.

"To begin with, the place had nothing to do with the sword-fighting fellow in the black mask," Jones said. The name from Zoroaster, an ancient mystic from pre-Islamic Persia.

Some of the nudists came from a show at Chicago's Century of Progress world's fair of 1933-34. Zoro Gardens was one of the many attractions at San Diego's fair, held 20 years after the more famous Panama-California Exposition, which is celebrating its centennial in 2015.

"On the night before the expo opened (in May 1935), there was what the press labeled an 'undress rehearsal for District Attorney Thomas Whalen,'" Jones said. "'No worse than you would see at a burlesque show,' was his verdict."

For 25 cents, visitors saw young ladies wearing no more than a g-string and men with loin cloths or trunks. They played volleyball, lounged on cowhide rugs and performed a 20-minute skit, "Sacrifice to the Sun God," five times daily.

Other park guests could peek through knot holes in the picket fence surrounding the garden.

The leading lady was "Queen Zorine," played by 22-year-old Yvonne Stacey. Among her promotions, was the "three queens tea" -- Stacey, Mrs. H.K. Raymenton of San Francisco, dubbed "queen of the fair," and Elizabeth Sowersby, who played Queen Elizabeth I at the Old Globe Theatre.

The show ended Nov. 3, 1935, a few days before the expo closed, but by that time Stacey and her partner, F. Merrill Smith, had resigned and a new queen had taken over, Ruth Cubitts, 20.

For the 1936 fair, Cubitts' sister Florence, 19, took over under the stage name Tanya, "because it sounds more sexy," she said. She traveled to New York on a press tour and conducted interviews in the nude.

"For the rest of the year, reporters sought Tanya out on a slow news day," Jones said. "She told the San Diego Sun about avoiding bees, about posing for artists."

She invited Sally Rand, the fan and bubble dancer, to team, but Rand declined, saying "The nude is my business suit. I never appear socially in it."

After the fair, Stacey kept up her nudist act until about 1950, when she was appearing with a man in a gorilla suit.

"I prefer to remember Yvonne Stacey from happier moments, when she made the most improbable of shows actually happen, right here in Balboa Park," Jones concluded. "To me, she'll always be 'Queen Zorene of Zoro Gardens.'"

The tale may not end there. Attending the Committee of 100 event was Sara Morrison. She has finished the first draft of a novel set in Zoro Gardens and plans to huddle with Jones to complete her research about the real thing.

"I'd like to have more details," she said.

Honorees for 2012

The Committee of 100 handed out two awards at its annual meeting:

-- Gertrude Gilbert Award, named for the woman who saved park expo buildings condemned in 1933, to landscape architect Vicki Estrada, for her numerous design projects in the park and for authoring the 1989 park plan.

-- Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue Award, named for the 1915 expo architect, to Richard S. Requa (1881-1941), who was the supervising architect for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition.

No relatives of Requas were available to accept the Goodhue Award, but Estrada accepted hers and acknowledged the current controversy surrounding a plan to add a bypass bridge as part of Qualcomm cofounder Irwin Jacobs' $45 million proposal to rid the center of the park of cars and parking.

"I hope as we move forward in current and future park planning efforts we can remember that those that don't agree with our particular point of view -- they're not bad, evil people," Estrada said.

"There are passionate San Diegans on both sides that merely want Balboa Park to be our crowning jewel. They all believe they are doing the right thing. My hope is we can all gather not as opponents but in unison to celebrate the past while celebrating the future of Balboa Park, not a place that separates but a place that brings us together.