Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
Dec. 20, 2022

Sea Lion Training in ... Kingston! The Tale of Sharkey and "Seal College"

Sea Lion Training in ... Kingston! The Tale of Sharkey and
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Just off the Kingston traffic circle, you'll find a couple of gas stations, a used car dealer, and a drive-through vegetarian burger joint. But in the 1940s, this was the site of "Seal College," a training facility for some of the most famous sea lions to share the stage with the likes of Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope, and Ed Sullivan. In his new book, Sharkey: When Sea Lions Were Stars of Show Business, author Gary Bohan, Jr., delves deep into the history of his great-grandfather's trained sea lion business, situated on the Esopus Creek (water source for the sea lion tanks), with plenty of interesting crossover into entertainment and broadcast history, much of which was happening just 90 miles or so south of Kingston, in NYC, and beyond.

Click here for your chance to win a signed copy of Bohan's book!

Thanks to our sponsors:
Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce
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Gary Bohan Jr.  0:03  
My name is Gary Bohan Jr. and I am the author of Sharky when sea lions were stars of showbusiness 1907 to 1958, which was just published earlier this year by SUNY press. And my relationship to Sharkey is he was trained by my great grandfather, Mark Huling, right here in Kingston.

Brett Barry  0:25  
See lions in the Catskills? Well, yes, today, there's a used car lot and a gas station near the intersection of Sawkill Road and Washington Avenue, just south of the traffic circle in Ulster, New York. But in the 1940s this was the site of seal College, where sea lions were trained for showbiz. We met up with Gary Bohan, Jr, author of the book, Sharky, when sea lions were stars of showbusiness, 1907 to 1958, at that very site, on the border of Ulster and Kingston. All right, I'm standing here with Gary Bohan Jr. on Washington Avenue and Kingston, New York. And, Gary, this was the spot of something much different in the early 1900s. Can you tell me about that?

Gary Bohan Jr. 1:15  
Yes, it was. It was the spot of the facility called seal College, which was built in 1939. And at the time, it was touted as the world's largest Institute for training seals, seals, which were actually California sea lions. So right here, in Kingston, actually, it's in the town of Ulster. It's right across the line, but everyone referred to it as being in Kingston was this facility called seal College, where dozens and dozens of sea lions were trained for careers in showbusiness.

Brett Barry  1:49  
And one of the most famous California sea lions to have been trained right here on the corner of Washington Avenue and pretty close to the traffic circle here was sea lion by the name of Sharkey. There are a few other locations nearby that are important to the history of Sharkey one of them is where Sharkey was buried. And another is Forsyth Park where Sharkey performed among many other places. So maybe, maybe we can head over there and get away from some of this traffic noise. Just under a mile from this busy intersection is Forsyth Park and Nature Center where Gary and I continued our conversation. Was sea lion entertainment already a big thing when your great grandfather got into this was this a new novelty? How did this come about?

Gary Bohan Jr. 2:38  
It was a fairly new novelty, the showing of train seals started first started in the US in the 1880s. And they got into the business in 1907. So it was it was relatively new, but even by 1907. Train seals were often a part of the circus, and even a part of vaudeville, vaudeville, being in its heyday, and which was the number one form of entertainment, really in the United States for decades.

Brett Barry  3:08  
And at the seal college, what types of things were they trained to do to perform?

Gary Bohan Jr. 3:13  
Sharky and the others, they would perform some of what we might consider the typical trained seals, stunts, balancing objects, things of that sort. But what was unique was they did a lot of stunts in the water. So there was a pretty large pool inside the college and they would do water stones, so they would not only balance objects on land, but they would balance objects while swimming, for example.

Brett Barry  3:40  
To get the famous Sharkey and other sea lions to seal College, those animals had to be well procured

Gary Bohan Jr. 3:49  
In the beginning, when I was crafting the book, I was wondering if I should even include this story, because Sharky to put it bluntly shark it was taken from his natural habitat was taken from the wild and certainly wouldn't happen today. And I was wondering if just even including it would subject me to criticisms or even tacitly condoning the practice, but I decided to put it in there because I really felt it was important to tell the entire story. But like a lot of history, the story is a little bit more nuanced than it may appear. The Captain McGuire had devised methods of capturing California sea lions, that were certainly a lot better than his predecessors who used to club the sea lions unconscious, hoping most would awaken on shore. So Maguire did develop these netting techniques and he was so prolific and his ability to capture sea lions for the world of show business that his stationery read, I supply the world with sea lions, and in fact, he did and he supplied Sharkey to Mark Huling in 1938. And what I try to mention, whenever I do get interviewed, because it's important is the technique that my great grandfather Mark Huling and his brothers did use was was kindness. They were not forced into doing anything they didn't want to do. And, as a point of fact, California sea lions like to perform, but being kind to the animals was a huge part of their training regimen.

Brett Barry  5:32  
Kingston's proximity, just about 90 miles to New York City, made it an ideal spot for sea lion entertainers and training that and proximity to a water source. The Espous Creek. What role did that play was that used to refresh the tanks on a regular basis? How important was it to have that fresh water supply?

Gary Bohan Jr. 5:52  
That's exactly what the Esopus Creek was used for for seal college. So there was pumps. And those pumps would draw water from the Esopus Creek. And then the discharge water would go right back into the Esopus Creek. So nothing I'm sure that would fly in today's world. But that's in fact what was going on for years and years. And I guess just add salt. Right and infact that that's what they did, they would to the seals tanks, they would add salt and that was done on on a daily basis.

Brett Barry  6:24  
Before seal College. The healings had already established a sea lion training facility on the site. But a fire tragically destroyed not only it but the sea lions in residence in 1929.

Gary Bohan Jr. 6:39  
It was a wooden structure that where the seals were housed, there was no people living there. It was just the sea lions. And yes, Wiltwyck Hose Company Number One responded to the alarm. And they got there quickly. They were able to snuff out the fire but it was the smoke, the billowing smoke and the seals, most of them submerged in their tank and they refused to surface except for gulps of this lethal smoky air. So when all was said and done 13 out of 15 seals that were there perished. And it was such a devastating blow to Mark Huling that he quit show business altogether for about 10 years. When Mark built the second facility 10 years later, he branded it seal college and it was really a bit of marketing genius because it was a concept that the press found irresistible. Here was this college for seals. And in fact Mark would stage graduations, there would be a cap and gown there would be diplomas that the seals would clutch in their mouths. And the press just couldn't get enough of it. And so these seals would go out on the road and venture into the world of show business as college educated seals.

Brett Barry  8:05  
After the break hear how seal colleges most famous graduate was discovered at a Woodstock library fair about his illustrious career in the Big Apple, and more. Plus, stay tuned for your chance to win a signed copy of Gary Bohand's book. And if you don't win it, be sure to order a copy from our friends at Briars and brambles books. The go to independent book and gift store in the Catskills located in Windham New York, right next to the pharmacy just steps away from the Windham path open daily. For more information visit Briars and brambles books.com or call 518-750-8599 Kaatscast is also supported by the central Catskills Chamber of Commerce, providing services to businesses, community organizations and local governments in the central Catskills region. Follow the central Catskills Chamber of Commerce on Facebook and sign up for a weekly email of local events at Centralcatskills.org. Thanks also to the mountain Eagle, covering Delaware green and Schoharie counties, including brands for local regions like the Windham weekly schoharie news and Catskills Chronicle. For more information, call 518-763-6854 or email, mountaineaglenews@gmail.com. And now back to Gary Bohan at Forsyth Park in Kingston New York.

Gary Bohan Jr. 9:35  
So then Yeah 1939 World's Fair and seal College had just opened up and and Mark landed the contract for the World's Fair so off went several college educated seals to perform at the World's Fair but Mark held back Sharkey. He wanted to do some special training with Sharky. So, Sharky didn't work the World's Fair. Mark Huling held him back And that's where Sharkey performed at the Woodstock library fair was discovered by a playwright, Gladys Hurlbut, who then soon got the call to write the book for this Broadway production and hit on the idea of using Sharkey. So not only was Sharkey, an amazing talent, he truly was, but all these jigsaw pieces have to fit just so. And they did starting with Sharkey not going to the World's Fair Mark holding him back for extra advanced training. Then he gets discovered in Woodstock by a Broadway playwright, and then he's off to Broadway.

Brett Barry  10:37  
If that Broadway playwright Gladys Hurlbut rings a bell. She came up three episodes ago, in our story about Wiltwyck's cemetery where she's buried.

Gary Bohan Jr. 10:46  
That was his first performance. Outside of seal college seal College had grandstand seating for about 200 people. In addition to giving a lot of free shows, or shows for a nominal very nominal fee, Mark Huling wanted the sea lions to perform in front of people that was part of their training, and so Sharky, wouldn't you know it his first performance outside of these trial performances inside seal college was at this Woodstock library fair, and in true mythic fashion he's discovered by this Broadway playwright that put some Broadway Shubert Theater within months, starring in a Rodgers and Hart musical comedy.

Brett Barry  11:28  
Tell me a little bit about Sharkey's relationship with human performers of the time I understand that he befriended some he may have irked some by upstaging them.

Gary Bohan Jr. 11:39  
Well yes it's what's the old adage and show business never follow an animal act. So you know, at first I was just struck by all the articles I was finding that that mentioned Sharky, but the thing that also struck me every article I was finding, no matter who Sharkey was working with Sharky took top line honors so he would still routinely steal the show away from very famous show business personalities and and most of them were good natured about it. But yeah, it was if you were on the bill with Sharky, it was gonna be rough go of it if you were the human.

Brett Barry  12:22  
Here's Sharky in the 1942 film pardon my sarong with costars Abbott and Costello 'that's a seal. a shame. sure, they make fur coats. they make fur coats, how do they teach them that kind of work. That's Sharkey the pet of the harbor. He is? Yeah, can we bring him on a boat? Sure, okay. Sharkey!' 

Gary Bohan Jr. 12:37  
Now when we think of trained seals, we often think of them playing on the on these tin horns type of an apparatus but Mark Huling built a homemade instrument that had these buzzer bells on one side and on the other side, were these buttons where Sharkey would press his nose and it was nine different buttons corresponding to nine different notes. And Mark taught them different melodies and one in particular was where the river Shannon flows. And it's a rather complex tune. And Sharkey was able to master the tune and I've seen footage of it he plays it in quite a brisk tempo under the baton of Mark Huling. And so Sharkey was on tour and doing radio broadcasts until he ran into trouble. ASCAP, well radio stations I should say we're boycotting ASCAP because ASCAP had raised their royalty fee structure. And so this radio station made an appeal to ASCAP maybe they could make an exception and let Sharkey perform his feature, as part of his radio show and, and the ASCAP lawyers came back and said no deal. So the associated press releases and news wire picked up by practically every newspaper in the country. And with one headline is crazier than the next Sharky stomped. ASCAP puts end of radio career to train seal and whoa is a musical seal. You know, it's one that's funnier than the next and but in fact, Sharkey is radio career was temporarily thwarted due to this, this struggle between radio stations and ASCAP.

Brett Barry  14:27  
That famous music licensing dispute resulted in the formation of BMI a competitor to ASCAP, shaping popular music for years to come. Sharkey did get to showcase his rendition of where the river Shannon flows on The Ed Sullivan Show with Gary Bohan's great grandfather Mark Huling conducting, 'that's enough of that don't gotta get down to business here now. All right. All right.' 

Gary Bohan Jr. 14:53  
There weren't many entertainers that Sharkey didn't work with. He worked with them all. Bob Hope, Imogene Coca, Abbott and Costello, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, he was on the bill with Ella Fitzgerald played the Apollo opposite of very famous bandleader Fletcher Henderson. And he worked with a lot of sports personalities too, which is a whole a whole other area of his career was doing the sportsman shows.

Brett Barry  15:50  
Do you have any idea what the relationship between seal college and this community was were people scratching their heads as they pass by it, did they all know about it?

Gary Bohan Jr. 15:57  
I know a lot of people didn't know about it. And I've had a lot of a lot of people contact me, especially since the book has been published and there's no greater thrill for me to hear from someone. Some people now in their 70s, if not their 80s or even older, just saying I remember going there as a kid and bringing back such fond memories. Sharkey is buried on Hurley Avenue. Sharkey is buried and there was a marker, a memorial marker erected in his memory, which was raised when they raised the building, which is now a medical, I think, optometrist or something of that sort. So there's no more marker there. And Sharkey's predecessor, Charlie, is buried on Green Street right in Uptown Kingston and his memorial marker does stand in Charlie's honor to this day.

Brett Barry  16:55  
You can learn a lot more about Sharky seal college and early 20th century entertainment history. In Gary Bohan's new book, Sharky, when sea lions were stars of show business 1907 to 1958, published by SUNY press, and if you'd like a signed copy, we're giving one away just click the link in the show notes to enter the Drawing. Kaatscast is a biweekly production of silver hollow audio. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening, and happy holidays. Don't forget to click for a chance to win Gary's book, and we'll catch you again in two weeks for our first show of the new year.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai / AA