World War II army veterans M. Leo Bradshaw (1916-1993) and Earl Leonard Irwin (1909-1973) opened the B&I Sales Company, an army surplus store located in Lakewood in southern Pierce County, in 1945. Bradshaw and Irwin quickly grew their business, and in 1949 Irwin bought out Bradshaw. The store continued to prosper through the 1950s and into the 1960s, but changing times made it necessary for the business to reorganize and restructure its operations. In 1964, Ivan (1962-2012), a gorilla captured in Africa, was brought to the B&I. After living with the family of B&I employee Ruben Johnston (1923-1998) for several years, Ivan was relocated to a permanent enclosure at the B&I Circus Store in 1967 -- a move that would forever change the B&I experience. Earl Irwin died in 1973 at 64, but his family continued to run the B&I, expanding the store numerous times through the late 1980s. Ivan remained the store's main attraction for 27 years before being moved in 1994 to Zoo Atlanta in Georgia, where he died in 2012 at the age of 50. Ivan's legacy would be reflected in two books, a statue, a stage production, and a Disney film.
Lakewood, named for its lakes, is located in Pierce County east of the county's oldest town, Steilacoom, and southwest of Tacoma, the county seat and largest city. The decade from 1939 to 1949 brought substantial changes to the Lakewood/Tacoma area as war workers, soldiers, and sailors poured into the area. The Great Depression ended in 1939 and World War II broke out in Europe that same year, with the U.S. entering two years later. Fort Lewis and McChord Field (later combined as Joint Base Lewis-McChord), just south of Lakewood, expanded greatly before the war ended in 1945.
Local historian and longtime Lakewood resident Val Dumond explained:
"The years 1939-1949 were the years of WWII and the immediate post-war period. Two things contributed to great population growth in the Lakes Region. Primarily, the increase of troops stationed at Fort Lewis during the war (1939-1945) as well as the accompanying need for lodging for families. The second would be the post-war leap in population (1945-1949) as soldiers returned looking for jobs and kept their families here, took construction work, and built tons of homes for them" (Dumond email).
Due to those two factors, in that 10-year period the "population of the Lakes District [as the Lakewood was often called at the time] jumped from 3,000 to 17,000" ("Lakewood History"). With its proximity to the base, Lakewood served as a community for many who opted to stay in the area once released from military service. In 1995, residents voted to incorporate, and the following year Lakewood became a city, the county's second-largest.
Earl Leonard Irwin was born to Edward Irwin (1851-1926) and Jennie (Turpin) Irwin (1884-?) in Summerville, Missouri, on August 16, 1909. He was the second of five children, four boys and one girl. Earl's early education took place in public schools in Missouri and Colorado, with some home study to supplement his classroom learning. Earl's father died when the boy was just 17. After his father's death, Earl Irwin followed a varied career path, which included jobs in deep-sea diving, carpentry, and construction work, to name a few.
After moving to the Pacific Northwest, Irwin met Constance "Connie" Tena Charles (1912-2007), a licensed beautician, native of Seattle, and daughter of Italian immigrants Nic Mario Charles (1888-1957) and Josephine M. Charles (1894-1931). Before she met Irwin, Constance Charles, a graduate of Seattle's Roosevelt High School, planned on opening her own shop. In 1942, just before Irwin enlisted for combat in World War II, Irwin and Charles married in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Their union would produce two children, Mary Lou, born on August 10, 1943, and Ronald Gary, born on November 11, 1947.
The newly married 32-year-old Irwin enlisted in the United States Army on April 23, 1942. Two years later, on June 6, 1944, D-Day, when landings were made on Normandy beaches, Irwin was assigned to a communication unit on combat assignment. He was wounded that day, and wounded again during the Battle of the Bulge, which took place between December 16, 1944, and January 16, 1945. Irwin was released from the army on June 14, 1945.
The disabled veteran returned to civilian life, making the Lakewood area home and immediately beginning to plan his next career. In July 1946, with only $30 in his pocket, Irwin, with his army buddy M. Leo Bradshaw and a clear idea of what they wanted to do, opened the B&I Sales Company, naming the store after the first letters of their respective last names. The small 18-by-78-foot concrete-block building was located at 8012 South Tacoma Way in the area that would incorporate as Lakewood 50 years later. The store had no parking or sidewalks and sold army-surplus goods from all over the world; hardware, paint, and electrical supplies; and men's and boys' clothing. Goods sold at discount rates, many years ahead of the first Walmart store, which would open in 1962. The B&I building, a wonderful warren of a store, was far from sophisticated, but the atmosphere was lively, the quality of merchandise high, and the prices low.
As interest in purchasing army-surplus supplies began to dwindle, the facility expanded with the addition of a tent and a Quonset hut, allowing a broader selection of hardware, shoes, and sporting goods to be sold. Woodrow "Blackie" W. Ruhl (1922-1989) was hired as assistant manager of the store.
'Biggest Little Store in the World'
The B&I flourished, and after two years, in 1948, Irwin bought out his partner Bradshaw and began marketing his unusual, nontraditional ideas. Irwin's journey as a flamboyant advertiser was launched -- brought in animals both trained and untrained, held Tacoma's first sidewalk sale, set up a 35-foot carousel indoors, and featured clowns, balloons, and animal rides. The growth of the B&I was phenomenal and the advertising over the top for such a small and unassuming building, setting the scene for one of the most unusual stores in Washington.
In 1949, three years after opening, the B&I began advertising itself as "The Biggest Little Store in the World" (Sullivan). By that time it was doing business of $150,000 in sales per year and had eight employees. No one contested the claim at the time, but years later the Clematis Street News Stand in Florida, established in 1996, assert that it was "The Biggest Little Store in the World" (Clematis Street News Stand website).
Animals and Celebrities
As the 1950s rolled in, Irwin, using his marketing skills to bring children and their families to the store, acquired more property and added buildings and tenants. An early publicity stunt was hiring actor Duncan Renaldo (1904-1980), best known for his role as "The Cisco Kid" in film and the 1950-1956 TV series, to promote the grand opening of a new children's section for the store on October 24, 1953. Also in 1953, Irwin acquired Sammy, a baby elephant who had been captured in India and shipped over by air express. Shortly after Sammy arrived, two African chimpanzees -- later named Cathy and Murphy -- were added to the animal collection. Irwin continued adding to his collection until the store's amusements included squirrels, a Brazilian tortoise, a penguin, a jaguar, an African lion, a mockingbird, and a whole list of other exotic species
Every time a celebrity made an appearance or one of Irwin's outrageous and bizarre promotional events occurred, traffic on South Tacoma Way would be stopped for miles in both directions. On July 8, 1955, Bert Thomas (1925-1972) conquered the Strait of Juan de Fuca by swimming from Port Angeles to Victoria, B.C. Two weeks later, Thomas made an appearance at the B&I, meeting and greeting eager fans.
In October 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower visited Tacoma on a re-election campaign. Irwin wanted a photo taken of the president's motorcade driving by his store. However, due to threats against the President, the motorcade's route to McChord Air Force Base was changed and did not pass the B&I as initially planned. Disappointed, Irwin had his photographer create a photo montage displaying what the historic event might have looked like if the motorcade route had passed the B&I. The fabricated photo contained a crowd of residents, three elephants holding signs of greeting, the car Eisenhower was in, and a sign reading "B&I WELCOMES IKE." The photo was not created with an eye for detail; even if the motorcade had passed the B&I, the picture could not have been taken as it appeared. In the montage, the car is going the wrong direction -- it should have been going south. Compared to what the photo showed, the car would have been on the opposite side of the street, pointing in the opposite direction.
Spotting another promotional opportunity, Irwin sponsored the first unlimited hydroplane to represent Tacoma, the U-88 Miss B&I. On August 19, 1956, Miss B&I, driven by army veteran and owner Robert L. "Bob" Gilliam (1926-1998), won the Copper Cup race on Flathead Lake in Polson, Montana, when Miss Seattle, the only other competitor, dropped out in the second heat due to engine trouble. Miss B&I would later compete against Miss Rocket (renamed Coral Reef to reflect a change in the owner's business), the first Tacoma-built hydroplane.
In August 1957, circus animals were introduced unexpectedly into the B&I's attractions. The Ringling Brothers Show came through Tacoma on its way to Toronto, and Irwin was asked by the circus manager to board and care for some of the animals, which could not be admitted into Canada as they lacked required permits. While the circus toured in Canada, Irwin used the animals as yet another attraction for the store. Customers flocked to the B&I to watch the animals, which became so popular and brought such huge crowds that Irwin began purchasing more animals, and also installed a merry-go-round, then amended the store's name from the "B&I Sales Company" to the "B&I Circus Store."
In 1958, special appearances at the B&I included former World Heavyweight Boxing champions Joe Louis (1914-1981) and Max Baer (1909-1959), father of Max Baer Jr. (who later played Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies), as well as Frank Stojack (1912-1987), WSU graduate, football player, wrestler, city councilman, and sheriff. On through the 1960s, many well-known celebrities of the time would make appearances at the B&I.
By the summer of 1960, Irwin had mastered the use of newspaper advertising, along with radio and television for spot announcements. The B&I Circus Store became a regional landmark, earning a reputation as "the fun place to shop." The store was remodeled and enlarged to 110,000 square feet. Unfortunately, completion of the first segment of Interstate 5 in Tacoma in December 1960 led to changes in the area around the B&I. South Tacoma Way's traffic shifted and the B&I began losing some of its appeal. Irwin needed to come up with a gimmick to draw in customers. He planned an unorthodox, unheard-of method over the next few years to push the B&I Circus Store's attractions over the top.
Gorilla in their Midst
Ivan was born in 1962 in what was then the Republic of the Congo (Léopoldville). As a western lowland gorilla, Ivan probably lived in a tropical forest at an elevation between sea level and 1,300 meters in a troop (group of gorillas) of 8 to 10 members led by one or more male adult silverbacks. Contrary to violent depictions in movies and television shows, gorillas may look mean but are shy and gentle, generally calm and non-aggressive unless disturbed. Gorillas are herbivores; they are also intelligent, show emotions, laugh when tickled, and cry (with sounds, not tears) when sad or hurt.
In 1964, Ivan and another young gorilla were snatched from safety by poachers who were targeting baby gorillas illegally. It is likely that other troop members were killed during the capture of the young gorillas. The 2-year-old toddlers were brought separately to the United States and sold to Irwin for a total of $7,500.
The B&I sponsored a contest to name the young gorillas, with a prize of $500. One name had to begin with a "B" and the other with "I," with one being a boy's name and the other a girl's. The names Burma and Ivan were selected as the winners. Burma arrived first, but she soon died due to internal complications. Ruben Seibert Johnston, who managed the pet shop at the B&I Circus Store, took Ivan into his home in Tacoma's Manitou neighborhood. Ivan became the newest addition to the Johnston household, joining Ruben, his wife Lois, and their sons Danny and Larry.
From the time of his arrival, Ivan appeared in ads and promotions for the B&I. In 1966, film producer Ivan Tors (1916-1983), known for producing feature films and the Flipper television series, came calling from Hollywood and approached the Johnstons on having Ivan appear as a guest star in an episode of the television series Daktari. The Johnstons agreed, and that summer Ivan passed the prerequisite screen tests and filming of the episode commenced in California. Ivan and his family stayed at the Century City Hyatt House, which allowed Ivan the freedom to move around. The Hyatt House provided special accommodations for Ivan after the Johnston family insisted that he sleep in a bed with clean sheets. Ivan was paid $500 per day during the three weeks of filming for the Daktari episode "Judy and the Gorilla," co-starring with the chimpanzee Judy and actor Yale Summers (1933-2012). The episode aired on January 10, 1967. Irwin later turned down an offer from Ivan Tors to buy Ivan. Irwin was also offered a contract with 20th Century Fox, which wanted Ivan to star in a Dr. Doolittle movie, but that did not happen.
Circus Store Gorilla
As Ivan continued to grow over several years, it became apparent he could no longer live in the Johnstons' home. His size and strength made him dangerous to deal with, and in 1967, after careful discussions with gorilla experts and in a long-awaited strategy to promote the store, the Irwins and Johnstons decided to move Ivan to the B&I Circus Store. On Saturday, March 4, 1967, the gorilla moved into the new $60,000 state-of-the-art concrete trailer that would be his cage. Custom-built for a gorilla, it included indoor and outdoor play areas, a small pool, a kitchen, and many other amenities. After his relocation, Ivan became the new face of the B&I Circus Store as Irwin continued utilizing his unorthodox tactics to turn the store into the largest independently owned discount operation on the West Coast.
As the 1960s ended and the 1970s rolled in, changes were taking place in how people felt and thought about animals in captivity. The B&I started to find new homes for most of its animal attractions, but Ivan was retained. One of the biggest changes to the B&I Circus Store was the death of Earl Irwin on November 26, 1973, at the age of 64. Irwin's body was shipped back to Lakewood from West Germany, where he had been receiving cancer treatment, and buried in Mountain View Memorial Park. Earl's wife Connie Irwin became president of the B&I, determined to continue contributing to the local community, and their son Ron took over as general operations manager.
Earl Irwin's death was felt immediately. Without his over-the-top personality, it would be difficult for the B&I to maintain momentum -- but the store had Ivan, now its star attraction. He became the area's most famous nonhuman resident. Ivan was at the B&I to attract shoppers, and they came from far and wide just to see him. Shoppers would look at him as they went by, spending lots of money during a pleasurable outing. Everyone watched Ivan, who seemed huge, especially to small children. Pat Grace, who shopped regularly at the B&I, remembered one incident:
"I had gone in there for some hardware, in the back door where his cage was. There were six or eight folks gathered around. Ivan was over there minding his own business playing with his tire or something ... He was just sitting there. All of a sudden he was across the cage -- he slapped the glass and had people scattering. He had people every which way. It was like it amused him. He wasn't doing all that posturing that you see with apes on TV. He just did it for reaction. If you put a human emotion to it, it would be like he was happy to see the people scatter like cockroaches" (Swainston).
As the 1970s ramped up and the 1980s began, the novelty of the gorilla started to wear off, particularly as animal-rights groups advocating animal liberation started campaigning for Ivan to be moved to a more natural environment. The public came to see Ivan's B&I lifestyle as at odds with the social, physical, and behavioral needs of his species. The days in which the B&I could acceptably foster wild animals were in the past.
PAWS and Woodland Park
In October 1987, the advocacy group Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) became aware of Ivan's living conditions, prompting a campaign to encourage the community and nearby cities to protest and boycott the B&I Circus Store. The campaign gained traction in 1991, when actor Allison Argo wrote, produced, and directed the independent film The Urban Gorilla. Narrated by Glenn Close (b. 1947) and broadcast by National Geographic, it sparked a nationwide effort to move Ivan. Within the 53-minute film, a 3-minute-33-second segment featured Ivan as a prisoner in a concrete cage. Ivan was contrasted with Zoo Atlanta gorilla Willie B., who after 29 years in an indoor enclosure successfully transitioned to an outdoor habitat. By the time the film was released, Ivan had lived in his concrete cage at the B&I Circus Store for 24 years, and had not seen or interacted with another gorilla since the death of Burma in 1964. The B&I was facing a grim future, but the store still had its supporters. A 1991 letter to the store said:
"I think you, your family and company should be most proud of the professional quarters Ivan lives in and the quality of service that is provided him. From the information provided by the press and comments I have heard, I doubt that Ivan could have any more love and attention ... I hope you can stand your ground and take the time necessary to think through your situation ... I was quite taken by your company. Your store is full of excitement with the rides, games, food, animals and great prices. You have created entertainment in a business that is a destination point" (Shearson Lehman Brothers letter).
There were reports of an offer in 1992 by singer Michael Jackson (1958-2009) to build Ivan a home at his Neverland Ranch, a 2,700-acre hideaway north of Santa Barbara. However, that deal did not go through, partly because of a failure to find a female companion for Ivan.
On November 3, 1992, the B&I filed for bankruptcy protection and Ivan's fate landed in the courtroom. Standards had changed, and experts had begun designing animal habitats as environments intended to rehabilitate captive animals and reintroduce them into more natural surroundings. Of the many people who came to see Ivan while shopping, more began wondering if he should be with his own kind. One month after the B&I filed for bankruptcy, PAWS submitted notification of violation of the Endangered Species Act.
In early 1994, facing pressure from zoological and animal-rights groups, the Irwin family donated Ivan to Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Because its gorilla habitats were at capacity, arrangements were made for Ivan to be sent on permanent loan to Zoo Atlanta. On October 11, 1994, Ivan was flown to Georgia on Emory Worldwide Jet; he was air-freight first class and pampered throughout the flight. By 1995, Ivan had acclimated enough at Zoo Atlanta to be introduced to other gorillas for the first time in almost 30 years. Although introduced to several female gorillas, Ivan only engaged with one, named Kinyani, and he never sired any offspring.
Ivan lived out his 18 remaining years in Zoo Atlanta, surviving to the ripe old age of 50. Ivan died on August 20, 2012, while under anesthesia as a diagnostic exam was being performed due to a decline in his health. The news spread quickly to the Lakewood/Tacoma area and around the world. Ivan was cremated and his remains returned to the Pacific Northwest under an agreement with the Irwin family.
Although the days of the Earl Irwin, the discount circus store, and Ivan the gorilla had passed, and despite filing for bankruptcy, the B&I continued to live on. Though the store was not officially registered as a landmark, many considered it to be a Tacoma landmark. Still located on South Tacoma Way, the B&I outlived both its namesake founders and became a memorial to the contributions of the Irwin family to the community. In 2018, now known as the B&I Public Marketplace, it housed multiple stores and restaurants that had been there for years. The location remained unique and its businesses still included a pet store, though its wares were far from the exotic species of Irwin's day. Along the hallways visitors could find pieces of history, news articles detailing Irwin's publicity stunts, photos from days of celebrity visits, and even Ivan's former cage.
In 2012, children's book author Katherine Applegate published The One and Only Ivan, which won the 2013 Newberry Medal. Applegate published a second book on Ivan in 2014, Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla, an easy-to-read picture book that provides children a quick and simple way to learn about his life. The same year, Disney announced plans to adapt Applegate's first Ivan book as a feature film.
On the lightly raining day of October 26, 2016, a life-size 3-D-printed bronze statue of Ivan was unveiled at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma. Sculptor Douglas Granum of Port Orchard collaborated with Form 3-D Foundry of Portland, Oregon, to produce the piece. The statue reflected how people felt about Ivan and the desire to honor his life. In 2017, a stage adaptation of The One and Only Ivan opened in Atlanta. In 2018 filming began on Disney's adaptation of the book, with Sam Rockwell (b. 1968), providing Ivan's voice, and Angela Jolie (b. 1975), who also co-produced, among the cast.
The legacies of Ivan and Irwin were tremendous, and their memories still live on in the hearts of all who were fortunate enough to know and love them.