A couple of weeks ago I went on vacation and spent several nights in hotels along the way. At check-in we were given those now familiar room “keys” that resemble a credit card. A swipe of the card through the magnetic lock and the hotel room door opens. I have used these types of card keys most of my adult life, but I just discovered the link between the keys to hotel rooms and the beloved zoo key memories of my childhood.
In 1960 the Cleveland Zoo introduced talking books at select animal exhibits. These talking books were operated by inserting a plastic key that triggered a recording that gave information about the animals on exhibit. There was something almost magical about the process to young children. Even though many other kids were lined up to use their zoo keys it somehow felt as if you were one of a select group, the proud owner of your own zoo key.
The man behind the talking books and their plastic keys was Bruce Sedley. Bruce was an entertainer and puppeteer in Oakland, California. He came up with the idea for “Talking Storybooks” while working at Oakland’s Children’s Fairytale Park in the 1950s. The key for those storybooks was a large skeleton key made of gold painted plastic, in keeping with the fairy tale theme. It was so popular that Sedley began looking for other places to use the system and approached the San Francisco Zoo. He redesigned the key to resemble an elephant, using the extended trunk as the part of the key inserted into the book. Instead of stories the zoo key operated recordings giving facts about the animals on view. Sedley’s original zoo key was named “Trunkey,” but when the program was introduced at the Cleveland Zoo they used the name “Packey.” To be honest I don’t remember calling my key by any name other than “zoo key,” but if anyone out there remembers Packey, let me know.
Sedley patented his zoo key in 1960. It was called a novelty key and received United States Patent number 188,343. It was one of several patents that Sedley obtained for devices similar to, or associated with his early inventions. That brings me back to my original paragraph about hotel room keys. In 1969 Sedley obtained one of several patents for magnetic door keys, the forerunner to today’s credit card sized room keys. He resubmitted new designs/improvements for this invention over the years. He did not, however, design a hotel key shaped like an elephant. Now that would have been cool.
As for the content of the talking book, the scripts for the Cleveland Zoo were written by Zoo Director, Fletcher Reynolds in the early years, and recorded in Hollywood studios by professional voice over actors. Rumor has it that some later versions were recorded by Lynn Sheldon, host of the local children’s show, Barnaby.
The zoo key program delighted Cleveland Zoo visitors for years. It received a last update in 2008, but changing technology and other ways of delivering info meant the demise of old Packey, not only in Cleveland but around the country. You can find them for sale on E-bay, and there are a couple of Facebook groups to share memories and photos of zoo keys. We live in an information age, where a swipe of a screen or a click of a mouse pulls up a myriad of facts (and sadly, lies.) Also the creation of hundreds of plastic items destined for land –fills is not good for Mother Earth. But there was something satisfying and visceral about little hands putting the key into a slot and opening up a world of information. I think even today’s tech savvy toddlers would have enjoyed Packey.
You can read more about Bruce Sedley and his career at http://bayarearadio.org/people/bruce-sedley.shtml