New play recreates a 1930s nudist camp that resembled a human zoo
By Margie M. Palmer
When most people hear that Balboa Park was once home to what was likely the first, and only nudist park open to the public, the phrase “urban legend” quickly comes to mind.
But during the two-year run of the 1935-36 California-Pacific International Exposition, anyone could pay their hard-earned 75 cents to gain entry to Zoro Garden. Once inside, they could spend as long as they wished watching fellow human beings hang out and move about stark naked.
The elusive details of Zoro Garden have been tracked down by cultural journalist Welton Jones, who along with artist Kate Clark, have fashioned them into a four-act play.
“The Naked Truth: The Rise And Fall Of America’s Only Public Nudist Colony In Four Acts” is part of “Parkeology”: a live event and TV series that unearths lesser known sites and stories of Balboa Park.
Running through June, “Parkeology” hosts events that explore popular and obscure locations in the park — including but not limited to its closeted histories. Clark leads the series in collaboration with the San Diego Art Institute (SDAI).
When SDAI executive director Ginger Shulick Porcella asked Clark if she wanted to do something on Zoro Gardens, Clark said she jumped at the chance.
“A friend and I wound up putting together a museum display [for the Balboa Park Centennial] that ran from probably January through March of this year, and we realized there was very little material that was left behind. It was treated like a carnival concession,” Clark said. “I first made contact with Welton when I was doing research for the exhibit but I felt like we should do something in the garden itself.”
Jones had written plenty of stories about the park’s history when he worked at the San Diego Union-Tribune, but as he approached retirement, Jones said he felt there were certain areas of the park that were grossly overlooked.
That’s when he started researching Zoro Gardens.
“I don’t need to hear any more stories about the little old lady who planted all the plants,” Jones said, laughing. “The nudist camp happened, it was open to the public and this happened in the middle of the Depression. How is this not widely known?”
The production hopes to answer questions about the nudist colony and comes as close as possible to an actual reenactment, without being a full-blown reenactment.
“Reenactments solidify things as being in the past,” Clark said. “The plan is to have different modern things incorporated, like, there will be a juice there and some people will be wearing Crocs.”
‘The Naked Truth’
The production of “The Naked Truth” will staged on May 22. The 40-minute-long acts will run at 1, 3, 5 and 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public; reservations are not required.
Clothing is optional (just kidding.)
“The original colony was kind of like a zoo. People could go any time of day between 11 a.m. and midnight, and when they got there, they never knew what the people would be up to,” she said. “Sometimes they’d be playing volleyball, or relaxing, or cooking bacon. I liked the idea of doing a daylong thing so people could filter in and out of the space in a way that it was initially designed for.”
And while the nudists will not actually be nude, because current laws require that people be dressed to a level of nudity that’s appropriate for a public beach, they will be in nude suits.
“Part of this project is about the absurdity of having them in nude suits. Another part involves looking at what was happening during this era that allowed this to occur and asking why that’s not possible now,” Clark said. “My hope is that people realize that people have always been weird. So many people have this attitude about ‘The Past’ that people behaved better, and I think this gives an interesting window into a moment of experimentalism in California that was pre-World War II that was taking place during the Great Depression.”
And while some might think of Zoro Garden as being a “dirty secret” of the past, wondering why its existence would be highlighted as part of a public art project, San Diego Art Institute executive assistant Celia Gold said that the “Parkeology” productions, including “The Naked Truth,” have been a good fit for the SDAI.
“‘Parkeology’ is such a good fit for us because it combines all of the components [of our mission],” she said. “We’re supporting Kate and the artists with whom she’s collaborated, as well as partnering with other museums in Balboa Park to create informative, interactive events that are free and open to the public. [She] put a lot of thought into the various histories she wanted to elucidate and the impacts of foregrounding these often overlooked narratives on the way San Diegans think about the city’s past, its present, and the parameters that we put around imagining its possible futures.”
—Margie M. Palmer is a San Diego-based freelance writer who has been racking up bylines in a myriad of news publications for the past 10 years. You can reach her at email@example.com.