Balboa Park is a true reflection of San Diego, past and present. Located next door to the San Diego Zoo, it is home to the Fleet Science Center, the Museum of Man, the Natural History Museum, the Botanical Gardens, and one very often overlooked place: Zoro Garden. The sunken grotto is home to many species of butterflies, but in 1935 and 1936, Zoro Garden was home to San Diego's naked exhibition.
The buildings that form the park, including Zoro Garden, were originally constructed in 1915 for the Panama-California Exhibition. They were renovated for the California Pacific International Exhibition in 1935-36, and Zoro Garden was transformed into the infamous San Diego nudist colony attraction.
In the middle of the Great Depression, the nudist performers managed to bring in an impressive amount of revenue for the exhibition. For 25 cents, visitors could sit and watch the unclothed members of the faux-colony go about their lives. In spite of the odds stacked against their exhibit, the residents of Zoro Garden didn't just make money – they earned their unlikely spot in San Diego history.
The 1930s saw an increase in nudist shows at world's fairs and exhibitions. However scandalous they may have seemed, these displays were a follow-up to a much more offensive type of exhibit. Live cultural displays were common throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, sometimes known as "human zoos."
These exhibits featured people from remote locations around the world living in staged versions of their home environments, which often included recreations of their living quarters and food sources. The St Louis World's Fair in 1904 hosted many living exhibits, including displays of Congolese, Philippine, Native American, and Inuit peoples. The participants acted out scenes from their daily lives for fair-goers, who had not had a chance to travel the world and see foreign lands and people for themselves. These types of exhibits eventually became widely criticized, and ceased due to perceptions of racism.
Many of the "naturists" who performed in Zoro Garden were "Sunday nudists." Some of them had already performed at Chicago's Century of Progress world's fair, which took place in 1933-34. However, Queen Zorene (Yvonne Stacey) claimed that she was an authentic nudist rather than simply a performer in the show. She quit her role after the first season of the exhibition and took her nudist act on the road. She continued her nudist performance career until the 1950s.
Even though there were no rules in San Diego about nudity in exhibitions like Zoro Garden, the performers were not actually nude. They were close, though – their uniforms included g-strings and loincloths. Some of the performers also wore barely-there tights that enhanced their figures, but couldn't be seen from a distance.
The Zoro Garden exhibit was run like a sideshow event, mainly because it was created by sideshow promoters Nate Eagle and Stanley R. Graham. Kate Clark, who wrote a play about Zoro Garden, explained the concept:
The original colony was kind of like a zoo. People could go any time of day between 11 AM and midnight, and when they got there, they never knew what the people would be up to.
The people inhabiting the faux-colony went about their lives cooking, playing volleyball, and sunbathing in the nude. One of the staples of their routine was a 20-minute performance of a "sacrifice to the Sun God," which was done for the benefit of the viewers five times per day. The routine didn't have any true religious significance, though the exhibit was said to be inspired by Zoroastrianism.