California Pacific International Exposition and the Zoro Garden Nudist Colony
Located within Balboa Park of San Diego, Zoro Gardens became the site of a controversial nudist colony during the California Pacific International Exposition, which was held between 1935 and 1936. The park dates back to the 1830s, when Spanish colonial officials set apart land for public use. The park was also the site of the 1915–16 Panama–California Exposition.
Backstory and Context
The Zoro Gardens, named after the Persian religious figure Zoroaster, were constructed as part of the preparations for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The sunken grotto occupies six acres within Balboa Park, and was modeled in the form of an open-air amphitheater surrounded by a wooden fence. As preparations were being made for a second international exposition in the 1930s, sideshow promoters Nate Eagle and Stanley R. Graham came up with the idea of operating a nudist colony-directly in the middle of the California Pacific International Exposition.
Visitors from across the state, country, and world traveled to San Diego for the International Exposition. A small number agreed to pay an admission fee of 25¢ to access Zoro Gardens and the nudists who resided and performed at the park. According to the official events program, the show featured "healthy young men and women, indulging in the freedom of outdoor living in which they so devoutly believe, have opened their colony to the friendly, curious gaze of the public" (Marshall, 2007).
Visitors were able to sit on benches or peek through carefully (and intentionally) positioned holes in the surrounding wooden fence. Both male and female nudists could be seen in the garden, allegedly wearing nothing but in fact candidly covered in skimpy underwear and flesh-colored clothing – though their torsos and breasts were usually fully exposed. Many of these nudists were performers hired from the Century of Progress International Exposition that took place in Chicago in 1933. They would spend the day sunbathing, playing volleyball and other sports, or engaging in a Zoroastrian “Sacrifice to the Sun God” ritual to five times each day.
Of particular renown was Yvonne Stacey, a twenty two year old performer who assumed the moniker of “Zorine: Queen of the Nudists.” Upon arrival from the Chicago exposition she went straight to the District Attorney’s office in San Diego, and swore to him that she and her colleagues would not do any indecent acts within the gardens. After leaving the Zoro Gardens towards the end of 1935,Stacey went on to tour the country as an advocate of nudist rights.
Among the hundreds of exhibits shown at the Exposition, one of the best remembered was Alpha the Robot, a "mechanical man" created by Harry May. This representedthe cutting edge of mid-1930s machine age robtic technology. At some point during the exhibition, Alpha wandered away from the nearby Palace of Science and found himself at another exhibit, that of Queen Zorine and her harem of nudists. The unique and delightfully strange picture below shows Alpha "abducting" Queen Zorine
The nudist colony closed after less than a year. A combination of internal squabbles among the “nudists,” and a disagreement regarding finances, and growing pressure from protesters who believed that the colony was “indecent” led to its closure in August, 1936. Chief among the protesters were demonstrations and petitions organized by prominent religious and women’s associations in San Diego. The San Diego Braille club were one of the organizations who joined the protest movement. Although their organization included members blind the Braille Club protested that the indecent nature of the colony threatened all citizens.
Recognizing the sideshow-like nature of the exhibit, committed nudist rights-activists also protested against the colony. One such group lodged an official complaint to the San Diego District Attorney that argued that the enterprise was fraudulent.
Today, Zoro Garden is a more family-friendly place. There is no sign of the nudist colony and the center of the space includes a butterfly garden. The gardens, like Balboa Park, are an ideal spot for residents and a must-see for visitors to the city. After visiting the garden, visitors can also tour the nearby Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.