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Longtime Animal Kingdom Manager Penning Book About Beloved Pet Shop

By Victoria Johnson | January 22, 2013 8:25am

AVONDALE — When the Animal Kingdom pet store announced in late 2009 it would be closing its doors, one longtime customer likened it to the death of a family friend.

Steve Maciontek knows just how that feels.

In 1967, when he was 17, he started working at Animal Kingdom for a dollar an hour. Little did he know he'd spend the next 43 years on staff at the Avondale pet store-turned-exotic animal refuge, most of that time as the general manager.

"I got paid to play with lions and tigers," he said with a laugh. "It never felt like work!"

So Maciontek has set out to keep those memories alive with a book about the quirky pet store, first opened by Clarence "Bernie" Hoffman in 1944.

Hoffman's father, William Hoffman, Sr., had also owned a store called Animal Kingdom that he opened in 1907. But it sold only animal feed for the poultry patrons kept at their homes in those days for eating.

It quickly became obvious, though, that Bernie Hoffman was a bit more adventurous when he opened his own store. Upon hearing a child ask his mother why it was called Animal Kingdom if there weren't any animals there, Hoffman decided to change that.

It started with the usual — cats, dogs, birds and fish — but soon enough he was dabbling in wilder creatures, such as llamas, peacocks, lions, tigers and monkeys. The animals lived in pens on display in the store, which eventually opened an outdoor recreation area behind the shop to house the exotic wildlife.

When a traveling magician lamented that he'd have to kill two white doves he bought at Animal Kingdom to board a train after a Chicago show because it didn't allow animals, Bernie Hoffman offered instead to rent him the birds — and Animal Kingdom's rental service was born.

Soon, he was renting out tigers for Goldblatt's department store's "Tiger of a Sale," or chimpanzees to appear with Hugh Hefner at the opening of his 1973 film "The Naked Ape."

Regulations on wild animals were much looser in those days, and Bernie Hoffman simply had to reach out to area breeders in the Midwest to procure any wild animal he might need for the next film, TV show or party.

"This type of store could never exist today," Maciontek said, adding that people sometimes referred to Animal Kingdom as Chicago's "inner-city zoo."

So while the days of tigers roaming around the store are over, Maciontek is working to gather all the memories, old photos and stories into a book.

"The idea for the book came to me after we closed, and I figured — 'Well, there's never going to be a store like this again ever,'" he said.

Featuring prominently in Maciontek's book will be the story of the famous Chelveston the Duck, who appeared with Ray Rayner on WGN's "Ray Rayner and his Friends," a local children's show that ran from the 1960s through the '80s.

Chelveston was actually rescued from John's Live Poultry, a butcher shop that still exists today and allows customers to choose live poultry to be slaughtered for meat. A young Maciontek had the honor of driving the lucky duck back to Animal Kingdom in his car.

"Ducks aren't housebroken, and they get car sick I discovered on the ride back," he recalled.

Chelveston's appearance was meant to be a one-time event, but the audience so loved him that he became one of the show's main attractions.

Chelveston — there were actually several Chelvestons over the years — remained living at Animal Kingdom and was frequently visited by fans.

"I mean, it was like they were actually seeing a television star," Maciontek said.

Maciontek said right now he's working on gathering pictures and conducting interviews for the book, but hopes to get it published sometime this year.

He's already spoken with local publishers, but he said he will self-publish if necessary.