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Jack Hanna's theater tour invites audiences into the wild

Long Beach's Carpenter Performing Arts Center is set to host wildlife expert Jack Hanna, whose live tour features such animals as a bald eagle, python and a sloth.

May 17, 2012|By Katherine Tulich, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Jack Hanna has been seen on "The Late Show With David Letterman."
Jack Hanna has been seen on "The Late Show With David Letterman." (Jack Rick A. Prebeg/World…)

Nothing seems to stop "Jungle" Jack Hanna. Facing down dangerous animals and persnickety late-night hosts, the congenial wildlife expert and dedicated conservationist in the trademark khaki suit has been TV fixture for the last 30 years. Now, despite having just undergone a double knee replacement, Hanna is doing a national theater tour that comes to the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach on Saturday.

"As long as I don't have to run around too much after any animals I will be fine," he laughed by phone from his home in Montana, where he is recuperating.

In a concert-style show that he has been presenting for the last five years, Hanna introduces a variety of animals on stage along with video clips from his many wildlife adventures around the world, hoping to entertain and inform in the laid-back style that has made the director emeritus to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium one of the country's most recognizable animal authorities.

"It's like going on safari with me and getting a chance to see the animals on stage as well," Hanna said. "I love doing these shows because when I do my TV shows all you really see is cameras in front of you, but here is a chance to really meet people and talk to them and find out what they want to know."

"People are mesmerized when they see him live," said Suzi Rapp, director of animal operations at the Columbus Zoo. "He is everything and more of what they expect. He is the same charming, ornery, funny person they see on TV, and he is so knowledgeable and giving. He stays until the last autograph is signed."

Rapp has worked for Hanna since he was first appointed director of the Columbus Zoo in 1978, transforming it from a ramshackle facility to the state-of-the-art park it is today. Rapp helps coordinate all the animals for Hanna's many TV and live appearances. For the California shows, the roster includes an assortment of wild creatures including a bald eagle, a python, a sloth and the kookaburra, the Australian native bird whose loud call sounds like a laugh.

"We have a great lineup of animals to show," Hanna said. "We fly an owl over the audience, which is tremendous. They are called the bird of silent flight and you can appreciate why when you see it overhead. We have a gator that is 10 feet long and we have cameras and a screen so you can see down his throat, and we hope to show a kangaroo with a baby inside its pouch."

Hanna currently has two family-friendly series on TV in the syndicated "Jack Hanna's Into the Wild" and his new "Wild Countdown," which airs Saturday mornings on ABC. He is still a frequent guest on "Good Morning America," who first brought the zookeeper to national attention in 1983 when he was invited to appear after twin baby gorillas were born at the Columbus Zoo. But perhaps his most memorable appearances have been on "Late Show With David Letterman," where he has been a regular since 1985.

"I have been Dave's longest running guest, and in all this time I have never talked to him before or after the show, and it's not because we don't like or respect each other," Hanna said. "But when I go out there we never know what's going to happen. It's like playing a game of football.

"I have never considered myself a star or celebrity," he added. "I am just a person who loves animals. Television gives me a chance to promote the conservation issues that are important."

But sometimes his folksy TV persona can make him appear more buffoon than expert. "I think he is greatly underestimated," said Rapp. "He is a great educator and knows how to get a strong message out in an entertaining form. If he just went on these shows and recited facts, people would not be interested."

"There are a lot of tough issues out there," admitted Hanna, who recently traveled to Africa to witness firsthand the devastating effects of poaching on the rhino population.

"But you can still make a point without preaching it," he said. "The bottom line for me is to be able to introduce people to these wonderful animals. If you can get them to love them, then you have a better chance to save them."

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