Once upon a time, in the early 1960s, Richman Gordman’s head Dan Gordman spotted large animal figures in a New York backyard while driving through the state. He stopped to ask the homeowners about the animals and discovered that the woman who lived there had designed and created them.
Gordman commissioned four unique designs (blue elephant, yellow kangaroo, green hippo and orange camel) to be created for his department store chain. Each fiberglass animal was built in New York by the artist and the sets were shipped in pieces to be assembled and placed in Richman Gordman stores.
The first Zooland was created in 1964 at the former Richman Gordman store at 73rd & Blondo in Omaha. The animals served as a play area where children could entertain themselves while their parents shopped. Over the next two decades, about a dozen total Zoolands were installed in numerous Richman Gordman stores, featuring various combinations of the four animals. Zooland locations eventually included stores in Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island and Nebraska City in Nebraska; Council Bluffs and Des Moines, Iowa; and Topeka, Kansas.
When the company became Gordmans in the late 1990s, in the tradition of Zooland a special area for children was retained in the store design. Gordmans Giggles, a colorful mini-children’s theater, featured family-friendly videos with kid-sized seating and a funhouse mirror, and was located near the infant and children’s apparel department in all Gordmans stores.
Zooland at Omaha Children’s Museum
When Gordmans no longer housed the animals, they went to homes of individuals. The ones that Omaha Children’s Museum acquired had all been used in family backyards. There are some reports of the animals being a part of businesses, such as daycares.
On April 10, 2010, Chris Vaske-Murray, a Facebook friend of Omaha Children’s Museum, posted on Facebook: “This Richman Gordman elephant slide would make a great addition to OCM. I know a lot of parents who would go just to relive childhood memories! It is listed on eBay now.”
Omaha Children’s Museum Executive Director Lindy Hoyer was thrilled to get this news, as she grew up visiting the Richman Gordman stores and has fond memories of playing in Zooland. She set to work getting an eBay account and placing bids on the elephant, camel and hippo. All three pieces were owned and put on the ebBay auction by Mike Narducci of Omaha. Narducci had purchased the three animals 12 years prior, so his daughter Erica could have the Zooland experience.
Hoyer, on the museum’s behalf, bid on the elephant, camel and hippo, ultimately buying the elephant and camel for $1,700 and $415, respectively. The fiberglass pieces were hauled into the museum and the elephant alone required eight men to move it. The winner of the hippo eBay auction, Mark Gustafson, contacted the museum following a front-page article in the Omaha World-Herald and donated it back to the museum. Jeff Gordman, CEO of Gordmans Inc., called the museum to lend his support. The search for the remaining piece, the kangaroo, continued.
Shirley McVicker, of Grand Island, NE, contacted the museum and donated two more animals that she had kept in her yard for years. Shortly thereafter, the kangaroo and an additional camel made the trek from Omaha to Grand Island to await the restoration process.
The museum started the “Bringing Back the Pack” campaign to encourage people in the community to contribute to the cause of restoring Zooland. The project cost more than $30,000 to complete. A number of families, as well as Gordmans, gave gifts toward funding the restoration process. Bringing Back the Pack invited people to share their memories on this site and to pass the word along to their friends through social media, t-shirts, email and more.
The Bringing Back the Pack marketing campaign received “Best In Show” at the Omaha Chapter American Marketing Association’s Pinnacle Awards. Partners, Rebel Interactive, WOWT, ScreenScape Studios and Gordmans gave tremendous support to the campaign. Following this successful campaign, the animals debuted to cheers at the grand opening of the Big Backyard exhibit and are now their own permanent exhibit!