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History's Headlines: Did the Max Hess legend begin with a kangaroo?

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Sep 13 2013 08:34:20 PM CDT
Updated On: Sep 16 2013 07:42:52 PM CDT

History's Headlines: Max Hess's Kangaroo

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Everyone in the Lehigh Valley, including many who were not around in his heyday, have heard of what might be called Allentown department store owner Max Hess’s legendary flair for publicity. And, let’s face it, if you’ve been gone for over 40 years and people are still talking about the star-studded parties you threw, you’re a legend.

But how did Max Hess become, well, MAX HESS?  What put him on the road from being a good businessman running a thriving department store in a medium -sized city to becoming a prince of promotion, the king of, “the customer is always right”?

Installing the largest department store sign between New York and Chicago on his store in 1947 (said to have been inspired by the giant BOND men’s clothing store sign that Hess saw in New York, which was also the inspiration, according to author Ian Flaming, for the last name of his famous spy) probably didn’t hurt. Neither did those sales that sent shoppers scrambling. But it is just possible that a kangaroo had something to do with it.

The story begins in the west end of Allentown during the early morning hours of Sunday, May 28, 1950. Even early churchgoers were barely out of bed and things at the switchboard of the Allentown Police Department were thankfully quiet. Then at approximately 7:00 a.m., the board lit up. The caller was a resident from the 700 block of Glenwood St. The poor man was clearly dazed, or so everyone thought, when he began to babble about seeing a kangaroo in his backyard.

But what really stunned the operators was that suddenly everyone in the west end seemed gripped by the same strange mania  Almost all of them wanted it understood that this was an actual animal and not some pink elephants that, a la Walt Disney’s Dumbo, had arrived with a Sunday morning hangover from too many martinis on Saturday night. “I am perfectly sober,” began a man from the 2200 block of W. Livingston St, “and I am not seeing things but there is a kangaroo in my yard.” It was a refrain that was repeated over and over and not only at the police department. The Call-Chronicle’s switchboard was equally overwhelmed.

Police Lt. Douglas Kleckner, who was on duty at the time, did not know exactly what to make of it. Surely an entire section of the city could not be engaged in some huge practical joke.  Perhaps it was a form of mass hysteria akin to what was sparked by those flying saucer things that the newspapers were all talking about that year. A still skeptical Kleckner called the newspaper and asked a reporter and a photographer to join him on the kangaroo hunt.

Everything was normal about the drive until the members of the press arrived at 22nd and Pennsylvania Streets. There before their eyes was a kangaroo hiding, or at least trying to, in a copse of trees. Neighborhood residents Donald Henry, Frank Zieger and Earl Fahringer were standing nearby. “He’s in here,” they told the reporter, “we have him cornered.” Slowly wading through knee high grass, they attempted to approach the wary marsupial.

Although the kangaroo was far from his native outback, it still knew how to use what nature had given it to use in just such an emergency. “Out-numbered but not outsmarted, the kangaroo had decided the hour of reckoning had not yet arrived,” the reporter wrote. “ It pricked up its ears, hesitated for a minute, boosted its body with its tail to its three foot height and took off in a hurry.”

Showing what it was made of, the kangaroo quickly out-distanced the humans and vanished into the back alleys behind N. 21st  Street.  When that happened, the journalists decided to go from door-to-door, asking if anyone had seen a kangaroo. One man said no, he had not seen a kangaroo. His son had told him there was one in the yard but knowing that was impossible he told his son he was just seeing things.

A woman opened the next door. When they asked her if she had seen a kangaroo she looked at them as if they had been asking is she had seen “Harvey,” a mythical 8 foot rabbit character in a Broadway play starring Jimmy Stewart that Hollywood made into a movie that year. “And where were you last night?” she said before slamming the door in their faces.

For the next two hours the kangaroo hunt proved futile. Finally Allentown police got a phone call from city fireman R.R. Kranzley. The kangaroo had landed in his backyard where it had a confrontation with Kranzley’s dog, a malamute, which the newspaper called “an Eskimo dog.”

By the time patrolmen Wilbur Gilbert and Richard Flatley arrived, the dog had the marsupial cornered between the porch and the home of Richard S. Trexler at 2016 Green St. Gilbert grabbed the dazed animal by its back legs and he and his partner lifted it gently into the patrol car. They took it to an animal shelter.

Somehow someone learned Max Hess was the kangaroo’s owner and later that day he arrived to claim it. Hess told the paper that he had not one but two pet kangaroos- a male and a female. Apparently they broke out of their cages. Hess said he had no trouble re-capturing  the male but the female was too quick for him. Some sources later claimed Hess had purchased them as birthday present for his wife, but there is nothing in the newspaper about that.

The fate of that wayward kangaroo is unknown. But one thing is certain, with that event Max Hess got more press publicity than he could possibly have paid for. Perhaps that started him thinking, and the rest, as they say, is history.