1939 S.F. TREASURE ISLAND WORLD'S FAIR, MIKADO- ZODIAC & DR. GEORGE HODEL
In chapter 20 of MOST EVIL, I suggest that my father, Dr. George Hill Hodel may have obtained his “inspiration” for using the name and character of ZODIAC while working as a young doctor at the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair. He was there on location throughout the filming of Charlie Chan at Treasure Island which originally introduced the world to “Dr. Zodiac.”
In my original draft, I also included what I believe to be a second thoughtprint, linking George Hodel to Zodiac and again directly to the year 1939 and Treasure Island. Though edited out of the chapter in the final book, I here present it for your review as originally written in its rough form:
“SWING MIKADO” & DR. GEORGE HODEL AT SAN FRANCISCO’S TREASURE ISLAND 1939
One of the Treasure Island Fairgrounds biggest summer hits of 1939 was the Federal Theater production of- SWING MIKADO. (Sponsored by President Roosevelt’s WPA)
In an on-line 2003 Graduate Students Symposium article at Tufts University, here is an excerpt from Lucas Dennis, describing that original production of SWING MIKADO:
…included some major changes from the original Mikado. These changes included the re-scoring of five of the original numbers so that they would “swing,” the insertion of some popular dance sequences including “The Truck” and “The Cakewalk,” and the updating of some of the dialogue into the producers’ version of black dialect.”
Separate research shows that arranger, composer, performer, Jester Hairston played the part of Ko-Ko in both the original 1938 Chicago opening and at the Treasure Island production.
In a 1980 interview here is what Hairston had to say:
“So I did the Mikado in swing and played the part of Ko-Ko and directed the show. It was a tremendous hit. We did it at the San Francisco World’s Fair. The Federal Theater had a theater on Treasure Island out there in the water. Mrs. Roosevelt came to our show. She came backstage and shook hands with all of us. That was a thrill. “
We know that Dr. George Hodel was present and doctoring at Treasure Island simultaneous to the afternoon and evening performances of this SWING MIKADO. There can be little doubt that he saw the show. Perhaps several times. Was this performance with its modified lyrics Zodiac’s inspiration which he included in his Gilbert & Sullivan references some thirty-years later? The 1939 Swing Mikado program shows that Ko-Ko sang, “I’ve Got a Little List” in Act 1, followed by “Titwillow” in Act 2.
Here are a few excerpts from Zodiac’s mimicking “lyrics,” (“crooked cues and twisted shoes”) inserted just prior to his moderately accurate quotation of Gilbert’s, “I’ve got a Little List.”
Some I shall tie over ant hills
and watch them scream & twich
and squirm. Others shall have
pine splinters driven under their
nails & then burned. Others shall
be placed in cages & fed salt
beef untill they are gorged then
I shall listen to their pleass
for water and I shall laugh at
them. Others will hang by
their thumbs & burn in the
sun then I will rub them down
with deep heat to warm
them up. Others I shall
skin them alive & let them
run around screaming . And
all billiard players I shall
have them play in a darkend
cell with crooked
cues & Twisted Shoes.
Yes I shall have great
fun in flicting the most
delicious of pain to my
Are they Zodiac originals? Or are they his own vain attempts to plagiarize Mikado-like words, perhaps similar to those he heard performed in the SWING MIKADO at Treasure Island in 1939? Perhaps thirty-years later he reasoned, “If there can be a Black Swing version of Mikado, then why not a Zodiac one? When coincidences pile upon coincidences one is forced to pay attention. I find the fact that BOTH the Dr. Zodiac and Mikado linkage can be traced directly back to the San Francisco World’s Fair at Treasure Island at the same time Dr. George Hodel was there is highly suspicious, and makes for a compelling- THOUGHTPRINT.
 Source is from a taping of oral histories preserved by the African American Musica Collections, University of Michigan
 The Swing Mikado, a WPA Federal Theatre Project, originally opened in Chicago in 1938, then moved to New York where it ran for 86 performances. The New York opening was attended by Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, and Mayor LaGuardia. The production was conceived, staged, and directed by Harry Minturn, with swing re-orchestrations of Arthur Sullivan’s music by Warden and starring Maurice Cooper as Nanki-Poo. In 1939, after closing at Treasure Island, the Swing Mikado, by popular demand, continued performances through the fall of that year at San Francisco’s prestigious downtown, Geary Theater, as well as across the Bay in Oakland.
 In comparing Zodiac’s words to the original lyrics, I suspect he is quoting from memory. (Excluding, what I believe are his deliberate misspellings.) The few notable differences appear for the most part to be omissions, which would seem to indicate Zodiac is not copying from a visible text.
1939 SAN FRANCISCO TREASURE ISLAND MIKADO A SMASH HIT
The SWING MIKADO was so successful at Treasure Island that it was performed that summer at the famed, GEARY THEATRE in downtown San Francisco and later that fall across the bay at the Oakland Auditorium.
The hit show was also featured in the March 1939 edition of LIFE MAGAZINE:
Watching CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND, it was interesting to see how Rhadini uses a trick disguise to bulk up for his seances as Dr. Zodiac and so appear “entirle different” from his real self (tall, dark, slender, mustache, European-looking, very dapper with a suave, authoritative voice and manner). Also interesting how several features of the Zodiac killer’s sly interaction with Chronicle sex columnist “Count Marco” Spinelli are foreshadowed in the story: poison pen letters, a hint of blackmail, the competitive jousting with a sort of public alter ego, the grandiose psychiatric diagnosis and wry, humorously ironic psychological projection. Reading up on the World’s Fair at Treasure Island, it seems to mesh perfectly with GHH’s life-long, self-created, dream-like private universe: fantasy art deco architecture, burlesque shows (the Folies Bergere and Sally Rand’s hugely successful, western-themed Nude Ranch), a bizarre attraction comprising tiny, premature babies sustained in incubators, exotic national and technological pavilions, asian influences, etc. Herb Caen was even there filing dispatches as a young reporter for the Chronicle, just like in the movie. GHH must have been in his element at the Expo and it seems hardly surprising that he revisited the experience in concocting his later crimes. -LW
LW: Good observations as usual. (I’m still on the fence as to the actual source of GHH calling himself “Zodiac”. Initially, to me it looked like another cut and paste plagiarism that he took it from the CCATI film. However, after learning of the surrealist patron group who supported Dali financially and promotionally, and called themselves, The Zodiac Group, that also seems directly in line with GHH’s thinking. After all, he did fashion his crime signatures after his “fellow artists” Man Ray and Dali for his “Dream Sequence” in Spellbound. Maybe a combo plate and double entendre honoring BOTH?
As I also note in MEII, we have Franz Bergmann, who married GHH’s former wife Emilia, also at T.I. where he completed his mural for the exhibit. See excerpt below reference Franz at T.I. making the newspaper of that day.
(Excerpt from Most Evil II re. Emilia Hodel Bergmann)
After separating from George, Emilia would then marry
Franz Bergmann, a well-known San Francisco artist and
Bergmann completed several large murals at San Francisco’s
1939 Golden Gate International Exposition at Treasure Island.
At the same time Bergmann was painting his mural, George
Hodel was treating patients at the fairgrounds hospital.
Bergmann’s completed mural became quite controversial,
as local clergy complained that his depiction of Christ was
“overly stern and foreboding and lacked spirituality and
compassion.” Other members of the committee of the Temple
of Religion at the Exposition had also received complaints
“that the artist had pictured Moses as being totally bald.”
According to an Oakland Tribune article of March 7,
1939, Bergmann reluctantly climbed a tall ladder “and with
his paints and brushes, with a few deft strokes, altered the
nose and changed slightly the expression of the eyes, and
then clambered back to the ground.”
Bergmann was quoted as saying, “I do not see why my
conception was challenged, but I believe that there will be
no more criticism now. I think the figure still shows that
Christ was primarily in my heart when I executed the work.”
(It is my belief that the muralist drew the line on his artistic
license by refusing to add hair to his bald Moses.)
Emilia continued to write for several of the local
newspapers and in the forties became the Art and Drama
critic for the San Francisco News.
Steve: I see that Dali produced a limited edition set of 12 lithographs entitled “The Zodiac Suite” in 1967. From what I can glean: (a) this work is not very well known; (b) the suite was launched in New York and Paris; (c) people see it as a canny effort on Dali’s part to cash in on the New Age zeitgeist heralded in the song “The Age of Aquarius” from the musical HAIR which came out that same year. Seems possible that GHH concluded what’s good for the goose is good for the gander and started free-associating his next “Murder as a Fine Art” crime wave based on Dali’s idea. Next stop, TREASURE ISLAND. In favor of this idea, the Zodiac letters contain some stilted appropriations of hippy lingo and cultural references like “pigs” and YELLOW SUBMARINE. Indeed, before reading up on the Zodiac case I pretty much assumed the name was just such a cashing-in based on the timing alone.
As an aside, in 1930 Dali did a series of illustrations for LES CHANTS DE MALDOROR (“a nightmarish tale of an unrepentantly evil protagonist…filled with scenes of violence, perversion, and blasphemy” – MoMA website), which he did using “a stream-of-consciousness process to access personal hallucinations and delusions” (William Bennett Gallery website). I suspect GHH’s process was pretty similar. -LW
Steve: Another potential Proustian trigger for the TREASURE ISLAND reminiscence is that the actor Cesar Romero (Rhadini/Zodiac) was enjoying a cultural moment starring as the Joker in the TV version of BATMAN in the years 1966 to 1968. Given what we know of Zodiac’s interest in the 1952 Tim Holt/Red Mask LADY DOOM AND THE DEATH WHEEL comic book and of your father’s interest in French pulp novel/movie serial antihero FANTOMAS, that seems like something that might have caught his attention. (A bit of trivia: Romero refused to shave off his trademark mustache for the Joker role and simply covered it up with grease paint.) Some quotes on the history of DC Comics’ Joker character from Wikipedia:
In his comic book appearances, the Joker is portrayed as a criminal mastermind. Introduced as a psychopath with a warped, sadistic sense of humor, the character became a goofy prankster in the late 1950s in response to regulation by the Comics Code Authority, before returning to his darker roots during the early 1970s.
Renowned as Batman’s greatest enemy, the Joker is known by a number of nicknames, including the Clown Prince of Crime, the Jester of Genocide, the Harlequin of Hate, and the Ace of Knaves.
The most common interpretation of the character is that he is disguised as the criminal Red Hood, and pursued by Batman.
The character was introduced in Batman #1 (1940), in which he announces that he will kill three of Gotham’s prominent citizens (including Mayor Henry Claridge).
The Joker initially appeared as a remorseless serial killer, modeled after a joker playing card with a mirthless grin, who killed his victims with “Joker venom”: a toxin which left their faces smiling grotesquely.
Steve: You’ve said that GHH idolized the supervillain Fantômas, but I’m wondering if you could explain how you know that — from seeing his bookshelves, from conversation, or at second-hand? From “On the Origin of Superheroes” by Chris Gavaler (University of Iowa Press, 2015): “The Joker, not Batman, is America’s Fantômas.” Like Lautréamont’s Maldoror, the Joker wears a Chelsea Grin (inspired by Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine character in the 1928 film of Victor Hugo’s THE MAN WHO LAUGHS). I see that a Batman/Joker angle to the Zodiac case has been proposed before: a villain called the Zodiac Master was introduced in the comic strip in 1963 and the TV show featured an episode called THE ZODIAC CRIMES in 1967. Obviously, the Zodiac’s bizarre crime spree fits perfectly into the Batman universe which, as Gavaler discusses in his book, is itself an American-ized rehashing of the Fantômas/Judex/Les Vampires universe of Louis Feuillade. -LW
LW: I think I must have said something like, GHH would or may have very likely idolized Fantomas” as I have no direct knowledge that he DID. Never mentioned or referenced in my talks with my father. No, I didn’t even know about the novels and character until researching my father’s crimes. But, Fantomas was a favorite of the surrealists along with, as you note, Lautreamont’s Maldoror. GHH was very European and identified with the writers and artists from the 20s 30s. Many have referenced the cutting of Elizabeth Short’s mouth as a “Chelsea Grin” or “Glasgow Smile” which I don’t agree with. I see it much more specific as his homage to Man Ray’s “Lovers Lips”. (Reinforced by his later commissioning of the Modesto Lover’s Lips which he gave to Juliet Man Ray in the 80s.) The public keeps referencing the autopsy photo which makes it appear as a jagged slicing cut ear to ear. (Caused by the closing of the mouth with sutures) It was not. It was a carefully, surgically rounded incision as can be seen from the pre-autopsy, crime scene closeups. Certainly, cannot rule out the possibility of a Batman/Joker/Zodiac crimes comic book influence (especially considering the documented earlier source of the 1952 Red Mask/Lady Doom connections as source material.) Best, steve.
Steve: “Twisted Shoes” doesn’t seem to have had any currency at the time the Zodiac letter was sent. The phrase does occur in an entry in the “Album of Famous Mysteries” serialized in newspapers from the late 40s (SF Examiner 10/15/50) about a famous 19th century New York serial killer and serial impostor, Edward Rulloff. Rulloff, aka Dr. Edward Leurio, was known as “The Genius Killer” and “The Man With Two Lives” — another GHH alter ego, perhaps. “Twisted shoes” resulting from a frostbite injury led to Rulloff’s arrest. Recalls GHH’s weird “INJURED TOE IN TOKYO” Bally shown in Most Evil. Maybe this phrase was capitalized as a “clew.” -LW