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(Original Article)

Street Smarts: Gras introduced kids to desert creatures

From The Arizona Daily Star
Posted 10/14/2014 by David Leighton

Harold W. "Hal" Gras Jr., was born to Harold and Irma Gras in New Jersey in 1919. After high school, he worked as a reporter for his father, who was a newspaper editor.

In 1940, Hal Gras enlisted in the U.S. Army and saw action in the European Theater during World War II. He was discharged in 1945 with the rank of first lieutenant.

After the war, Hal and his wife Natie, who married in 1941, relocated to El Paso, Texas and there he graduated from college with a degree in broadcasting.

In 1950, the couple moved to Tucson, where Gras got a job at KVOA Radio. Three years later, KVOA moved into television and Gras became known as "Manager Hal," host of a daily children's TV show called "Sagebrush Theatre."

When the Arizona-Sonora Desert Trailside Museum, (the word "Trailside" was dropped in the museum's first few years of operation) opened its doors in 1952, Hal and Natie visited the first day. Gras soon met Bill Carr, one of the founders of the museum along with Arthur Pack (namesake of the golf course), who helped finance the museum. The encounter led to Gras hosting the museum's TV show, "Desert Trails" (it was renamed The Desert Speaks, when it moved to KUAT around 1990). The show first aired Oct. 19, 1953, and ran for 32 years, with Gras hosting 1,551 shows.

From 1955 to 1972, Gras was the public relations director for the museum. He would visit local clubs and talk about the museum. Though he had little or no experience with animals, he began bringing some along with him for his appearances. Soon the popularity of his talks increased and he started bringing creatures from the museum to schools, hospitals, county fairs, etc.

A longtime museum trustee — and prolific writer — Joseph Wood Krutch suggested that the program, and the automobile in which Gras carried his many animals, be renamed the "Desert Ark," similar to the biblical Noah's Ark.

Gras' program presented many kinds of animals from the Sonoran Desert, from pack rats to snakes, from bears to mountain lions to javelina. When he took an animal out of its bag or carrying cage, he explained the creature's way of life and its role in the desert. He always found a way to connect the animal's life to the life of his audience, usually made up of children, to show the connection between humans and animals.

Because the animals were the stars of the show, Gras gave them stage names similar to celebrities. The javelinas or peccaries were called, Olivia de Javelina (Olivia de Havilland), Gregory Peccary (Gregory Peck), Zsa Zsa La Boar, (Zsa Zsa Gabor) and Francis Bacon (Sir Francis Bacon). The porcupine was Quilly Mays (Willie Mays); the raccoon was Rosemary Cooney (Rosemary Clooney); and the gopher snake was titled Julius Squeezer (Julius Caesar).

When Gras retired in 1985 he had presented 5,382 Desert Ark programs. His wife served as an animal nursery keeper, helping injured animals.

Gras died on March 16, 1999. Hal Gras Road is believed to have been named within a few years after Gras' retirement.

Sources:

Special thanks to the staff and volunteers of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Phone interview and emails from Peggy Larson (longtime friend and co-worker at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, of Hal and Renata "Natie" Gras)

Emails from Larry Schnebly (co-worker of Hal Gras, at KVOA Radio and grandson of Sedona M. Schnebly, the namesake of Sedona, Ariz.)

Hal Gras bio: www.desertmuseum.org/ml/halgras.php

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum history: http://www.desertmuseum.org/support/connect/history.php

Kathleen Allen, "Goodbye Hairy-Etta," Tucson Citizen, July 24, 1997

Hal Gras oral history interview, Dec. 9, 1971 (AHS)

1940 U.S. Census, (Clifton, Passaic County, New Jersey)

Tucson Citizen Funeral Notices: http://tucsoncitizen.com/morgue2/1999/03/20/30843-funeral-notices/

History of The Desert Speaks: http://tucsoncitizen.com/morgue2/2000/02/02/86705-the-desert-speaks/