Walking down the hallways of the B&I shopping center in South Tacoma is akin to staring into the eyes of an aging rock star. Its glory days are long gone, but there are still a few twinkles left that burn bright again when memories are brought up.
Every long-time resident of the South Sound seemingly has a story about the “World Famous” B&I. It really is a landmark to generations of Tacomans and gained headlines from around the world during its heyday. That fame came from humble beginnings, but its fame still ripples through daily conversations to this day as it continues to shift and change with the needs of shoppers.
The first incarnation of the South Tacoma Way shopping center was the B&I Sales Co., a joint venture in 1946 by two Army veterans, Leo Bradshaw and Earl Irwin. It was a modest military surplus shop located along Highway 99, between Lakewood and Tacoma. Shoppers came to buy steel canteens, tents, dishes and backpacks the military no longer needed since World War II was over. The business did well, but the partnership ended after just three years when Irwin bought out Bradshaw.
Irwin leveraged his mastery of publicity and self-promotion to transform the small shop into a regional entertainment center for the next 30 years. The rebranded B&I Circus Store hosted celebrity events that included autograph signings by Duncan Renaldo, the star of “The Cisco Kid,” in 1953; former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Joe Louis in 1958; actress Irish McCalla in her leopard-skin “Sheena Queen of the Jungle” costume in 1959; and Burt Ward as Robin in the original TV series “Batman” in 1966.
It was an era when the shopping center was a one-stop shop for everything from sporting goods and hardware to housewares and clothing. Oh, and it also had a collection of animals, from an elephant named Sammy, and chimpanzees named April, Kathy and Murphy. April would stroll around the center to eat meals at the store’s lunch counter before the Health Department shut that practice down. The store’s zoo also included a lion, a jaguar, snakes and turtles.
It’s most memorable animal attraction, of course, was Ivan, a western lowland gorilla that arrived in 1964 after being captured in Africa to spend the next 27 years as a shopping center attraction. Ivan actually had a sibling that has largely been forgotten. A female gorilla also arrived. She was named Burma during a store-sponsored naming contest, but then died shortly after arriving. Ivan came to much fanfare shortly after. He also guest starred in an episode of the television series “Daktari.”
Outside of the bigger-than-life stories of Ivan that are told in books and screens are the personal stories long-time locals have of the gorilla that everyone thought of as one of their own in much the same way as area residents considering Mount Rainier “their mountain.” Ivan lived his early childhood in the home of his main caregiver until he was too big and destructive to remain uncaged. His animal friends at the shopping center either died or were sold off as the years passed, leaving him alone to entertain shoppers by spending his days with his paints, watching television or sitting dormant only to rush the glass windows to scare passerby who didn’t pay their proper homage as they strolled by. He also was particularly fond of showing he was an alpha male when young couples arrived.
Cory Oberhansly brought a date to the B&I in 1966, for example. Ivan took notice of the bombshell at his window.
“He would put his hand on the glass, and she would put hers against his, and he just got this goofy look of pure love,” Oberhansly stated. “If I came up, he would huff and puff and threaten me and slam the window with his palm and throw himself against the glass, but as soon as I retreated, he would return to Cheryl and sit as close as he could get, place his fingers against the glass, which she would do in return. We returned often, and it was the same every time. He would recognize her and rush to the window to be near her, and he would make it clear he wanted nothing to do with me. It was so obvious. You couldn’t come to any other conclusion other than he was in love with my girlfriend, and it was a case of love at first sight.”
The love affair would not last, however. Ivan lost. Cory and Cheryl would later marry and remain so to this day.
Ivan lived much of his life in captivity at the B&I.
He drew national fame as well as raised animal rights activists’ eyebrows until he was finally moved to Zoo Atlanta in 1994. He was the star attraction there when he died in 2012. A monument to Ivan, however, stands at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, and his story is loosely told in the award-winning children’s novel “The One and Only Ivan” that is read by children around the world. Disney is in production of a movie based on the book as well.
Today, Ivan’s living area is used for storage. But it is still accessible for people to visit and view fading newspaper clippings and displays of the B&I’s colorful past. Not much beyond that is recognizable these days. The B&I Public Marketplace is now a collection of 60 independent vendors that sell everything from discount luggage or logo wear to computer repair services and quinceañera dresses to hotdogs, Asian food and ice cream – all under one 150,000-square-foot roof.
“It is certainly a shell of what it once was,” said Reylan Fernandez. “It’s just like a swap meet now.”
Fernandez’s childhood visits in the 1970s and 1980s, however, were filled with playing games of tic-tac-toe with a live chicken, dropping tokens in the video games or shopping for school clothes, while his dad bought screws or tools for whatever repair job he had to do that weekend.
“That was just something we would do as a family,” he said. “It was a real low-budget Dave and Busters. It was the only arcade around.”
The B&I would also routinely host street fairs and oddball events for children that included burying money in mountains of sawdust and wood chips for children to find.
“It was pretty weird,” he said as he looks back on the splinter-prone events of his childhood with the cautious retrospection of a parent.
Fernandez still swings by the B&I with his own family from time to time, so he can both relive those cherished moments of his childhood and browse for things he knows he really doesn’t need. He recently found himself buying a fanny pack and Sponge Bob Square Pants blanket for no apparent reason.
“It is definitely a different world there now,” he said.
But maybe being “different” is just a sign of the times in the long legacy of the “World Famous B&I.”