When Sea Lions Were Stars of Show Business (1907-1958)

By Gary Bohan Jr.

Subjects: Performing Arts, New York/regional, General Interest, American Culture, American History
Series: Excelsior Editions
Imprint: Excelsior Editions
Paperback : 9781438487120, 326 pages, April 2022

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Table of contents


1. The Huling Brothers

2. Huling's Barn

3. Seal College

4. Sharkey Goes Broadway

5. Higher and Higher

6. Dry Act, Wet Act

7. Sharkey Goes Hollywood

8. Movie Palaces and Nightclubs

9. Sharkey Meets the President

10. A Postwar America

11. Sharkey Goes Television

12. Vaudeville Revival

13. The Show Must Go On

14 The End of an Era

15. Bygone Days

Notes and Sources

The incredible, true story of the twentieth century's greatest performing sea lion and the man who trained him.


Gold Winner for the 2022 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award in the Performing Arts & Music Category

"Sharkey is the natural artist, performing his magic for nothing but love." — Wolcott Gibbs, the New Yorker

Sharkey tells the compelling story of an unusually gifted, trained sea lion who shared the stage with practically every important performer of the first half of the twentieth century—from Bob Hope to Ella Fitzgerald, from Broadway to Hollywood and beyond. Readers follow Sharkey and his flippered colleagues as they travel the world with stops at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, vaudeville houses, Manhattan during the Harlem Renaissance, burlesque nightclubs, movie palaces, Radio City Music Hall, and the legendary studios of early radio, movies, and television, meeting a who's who of showbiz entertainers, sports superstars, and even a US president. Meticulously researched and lavishly illustrated, Sharkey is a quirky slice of New York and entertainment history sure to delight fans of vintage pop culture and Americana, as well as animal lovers.

Gary Bohan Jr. hails from Kingston, New York, where Sharkey was trained and is the great-grandson of Sharkey's trainer, Mark Huling. Mr. Bohan also plays trumpet and has performed with the Klezmer Conservatory Band, Joel Grey, and Itzhak Perlman.


"…Sharkey is a solid popular history book that brings a family's history of sea lion training to life for the reader … the book engagingly details the history of sea lion entertainment and prompts questions about how we can use this microhistory to understand larger themes in the history of animal-human relations." — H-Net Reviews (H-Environment)

"This is an informative book about a time in America before television when live entertainment was so popular and when this lovable seal traveled all around the country to entertain the nation. You will fall in love with this talented seal and admire all the work and care put in by his trainer." — Albany Times Union

"With Sharkey, Bohan awakens our collective nostalgia for a bygone era of live entertainment while reclaiming his great-grandfather's seal training legacy. It's impossible to read Sharkey without falling in love with that adorable sea lion and wishing you could watch him perform on stage with your own eyes." — Matthew Billy, Podcast Producer, Vox Media

"Nothing says 'vaudeville' so much as a trained seal act. If the reason why is not self-evident to you, Gary Bohan's incisive new book will put you right, for it's not just a biography of showbiz's most famous sea lion, but a portrait of an entire family of successful animal trainers, the Hulings, and their delightful doings over the decades, from the days of tented circuses and vaudeville, to the time of The Ed Sullivan Show. While everyone from Milton Berle to Kitty Carlisle cherished memories of appearing on bills with Sharkey, Bohan's portrait of the old-school business universe overall and the place of animal acts within it, is the real attraction here. A valuable look at a neglected lane in entertainment history." — Trav S.D., author of No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

"Vaudeville—a lost world—where animals performed on equal terms with humans, none more so than the intelligent seals Charlie and Sharkey. Their remarkable stories, and those of their ingenious human trainers, bookend the peak and decline of vaudeville. Along the way they encounter numerous celebrities and dramatic events around the world." — Bill Egan, author of Florence Mills: Harlem Jazz Queen

"What an absolute joy to read this book! With Gary Bohan's words, I felt like I was transported to the 1940s and '50s with a front row seat to the sensational Sharkey! The story about Sharkey in the Harvard dorm room had me rolling! Through the years, one thing has clearly remained unchanged; the ability of sea lions to capture the hearts of trainers and audiences." — Jennifer Rant, longtime professional senior sea lion trainer

"A beautifully written and impeccably researched tale of a bygone era when a fantastically trained seal—with his own unique sense of humor—traveled the country, stole the show on Broadway, appeared in movies and on television, and grabbed worldwide headlines. Bohan's book takes you on a journey through twentieth century history as a performing seal and his pals and dedicated trainers negotiate the Depression, two World Wars, new forms of entertainment, and changing fads, all the while capturing the hearts of those who witnessed them in action." — Karen Berelowitz, Producer and Studio Manager at Blauweiss Media and coauthor of The Story of Historic Kingston: Featuring 950 Images and Connections to the Catskills & New York City