Suzy’s Zoo Began Right Here in San Diego

| March 6, 2021 | 0 Comments

As a little girl, Suzy Spafford discovered new worlds and joyful ventures right at the end of her watercolor brush and pastel markers.  At five-years of age she would spend hours merging shapes and colors and creating happy images.  The summer after high school graduation, one of her favorite places became the huge art mart located at the 6th Avenue lawn at Balboa Park.  She would display her work among dozens of other artists and even brought a table and chair so she could create on site. 

A young boy and his little brother stopped by her table to watch her draw.  They were fascinated with the shapes and creatures of her drawings.  The older brother suggested to her that maybe she should put basketball shoes on the duck she was drawing. So, she did. That started something.  His little brother asked could the next one be playing baseball.  Another little boy asked for the next one to be playing drums. And so it began. People gave Suzy ideas of what to have the characters doing, many of which you will see today in Suzy’s Zoo, thus confirming for Suzy the characters and personalities she wanted to create.

While she studied art and teaching skills at San Diego State University, she also began to further recognize the type of subjects and activities people wanted in her artwork.  In year four, taking advantage of a weekend day at a La Jolla art mart, Bill and Jeanne stopped by.  A successful businessman, Bill was intrigued by Suzy’s story and the individualized personalities of her characters.  He told Suzy that he thought her frog artwork with big eyes should be made into posters, displayed on the bedroom walls of every kid in America.  To which Jeanne commented, “Actually, I would like them on note cards.”  

All these marketing and promotional suggestions resulted in Suzy flying to Piedmont, California the following weekend. That’s where Bill and Suzy forged a partnership – she the artist and producer, he the financier and business director.

With Bill’s financial support, Suzy was able to take her creations to a larger public.  Bill knew a printer, and they started with 10,000 sheets each with eight designs; and Jeanne got her wish for note cards.  The early marketing work quickly exploded. The turtle with horn rimmed glasses, the hat-wearing duck with basketball sneakers, and the frog with big eyes, led to Suzy’s burgeoning “zoo,” which was now in high demand, becoming a best seller across the U.S. and eventually internationally. 

Bill started out as a 90 percent partner, and Suzy at 10 percent.  After two years operating in Oakland, where Jeanne and her friend operated the tiny business out of a loft in Bill’s factory, the couple decided they didn’t want to oversee the operation of the business any more. It was too time consuming.  Bill suggested Suzy and her then husband fly up, rent a U-Haul, load up the inventory, and bring it to San Diego to operate from her home base.  At that point Suzy took over the business, and Bill graciously and automatically made Suzy’s ownership 90 percent and his 10 percent.

The business soon took off.  After a few years Suzy got advice from different accountants and attorneys to incorporate.  Bill was opposed.  However, when the third accountant suggested incorporation as the only fiscally responsible thing to do, Suzy felt she had to go against Bill’s wishes.  She and Bill remained in touch, but over time, they drifted apart.  Suzy’s business and her attention to operating it increased.

During this time, Suzy and her first husband had moved in different directions. Among the various CPAs to whom she had been referred to was Ray Lidstrom.  Years later he became her always and perfect husband. 

As the business expanded in subject material, product types, and languages, her characters proved to be appealing to people in many different countries.  Then as she started working with a brilliant marketing company in Japan, she quickly became a Japanese rock star. Suzy had learned the business side of being a successful artist.  Like Dr. Seuss, Suzy’s Zoo books, toys, clothing, wall and house art, etc. became an international prime product. 

Looking back on her past, Suzy is extremely grateful for her initial mentor and partner, Bill, who gave her so much business guidance in the critical, early years. However, she also knows her success came from the cleverness and integrity of the characters in Suzy’s world. If credit is due, she remembers the boys at Balboa Park who shared their ideas and stimulated her decision to change the personality of her characters.  

With the dominant position she established in retail shops worldwide, Suzy needed to hire other illustrators. A significant challenge was to find artists who would adhere to her style, and not try to change to reflect their own ideas.  Suzy, a creator by nature, understands this is hard for any aspiring artist to follow.

Television, books, and international sales, all in addition to her thriving retail (books, stuffed toys, cards, calendars, etc.), presented a whirlwind of outcomes, generated as much by her characters as by Suzy herself.  In her position, she has become realistic to her role of maintaining the magic of her characters, and accepting the stress of so much success. 

Ultimately, she moved the company into licensing for others to manage distribution.  And then came the world shift created by technology, the pressure on her 8,000 gift shop retailers, the switch from children tuned to television to personal screens…there is constant change. 

Having produced Suzy’s world for over 50 years, today her focus is on preserving the legacy of her creations in the minds and hearts of her devoted followers (locally and around the world).  As she looks back, she is reminded of how it all started, and the challenges of being an artist and entrepreneur. 

For those with children (and those childlike as adults), Suzy’s Zoo has two animated series: “Adventures in Duckport” is for ages three-to-seven. And, “A Day With Witzy” is for ages one–to-four.   Both are pay per view, not on commercial TV.

Entertaining and engaging Suzy’s Zoo color books are some of the creations of Suzy Spafford.

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Category: Animals, Art, Authors, Books, Business, featured, Local News

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