Pianist and conductor Skitch Henderson (center) enjoyed the llama’s company during a party, 1959.
Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Written By: Lily Rothman
A llama walks into a party, and then what?
These photographs, taken by LIFE photographer Robert W. Kelley in 1959, show a very strange party in progress. A llama, a kangaroo, a monkey, some goats, several dogs and a couple of cats all get a bath in what appears to be an urban backyard, and later on, in the same place and on what appears to be the same day, they attend a party with the pianist Skitch Henderson. The photographs never ran in the magazine, and nor did the story for which they were taken.
So what’s going on here?
It’s a question that fans of Kelley’s work have wondered for a while, but another LIFE story about a llama, published two years before these pictures were taken, perhaps offers a clue. It was a short one-page item about Animal Talent Scouts, a company run by Bernard and Lorrain D’Essen in New York City, who provided animal actors for theater and television—including Linda the Llama. A small photograph of Mrs. D’Essen in her living room shows a similar assortment of creatures: several dogs, a kangaroo and a llama. Among the dogs, the breeds also overlap a basset hound, a sheepdog, a few greyhounds and what appears to be a saluki. The dark-haired woman in the later photos above might also be the same woman from the earlier photograph.
Contemporary news reports about the business which supply the information that Lorrain D’Essen worked in advertising, where she realized there was a market for trained animals for commercials also confirm that the D’Essen’s New York City home, at 331 West 18th St., did have a yard. (According to Google Maps, it still does.) Other, wilder animals with the Animal Talent Scouts agency lived in New Jersey.
And here’s another clue: the date on the unpublished photos was May 1, 1959, just a couple of weeks before the release of Lorrain D’Essen’s well-reviewed memoir, Kangaroos in the Kitchen. (The book became a TV movie in 1982.) Was this perhaps a book party?
Though no record appears to exist of that particular get-together, the evidence is overwhelming. These were no ordinary animals. They were—and remain—stars.
Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.