Saturday, June 11, 2016

TACOMA’S MYSTERY VISITOR or WHO WAS LEO THE LION? by Karla Stover


 

     Tacoma’s location made life easy for smugglers, shanghaies, and the Hollywood circuit. By rail or water, luminaries such as Sarah Bernhardt, Lillian Russel, and Ethel Barrymore came, performed, and moved on. However, it was probably the Depression which brought MGM’s Leo the Lion to town. Leo was on a promotion tour.

     In 1917, Samuel Goldwyn formed a movie studio and a lion called Slats was used in one of the first pictures he produced. Seven years later, when Goldwyn, Marcus Loew, and Louis B. Mayer merged and formed Metro, Goldwyn, Mayer, Slats was kept on as mascot and a man named Howard Dietz designed the logo. The story is that Dietz he used the lion as tribute to his alma mater, Columbia University whose sports teams were the Lions and that Columbia’s fight song, “Roar, Lion, Roar” is the reason Leo growls.

     Back to Slats, he was born at the Zoo in Dublin Ireland on March 20, 1919 and was originally named Cairbre. Vaudeville and circus performer Volney Phifer trained Slats and was part of the group who brought him to Tacoma. Phifer was generally referred to as “the chief wrangler” of most of the animals which were used on a variety of MGM productions from the mid-teens to the late 1950s. The most famous beside Leo were Cheetah from the Tarzan movies and Toto, The Wizard of Oz Dog, though Phifer’s work on Gone With The Wind was considered to be important in keeping the many horses and other animals safe and also making their actions appear naturel.

     Slats was used on all black-and-white MGM films between 1924 and 1928. Unlike his successors, though, Slats did nothing but look around in the logo and was therefore the only MGM lion not to roar. Slats died in 1936, was skinned, and at last sighting his hide was on display at the McPherson Museum in McPherson, Kansas.

     Mel Koontz trained Jackie, the second “Leo.” Koontz started work as a sixteen-year-old popcorn and peanut vendor at Los Angeles’s old Selig Zoo. He worked himself up to "cage cleaner and eventually became an animal trainer. Jackie was the first MGM lion to roar—the roar was first heard via a gramophone record during MGM's first sound production, White Shadows in the South Seas (1928). In addition to appearing in the MGM logo, Jackie appeared in over a hundred films, including Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan movies. He also posed with a nervous Greta Garbo in a well-known 1926 publicity still. In her autobiography, actress Ann Miller wrote that when she was there the MGM lion didn’t have any teeth so maybe Miss Garbo was nervous for naught. Jackie is also known for surviving two train wrecks, an earthquake, and an explosion in the studio, giving him the nickname "Leo the Lucky".

     MGM began experiments with two-strip color short subjects in 1927 and animated cartoons in 1930. Two two-strip Technicolor variations of the MGM logo were created, using two different lions. The, Telly, appeared on all color MGM movies between 1927 and 1932. Telly roared softly, then a little louder followed by a brief pause, and then a final roar as he turned his head. The second lion, Coffee, appeared in color films between 1932 and 1934, and in 1935 for what were called the Happy Harmonies shorts, until production was switched to full three-strip Technicolor filming. Coffee roared once softly, and a second time a little louder.

     So, which lion did Mayor Melvin G. Tennent pose with in Tacoma? It must have been Jackie because in addition to the above mentioned accidents, the Tacoma Daily Ledger mentioned he had survived a Mississippi River flood and a plane crash. Jackie died at an advanced age of 23, in 1938, and is buried in Gillette, New Jersey, on the farm once owned by Volney Phifer

Slats (1924–1928)                                               AUTHOR OF:
Jackie (1928–1956)                                             Murder on the Line
Telly (1927–1932) and Coffee (1932–1934)      Murder, When One Isn't Enough
                                                                      
Tanner (1934–1956)                                            Hidden History of Tacoma

George (1956–1958)                                           Let's Go Walk About in Tacoma

Leo (1957–present)                                             A Feather for a Fan

     Courtesy of Wikepedia
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