Late in the first summer of the great Depression Tacoma was visited by the most famous movie star lion in the world, MGM studio’s Leo. The logo lion first appeared at the start of MGM films in 1924, during the silent era, but in 1928 Leo really made his presence known. If you were a kid sitting in a theater seat on Saturday morning looking up at an African lion with a head bigger than a bus and then the whole audible world vibrated with his roar, it made an impression. And now, in August 1930, Leo was coming to Tacoma.
In the 1920’s and 30’s Tacoma was a big movie town even though the home grown Hollywood film colony planned for Titlow Beach didn’t quite happen and the silent films made locally by Weaver Studios faded with the arrival of talkies. The downtown was still full of movie palaces like the Pantages, Rivera, Broadway, Blue Mouse and Rialto theaters and even as hard economic times set in people bought tickets and crowded into the 10,000 seats in Tacoma’s theater district. It was an escape from the hard times to come.
Tacoma in 1930 was in economic trouble with more than its share of America’s 15 million unemployed out of work in the sawmills, waterfront docks, railroad yards and downtown shops and businesses. Prohibition was keeping the city’s big breweries dark and dry and the previous winter, Tacoma came perilously close to going entirely dark itself when icy weather threatened the city’s supply of power from Cushman Dam.
But in the warm days of August there was a buzz about something as unexpected as a movie star lion coming to town. For the grandparents it was a reminder of the circus parades that came each year during the railroad days with their caged wild animals, ponderous pachyderms, circus wagons, tumbling acrobats and cheerful calliopes. For movie goers it was a chance to see in person the creature that established MGM as the fiercest movie studio in the world. For the kids it was impossibly scary and completely irresistible.
In early August the studio advance men arrived working with the managers of the Broadway and Rialto theaters, both MGM houses in the days when film studios controlled the theaters. Promotional events and free ticket giveaways were arranged and newsreel style shorts from the studio began running before the feature films. At the newspapers, the ad men provided photo’s, promo packages and arranged for reporter interviews with Leo’s entourage of colorful handlers, studio representatives. Businesses chummed up to Leo and the mini circus by running his picture with their newspaper advertisements. The local chapter of the Lion’s Club didn’t miss their chance to partner with the famous namesake feline. Two of the club members, both named Leo, promised to feed the big lion his 25 pound dinner of raw meat in front of an audience. Free.
Leo and his grand world tour rolled into Tacoma on Wednesday August 20th, to a warm welcome from the seemingly entire membership of the Tacoma Lions Club. Leo’s ornate and “fortified” red and gold REO speedwagon limo disappointed no one. The cinematic caravan included a separate speedwagon carrying a 57-note calliope and an REO sedan for the management team. At a time that a new house cost about $7,000 and most Tacoma families made less than $2,000 a year (if they were not unemployed), the little fleet was valued at $100,000, not counting the Leo.
Leo gave his first performance at noon with his cage-mobile parked between the Broadway and Rialto Theaters on Opera Ally and 9th. Following a short concert by the calliope, his trainer Volney Phifer, in dashing red tunic and jodhpurs, narrated as Leo went through his acrobatics and soft growls. In typical Hollywood style Phifer described Leo’s eventful life having been found as an orphan cub in the Sudan and then surviving several accidents, including two train wrecks, an earthquake, and an explosion in the studio. In the most dramatic of his many lives, a pilot had to crash-land his plane with Leo on board, and left the lion stranded in the Arizona wilderness for four days with only water and sandwiches.[cite]
And then came the moment everyone was there for. Leo circled his cage theatrically and then posed like an opera singer in the spotlight at center stage. Then he let out his famous roar, repeated several times for the street full of onlookers and movie fans. They roared in return, applauding the big show that ended rather than started with Leo’s thunderous roar.
Leo gave a second performance at 5 that evening, got his picture taken with Mayor Melvin Tennent in front of City Hall and stayed over night at the Winthop Hotel Motor Company garage. The colorful little caravan left the next day for Seattle and the world tour beyond. Tacoma went back to normal. Animal Crackers with Groucho Marx was on the marque at the Pantages and the most popular movie in America, the star sign for the day was Leo and at Wright Park the two cast stone Brussels lions brought from the Paris Exposition by Clinton Ferry in 1891 seemed a bit more prominent.
Obscure factoid footnote
Probably not in the script for Leo’s performance that summer day was the fact that the first MGM film introduced with the sound of Leo’s roar was White Shadows in the South Seas directed by W.S. Van Dyke. The director would go on to make the Tarzan films with Leo, be nominated for an Academy Award Oscar for The Thin Man, and become one of Hollywood’s best known film directors. But before all that he was in Tacoma making films for Weaver Studios and in 1925 directing the lost but found silent film Eyes of the Totem.