King of the Coconino

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: September 2018
Group Free

In 1927, the nation sank its fangs into the real-life drama of a Hollywood lion stranded in Arizona’s Rim Country.

The Ryan B-1 Brougham airplane that took off from San Diego in September 1927 bound for New York transported feline royalty in its backseat – no ordinary pussycat, but a fully grown, 12-year-old male African lion named Jackie, newly tapped by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio to be Hollywood's best-known mascot.

MGM producers recording Jackie’s roar on set in 1927; Photo courtesy Getty ImagesJackie was taking over the role of Leo the Lion, the trademarked jungle cat famous for opening MGM movies by roaring his dominance across the big screen. To promote his new role, the studio was flying Jackie across the country. His journey, however, would end far short of the destination. Five hours after departure, the plane and its occupants vanished. The mystery of their whereabouts would not be solved until four days later, when a disheveled man dressed in a lion-tamer costume staggered onto a remote Arizona ranch beneath the Mogollon Rim.

The ensuing safari to rescue MGM’s famous mascot produced untold publicity for the studio. Although the flight ultimately accomplished its purpose, the trip was beset by challenges from its inception.

Peter Smith, MGM’s director of publicity, concocted the marketing plan during a time of aviation exuberance. It had been four months since Charles Lindbergh became the first man to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in the “Spirit of St. Louis.” The MGM plane was scheduled to land at Roosevelt Field in Long Island, from where Lindbergh had departed on his iconic flight. Jackie was to be greeted by searchlights and a brass band before traveling to Manhattan to lounge in the lobby of Broadway’s Capitol Theatre.

For maximum advertising, the studio had “LEO M.G.M. FLYING LION” painted prominently on the monoplane. A glass cage was built behind the pilot’s seat so that onlookers could see Jackie and pilot Martin “Marty” Jensen,who would be dressed as a lion tamer, a costume the studio insisted he wear. The lion’s liquid diet of milk and water for the flight was supplied from overhead tanks operated by the pilot. An accomplished stunt pilot, Jensen had been married while flying a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane over Yuma in 1925. The previous month, Jensen flew his “Aloha” plane to a second-place finish in the Oakland-to-Hawaii Dole Air Race, during which 10 entrants perished.

Crash site in Hellsgate Wilderness; Photo courtesy San Diego Air & Space MuseumAlthough the pilot was fit to fly, his passenger was not. “It was neither a suitable nor dignified junket for a mature, circus-bred African lion used to regular meals, comfortable living and the finer things in life,” Ruth M. Reinhold wrote in her 1982 book Sky Pioneering: Arizona in Aviation History.

Jensen had concerns, too, worried that the cage wouldn’t hold the big cat. He snuck a loaded .45-caliber revolver aboard for self-protection, but Jackie would turn out to be the least of his problems.

The event went awry from the start. The Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, concerned about Jackie’s well-being on the flight, threatened legal action. The studio avoided conflict by having the plane unexpectedly depart on Friday morning, September 16, 1927, from Camp Kearney near San Diego instead of Los Angeles.

Jensen immediately had issues with the aircraft. It was too heavy for climbing, he later said about the plane, which was carrying extra fuel, water, milk, a heavy cage and a 375-pound lion. The aircraft puttered across southern California and passed over Phoenix, heading northeast to meet its most significant challenge. The plane’s engineers had assured Jensen that enough fuel would be burned to lighten his load and allow him to soar over Arizona’s highlands as though there were a tiger in the plane’s tank.

The burdened aircraft battled unfavorable air currents and thin, hot air trying to clear the Mogollon Rim. “But the mountains rose up faster than I did,” Jensen told the Arizona Republican in 1927. Boxed in a rescued Jackie is trucked to Payson; Photo courtesy San Diego Air & Space Museuma canyon, the quick-thinking pilot stalled the airplane for a controlled crash tail first into a grove of oaks. The trees broke the airplane’s fall, and Jensen survived with minor injuries. The plane’s wings and landing gear were torn off, and debris from the crash was spread over 100 yards. The mangled plane provided an escape hatch for Jensen. “If the front window hadn’t broken up, I would have had to crawl out past the lion,” he told the Republic in 1977.

After exiting the plane, Jensen checked on the condition of his passenger. “The cage had held tight, and he wasn’t scratched, although he did look disgusted and I figure his opinion of me as a flyer is pretty low,” Jensen told the Republican. Jensen and Jackie were stranded in what is now the remote Hellsgate Wilderness southeast of Payson.

Jensen obtained water from a creek and returned to share it and a few sandwiches with Jackie, who was still in his cage. The pilot wrote on a wing of the plane, describing what had occurred in case rescuers came upon the aircraft, and set off alone, hiking downstream along Tonto Creek. Three days later, an exhausted Jensen ran into some cowboys. They gave him food and took him to the H-Bar Ranch near Gisela. The next day, they transported him to the Apache Lodge near Roosevelt Lake so he could call his wife and MGM. The studio’s first question to the pilot was, “How’s the lion?”

Ryan B-1 with Jackie’s cage; Photo courtesy San Diego Air & Space MuseumMGM dispatched a truck and a lion trainer to Kohl’s Ranch, upstream of the remote crash site. Six days after the crash landing, Jensen led a search party on horseback to the wreckage. They fed a slaughtered calf to Leo, who was weak but in good spirits. “Leo was a nice, tame, old boy, and when the sheep dip [wound-cleansing solution was put] on his sores, he just rolled over like a big old house cat,” one rescuer told the Republican.

Rescuers used a door as a sled and hoisted Leo, still in his cage, onto it. Mules hauled the lion 7 miles to a ranch, where he was loaded onto a truck and taken to Payson, and then returned to Hollywood a few days later. The scene of the accident, previously known as Hells Canyon, was renamed Leo Canyon in the cat’s honor.

Jensen recalled that Leo seemed unperturbed by the flight and subsequent crash, lying quietly in his cage. “If he didn’t like it [the accident], he didn’t make any roar about it,” the pilot told the Republican. But looks can be deceiving, Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s state historian, says. “Next time you’re watching an MGM film and wonder how they made that lion snarl? The director got him to make that noise by asking him if he’d ever like to revisit Arizona.”

OTHER MANE STARS
Seven lions, all trademarked as “Leo the Lion,” have been the MGM mascot.

Slats (1924-1928)
Appeared in black and white movies.

Jackie (1928-1956)
Was the first to roar on film, and was the “Leo” in this article.

Telly (1928-1932)
Appeared in color MGM movies.

Coffee (1932-1935)
Appeared in color MGM movies.

Tanner (1934-1956)
Appeared in Technicolor films.

George (1956-1958)
Had the biggest mane of any “Leo.”

Leo (1957-present)
Roars two, and three times, in his two film versions.