Leo grunted and paced, obviously a little scared when the plane’s pilots fired up their engines.
What do you expect when you bring a lion to an airport dedication, especially the first lion to fly in a plane and the first to crash on that first flight? Those loud engines probably gave Leo a brief moment of déjà vu, the big cat remembering 1927, and those four days stranded in the mountains of Arizona while his human pilot tried to find help.
There probably weren’t many moviegoers in Southern Oregon who hadn’t seen Metro Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Leo the Lion” roar from a movie screen, but now Leo was here in person.
“The Best Known Animal in the World” had been touring the United States and the world since his plane crash. Since the world tour began in Washington, DC, in June 1928, he had already visited 42 states and traveled three separate times along the West Coast, from the Mexican border north to Canada.
On August 4, 1930, he arrived in Medford to help dedicate the new Medford Airport.
Leo’s promoters were proud to say that he was no “ordinary lion”. No longer a cub, they claimed the 15-year-old was one of the “largest specimens of his species” whether in captivity or in the African jungle. Weighing 735 pounds, it supposedly exceeded the average weight of a large lion by more than 200 pounds. It was also half a foot longer than the average lion when measured from nose to tail tip.
Insured for a million dollars, Leo traveled in the style of a beast king. Each of the six vehicles in his caravan was decorated in red and gold.
The silver bars of his cage gleamed atop his “palatial” Reo truck as he trailed behind a steam calliope, Leo’s “private band accompaniment.” The promoters explained that Leo liked their music. “He is always in a much better mood to receive his thousands of guests after being serenaded with this instrument.”
After the morning dedication at the airport, Leo’s visit would be short. At 2:30 he performed on Central Avenue in front of the Craterian Theater, where he devoured 25 pounds of raw meat before performing tricks for the crowd. His trainer “and confidant”, Captain Volney Phifer, asserted that Leo’s repertoire of “tricks and tricks” showed that Leo was a “beast of far more than ordinary intelligence”.
Then, there was a performance at 3 o’clock at the Rialto Theater on Carrer Major and Avet. He was then paraded to the southeast corner of Eighth Street and Central Avenue for more of the same at the State Theater.
In between, there were quick stops to acknowledge the support of Medford businesses.
The West Side Market had provided the raw meat for Leo, and in its advertisement, it promised customers that they would “get the lion’s share of the deals at this market.”
OV Myers Reo Car and Truck Dealership in South Riverside was the next stop at 3:45.
Pennington Battery Service noted that “Leo, the famous MGM lion, uses Willard batteries as standard equipment for his caravan.” The company urged residents to keep an eye on their workers: “While we service Leo’s camper batteries at 4:15.”
Members of Leo’s troop were invited for the night at the Jackson Hotel at Eighth and Central, with Leo in his cage parked on the street in front of the hotel.
Early the next morning, after a quick stop at a gas station, the world’s most famous animal was gone forever. Now there was nothing left but imagination and a memory of a movie screen.
Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “To Live and Die a WASP, 38 Women Pilots Who Died in WWII.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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