Dublin Zoo, Phoenix Park, Dublin, Ireland
Goldwyn Studios, Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, California
El Monte, California
For many long years, Dublin Zoo has been hailed as the birthplace of Slats, the lion who served as the mascot of the Goldwyn Studio (later Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) in Hollywood from 1917 to 1928. His sleepy, growling visage also graced the logo that kick-started all MGM films made between 1924 and 1928.
So was Slats a Dubliner?
Located in Phoenix Park, Dublin’s Zoological Gardens – as was its’ original name – opened in 1831 with 46 mammals and 72 birds. Natal and Natalie, the first pair of African lions, arrived in 1855 and produced their first surviving cubs two years later.
By the early 20th century, Dublin Zoo was acclaimed worldwide as a breeding home for healthy cubs.
Slats delivered his debut roar at the start of ‘Polly of the Circus’, released in 1917. This means he must have been born a few years earlier. The zoological historian Catherine de Courcy observes that lion cubs were sold from Dublin Zoo every year between 1911 and 1916, mostly to dealers with international connections. In 1912, for instance, a male cub was sold to W. Keyes of the Buffalo Bill Circus in exchange for £95 and a Russian bear. Another cub was sold to a circus man called Baker that same year.
MGM claim Slats came from Dublin Zoo and, while they have no proof, one would be hard pressed to think why anyone would make such a thing up.
According to one tale, Slats journey to Hollywood stardom was all down to Cedric Gibbons, the Goldwyn Studio’s Dublin-born art director. Mr. Gibbons enjoyed a long Hollywood career, during which he not only racked up a whopping 11 Academy Awards (second only to Walt Disney) but also designed the actual Oscar statuette. (He modeled it on his future wife, the sultry Mexican actress Delores Del Río, who would later romance both Orson Welles and Errol Flynn).
However, it’s questionable whether Mr. Gibbons actually had anything to do with Slats. That honour most likely fell to animal trainer Volney Phifer who was dispatched by Goldwyn in 1915 to find some lions in Africa. Interestingly, Mr. Phifer’s descendants are also pretty sure that he popped into Dublin on this trip and scooped up the lion that became Slats. Alas, the concrete evidence is missing.
Slats enjoyed a busy Hollywood career and during various promotional tours on behalf of MGM, he apparently survived a train wreck, a Mississippi flood, a California earthquake and a plane crash in Arizona.
After Hollywood, he became the star attraction of a lion sanctuary called Gay’s Lion Farm in El Monte, California, where he died in 1936. He is said to have been buried amid the California hills although there is a claim on Wikipedia that, having died of appendicitis, he was actually stuffed. Has your grampa got a stuffed lion in the attic?
Slats successor at MGM was Jackie, the first lion to actually deliver the mighty ‘Rrrrrrrrraaaaarrrrghhh’. By 1943, whenever the MGM lion roared in cinemas, there would be a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience.
As for Dublin Zoo, it continued to breed and nurture African lions, producing 565 cubs from 181 litters between 1857 and 1962. With more and more zoos around the world breeding African lions, international demand began to dry up from the 1950s.
Sheila, Dublin Zoo’s last hybrid African lioness, died last August. The focus is now on Asia and, in May 2012, the zoo welcomed its first two female Asian lion cubs to its Asian Forests habitat as part of a new international breeding programme.
With thanks to Catherine de Courcy, Brian Dearg (Dearg Films), Rossa Ó Sioradáin and Carla Barber (Executive Director, McPherson Museum & Arts Foundation).
See ‘Dublin Zoo, an Illustrated History’ by Catherine de Courcy (Collins Press, 2009) – http://www.catherinedecourcy.com/…/dublin-zoo-an…/
Brian Dearg of Dearg Films researched this story in depth for his documentary ‘The MGM Lion’. As part of this, he interviewed an MGM archivist involved in restoring the MGM logo who is certain that the original MGM lion came from Dublin Zoo – see http://garycoates.files.wordpress.com/…/logo-history…
An ongoing myth relates that Slats was buried on Mr. Phifer’s farm in Gillette, New Jersey, alongside Tarzan’s chimp friend Cheetah. Mr. Phifer is said to have planted a pine tree directly over his grave, insisting that it’s roots would ‘hold down the lion’s spirit’. Brian Reddin concludes, ‘there may be a lion buried there, but its not Slats’.
You can watch a 14 second clip of Slats in action from 1923 here at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIxVM5uhCAE or here’s a brilliant picture of Slats in action in El Monte @ http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_K78YS2Yisw0/TLT-y3u6DpI/AAAAAAAADCE/g9GioYNe9us/s1600/Gay’s+Lion+Farm_0001a.jpg