Born in the Nubian Desert in Sudan in 1915, Jackie the lion was brought to America as a cub. 

The Golden Age of Hollywood is a time remembered for movie stars’ lives as much as their careers, both full of glamour and drama. Jackie, also known as ‘Leo the Lucky’, the lion’s story is no exception.

Born in the Nubian Desert in Sudan in 1915, Jackie the lion was brought to America as a cub. He then he lived in Selig Zoo in a suburb of Los Angeles. The zoo was on the same property as Selig Polyscope Company’s film studio, the very first film studio to establish permanently in Los Angeles. This location was not a coincidence, as Selig Zoo was started as a menagerie of wild animals. These animals were collected from all over the world by William Selig for his film productions. One of the junior trainers at the zoo was a teenager named Melvin Koontz. Jackie bonded with him quickly and, within a few weeks, the two played as if a lion was a family dog. The duo put on performances that shocked viewers. Jackie was so comfortable with Koontz that he could ride on Jackie’s back and they would roughhouse or wrestle without causing injury. It was at just four months old that Jackie had his silver screen debut, launching his career in Hollywood that would span decades.

Jackie was a hit!. The duo were sent on promotional trips and publicity stunts across America. They worked with the brightest of stars, such as Greta Garbo for her PR photoshoot introduction to the American film scene in 1926. However glitter-filled his life was, the single most sensationalised event in Jackie’s life came in 1927, for which the press deemed him ‘Leo the Lucky’. Charles Lindbergh had just completed the first transatlantic flight in The Spirit of St. Louis that May and the American public’s interest in air travel was at an all time high. Hollywood film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) with their ‘Leo the Lion’ mascot then stepped into the picture. MGM attempted to capitalise on the fervour with ‘Leo the Flying Lion’. The plan was for man and animal to fly from San Diego to New York City. The pilot was Martin (Marty) Jensen and the plane was a B-1 Ryan Brougham, the same as in the Spirit of St. Louis but modified for the addition of a 450 pound lion in a cage. The lion was Jackie.

As it happened, five hours after take-off the plane crashed in the mountains of the Arizona Desert. Neither man nor animal was seriously harmed, but they were stranded. Jensen had to abandon a caged Jackie if either were to survive. Jensen wandered in the desert for three days before finding ranch-hands who brought him to safety and comfort, but Jackie was still out there. It was difficult for Jensen to rouse many locals to aid him in the search for a starved lion in the desert. They found Jackie six days later, rather worse for wear, but after they gave him some water he moved and showed signs he would live. ‘Lucky’ he certainly was, as besides the crash he also survived a flood, two train crashes, a sinking boat, an earthquake and an explosion at a studio. Jackie truly had nine lives!

The following year, in 1928, MGM updated their 12-year-old opening credits logo. From 1916-24 the credits logo featured a silent image of the first ‘Leo the Lion’ mascot, a lion named Slats from Dublin Zoo. As sounded films had so quickly grown in popularity, a silent lion would no longer suffice. It was time for a new ‘Leo the Lion’, and this time he was from Sudan. Jackie then became the first MGM lion to roar on screen. He first appeared as the MGM big screen mascot in the opening of the first MGM movie with sound, White Shadows in the South Seas (1928). Jackie’s ‘Leo the Lion’ roaring logo then played before every black and white MGM movie from 1928 to 1956 (replacing Slats), as well as the sepia-tinted opening credits of The Wizard of Oz (1939).  In addition to appearing as the MGM logo, Jackie appeared as actor in over a hundred films, including the Tarzan movies that starred Johnny Weissmuller.

Jackie had a 39-year-long career filled with the famous and fabulous, doing photoshoots, films, flights and even ‘boxing’ with Koontz at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. However, all things must end and in 1954, after a lifetime of Hollywood excitement and advancement, it was time for Jackie to retire. MGM decided Jackie would live out the rest of his days in the Philadelphia Zoo, where in 1956 he sadly died due to ongoing heart issues at the age of 41. Jackie, or rather ‘Leo the Lucky’ was indeed a lion that had thrived as well as survived, even so far from his native habitat of the Sudan desert.

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