During the troubled Great Depression years, movies were a popular form of escapism. Movies were promoted in many ways. One dramatic way was a nationwide tour of Leo, the MGM Lion. As part of this tour, Leo visited Tacoma in August 1930. 

MGM’s Living Lion Logo

The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, or MGM, created their roaring lion logo in 1916 when films were still silent. The design, which is still in use today, depicts a lion with the Latin motto “Arts Gratia Artis” or “Art for Art’s Sake.” Howard Dietz designed this logo to honor his alma mater, Columbia University, whose mascot was a lion.

The logo has been redesigned many times, and various lions have played the role. All were officially called Leo. In 2021 the live lion was replaced by CGI.

The lion that visited Tacoma was the fourth lion to play the role. Born in Sudan in 1915 and trained by Mel Koontz, “Leo’s” real name was Jackie.   

He was the first MGM lion whose roar was heard in the 1928 film “White Shadows in the South Seas,” the studio’s first sound production. Besides serving as logo, Jackie was featured in over 100 films, including the series of Tarzan films starring Johnny Weissmuller.

Leo made many public appearances. He earned the nickname “Leo the Lucky” after surviving two trainwrecks, an earthquake, a boat sinking, a studio explosion and a plane crash that left him and the pilot stranded in the Arizona desert for several days.

Leo the Lion Tacoma
The Tacoma Lions Club greeted Leo on his arrival in August 1930. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library, Marvin D. Boland Collection G64.1-126

Leo Visits Tacoma

Leo arrived in Tacoma from Olympia on Wednesday, August 20. It was promoted as year two of a seven-year world tour. The Tacoma News Tribune declared that “Tacomans who for years have heard, or at least seen, the welcoming roars of Leo the Lion from the screens of the city’s motion picture theaters, will have the chance to roar an answering welcome” when the lion arrived.

The “mighty monarch of the jungle and famous as a trademark for M-G-M pictures, together with the most costly and elaborate motorized caravan ever to be assembled, will be our guests,” promised the Tacoma News Tribune. The total cost, they boasted, was $100,000 and well spent. The paper assured readers seeing Leo would be “more fun than a circus and its free.”

Everything about Leo’s trip seemed extravagant and big. Great attention was paid to his caravan. He rode on a 24-foot-long red and gold Reo speed wagon with a 13-foot-long barred cage surrounded by three-foot-high “unbreakable” glass. A canvas cover could be pulled down in inclement weather.

Two other Reo cars were part of his entourage, including the manager’s mobile office. Another car carried a 57-note calliope, which the Tacoma Daily Ledger boasted as “the largest and finest musical instrument of its kind ever constructed” that could be played mechanically or by hand. It was told Leo liked the sound.

Leo the Lion Tacoma
In Olympia, Leo met Governor Roland Hartley. Here Hartley is being shown the lion by Captain Volney Phifer. Leo visited Tacoma the next day. Photo published in the August 20, 1930 issue of the Tacoma Times. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

An advance agent in a circus-themed car arrived in Tacoma a few days early to plan Leo’s visit. The lion’s entourage included manager Norman W. Pyle, animal trainer “Captain” Volney Phifer, and two drivers.

Leo first stopped at City Hall, where he met Mayor Melvin Tennent. Tennent entered the cage, hand on the door for a quick exit. Leo did not react, even when nudged by Captain Volney.

He gave two performances in the street between Broadway and Rialto Theaters, at noon and 5 p.m. These appearances were arranged to coincide with the opening of MGM films “Romance” starring Greta Garbo, and “Sins of Children” starring Louis Mann, respectively. After the 5 p.m. performance, Tacoma Lions Club members Leo Doyle and Leo Conlin, dubbed “Lions’ Leos,” fed the lion his daily 25 pounds of raw meat. This food was proudly advertised as coming from Puget Sound Meat Company (1508 Pacific Avenue). The Lions Club also presented Leo with a bronze plaque.

After these appearances, Leo was moved, cage wagon and all, to the show windows of the Winthrop Motor Company (201 St. Helens Avenue), local Reo distributors. President and manager Jack Gordon was proud of the arrangement. Leo was on display from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Leo remained at the store overnight, leaving for Seattle the next day. He also visited Chehalis, Olympia and Bellingham on this tour.

Not to miss a promotion when sales were down, manager Ed Little of Tacoma’s Tire Supply Co., 709 Pacific Avenue, put on a tire sale, boasting it was the biggest in Tacoma’s history. They reminded readers of the Tacoma Times that Leo’s “palatial cage” was “mounted exclusively on United States Tires,” which they had in stock.   

Leo the Lion Tacoma
Leo made a stop outside City Hall, where Mayor Melvin G. Tennent (second from left) welcomed the animal. The man on the far right is likely Volney Phifer, Leo’s trainer. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library, Marvin D. Boland Collection G64.1-127

Leo’s Legacy

Jackie (Leo) retired in 1931, going to live at the Philadelphia Zoo. He died in February 1935 from heart problems. Since then, several other lions served as MGM’s mascot. In 2021 they were replaced by a CGI lion.

Over the years, countless people have seen the MGM Lion in person and on film. The logo remains a visible emblem for a major American studio that continues producing movies and television shows.