The McPherson Museum will place a famed lion skin rug on display once more — but determining whether its has ties to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios raises more questions than answers.
McPherson Museum Curator Brett Whitenack will share what is known — and what is not — in “The Roar of the Lion: A Look at the MGM Lion in the McPherson Museum” for a meeting of the McPherson County Historical Society at 2 p.m. March 3 at McPherson Museum, 1111 E. Kansas Ave.
The lion is one item Whitenack remembers clearly from one of his first tours of the museum in 1979.
"Professor Dell would always take you on a tour of everything back then. You couldn't go by yourself, he always had to be with you," Whitenack recalled. "In this room on the second floor was this lion skin and there used to be a little sign on it that said, 'Do you remember the MGM lion that roared at the beginning of the film? This is his skin.'"
F.A. Vaniman, who constructed the home near Lakeside Park that once housed the McPherson Museum, had his own small natural history museum in the east room on the third floor. Knowing of his collection of stuffed animals and birds, friends from California offered Vaniman the lion.
"They told him it was an MGM lion and he believed it was an MGM lion and they were probably told it was an MGM lion, but is it an official MGM lion? No. I'm almost 100 percent sure it's not," Whitenack said.
MGM, founded in 1924, is known for its iconic roaring lion logo.
"What MGM says is they only claim five official lions. The first one was named Slats," Whitenack said.
Slats, who was also known as Leo, died in 1935 and was taken back to Gillette, New Jersey, to be buried at home of his trainer, Volney Phifer.
The next lion MGM used was Jackie, the lion seen at the beginning of "The Wizard of Oz." Jackie, who was trained by Melvin Koontz, died in 1952 and is buried in California.
A lion named Telly was used for just a few movies, and may have been the first to be filmed in Technicolor. A lion called Coffee was also used for a short time, appearing in some short films and cartoons.
"They have all these lions — some of them were used for the movies, some of them were used for shorts, some of them were used just for the cartoons," Whitenack said.
A lion named Tanner holds the second longest tenure with MGM, being used in films from 1934 to 1956.
"(Tanner) is probably the one people are most familiar with," Whitenack said.
Vaniman died in 1949, so Tanner, along with subsequent MGM lions Brief Mane (also known as George) and Leo (who has been used from 1957 until the present day), could not have been the lion he acquired.
"That leaves Telly and Coffee that fit this time period when Mr. Vaniman could have got him, however, those are the two I don't know anything about, as far as what happened to them after they died, because they were hardly even used," Whitenack said.
After looking at pictures of Telly and Coffee, Whitenack believes they don't look like the museum's lion.
"However, then it starts to get murky again," Whitenack said.
Goebel's Lion Farm and Gay's Lion Farm raised lions in southern California.
"Both of these places would have lions that they would rent out for movie premieres or promotional pictures," Whitenack said.
After participating in an MGM event, the farms would then claim to be the home of the MGM lion.
"Then, at this time, there were several circuses that would overwinter in southern California," Whitenack said.
Lions from the circuses were also used for movie promotions.
"I think that our lion was probably a stand-in that maybe was at one of these lion farms or in one of the circuses," Whitenack said. "We have no provenance, no chain of custody, with our lion skin except word of mouth."
The lion was donated to the museum by Vaniman’s daughter Elberta Vaniman Reed in 1973. The deed of gift has “lion skin rug” as the item’s only detail.
On the rug, a label from "Thos. Hodges, Taxidermist and Furrier, Los Angeles" does prove it comes from California.
Another mystery the museum would like to solve involves a picture they have of a young boy lying on top of the rug. It has yet to be determined who the boy is and where the picture was taken.
"I took the picture and went through every room in the Vaniman home and it didn't match anything," Whitenack said.
It is difficult to know what is truth and what is Hollywood hype when it comes to the museum's lion.
"All of this is sort of shrouded in mystery," Whitenack said. "We could say we have an MGM lion, because we don't know that we don't, but at the same time, he's not one of the official MGM lions."
Attendees of “The Roar of the Lion: A Look at the MGM Lion in the McPherson Museum” will learn more, not only about the lion at the museum, but also how some movie stars worked with the lions and which MGM lion survived a plane crash in the desert.
For more information about the McPherson Museum, visit http://www.mcphersonmuseum.com or call 620-241-8464.
Contact Patricia Middleton by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her stories on Twitter at @MacSentinel.