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El Monte's Wild Past: A History of Gay's Lion Farm

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EastofEast-150px-thumb-150x151-73089

In Partnership with the South El Monte Arts Posse

"East of East" is a series of original essays about people, things, and places in South El Monte and El Monte. The material traces the arrival and departures of ethnic groups, the rise and decline of political movements, the creation of youth cultures, and the use and manipulation of the built environment. These essays challenge us to think about the place of SEM/EM in the history of Los Angeles, California, and Mexico.
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Gay's Lion Farm, once a defining symbol of El Monte, has left relatively few traces in today's city. El Monte High School may be the home of the Lions, boasting a statue of a lion that was once part of the Farm, but a perfectly unexotic McDonald's now stands on Valley Boulevard, where the entrance to the Farm once saw fancy cars and tour buses disgorging their passengers to visit the tourist attraction. About three hundred yards west, on the southeast corner of Valley and Peck Road, an overpass of Interstate 10 looms like a conqueror over a memorial to the fallen Farm. (The construction of the freeway paved over the erstwhile Farm's vacant land in the 1950s.) The memorial is easy to miss for drivers hurrying through the intersection; it's also unlikely to be visited by pedestrians since the space is next to a busy intersection and below a freeway with no convenient parking nearby. The lion stands behind the fence, neglected by contemporary El Monte. Across the intersection, near a bus shelter on the northeast corner, is another ignored commemoration of the Lion Farm in the form of a marker placed by the city. The glass plating on the marker is scraped so badly that it renders the text almost entirely illegible.

Yet Jack Barton, longtime El Monte High School principal and author of "A Brief History of El Monte," called the Lion Farm the "Disneyland of the 1920s and 1930s," 1 and a brochure of the era boasted that the Lion Farm was comparable to the Pyramids. 2 This latter claim is undoubtedly the hyperbole of the showman. Still, the Farm had visitors as distinguished as Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt; many of El Monte's "leading lights" were patrons and friends of the Farm in the 1930s. 3

It is surprising, then, that such a prominent feature of the city should leave so few markers of its existence. We can explain the rise and fall of the Lion Farm in El Monte's history, however, by examining the city's changing demographics, especially from majority-white to majority-Latino, and its economic transformation from an agricultural town to a modern suburb.

Gay's Lion Farm, ca. 1920s | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Gay's Lion Farm, ca. 1920s | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Pamphlet for Gay's Lion Farm | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Pamphlet for Gay's Lion Farm | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Entrance

Born in 1886, Charles Gay was a French performer who met his wife, English-born Muriel, when he was performing in a circus in London. The Gays moved to California with Charles's circus in 1914 or 1915, 4 and began raising lions near Westlake (now MacArthur) Park in 1919. 5 They relocated their operation to El Monte in 1924, and opened it to the public on July 1 of the following year. 6 The Gays established the farm to train lions that they could rent out to Hollywood studios for use in movies. Apart from Jackie and Leo, the lions who roar to introduce MGM films, Numa was probably the Farm's most famous performing lion, appearing in several films in the 1920s, most notably Charlie Chaplin's "The Circus." 8

In addition to its role as a supplier for the movie industry, the Lion Farm became a tourist attraction as well as a civic mainstay. It took its place alongside the other "animal-focused amusements" of the day: Cawston Ostrich Ranch in South Pasadena; the Monkey Farm near Culver City; the Alligator Farm in Lincoln Heights. Among its million visitors were Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War; Nina Douglas-Hamilton, Duchess of Hamilton; Kermit Roosevelt, son of President Theodore Roosevelt and cousin of the famous First Lady mentioned above; polar explorer Lincoln Ellsworth; and a young Marilyn Monroe. 9 The Farm also became a destination for student-athletes playing in the Rose Bowl; unsurprisingly, they kept their distance from the lions. 11 Jorane Barton's 2006 installment in the nostalgic Images of America series includes an illustration of a Gay's Lion Farm float in the Rose Parade. 12

El Monte High School adopted "Lions" as the school nickname, and the Gays even provided a lion to serve as "mascot" for important football games. 13 The Farm also hosted civic events, notably the Lions Club annual banquet, where barbecued lion was on the menu. The 1941 banquet drew 890 Lions Club members from across the County. 14 A 1929 Bastille Day celebration by the "French Colony of Los Angeles" included an event at the Farm in which a baby lion was to be baptized with the name "Marshall Foch," after the French military leader who became the top Allied commander by the end of World War I. 15

Working with lions was dangerous, of course, and the Farm was not immune to tragedy. In September 1928, trainer John Rounan suffered fatal injuries when three lions (including a lion named, incredibly enough, "Nigger") escaped as they were being moved from one cage to another. Two of the lions were shot in the ensuing ruckus. 16 In another accident, trainer Herman Zeigler was killed when attacked by a lion after he stumbled during a show. 17

Charles Gay and his lions, ca. 1923 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Charles Gay and his lions, ca. 1923 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Mrs. Gay at the Lion Farm, 1923 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Mrs. Gay at the Lion Farm, 1923 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Despite its role as a tourist attraction and its proximity to the glamour and glitz of Hollywood, the Lion Farm's place in El Monte history is framed by a problematic discourse on race. Scholars such as Yoram S. Carmali have noted that circuses pitted representations of civilization against primitiveness. Carmali explains, for example, how lion-taming spectacles depict the triumph of "Culture" (the lion-tamer) over "Nature" (the lions, which are "caged in, captured, and dominated"). 20 Further, scholars such as Stuart Hall have discussed how this culture/nature opposition is often racialized: "culture" or "civilization" equals Western or white, while "nature" or "savagery" equals non-white or non-Western.

In some ways, the Lion Farm became a stand-in for a tropical Other, in stark contrast to a region whose climate is Mediterranean and semi-arid. In fact, the geography of El Monte and its environs in the early twentieth century was significantly different from today. These geographical changes are crucial in understanding how the Lion Farm came to be a racialized space.

Before they were encased in flood-control channels, the floodplains of the San Gabriel River and Rio Hondo were heavy with vegetation. In addition to the "island" of El Monte between the two rivers, 21 the vegetation was especially thick at the Whittier Narrows, and Hollywood discovered this fertile area as a space for location shooting. 22 Whittier Narrows had a rather inauspicious debut as a location: in 1915, it stood in for the American South in D.W. Griffith's infamous pro-Confederacy film The Birth of a Nation. 23 Almost twenty years later, the Narrows would serve as the "Africa" of Edgar Rice Burroughs in the film versions of the Tarzan novels, starring Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan. The films were highly popular, and Lion Farm capitalized on the publicity surrounding the Tarzan movies to promote its own version of an exotic setting. As Daniel Medina writes, the Narrows and the Lion Farm fit into the narrative of a "semi-tropical California" that local promoters attempted to sell to tourists. 24

Story continues below

This re-casting of the Whittier Narrows as "Africa" and the Lion Farm's attempt to create an "African jungle" between the San Gabriel River and the Rio Hondo are both critical to understanding the Lion Farm's role in the discourse on race and whiteness. Although people of color, mainly Mexican migrants and Japanese Americans, had lived and worked in El Monte prior to its establishment as what the Los Angeles Times called the "first white settlement in Southern California," 25 in the 1920s and 1930s El Monte remained a predominantly white city with segregated schools. Anglos dominated the city's political and economic leadership. 26 In this context, the Lion Farm can be seen as an image of Africa, of the "primitive" to be "tamed" -- in this case, by white men.

A remarkable photo of the El Monte Lions Club 1934 banquet in Jorane Barton's book supports this idea: twenty or so pillars of society pose with guns around a table covered with "jungle" foliage. 27 The men pictured include school superintendent Frank Wright, for whom the modern middle school is named; Lester Burdick, El Monte's first police chief; 28 Sam Leffler, the husband of Nellie Leffler, who would become El Monte's mayor in 1938; 29 and horticulturalist Harold Pearson, one-time gardener for the Queen of Sweden. 30 Incidentally, Roy Addleman, whose funeral home on Valley Boulevard would host Charles Gay's service in 1950, is also in the picture. 31

The accident that led to John Rounan's death also provided a photo that supports the reading of the Lion Farm as a white version of a "tamed" Africa. Rounan's colleague, Lion Farm guide Joe Hoffman, stands with a gun beside one of the two lions killed in the incident. Recall that one of the lions was named "Nigger." The article does not specify which lion is pictured, but does mention, however, that Hoffman posed for photographs immediately after the shooting! 32

Men give a toast to a lion sitting at the end of their table | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Men give a toast to a lion sitting at the end of their table | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Mrs. Gay takes a baby lion for a walk on Center Street in El Monte | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Mrs. Gay takes a baby lion for a walk on Center Street in El Monte | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

World War II brought about the demise of the Farm, as a wartime meat shortage made it prohibitively expensive for the Gays to feed their lions. Hoping to continue the operation after the war ended, the Gays offered 150 of their approximately 200 lions for sale and also loaned lions to privately-owned zoos. 33 In a Los Angeles Times article with the melodramatic heading "Their Last Performance Until Peace Comes," Mr. Gay stated that he planned to keep about fifty lions as breeding stock so that he could reopen after the war. 34 However, Mr. Gay's health faltered, and when the war ended, he was not well enough to relaunch the Farm. In 1949, the Gays put the property up for sale, and they retired to Balboa Island. 35 Charles Gay died of a heart ailment in 1950, while Muriel Gay passed away in 1966. 36

In 1950, the lion statue that sits in front of the El Monte High School auditorium arrived on campus. It had been in storage after the closing of the farm, and then spent two years at the Lower Azusa Road "cauliflower patch" of EMHS alumni association president J. Emett Cushing. 37

As the San Gabriel River and Rio Hondo were encased in concrete in the 1950s, El Monte's population was also growing, from 8,101 in the 1950 census 38 to 13,163 in 1960. 39 The growth of the city was mirrored by the interstate highway project, which brought I-10 to the San Gabriel Valley. As noted above, the Lion Farm's former location is now mainly occupied by the lanes of this freeway; the section of I-10 that paved over much of what was once the Lion Farm was completed between 1955 - 1957. 40

Few visible traces remain of the Lion Farm, but readers who wish to explore this topic further can visit several locations in addition to El Monte High School and the markers at Peck and Valley. In 1996, artists Victor Henderson and Elizabeth Garrison created a tribute to the Lion Farm at the El Monte Metrolink Station. The El Monte Historical Museum has pictures of the Lion Farm on display, and the Los Angeles Public Library has scans of photos of the Lion Farm at its website, as does USC. Charles Gay is buried at San Gabriel Cemetery, and Leo the lion is buried at Los Angeles Memorial Pet Cemetery in Calabasas.

This article was previously published on Tropics of Meta in December 9, 2014.
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1 Barton, Jack. "A Brief History of El Monte." Accessed September 3, 2014.
2 Gay's Lion Farm. Gay' s Lion Farm. El Monte, n.d. Advertising brochure.
3 Rasmussen, Cecilia. "L.A. Scene: The City Then and Now." Los Angeles Times, April 6, 1992. Accessed September 14, 2014.
4 Balducci, Anthony. The Funny Parts: A History of Film Comedy Routines and Gags. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2012. 60-62; "Charles Gay." IMDb. 2014. Accessed September 22, 2014. "Running a Lion Farm," The Woodbridge Leader, July 1, 1927, Afternoon ed. Accessed September 14, 2014
The contemporary "Running a Lion Farm" states that Charles Gay came to California "shortly after the war," while Balducci writes that Gay arrived in California in 1914. The Internet Movie Database lists Gay as a performer in a number of United States-produced short films from 1915, which would support Balducci's date.
5 Church, John. Pasadena Cowboy: Growing up in Southern California and Montana, 1925 to 1947. Novato, CA: Conover-Patterson Publishers, 1996. 38.
6 Jorane Barton,El Monte: Images of America (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2006)., 79.
7 Balducci, Ibid, 60-62; Rasmussen, Cecilia. "L.A. Scene: The City Then and Now." Los Angeles Times, April 6, 1992. Accessed September 14, 2014.
8 "Door Shut for Always, Lion Farm Owners Say." Los Angeles Times, October 28, 1949. Accessed September 7, 2014.
9 Flanagan, Caitlin. "Inventing Marilyn." The Atlantic. February 20, 2013. Accessed September 6, 2014.
10 Marling, William. The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain, and Chandler. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1995. 162-164.
11 Prugh, Jeff. "For the Players, the Rose Bowl Is Party Time: It's Rose Bowl Party Time." Los Angeles Times, December 26, 1975, D4 sec. Accessed September 21, 2014.
12 Jorane Barton, Ibid., 87.
13 Velasquez, Maritza. "As El Monte Celebrates Centennial, Locals Recall Wild History with Gay's Lion Farm." San Gabriel Valley Tribune. March 24, 2012. Accessed September 6, 2014.
14 "Lion Feast Attracts 890." Los Angeles Times, August 28, 1941. Accessed September 21, 2014.
15 "French Here Celebrate Bastille Day." Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1929. Accessed August 31, 2014.
16 Balducci, Ibid., p. 62; "MADDENED LIONS BATTLED: Two Slain and Another Captured at Gay Farm as Beast Mauls Manager Seriously." Los Angeles Times, September 27, 1928. Accessed September 6, 2014.
17 Clarke, John Smith. Circus Parade. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1936. 111.
18 Avila, E. "Popular Culture In The Age Of White Flight: Film Noir, Disneyland, And The Cold War (Sub)Urban Imaginary." Journal of Urban History 31, no. 3, 3-22.
19 Avila, Ibid., 13.
20 Carmeli, Y. S. "Lion on Display: Culture, Nature, and Totality in a Circus Performance." Poetics Today 24, no. 1 (2003): 65-90.
21 Diaz, Enrique. The San Gabriel Valley: A 21st Century Portrait. Historical Publishing Network, 2005. 42.
22 Medina, "Tarzan on the Rio Hondo!"
23 Medina, "Tarzan on the Rio Hondo!"
24 Medina, "Tarzan on the Rio Hondo!"
25 Young, K.H. "Location Boon to Community." Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1927. Accessed August 31, 2014.
26 Census. United States Census (1930), http://www.census.gov/prod/www/decennial.html, accessed September 21, 2014; Diaz, Ibid., p. 44
27 Jorane Barton, Ibid., 81.
28 Quintana, Craig. "El Monte Seeks Landmark Status for Its Pioneer Jail." Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1988. Accessed September 21, 2014.
29 "Former Woman Mayor Suing, Husband Consents to Move." Los Angeles Times, November 26, 1940. Accessed September 21, 2014; Millier, Isobel. "Madam Mayor." Los Angeles Times, July 3, 1942. Accessed September 21, 2014.
30 Ridgway, Peggi, and Jan Works. Sending Flowers to America: Stories of the Los Angeles Flower Market and the People Who Built an American Floral Industry. Los Angeles, CA: American Florists' Exchange/Los Angeles Flower Market, 2008. 56.
31 "Obituary 2 -- no Title." Los Angeles Times, February 24, 1950. Accessed September 21, 2014.
32 "Maddened Lions Battled: Two Slain and Another Captured at Gay Farm as Beast Mauls Manager Seriously." Los Angeles Times, September 27, 1928. Accessed September 6, 2014.
33 "Famed Gay's Lion Farm at El Monte to Close." Los Angeles Times, December 25, 1942. Accessed August 25, 2014.
34 "Gay's Lion Farm Closes, Victim of War Rationing." Los Angeles Times, December 28, 1942. Accessed August 25, 2014.
35 Bharath, Deepa. "Balboa Island Home Celebrates 100 Years." The Orange County Register. December 15, 2013. Accessed September 6, 2014; "Door Shut for Always, Lion Farm Owners Say." Los Angeles Times, October 28, 1949. Accessed September 7, 2014.
36 "Obituary 2 -- no Title." Los Angeles Times, February 24, 1950. Accessed September 21, 2014; "Mrs. Muriel Gay, of Lion Farm, Dies." Los Angeles Times, August 29, 1966. Accessed September 21, 2014.
37 "Lion Farm Statue Moved to School Site." Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1950. Accessed September 21, 2014.
38 Census. United States Census (1950), http://www.census.gov/prod/www/decennial.html, accessed September 6, 2014.
39 Census. United States Census (1960), http://www.census.gov/prod/www/decennial.html, accessed September 6, 2014.
40 "Final Bids to Be Let On San Bernardino Freeway." Los Angeles Times, January 16, 1955. Accessed September 21, 2014; Harding, Paul O., "A Concrete Ribbon Unwinds." Los Angeles Times, January 3, 1955. Accessed September 21, 2014; Hebert, Ray. "Vast Network of Freeways Rapidly Linking L.A. Area: Big Strides Achieved in Last Year." Los Angeles Times, February 11, 1957. Accessed September 21, 2014.

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