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‘The Best Known Animal in the World’

Leo growled and paced relentlessly, obviously a bit frightened when the airplane pilots fired up their motors.

What do you expect when you bring a lion to an airport dedication, especially the first lion to fly in an airplane, and the first to crash on that very first flight? Those loud motors likely gave Leo a brief moment of déjà vu, the big cat remembering 1927, and those four days stranded in the Arizona mountains while his human pilot tried to find help.

There probably weren’t very many movie fans in Southern Oregon who hadn’t seen Metro Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Leo the Lion” roaring from a movie theater screen, but now Leo was here in person.

“The Best Known Animal in the World” had been touring the United States and the world ever since his aviation accident. Since the World Tour began in Washington, D.C., in June 1928, he had already visited 42 states and traveled three different times up the West Coast — from the border with Mexico, north to Canada.

On Aug. 4, 1930, he arrived in Medford to help dedicate Medford’s new airport.

Leo’s promoters were proud to say he was “no ordinary lion.” No longer a cub, they claimed the 15-year-old was one of the “largest specimens of his kind,” whether in captivity, or in the African jungle. Weighing 735 pounds, he supposedly surpassed the average large lion’s weight by over 200 pounds. He was also half a foot longer than the average lion when measured from his nose to the tip of his tail.

Insured for a million dollars, Leo traveled in a style proper for the king of beasts. Each of the six vehicles in his caravan was decorated in red and gold.

The silver bars of his cage sparkled atop his “palatial” Reo truck as it followed behind a steam calliope, Leo’s “private band accompaniment.” Promoters explained that Leo was fond of his music. “He is always in a much better mood to receive his thousands of guests after having been serenaded by this instrument.”

After the morning dedication at the airport, Leo’s visit would be short. At 2:30 he performed on Central Avenue in front of the Craterian Theater, where he devoured 25 pounds of raw meat before performing tricks for the crowd. His trainer “and confidant,” Captain Volney Phifer, assured all that Leo’s repertoire of “tricks and antics” proved that Leo was a “beast of far more than ordinary intelligence.”

Then, it was a 3 o’clock performance at the Rialto Theater on Main and Fir streets. Next he was paraded to the southeast corner of Eighth Street and Central Avenue for more of the same at the State Theater.

In between, there were quick stops to acknowledge support from Medford businesses.

The West Side Market had provided the raw meat for Leo and, in its advertisement, promised customers they would “Get a lion’s share of bargains at this market.”

The O.V. Myers Reo automobile and truck dealership on South Riverside was the next stop at 3:45.

Pennington’s Battery Service noted that “Leo, the Famous MGM Lion, Uses Willard Batteries — as Standard Equipment for His Caravan.” The company urged residents to watch their workers, “While we service the batteries in Leo’s caravan at 4:15.”

Members of Leo’s troop were guests for the night at the Hotel Jackson on Eighth and Central, with Leo in his cage parked on the street in front of the hotel.

Early the next morning, after a quick stop at a gas station, The Best Known Animal in the World was gone forever. Now there was nothing left but imagination and a movie screen memory.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “To Live and Die a WASP, 38 Women Pilots Who Died in WWII.” Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.