Mabel Stark, First Lady Lion Tamer


Today is the birthday of Mabel Stark (Mary Haynie, 1889-1968). She was billed as the first lady tamer of big cats, and was certainly the first well known one.

Originally a hospital nurse, she went to work for Al G. Barnes Circus in 1911, first as an equestrienne, then as a lion and tiger tamer with her husband and mentor Louis Roth. From 1922 to 1925 she became one of the stars of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus. Starked then worked in Europe for a time, then returned to the States to perform with John Robinson Circus (1928), Sells-Floto (1929), Al G. Barnes (1930-1935), and then a variety of smaller circuses in the U.S. and abroad, eventually rounding out her career at Jungleland. Just like any male trainer of big cats, Stark was mauled, sometimes quite seriously, many times over the years. This must have taken a physical toll over time. She died by her own hand in 1968, three months after having been let go from Jungleland.

Mabel Stark’s remarkable life has inspired much art. Mae West’s second film I’m No Angel (1933) seems to pay tribute to her, when Mae’s character becomes a star lady lion tamer.  That same year Mabel performed her own in the adventure film King of the Jungle, starring Buster Crabbe.  In 1938 she published her autobiography Hold That Tiger. Her life was the subject of Robert Hough’s popular 2001 novel The Final Confession of Mabel Stark. And most recently, there is the terrific new documentary by Leslie Zemeckis, Mabel, Mabel Tiger Trainer.  And my friend and fellow Trinity Rep Conservatory alum Anne Phelan wrote a terrific play about her — you should produce it! 

For more on the variety arts, including circus, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, 

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