by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Long before the prevalence of powerful animal rights groups or much empowerment of regulatory authority of government, greater Los Angeles had an unusual plethora of animal farms. Dating from the late 19th century, there were facilities for ostriches, alligators, and pigeons with some commercial applications conjoined with marketing for tourism, while the onset of the film industry after 1909 led to the creation of other institutions, such as Selig’s Zoo , also known as Luna Park, at Lincoln Park, and purportedly the world’s only lion farm, run by Charles and Muriel Gay from the early 1920s through the early 1940s.
Charles Louis Gay was born in September 1886 in the little hamlet of Hauteville sur Fier in the French Alps about fify kilometers from Geneva, Switzerland. When he registered in the United States for the draft during the First World War, he recorded that he served for two years in the French army, attaining the rank of sergeant, though none of the biographical accounts from newspapers noted this.
In the 1911 British census, Gay was listed as a servant, specifically as an “oddman,” or general laborer in London. He professed, however, in interviews to have had a love and passion for lion taming and training from childhood and that his father suggested he go to England to pursue his studies in English, leading to work with British showmen with wild animals in their retinue.
During his tenure with Frank C. Bostock, Gay met Muriel [born Blanche] Crowe, a native of Darlington, County Durham (where a brother of Homestead founder William Workman was born) who worked as a journalist (though she was a stenographer for a cement company northeast of London in the 1911 census). The two fell in love and Muriel, who had a son, Kenneth, out of wedlock and whom Charles adopted, not only wedded the dashing lion tamer, but joined the act. In fall 1914, the Gays came to the United States and specifically to Los Angeles to work for the Cole Brothers circus troupe and, for the next several years, worked in that nomadic world. Among their earliest local notices was in March 1917.
The Long Beach Telegram featured a drawing of a packed circus scene with a woman on a platform surrounded by a group of leopards, while a man inside a cage was surrounded with more than a dozen lions. The headline reads: “Charles Gay Who Trains Wild Animals For The Cole Show Is Rated As A Daredevil.” The text noted that he had a $50,000 pack of lions and that he “presents a real sensational act,” while “Miss Muriel Croft,” obviously Mrs. Gay and also not a “little French girl,” was reported to go “into the steel arena with a group of leopards and panthers” and “has an act that is really wonderful.” Later in the year, when Charles registered for the draft, the couple was in North Dakota en route to performing in Cincinnati.
Charles tried his hand in movies and did have a short entry in a motion picture directory for 1919, appearing in the section denoted as “Actors—Heavies.” It gave his education at schools in France and that he was a “trainer of wild beasts” for three other employers prior to Bostock. The two films identified as part of Gay’s “screen career” were Centaur Studios releases through the Mutual Film Studio in 1915 called The Rajah’s Sacrifice and Stanley in Africa.
Both used Bostock animals and happened to be directed by Frank Montgomery, whose wife Mona Darkfeather, usually cast an native Americans and known as Princess Mona Darkfeather when she was a major film star in the first half of the teens, was Josephine Marie Workman, granddaughter of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste.
As the film industry grew by leaps and bounds and adventure pictures using lions were very popular, the Gays decided to try their hand at opening a farm. Around 1920, they established one in the northeasterly limits of Los Angeles along Mission Road not too far from Lincoln Park, where Selig’s Zoo, the Los Angeles Alligator Farm and the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm were situated. In early October 1922, the Los Angeles Express reported that “the most extraordinary farm in America, owned by Charles Gay” appeared in a newsreel shown at the Kinema Theatre. It was added that he raised over twenty pups during the last year.
Later that month, the Pomona Progress noted that Gay would have an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Fair, which was begun that year, and that “the farm, located in the City of Los Angeles, furnished practically all of the lions used in the various moving picture productions, also also is a source of supply for the many circuses and museums which travel in all parts of the United States.
Over a couple of years, the farm was featured in news articles concerning exhibitions at expositions, commercial advertisements (including Numa, who became the most famous of the lions, in a prune ad), and a full-page feature in the Los Angeles Times in May 1923. In early August, as Los Angeles readied for a Motion Picture Exposition, the Gays were prepared to give President Warren G. Harding a cub for his visit. The president, however, took ill in San Francisco and died there on the 3rd, though the baby lion was shipped to Washington as it was assumed Harding would recover.
From this start, the couple purchased five acres just outside El Monte and, in summer 1924, embarked on the creation of what became widely known as Gay’s Lion Farm (though it was version 2.0, just much grander and impressive in scale.) In June, the Times reported that a $10,000 house was being built for the Gays, while the cages, pens, auxiliary structures and landscaping were underway to create an atmosphere redolent of North Africa with a total expected cost of $75,000-100,000. Some forty-six lions were already housed there, including a half-dozen born on the property and it was expected the public would have access within six weeks.
While the grand opening to the public was delayed until 1 July 1925, there was a major feature in the Illustrated Daily News of 7 June with the headline of “Only Lion Farm In World Near Los Angeles.” By then, there were seventy-five of the animals on the property and it was reported that Charles got into the unique profession because it was “almost impossible for circuses, moving picture concerns and zoos to get lions sufficient for their needs” due to bounties paid by England to hunters and high costs of shipping captured animals.
The article stated that Charles was “reticent” about his past, stating that his love of animals was unformed until he went to England and he worked with W. Simpson Cross. After expounding at great length on how he came to learn about lions, he went on to note that, after two years with Cross, he went to Liverpool and took up with Bostock for another couple of years. Returning to London, he met Muriel and, after their marriage, the couple came to America and went into circus work, though he wanted a stable home and steady employment. With $5,000 and awareness of the shortage of lions available for movies, Gay found his calling. He added that his two prized animals, Numa and Slatts, brought in $100 a day when they were used in film and other work.
For the rest of the Roaring (in this case, literally) Twenties, the Gays had a highly successful business, both from the standpoint of use of lions for films and from the tourist trade. The couple would not transport their animals to studios or other shooting sites, so film crews had to come to El Monte to use the lions. Easily the most famous of the many animals raised on the site was Numa, who appeared in a great many pictures, was said to have brought in tens of thousands of dollars of revenue to the couple’s coffers and was even insured in June 1929 for $100,000, including working with the great Charlie Chaplin in 1928’s The Circus. The animal, who appeared in over 100 movies, received 3,000 fan letters a month with frequent requests for photos. That year, thanks to Numa and other working lions, newspapers reported that the income being generated from the operation allowed the Gays to buy a handsome Lincoln car.
The good times, however, were not to last. Despite regular press accounts of the farm’s successes, including use of the lions in movies, droves of visitors, and occasional forays to the facility by prominent or newsworthy folk, the onset of the Great Depression hurt the business. Charles’ prediction on 28 October 1929, just days after the stock market crash in New York, that talking films would mean a revival of films with “an African jungle locale” and a great demand for his lions, was not borne out. Numa, the Gays’ “most important lion star,” died in late 1930, but there was a steep decline in visitation, film fees and other revenue as the depression worsened.
With wild animals, there were also occasional reports of serious problems with the lions lashing out and other problems. In May 1927, Slatts died of appendicits and a promising cub choked to death, while Charles was bitten badly by “Bobbie” on his right hand. In September of the following year, when the Gays traveled for several months to Europe, with part of the trip reported to be for professional reasons, a group of cats broke loose. Charles Gay instructed employees to shoot and kill any lions that burst out of their controlled environment and, with the site manager killed and two other men wounded, two lions were shot to death.
In May 1935, Herman Ziegler, a long-time trainer for the Gays tripped during a routine training session and was mauled to death, leading the Covina Argus to editorialize about the dangers of working with lions and suggested “perhaps the human race needs a trainer that will teach them how to live with each other”—this on the eve of Hitler’s rise in Europe. Five years later, Gay, who was wounded several times over the years, was badly hurt with a lion got his teeth caught in the owner’s boots and gnawed on one of Charles’ legs. Another fairly common occurrence was the invitation of Lions Club chapters to the farm, but it was decided to kill and serve the animals to them on these visits. Obviously, any such incidents today would draw major government investigations, much less condemnation from animal rights groups, but it appears there was little, if any, outside scrutiny.
By the early forties, the farm was managing to stay open, but census records indicate that there were fewer employees in 1940 than a decade earlier. With the onset of America’s entry in World War II in late 1941, the death knell for the enterprise was at hand. The day after Christmas 1942, the farm gave its last public show and then closed its doors, though Charles stated that he intended to reopen at war’s end and when conditions would allow.
The Monrovia Daily News reported that Gay blamed “gasoline and tire rationing” for low attendance and it was expected that meat rationing, to begin soon, would also have been severe on the business. The Times quoted Charles as lamenting “with 17 years of our lives spent in building this institution, which we consider highly interesting and educational, it was with deep regret that we decided to close for the duration” of the war. He kept, however, the best of his animals so that he could resume “with a bigger and better lion farm after the war is over.”
This was not to be. While the Gays maintained ownership of the property and kept pens and structures intact, it was decided in 1948 that there would be no revival of the farm. The couple, who once gave a live lion to El Monte High School for its mascot, then donated a massive lion sculpture that graced the far entrance to the institution. In October 1949, the property was put up for sale and, a month later, Charles reminisced about his thirty-year career as a lion trainer and the seventeen years that the El Monte farm was open to about a million guests. He acknowledged, however, that he’d taken a physical pounding from the dangerous work and that lion training was for a much younger person.
Early the following year, the 63-year old died of a heart attack at his beach house on Balboa Island and was buried at San Gabriel Cemetery. Muriel lived more than fifteen years further and passed away at her Costa Mesa home in summer 1966 at age 82. There is a monument to Gay’s Lion Farm sandwiched inbetween Valley Boulevard and Interstate 10 just east of Peck Road to mark the location of what truly was El Monte’s “mane” attraction for years. A welter of memorabilia, especially postcards, survive as a visual reminder of the farm, as well.
The highlighted objects from the museum’s holdings are a trio (there are others not included here) of snapshots taken at the farm on 9 February 1930. While the quality of the photos are not superior, what is great is that someone took the time, which all too often is not the case, to inscribe them on the reverse.
The first photo is visually the best of the lot because it was not taken behind a chain-link fence keeping guests from the pens containing the lions, but was taken in an area where the Gays are shown feeding cubs to children gathered close up. A small elevated cage with a thatched roof is next to where Charles stands holding a stick and Muriel is seated. The inscription is: “This is Mr & Mrs Gay owner of the far feeding a little lion 6 wks. old, raising him on a bottle.” A postscript is: “Mr. Gay has a 45 on his hips but not for the little one.” Obviously, the weapon was in case of a problem involving an adult animal.
The second image is taken behind a fence, while opposite of the photographer crowds of folks stand behind the enclosure. At the center is a lion and a person can barely be detected lying on the ground while the animal straddles the prostrate form. The caption informs us that “this is Numa the circus lion, not circus, but movie, is in all pictures and has earned $70,000 in 7 yrs. He is laying over Mrs. Gay’s body now.” Incidentally, an online inflation calculator notes that $70K is now about $1.1 million, so Numa provided a good income for the Gays.
The third photo is taken at a remove from one of the large pens with tallpoles and thin wood crosspieces to which the fencing is attached. On the other side of the pen is what looks like a tall scaffolding, while, in the middle, is a long log on an angle on which lions are reclining. A bit of the tropical landscaping can also be detected at the far right. The inscription on this image reads “40 lions taking their sun bath. But you should have seen them leave and rush the fence as soon as a little kid started crying.”
The other two photos are left out, though one of the captions recorded that lunch for one lion included fifteen pounds of horse meat (an article from the Twenties reported that a man who sold horses to the farm for meat committed suicide in regret—he was also, purportedly, hesitant to trade in his draft animals for a modern tractor.) It as added that some 1,600 pounds of horse meat were consumed every day by the farm’s ravenous residents. The last image merely noted that the large pen was “just a playground for 40 lions.”
The story of Charles and Muriel Gay and their unique and popular lion farm are not just notable parts of El Monte history, but have regional signficance, including for the prevalence of their lions in motion pictures for some two decades. Their operation would not be conceivable today, however, so that history stands out even more for how alien it was to our thinking about animal treatment.