Tale of lion rescue made for movies

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Tale of lion rescue made for movies


Gail Hearne

Special for The Republic

Sept. 30, 2007 12:00 AM


PAYSON – You can bring the lion to the mountain, but that doesn’t make him a mountain lion.


At least not for Leo, the famed MGM lion who once spent an uncomfortable week in the mountains near Payson after a celebrated mishap that’s been largely lost to history.


Our story begins 80 years ago this month when aviation was in its infancy and all eyes were agog over Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight just a few months earlier.


As fliers made frenzied attempts to set aviation records, MGM studio execs decided to cash in on the craze and cooked up a publicity stunt to fly their storied mascot non-stop from Southern California to New York.


The event drew nationwide press coverage as a Ryan B-1 Brougham, similar to Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, was outfitted with a steel-barred cage, complete with milk and water dispensers, in the passenger section. Plate glass was installed along the sides to provide Leo with a window seat and give movie fans the opportunity to view the famed African lion.


Martin Jensen, a well-known pioneer aviator and barnstormer, agreed to serve as Leo’s pilot on the history-making transcontinental jaunt. The previous month, Jensen had gained fame and $10,000 for placing second in the Dole Derby, a non-stop air race from Oakland to Honolulu that was sponsored by the pineapple industry.


At 10 a.m. on Sept. 16, 1927, a flurry of reporters with flashing cameras recorded the MGM lion’s successful takeoff from Kearny Mesa, a military parade ground near San Diego.


But contact with the pilot was soon lost, and the plane’s plight was shrouded in mystery. Newspapers across the country carried stories. A New York Times headline shouted: "NO WORD FROM PLANE CARRYING MOVIE LION; Jensen Long Overdue at Mitchel Field – Other Planes Search Western Desert for Him."


Unknown to the rest of the world, Jensen – and Leo – had made a forced crash landing in Arizona, shortly after flying over the town of Gisela. Apparently, Jensen was flying low and couldn’t gain enough altitude to clear the Mogollon Rim.


He came down in a Tonto National Forest canyon full of scrub oak about 15 miles east of Payson. The canyon, then known as Hell’s Canyon, was later renamed Leo Canyon.


The plane hit the treetops and rolled to a stop on its side, and Jensen escaped with only a cut on his face.


"I crawled out and looked to see what had happened to Leo," Jensen said in a 1927 newspaper article. "The cage had held tight, and he wasn’t scratched, although he did look disgusted, and I figured his opinion of me as a flier is pretty low."


After providing Leo with sandwiches and milk, Jensen gave him water from a nearby stream before heading to Gisela to find help.


He endured the treacherous lower Tonto Creek terrain for three exhausting days, encountering coyotes and rattlesnakes along the way.


For a while, he followed some cows hoping they would lead him to help.


But then he realized they were range cattle without a home and continued his journey along the creek.


Late on the afternoon of Sept. 19, Jensen reached the H-Bar ranch near Gisela, and the cowboys there cleaned his wounds and fed him as they listened to his incredible story. They gave him a ride to Roosevelt so he could telephone his bosses in California. The first thing they asked was, "How’s the lion?" and said to spare no expense to rescue Leo.


Jensen traveled to Payson where initial plans were made for Leo’s rescue.


According to a Sept. 21, Associated Press report from Kohl’s Ranch, a posse, including a lion trainer from Los Angeles, was formed to help with the rescue.


Six days after the crash, Jensen led the search party on horseback starting from a ranch near the Mogollon Rim. About four hours passed before the rescuers discovered the wreckage.


There, they found Leo – alive but hungry and thirsty. The news report stated: "It was decided to bring the lion on a sled to the Boy Haught ranch, 7 miles from the crash site, and from there to ship it by truck to Los Angeles."


The cowboys chained the still-caged Leo to a handmade sled and hitched it to a team of mules and guided the lion out of the canyon.


During a recent interview, Boy Haught’s son, 83-year-old Junior Haught of Payson, said he still remembers the lion "like yesterday."


When the rescue crew brought Leo by the family’s ranch, Junior recalls his mother was awful mad when she found out Leo had devoured some of her chickens. "It didn’t take him but just a swallow to get rid of one of them chickens," Junior said.


Leo journeyed by truck to Payson with a member of the rescue team for a stay at Grady Harrison’s garage and freight depot on Main Street. Townsfolk, especially the kids, scurried to see the star attraction before he was chauffeured to Hollywood.


Jensen continued flying and won several awards recognizing his contributions to aviation. He died in 1992 at age 91. Leo recovered and eventually retired from show business, leaving fame behind for another lion that would take his place.


The wreckage of the plane remained in Arizona‘s rugged wilderness for many years.



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