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Zoo to display lion statues from early L.A. menagerie

Seven restored sculptures are once again welcoming visitors nearly a century after movie pioneer William Selig opened his Eastside park.

May 14, 2009|Carla Hall

The lion stands mid-stride, mouth agape in a toothy roar, his tail curled into a giant arc. Visitors expect to see a giant cat at the Los Angeles Zoo, but unlike those that prowl their enclosures, this feline is mute, a concrete animal atop a stone plinth, snarling a greeting to visitors wandering down to the entrance.

The sculpture and several others tucked into the front part of the grounds may be new to the zoo, but they come from an era in Los Angeles when visits to ostrich farms and alligator farms were pastimes and zoos were wild, eccentric menageries.

None was wilder than the zoo cum studio that enterprising movie producer William Selig created in the early 20th century in what is now Lincoln Park.

A collection of 15 concrete lions and elephants graced the elaborate entrance to the zoo, which opened to the public in 1915. For Selig, the live animals were essentially contract players for his movies and he lent them out to other filmmakers as well.

The studio closed in 1918 and the zoo shut down in the '20s. But the statues -- the work of sixth-generation Italian sculptor Carlo Romanelli -- stood their ground at the entrance until they were ripped away in the 1950s and relegated to storage. Rediscovered in 2000, 10 of the sculpted animals have already been restored and seven -- all lions -- will be officially unveiled today at the Los Angeles Zoo.

"We've been trying to pepper them around the entrance," said zoo Director John Lewis. Visitors will see the roaring lion first. After walking through the International Marketplace, the zoo's collection of shops, they will find the rest. There is a lioness cuddling one cub and draped with another, nestled between giant bird of paradise plants. In the shade of a pink trumpet tree lies another lioness. Surrounded by a planting of fern palms are two lion cubs -- a female and a male with a mane improbable for his age. "Artistic license," observed Connie Morgan, president of the zoo's fundraising arm, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., which raised $150,000 for the restoration of the statues.

"Zoos have been important to Los Angeles for a long time," Lewis said. "It was a chance to save some of the history."

Selig started his silent movie company in Chicago but opened a permanent production company, the Selig Polyscope Co., in 1909. He started work on the zoo as early as 1912, according to Randy Haberkamp, director of educational programs for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

"He built the zoo because he was making these movies -- westerns and jungle pictures," Haberkamp said. "And the jungle pictures had a lot of animals." Reports at the time say Selig amassed about 700 animals -- one of the largest collections in the country.

"The finest specimens have been procured direct from the jungles of equatorial Africa and India by collectors," crowed a 1915 Times story about the zoo -- evidence of a time before zoos followed strict guidelines for the treatment of animals, not to mention international treaties and laws on how to acquire them.

One of Selig's star actresses, Kathlyn Williams, worked so often with wild animals in his movies that she was photographed petting a leopard on the Selig compound. Parts of the first Tarzan movie, "Tarzan of the Apes," was filmed at the Selig Zoo.

Selig built his collection to use in films but realized he could make more money by exhibiting them in a zoo, according to Haberkamp. To attract visitors, "he built this big entrance with these animals," Haberkamp said.

"In the first six months of operation of the zoo, it attracted 150,000 paying visitors -- and the population of Los Angeles was only 500,000," Haberkamp said.

At the Mission Revival entrance, elephants stood with trunks raised, flanked by lions.

"They are really spectacular examples of the art called cast stone," said John Griswold, the art conservator whose company has spent the last several years, off and on, restoring the concrete statues. (They will restore a total of 14.) "The amazing thing about the way Romanelli made them is that they were cast solid in what appears to be very fluid pours. The granule size was really uniform throughout the whole body of the animal. For him to get the strength and uniformity is real virtuoso work."

Selig sold the studio in 1918. The animals stayed in the zoo into the 1920s, when some went to the Griffith Park Zoo and some remained on display in another zoo that eventually became an amusement park. The statues appear to have stayed put until the 1950s when they were ripped from their moorings.

In the late 1960s, according to Los Angeles Zoo officials, Larry Davis, the owner of Carnival Time Shows, purchased them from a Paramount crane operator. Davis moved them to his steel fabrication factory in Colton, where they sat until 2000 when former zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo and another zoo docent discovered them. Davis (as well as the owner of an additional elephant) donated them to the zoo.

The Amerman Family Foundation put up the money it took to restore them. "The mission of our foundation is to help children and animals in need," said John Amerman, president of the foundation and former Mattel executive. "And certainly the statues were in quite a bit of disrepair."

On Wednesday, they were already attracting attention. As Lisa Durward wheeled a stroller carrying her 23-month-old son, Dylan, past the stone lioness, his tiny arm shot out straight. "A lion!" he cried.

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carla.hall@latimes.com

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