Inspiration February 21, 2018
Documentary "Mabel, Mabel Tiger Trainer" is screening March 8 at Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles.
Mabel Stark headlined shows with Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, survived multiple maulings by big cats, starred in Hollywood movies and — oh yeah, she was the first woman to train tigers. And she did it center ring, to boot.
So why don’t more people know about this, let’s be real, entertainment and pop culture icon? Her gender would probably be a safe guess. I mean, she wasn’t even credited on all the movies she worked on. But, thankfully, documentary filmmaker Leslie Zemeckis is shining a light on her fearlessness and trailblazing career with “Mabel, Mabel Tiger Trainer.”
Mabel – born Mary Haynie in Kentucky in 1889 – literally ran off to join the circus in 1911. Of course, back then she was given a much more tame job. Women were more likely to act as assistants to men, or animal handlers to dogs or horses. Tiger taming was a super masculine job at the time, as historian Janet Davis explains in the documentary. But that wasn’t going to stop Mabel.
“I like to do something that no other person can do. They say a woman didn’t have brains enough to do that, and they dared me to do it, so here I am,” Mabel said. And I’ll be damned if I don’t have a new life role model.
Anyone who knows me knows of my adoration for and obsession with tigers, but I’ve certainly never gotten into a ring with one. And not only did Mabel take on one — but she managed 18 to 20 Sumatran tigers at once!
She was almost fatally mauled THREE times, requiring upwards of 553 stitches across incidents. Those were not the only injuries she ever received at the paws of a tiger, though. Despite such injuries, Mabel always blamed herself, or other factors – such as not having a chance to feed the cats before a show – but never the tigers. She loved and respected her “stripes” as she called them. Mabel did, however, relent that there is no such thing as a “tame tiger.” Are you in love yet?
Mabel is a #WomanThatDoes if I ever saw one. She set her sights on the tigers and did whatever she needed to to become a tamer of those big, majestic cats. She has even admitted that marriages earlier on in her life, such as to her first husband Hungarian animal trainer Louis Roth, were for practical reasons. That makes sense, seeing as after their union, Mabel first took to the ring with two lions and two tigers.
Roth advocated for training big cats by rewarding them with meat, as opposed to beating them into submission – thank God – and Mabel ran with this method. One of the reasons she was so impressive is because she formed intimate relationships with each of her 20 cats, allowing her to manage them in the ring without just brutally whipping them. She clearly loved her “stripes.”
She even hand-raised many tigers from cubs – aka living the actual dream – such as Rajah, who had been rejected by his mother. Mabel went on to use Rajah as the focal point of her show, appearing to wrestle with him, to the shock, horror and delight of the circus audience.
But her skills weren’t only utilized for circus performances. Mabel was also pulled to the big screen for work on films such as 1922’s “A Dangerous Woman,” 1933’s “I’m No Angel” and 1951’s “The Greatest Show On Earth” with Paramount. While Mabel was not always credited for her work, she certainly impressed Hollywood icon Mae West while working as her double in 1933. Leave it to one woman to be able to admit and applaud the badass skills of another.
When asked if she would trade places with any woman, West had answered, “Maybe this gal, Mabel Stark.” Mabel then quipped, “Fine with me. I’d like to be Mae West.” She later shared a photo of the pair in her 1938 autobiography, “Hold That Tiger.”
Mabel’s unbelievable career lasted 57 years, with the tiger tamer winding down at the renowned Jungleland in Thousand Oaks, where films such as “Doctor Doolittle” and “Tarzan” had been shot.
If, like me, your curiosity is now piqued – *adds “Hold That Tiger” to Amazon shopping cart* – about this glass-ceiling-shattering circus legend who wouldn’t take “No” for an answer — then I’ve got some great news. There will be a special screening of “Mabel, Mabel Tiger Trainer” on March 8, at Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles.
Because what better way to celebrate International Women’s Day than by screening a film about a legendary, badass woman? Speaking of – award-winning documentary filmmaker Leslie Zemeckis will be there to hold a Q&A following the film, to be moderated by Deadline’s Pete Hammond. Oh, and did I mention that the movie is narrated by Oscar winner Melissa Leo?
For those of you not in LA, you can still learn more about Mabel’s fascinating life when the film is released on DVD and streaming, April 10.
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