It’s a familiar sight – a roaring lion’s head in a golden frame. We see this iconic image at the beginning of our favorite films, TV shows, and cartoons, but the history behind this logo is little known.
MGM’s Leo the Lion was actually seven different lions over the course of 41 years from 1916 to 1957. The last lion, which was the only lion actually named Leo, is the current logo and has been in use since 1957. Each lion contributed a new take on the logo throughout the years.
One lion in particular, Jackie, had a rather eventful term as Leo the Lion. In 1927, MGM was seeking publicity and came up with a stunt where “Leo the Lion” would be flown from San Diego to New York City non-stop. MGM selected the pilot Martin Jensen, who had recently come in second place in the Dole Air Derby to carry out the stunt. A custom plane was built for the event— a modified Ryan B-1 Brougham plane with a lion cage built in, an extra fuel tank, and tanks for milk and water. Jensen flew out of San Diego on September 16, 1927 with his feline passenger, a canteen of water, several sandwiches, and a .45 caliber pistol.
The flight, however, did not go as planned. Jensen hit a storm over Arizona and crashed into a small copse of trees in a desert canyon. Both Jensen and Jackie survived the impact with no injuries. After gathering his wits, Jensen left his sandwiches, the milk, and the water for the lion while he trekked across the desert looking for help.
After four days, he found a small ranch. The ranch hands working there kindly agreed to help Jensen. They took Jensen to a ranger station so he could use the telephone to call for help. However, the ranger refused, saying that he had to keep the line open because a man was lost and search parties were looking for him. After establishing his identity as the man they were searching for, the ranger let Jensen use the phone to call the people at MGM.
As soon as MGM realized it was Jensen calling, the man on the phone yelled, “How’s the lion?” Jensen was ordered to spare no expense to get the lion out alive. Within two days, and with more help from some local ranch hands, the lion was retrieved safely. Jackie was then transported to New York by truck.
The plane remained in the desert until 1991, although scavengers made off with some of the smaller pieces of wreckage. The canyon that Jensen and Leo crashed in is now named Leo Canyon in honor of the event. It is located in Gila County, Arizona. After surviving this incident and several other accidents (two train wrecks, an earthquake, and a studio explosion), Jackie was given the nickname “Leo the Lucky.
— Post by Sarah Kesterson, UW American Heritage Center Archives Aid