Chronicle VISTA, page 6. Thousand Oaks, Calif., Sunday, May 11, 1969
Story by Jim Brann
Photos Courtesy of Les and Mel Koontz
"So you want to be an animal trainer, huh?"
That was the question posed to Melvin Koontz more than 40 years ago while he was hawking peanuts and popcorn at the old Selig Zoo in Los Angeles.
As a result of his early association with animals, it was inevitable that he would go into animal work of some kind. Besides, his older brother trained the lions and tigers at the zoo.
So at the age of 16, Mel Koontz entered the training world. Tragedy struck a few years later when his older brother, Clarence, died of typhoid pneumonia. It was then that Mel decided to become one of the best in the business.
Although he stood only 5'6" in his stocking foot and weighted a waspish 140 pounds, Koontz' determination paid off. He worked in more than 600 motion pictures and developed a lion act which was viewed at the 1940 World's fair in New York City.
He is best known for training Jackie, the trademark lion of Metro Goldwyn Meyer Studios.
"She was the ugliest cat you had ever seen. Looking at her, you wouldn't think she had an ounce of brains. Yet, she was the smartest of all lions I ever worked," said Mel.
With Jackie and the menagerie of other wild animals, Koontz became famous as a "Wild Animal Trainer."
If you're a motion picture buff, the name Melvin Koontz won't mean much to you. Koontz never received a six-figure salary, demanded a portion of the profits or have his name in lights.
"I Have No Regrets"
Yet he has worked in more than 600 movies and appeared in more than 300.
Koontz' claim to fame in the movie world is a direct result of his profession animal trainer.
He has trained and worked with all kinds of animals, but he specialized on the "big cats"-lions, tigers, leopards, etc. He further specialized in "rassling" cats, those which can be trained to work with other animals and human beings.
Koontz has had his share of top-notch animals, but one a lion named Jackie is associated with his name more than any other. Every time you view a picture from Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio (MGM), you can think of Koontz. The snarling lion which introduces the film is Jackie and she was trained by Mel from the time she was two months old.
"We made three trademarks for MGM with Jackie," said Koontz. "The first was in 1934 and the last in 1955. The last one was made in color and is still in use today."
Actually, there were three Jackie's. All were used in films at one time or another. The first Jackie died at Jungleland in 1952. Jackie III is the lion you see today on the MGM trademark.
Koontz was introduced to animal training almost by accident. He sold peanuts and popcorn at the old Selig Zoo in Los Angeles when he was 12-years-old and advanced to training the animals when he was 16.
Koontz learned the ropes at the zoo, handling most of the compound's animals. Then in 1939 he set out for New York where he worked at the World's Fair. When the fair ended in 1940, he returned to the Selig Zoo/Luna Park and remained there until 1945 when he came here to work for Jungleland.
He also worked at the Bird Wonderland Zoo in Van Nuys for a short time. While there, he trained Satan a Sumatran tiger, born in captivity. Koontz started training him when the cat was only three weeks old.
At the time (in the early 40s) Satan was the only known tiger that would come in contact with people and be handled by them safely. Every picture made during that time requiring the services of a tiger to come in contact with people or other animal actors was filmed with Satan.
Koontz had a distinction of being known as a trainer and performer.
"There's a big difference," said Mel. "A performer just works with animals, while the trainer must break fresh stock. Many people think of Clyde Beaty as an animal trainer. Actually, he wasn't. He was a performer. Trainers broke the stock for Clyde."
As a performer and a trainer, Koontz was kept busy. He would deliver shows from the main show rings and then hustle back to work with the animals under his command. Because of the heavy demands by the movie studios for trained wild animal stock, constant training for upcoming movie scenes was the order of the day.
As a result, Koontz worked with every major "name" in the business. Consequently, it's hard for Koontz to name a "favorite" actress or actor or even a favorite picture.
When Mel is pinned downed to select a favorite scene, he usually snaps out with "Sequoia."
"We had beautiful animal scenes in that picture. The closing one with the deer and the mountain lion together is probably one of the finest you will ever see," said Mel.
Though he doesn't like to single out directors and producers as being better than one another, he does reserve a warm spot for the late Cecil B. DeMille.
"He was a great man to work for. He realized what you were up against and he would go out of his way to help you. He wasn't a know-it-all. He took his work serious and expected you to do the same."
Koontz worked with DeMille on the "Greatest Show on Earth," the story of the Ringling Brothers. The picture has been acclaimed as one of the finest ever filmed.
"In the "Slaves of Babylon" Koontz realized his only fears as a trainer while doubling for Richard Burton.
"The scene called for Burton to be thrown to the lions. I acted as the double for Burton. One scene had me in the middle of the den with five lions surrounding me. I was dressed in black and the lions didn't recognize me. I had to raise my head to the heavens in prayer and the lions would follow suit. All at the same time. Then I had to walk over the lion in front. I held my breath when I did that because I knew that old boy didn't recognize me. But that scene went off perfectly."
Another of Koontz' greatest scenes was one of the dance scenes from the "Great Ziegfeld."
"We had five elephant pedestals with dancers on them. On cue, two lions would walk out in between two of them. They had to walk straight toward the cameras and then turn and face each other. I drilled a couple of holes into the floor and ran in air hose. Just as the lion were to face each other, I would send a little blast which would catch them on the flanks. They turned and the scene was beautiful. Just beautiful."
Name the stars and Mel has worked with them. Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Betty Hutton, Betty Grable, etc., Mae West, though, probably remembers Koontz best of all.
"She had a part in "I'm No Angel" which required to stick her head a lion's mouth. So I doubled for her to get that shot."
As Koontz draws back his on his 30 years in the business, he can recite comical instances as well. And, some not so comical.
"You remember the old Saturday Evening Post cover for Camel cigarettes," asked Mel. "Well, this old boy was after me for a long time to do an advertisement for it. I never smoked cigarettes, but the job paid $750, which was pretty good money in those days. I wasn't about to turn it down."
"Well, one day, here he comes with the photographers. We were working on a movie with Bing Crosby and Andy Devine. I was talking to Bing when he walked up. Well, you should have seen me. Here I never smoke the things and I've got a pack of Camels sticking out of my pocket. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I was a cigar smoker."
On the unfunny side of ledger is Mel's near fatal injury while working a mountain lion.
"I don't know what got him so upset," said Mel, "but he did a good job on me. A mountain lion will always go for the back of the neck. He got me good, but I broke for the floor, trying to get him off of me. Then he chewed on my right arm for about four minutes before they could get him off me. They took me to the hospital and sewed my head up and I was all right. But I swore that I would get even with that mountain lion."
Today Koontz carries a half inch deep hole at the base of the neck as result of the lion's clawing. When he was sent to the hospital, the doctors were worrying about saving his life. Mel's only concern was returning to work.
They worked on his head, neck and arms for several hours and then placed him in an intensive care unit. He responded well to the medication and managed to sleep well that night. The next morning, bandaged and looking like a mummy, he reported to the doctor that he was all right and wanted to go home.
"They wanted me to stay in the hospital for at least two weeks," said Mel. "I couldn't stand staying there one day, never mind two weeks. I told him so and then told him to get my clothes. I was going home, whether he liked it or not."
The doctor returned with his clothes and Mel was back on location the following day.
But Mel swore he was going to get even with the cat.
"I was so mad at him I wanted to choke him. One day I got my chance and as I went after his neck, he stuck the claw out and got me in the nostril. I decided to forgive and forget right then and there."
Mel Koontz no longer "rassles" the lions. He retired in 1964 and had a serious cardiac operation in 1967. But he doesn't regret being way from his "friends," the animals.
"I retired in 1964 and don't regret it," he says with half a smile. "I was in the business for 30 years and enjoyed every minute of it. That's the way it should be. When your time comes to get out, then you get out."
Koontz lives in semi retirement actually, as he serves as Club Steward for the Thousand Oaks Moose Lodge 1919. A life long member of the Moose, he is one of its leading cheerleaders.
As he watches the reruns of old movies on television, Mel Koontz only remarks:
"It was a lot of fun."
ILLUSTRATED DAILY NEWS - 1930s ?
better tell my dad, 'cause he's a great guy"--
A boy's screams - a snarling jungle beast - broken gate - every man and women in that courtroom bending forward to hear the man's story:
"I grabbed one of the planks from the broken gate, and ran towards the tigress. She had the boy's arm in her mouth. I struck her over the head with the plank, and she started dragging the boy back into the bamboo growth some 15 feet away. Then Clarence ran up to me with the gun. I grabbed it, fired and the shot went through her brain.
DYING BOY GRINS
"Will I die mister?"
"I told him he wouldn't, but I knew he would. Then he grinned in my face, and said:"
Well, you'd better tell my dad anyhow, "cause he's a great guy."
Briefly, then, Koontz left the stand, opposing attorneys concluded their arguments and the jury was given the case. Within a few minutes the jurors returned with a verdict of $10,000 damages for the boy's father. Attorney Ross H. Hastings represented Hill.
Boy's Dying Word Revealed
PAIR TO WED IN DEN OF LIONS
Jungle Kings Will View Ceremony
Melvin Koontz, trainer at Los Angeles Wild Animal Farms, posses with his bride-to-be, Mildred Miller, and Jackie, one of his charges. A wedding ceremony will be performed in a den of Lions Sunday at the Los Angeles Wild Animal Farms, formally the Selig Zoo. Mildred Miller, 18 years of age, of 748 S. Detroit Street, will become the bride of Melvin Koontz, 21, for the past four years lions trainer at the zoo. Rev. Bruce V. Black will officiate. The prospective bride, formally of Louisville, is a musician, having studied in the Progressive School of Music at St. Louis. It is planned to build a jungle setting in the arena in which the wedding will take place so the leonine guests may feel at home during the ceremony.
Pastor Shows Up Publicity Ceremony
There'll be no Rev. Bruce V. Black, pastor of the Wilshire Baptist Church, in the lion's den when and if Melvin Koontz, animal trainer, and Mildred Miller, of 74 S. Detroit Street, stage their publicity marriage in a cage at the Los Angeles Wild Animal Farms next Sunday. "I regard a wedding ceremony as sacred, and further, I abhor sensationalism. I'm reading no wedding service in a lion's den," empathetically declared the pastor in an indigent statement today. Anyhow, the couple was married by the Rev. Black last Saturday night, so the announcement he would perform matrimony amid the lions was just a publicity gag, it appears.
BEASTS OF JUNGLE AND DESERT
GO HUNGRY AS FLOOD AFTERMATH
ZOO ANIMALS PROMISED AID AS FOOD FUNDS GIVE OUT
Disclosure that 300 animals at the California Zoological Society are in danger of starvation last night drew immediate offers of assistance from animal lovers. Hollywood was the first to respond as the situation became known to the studios. "We can't let this happen," Richard Dix declared. Most of those animals are fellow-players with us."
DIX STARTED FUNDS
Dix donated $100 and appointed himself a committee of one at RKO studios, where he soon gathered $300 and said he expected to raise more that $1000. Donations were received also from some of the motion-picture stars who have appeared the the animals, including Kathlyn Williams, who made all of her jungle pictures of the old silent days days at the zoo; Katharine Hepburn, Stuart Erwin, Bess Meredith and others. An offer which assured an immediate meat supply for the animals came from Albert Gianni of French & Gianni, whose firm slaughters cattle for animal foods.
Gianni said 600 pounds of meat will be delivered to the zoo this morning to fill in the emergency. Reimbursement will come from public donations. Another offer came from the Al G. Barnes and Sells Floto Circus to supply food, but William J. Richards, manager of the zoo, said this type of relief will be of only temporary value. Richards announced that a benefit show will be held at the park, 3800 Mission Road, on Sunday and urge radio performers and motion-picture artists who will donate their time to communicate with him at Room 801, Hellman Building, 354 South Spring street.
CALL FOR TALENT
Another call for talent for a benefit show to be arranged in Belmont High School was sounded by Jack Web, student body president, who said the animals have been of value to zoological classes and should be preserved. His telephone number is VAandike 5065.
Exhaustion of funds in the zoological society's treasury caused by the heavy expenditures needed after floods rummaged through the park March 2 created the emergency at the zoo. "So far we have managed to feed all the animals, although some have been on short rations," said William J. Richards, manager of the zoo. "but now we are the end of our rope." "We've exhausted all the reserve funds and stretched our credit as far as we dare." "Unless the animals receive their regular food we have been told by the Humane Department officials they will be killed." "It costs us $150 a day to run the zoo."
GATE MONEY USED
"Ordinarily we have been able to to get along because of the money taken in at the gate during the summer. In winter we have stretched it and obtained credit which we could liquidate as the summer business began again. Our income has been helped ordinarily by motion picture use of our animals. "The flood upset all this. It caused large damage to the zoo, destroyed a considerable amount of food and left us practically stranded financially. "Since the flood we have had no business at the gate - the roads and mud keeping people away until last Sunday.
"The flood also caused motion picture studios to delay productions of pictures which would of brought us income to solve some of our problems. "We can't ask for any more credit - we'd never catch up again. For the six years I've been here we've just manage to run even." Richards also explained that it would cost as much to transfer the the animals to some other place as it would to feed them.
MORE ARTICLES COMING SOON!
I just need the time to type it up........................................
|Many thanks to
Mr. Robert Koontz for sharing his newspaper articles and photos of his
father Melvin Koontz.