The original Tiger Tamer!
Described as the first female tiger trainer (or at least the most famous), Mabel Stark was renowned in the 1920s for her death-defying acts. Typical of performers, not much is known about Stark’s life before the circus, and any information may have been exaggerated to add mystique. Some sources describe her parents as poor farmers, who died within a few years of eachother when Mabel was 17.
She lived with an unwelcoming aunt and soon became a nurse-in-residence at a hospital. During this time something occurred, whether it be a breakdown or something as simple as a change of heart – within a year she was performing in a carnival girl show, dancing the hoochie coochie.
In 1911 she ended up with the Al G. Barnes Circus in California, where she met famous ‘cat man’ Louis Roth. Working as a ‘high school’ rider (horseback rider) she set her heart on working with the big cats. Roth did not consider her worthy; until she married him (Stark married 4 or 5 times, mostly to further her career).
At first she worked on a ‘balloon act’, which involved her ‘riding’ a lion on a platform, complete with fireworks – a relatively simple act compared to what was to come! The circus encouraged her to work with lions, as it is easier to guess their actions and intents, but Mabel had an undying love for tigers. By 1916 she was presenting the show’s major tiger act.
She adopted a sickly tiger cub named Rajah, raising him by hand by keeping him in her apartment and playing with the cub at the beach. Realising how well he responded to physical touch, Stark decided to train him to perform a wrestling act – something that had never been seen before. Debuting the act in 1918, she shocked and appalled the audience, who believed that she was being mauled to death. It is said that brave men would often leave their seats, rushing towards the steel cage to try to save her.
Hitting the big time in 1922, she joined the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, rising to star in the center ring just a year later. It is said that personal problems with yet another marriage resulted in an altercation with the circus, and in 1925 they banned all wild animal acts.
Moving to another circus in Maine, a collection of issues led to Stark receiving a severe mauling. The circus had been delayed by rain, and by the time the show began, the tigers had spent the day on wet bedding. Stark had no time to feed the tigers, which would normally have resulted in a cancellation of the performance, however, she went on anyway. Some describe this as her first attempt at suicide, and later in life she often explained that she wanted to die being torn apart by her tigers. She lost her footing in the muddy arena and suffered wounds that almost severed her face, lacerated her face, tore a hole through her shoulder and a whole host of other injuries.
It took 2 years for Stark to fully recover and start touring with various circuses. She returned to California and finished her career at the Jungle Compound (later called Jungleland). In 1968 a new owner took over the business, who took an immediate dislike to Stark and fired her. Soon after this, one of the tigers escaped and was shot. Mabel was outraged, feeling that she could have secured the tiger if only asked for assistance.
Distraught by the loss of her job and personal memories of her career, husbands and tigers, she decided enough was enough. On April 20, 1968 she took a bottle of barbiturates, walked to the garage and put herself to sleep behind the wheel of her car. In the last pages of her autobiography, ‘Hold That Tiger’, published in 1938, she writes, “The chute door opens as I crack my whip and shout, ‘Let them come!’ Out slink the striped cats, snarling and roaring, leaping at each other or at me. It’s a matchless thrill, and life without it is not worthwhile to me.”
In honour of Mabel Stark, and all the other performers who have lived sad and glamorous tales, we have decorated the Playful Promises boutique window in big top style, complete with vintage-inspired posters!