Why Circus Fans and Historians Should See This Documentary: 'Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer'
The art of training tigers and other wild animals does not materialize overnight. As any big cat trainer will tell you, the relationship between man—or woman—and wild animals (weighing hundreds of pounds) takes time, patience and a large assortment of meat rewards. In the 1920s and 1930s, and with 18 Sumatran tigers, Mabel Stark created one of the biggest cat acts in the world.
Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer, from director Leslie Zemeckis, is now available for sale (on DVD from Amazon and Cinema Libre) and rental (streaming on Amazon and Vimeo). Scroll down for purchasing and rental information. (Access the Amazon link in this article).
This documentary brings us closer to the life and legend of Mabel Stark and her 57 year career raising and training “stripes,” as she affectionately called her tigers.
The story introduces us to the hard life of Mabel Stark—born Mary Haynie—a child raised in poverty when few (or no) social agencies were available to alleviate her family’s plight. But Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer is not just a story; it is the legacy of a woman who did—not only what most people cannot do—but managed what some men thought was impossible for a woman; controlling wild animals.
Introducing, Mabel Stark
In December of 1889, Mary Haynie was born in Tennessee; her family moved to Kentucky a short time later. In her late teens, Mary traveled to Louisville to become a nurse, but it wasn’t long after that when she decided the medical field was not for her. Details of her youth depend on the various sources telling the story, but it is known that Mary became a “cooch” performer; a sexy, suggestive dance once popular in fairs and carnivals.
Having changed her name, Mabel Stark joined the Al G. Barnes circus in 1911, where she rode horses and worked with goats. After an embarrassing incident where a goat sent her sprawling into the sawdust, Mabel told manager Al Sands that she would work with tigers ... or leave.
Mabel Stark began a friendship with lion and tiger trainer Louis Roth—a man she would later marry (and divorce). Shortly after her nuptials, Mabel began working with lions, leopards and tigers. Soon after, she was presenting the Barnes' circus tiger act.
Mabel Stark joined Ringling Bros. circus in the early 1920s. In 1925, the show eliminated lion and tiger performances, but, because she was still under contract, Mabel was forced to work with other animal acts. Finally contractually free of John Ringling’s control, Mabel Stark and her tigers went to work for a rival circus. She returned to the show a few years later when Ringling brought the big cats back to the Big Top.
Throughout her long career, Mabel Stark survived a number of wild cat attacks, marriages and show changes. She and her tigers were filmed for several motion pictures, including: A Dangerous Adventure (Warner Bros, 1922); King of the Jungle (Paramount, 1933); I’m No Angel (Paramount, 1933); The Greatest Show on Earth (Paramount, 1952); and The Rains of Ranchipur (20th Century Fox, 1955). Stark appeared on a few television shows, as well.
Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer
Mabel Stark suffered many injuries resulting from animal attacks, says film director Leslie Zemeckis, but the circus professional was a determined woman who would do anything for her tigers.
“They were her whole life. I wondered what it took to get into a cage with something that could kill you in seconds. When I first started developing the script and layout for this film, I thought it was going to be a story about courage—but it turned out to be about love. Mabel loved those ‘stripes’ as she called them.”
Mabel Stark was never really accepted by her fellow circus performers, says Zemeckis.
“But when she fell in love with tigers, it was a true connection based on mutual trust—she trusted them more than most people. There is a special honesty in animals because they are what they are. Mabel Stark knew exactly what her animals were capable of; they were more honest than some of the backstabbing double-dealing people she knew.”
Producer/Director Leslie Zemeckis’ documentary of big cat trainer Mabel Stark contains actual news event footage, interviews, photographs, and film clips that take the viewer back in time; we are not only watching and digesting the information presented, we are able to connect with Mabel and understand her emotional attachment to these animals.
Much like the methods used today for big cat training, Mabel Stark nurtured her tigers with kindness, not abuse. The first time she looked into a “stripes’” eyes, Stark knew what her life’s work would be ... it was her epiphany.
A woman working with tigers?
“I like to do something no other person can do. They said a woman didn’t have brains enough to do that. They dared me to do it so here I am,” said Mabel in a later interview.
Within three weeks, Mabel Stark’s tiger act was ready for public performances.
Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer is about tiger training and the dedication it takes to live life among the stripes; learning, loving, training and presenting the big cats. The documentary features commentary, viewpoints, and explanations from Patricia White, Trudy Strong, Kay Rosaire, and Jeanette Williams. These ladies are prominently featured in this film; sharing their experiences and training observations.
Also in this 93-minute presentation; interviews with Clyde Beatty, Jr., Roger Smith (who worked with Mabel Stark at Jungleland), historian Janet Davis, Marie Grube (former owner of Jungleland), and Linda Barber (Mabel’s great niece).
By the way, if you look closely at some of the scenes in Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer, you’ll catch a few glimpses of Ryan Holder’s ShowMe Tigers.
Making the Documentary
Questions and Answers with Leslie Zemeckis
“As a director, I must tell a good and honest story,” Leslie Zemeckis told me. “With Mabel, I found a woman who had never really been examined. I wanted her to tell her own story. I am interested in women who were, for whatever reasons, stigmatized or negatively viewed—usually for their career choices. These are the kinds of women who were ahead of their time; strong and independent in the days before women became respected for what they could accomplish.”
TS: “Do you have a particular attraction to the circus that led you to creating this documentary?”
LZ: “No, it was through my research and learning about the importance of the circus in American entertainment that I even began to think of it. But I have learned so much in the process. I am quite impressed.”
TS: “Has ‘Mabel’ given you more of an understanding of how strong and unique circus women are?”
LZ: “Yes, of course, as it was not an easy or glamorous life; it was taking care of business and doing it yourself. It was being in charge of your act and career yourself. And it was at a period of time when women were treated much differently than men, especially in the business world.”
TS: “What specifically drew you to ‘Mabel’ and her story?”
LZ: “The fact that she was the first—the first to work with a big tiger act. It intrigued me, as it would be nothing that I would do.”
TS: “The film contains interviews with several female tiger trainers—any particular observations?”
LZ: Very sorry for the loss of Pat White—she was quite interesting and she told us some wonderful stories. (Featured in this documentary is big cat trainer Patricia White who died on December 4, 2017). The love that these trainers felt—still feel—cannot be faked. There were many touching moments they shared with us. All of them have a certain type of toughness and dedication. I really identify with that.”
Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer is recognized for:
- Grand Prize Documentary (Silicon Beach Film Festival in Miami, FL)
- Best Documentary (Independent Filmmakers Showcase, Los Angeles, CA; and South Texas Underground Film Festival)
- Official Selection (Santa Barbara Film Festival; Artemis Women in Action Film Festival; DocFest San Francisco; Beverly Hills Film Festival; New York State Film Festival).
Mabel at Jungleland (California)
Among the elements in Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer, we see:
- The early years when Mabel went from riding horses and handling goats to working with Sumatran tigers—and her decisions on how to get ahead, no matter what the cost
- News accounts, interviews, films, and photographs of circus history
- Notations from circus historians on how women were expected to behave (these expectations were written into their contracts)
- Training methods, injuries, animal behaviors, and Mabel Stark’s many years with Jungleland (a private zoo, training center and animal theme park in Thousand Oaks, California).
Streaming for supported devices is available from at Amazon.
Streaming for rental is also provided by Vimeo. You can also buy the DVD from the Cinema Libre Store.
If you wish to stream the film, check out the lists of supported devices before renting from either distributor, to be sure you can watch it on your computer, TV, or mobile device.
Teri’s Two Cents
As many of my friends and readers know, I love cats; big and small. From house cats to the tigers, lions, leopards, and etcetera … they are beautiful and inspiring. Much like what I have learned from (big cat trainers) Alexander Lacey and Ryan Holder, I now have a better understanding of what it is like to be a woman who loves and would train tigers and lions, especially in the days before women were “liberated.”
Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer is educational, emotional, awe-inspiring, and more. It is empowering.
Just as interesting as Mabel’s younger years are, is watching her work with her tigers while in her 60s and 70s. Now, THAT’S inspiration!
I absolutely recommend this documentary film to friends and fans who love circus … keep the history alive!
© 2018 Teri Silver