The Animals and Their Trainers

Since animals play an important part in the films of Johnny Weissmuller, it seems appropriate to devote a page to them. We will attempt to answer the question: Where did the animals and their trainers come from?

To answer that question, a good starting point is the history of the most important source of animals for the movies: Goebel's Lion Farm. Such was the first name of the area in Thousand Oaks, California where Louis Goebel moved after leaving Universal Pictures.

Goebel was born in Buffalo, New York in 1896. In 1919 he moved to California and worked at Gay's Lion Farm. The following year, he got a job at Universal Pictures and he lived on the grounds. When the studio closed down its zoo. Goebel bought six of the lions (Andy, Min, Bill, Momma and Little Caesar) and moved to Thousand Oaks.

He bought five lots in the Oak Springs development by the Ventura Highway (now Thousand Oaks Boulevard) at $10 a lot and moved in, building the animal cages himself. The noise from the cats disturbed neighbour Kathleen Parks, and she went over to complain. Instead she ended up marrying him six months later.

The Lion farm became a popular place; even circuses wintered there and put on free shows for the tourists.

In 1931, Goebel took his animals out to the Lake Sherwood area where Tarzan the Ape Man was being shot and camped there to be certain his animals would be hired.

Goebel's Lion Farm eventually changed its name to Goebel's Wild Animal Farm.

Louis Goebel and friend

On July 8, 1940, a fire started in the hay barn and swept through the compound, injuring six Bengal tigers and two of the elephants, all of whom had to be put down. One of the elephants, Sally, had panicked when she was slightly burned and stumbled into an arroyo from which she was unable to extricate herself. She had to be destroyed rather than burn to death, as did Queenie, another elephant who was burned about the head and ran blindly into a tree. According to a news account, Queenie tripped over the main water line, breaking it, and ironically making it more difficult to extinguish the fire. The head trainer Louis Roth was devastated.

One of the other elephants, Bonnie, who survived the 1940 fire, was killed in another fire while en route to the Centennial Fair in Salt Lake City in July 1947.

Queenie had become somewhat of a celebrity when she pushed free a school bus that had become mired in the mud. She and Sally had been acquired by MGM through the studio's Publicity Head in 1935 for $3000 each. Queenie appeared in Tarzan Escapes, as the treehouse elevator operator, and again as a dying elephant in Tarzan Finds a Son! And she was disguised as a woolly mammoth for One Million B.C., the Victor Mature starrer.

When MGM brought three young elephants from Siam, Whitbeck insisted that two of them take the names of Queenie and Sally. The third one was christened Happy. One or more of them appeared in Tarzan's Secret Treasure, Tarzan's New York Adventure, Tarzan Triumphs, Tarzan's Desert Mystery and Tarzan and the Amazons.

In 1947, Whitbeck purchased the pachyderm trio from the studio when they were no longer needed for films, and began having them work in circuses.

In 1945, Goebel sold his animal compound to Trader Horne, a Kansas City animal importer-exporter, and Billy Richards. They renamed it the World Jungle Compound and in 1956 they sold it to 20th Century Fox. It was again renamed, this time Jungleland.

One of the animals Horne brought back from Africa for his new venture was a chimp named Peggy, to be trained by Henry Tyndall. The clever animal won 2nd place in the 1953 Patsy Awards for her role in Bonzo Goes to College. She also played Tamba in the Jungle Jim features and Kimbbo in the Bomba films.

Mel Koontz and Jackie the Lion


Other animals were Satan and Satan, Jr., tigers trained by Mel Koontz, and a baby elephant named Tusko.

Melvin Koontz received his training at the old Selig zoo, and took a trained animal act to the World's New York Fair in 1939, coming to the World Jungle Compound in 1946. He became their chief animal trainer, remaining there until his retirement in 1964.

When the group defaulted, Goebel reacquired the property in 1961. But money problems plagued the family for years, and eventually Jungleland closed its doors for good.

Mel Koontz and his lion appeared in some of the RKO Tarzan films, and was a regular trainer for Katzman's Jungle Jim features. He also “fought” a black leopard named Dynamite in later entries.

Allene Gates, who was married to Johnny during the Columbia period, recalls a unnerving scene that took place when they were shooting the initial Jungle Jim film. Jackie the lion was to be used in a scene in which Kolu falls into a lion trap and Jim has to go in and fight the animal. While the scene was being set up, she and actor Rick Vallin were seated in directors’ chairs just off the set. Suddenly they heard Koontz yell “Nobody move!”

Something had attracted Jackie and he was heading towards the directors’ chairs. Jackie kept moving towards them and Allene started saying, frozen with fear, softly,“ No, Jackie, No Jackie. ” Jackie came over and licked her on the face, then moved to Rick and started licking off his body makeup. Allene recalls thinking that Jackie's head was larger than the directors’ chair in which she was sitting.

Koontz also was a regular on the Pinky Lee Show in 1956.

Louis Roth

Born around 1885, Louis Roth came from Hungary when he was twelve, anxious to earn easy money in a land where streets were paved with gold. It didn't take him long to realize that was not the case, but his driving ambition and his reluctance to return to his native Hungary unsuccessful spurred him on, and quite by accident he got a job as a cage cleaner at the Louis Ruhe Wild Animal Farm at Woodside, Long Island.

Later he worked on Coney Island for Frank Bostock, the famous exhibitor of wild animals, and Herman Weeden, Bostock's chief trainer. Here he began his apprenticeship as a trainer of cats. From there he went to Bellevue, New Jersey, to be employed as an animal trainer at the Bartell Wild Animal Farm.

His next stop was with the Rawlins Show with which he remained until it disbanded. Finally he met up with the A. G. Barnes Circus, with which he was to remain until its owner sold the circus and retired.

His instinctive ability as an animal trainer stood him in excellent stead, and soon he was not only training animals but also animal trainers, such as Clyde Beatty, Bert Nelson, Mabel Stark and Nellie Roth.

Before long he met Betty Kenyan, a horse trainer, whom he married.

When Barnes sold his circus, Louis Roth went to California to become chief animal trainer at the Selig Zoo in Luna Park. This introduced him to the world of the cinema, and soon he found himself working with animals in the movies. He and Betty bought a ranch, and he went to work for Louis Goebel, becoming his chief animal trainer. He remained in this position until his retirement.

Louis Roth

Al Antonucci

By 1944, George Emerson and the MGM chimps were
 no longer available to Sol Lesser and he had to look
elsewhere to replace Cheta, the chimp. Johnny Sheffield
remembers that downtown parking lot owner, Ed Learmont,
 had a chimp  named Jimmy, so all they needed was a trainer. Enter Al

Antonucci, a former trainer for the St. Louis zoo. For the
next three Tarzan pictures Jimmy, under his able mentor Al,
gave one of the best performances as Cheta imaginable.
With an expressive face and comedic talent, Jimmy stole the
scene whenever he was in it. One particularly engaging
moment occurs in Tarzan and the Huntress, when he tries
 to steal Tanya's powder puff. Monak fires a knife in his
direction then pulls it out under the simian's nose.
The chimp does a triple take that would have made
W. C. Fields proud.

To see more pictures of Jimmy, click here.

Al Antonucci, Jimmy and Weissmuller

Damoo Gangaram Dhotre (1902 - 1973)

This international trainer of wild animals born in India was contacted by Sam Katzman in 1948 when he was preparing his first Jungle Jim film. He was asked to double Johnny Weissmuller battling a leopard near the film's opening. The following is the account of the episode as told to ghost writer Richard Taplinger.

“... I accepted the contract, which involved a large amount of money, and taught Sonia [ his leopard] first to climb a tree on the set, and then to jump down when she was told to. Then, locking my arms around her, we practised rolling over several times, and then I taught her to lie quietly while I apparently choked her. This wasn't quite as easy as it may sound. Since leopards naturally attack their prey by leaping at them from trees, I was afraid that the leap might well awaken all Sonia's jungle memories. And so, during our first few practice sessions, I had an ample supply of meat which I gave her when she jumped. I don't pretend to know what went on in her mind, but we had been working together for many years, and I suppose she was learning by now all the sometimes silly things that an animal is asked to do by her trainer.

Feeling smug and satisfied with myself because Sonia had learned so well, I made an almost fatal mistake.

The day for shooting the scene arrived. Leaving Sonia up in the tree I stepped off the set and, for the first time, put on my make-up. Since I had to look like the movie star, my dark skin had to be whitened, and I was smeared all over with white greasepaint. If I hadn't been so sure of myself and had stopped to think for a minute, this would have worried me, because an animal recognizes you, first by smell, and second by sight. I obviously smelled different, and I certainly must have looked strange.

I stepped onto the set and the cameras began grinding. I talked to Sonia as I had during rehearsals, but I sensed that she was acting peculiarly. She looked at me differently, and there was the beginning of a growl coming out of the tree.

I gave her the order to jump and she did.

Like a flash of lightning she was out of the tree and down on the ground in front of me, and I suddenly realized she wasn't acting. It took me only a split second to know that she was attacking. Her face was distorted in a snarl, and her claws were open.

In the split second when I realized that she didn't know me I began talking as I have never talked before, in a desperate effort to win recognition before her one final deadly leap.

It worked. Over the years we had talked together so often and so earnestly that the sound of my voice breaking through the strange odor and the strange appearance won her back. We continued the act, ending in my ‘killing’ Sonia. But it nearly ended the other way .”

The scene was reused in Fury of the Congo three years later.


  Damoo Dhotre

  Sonia leaps from a tree

  Dhotre as a luckless native

  Dhotre stunts for Weissmuller