Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Olga Celeste--M.D. McCarter Photographer--Available for Purchase

From A BLOG OF MY OWN--Inside the Outside Mind of TedNaron

Of the many striking things about Howard Hawks’ 1938 screwball classic Bringing Up Baby, one is how Katharine Hepburn relates with such comfortable familiarity to a leopard. You scratch your head and wonder how it could be. Many leopard scenes in the film are “cheated” one way or another (the production-savvy eye can detect those scenes when the leopard only seems to be with Hepburn or Cary Grant, through the magic of rear-projection or split-screen), but in some parts of the movie, it’s absolutely clear there really is a leopard walking free around Katharine Hepburn! And she really is making contact with it, and appears utterly relaxed! (There are no such fakery-free scenes involving the leopard and Cary Grant, who obviously had a healthy fear of the beast.)

Just off-camera was Olga Celeste, Swedish-born (1888) leopard trainer who had a career in vaudeville, and then performing daily at the Luna Park Zoo in Los Angeles from 1925-1931. She specialized in leopards, leaving other big cats to others. When the movies needed a leopard, she was the go-to gal. After Bringing Up Baby, she did the chores on Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946) with Johnny Weissmuller.

Baby actually has two entirely separate leopard “characters” in it, one gentle and one mean. (And of course an attendant mistaken identity in the plot.) I suspect they are the same leopard, with Celeste coaxing cuddliness or ferociousness out of the beast as needed for the part, but I can’t confirm this.

Bringing Up Baby is worth a look on DVD for another reason: the commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich. The younger director was in awe of Hawks, and during the course of the film shares many illuminating conversations he had with him about it, relaying Hawks’ words in an amusing approximation of the master director’s voice. For a good, and pretty thorough, essay on the film, check out this entry at

Comment to the above blog posting:

Eva Neroth August 11,2010

Hello Ted!
Olga Celeste was in fact my great grandmothers youngest sister… she was born in Lund, Sweden 1888 not 1887. A truly remarkable woman!

Sincerely, E. Neroth

Roger Smith said...

Olga Celeste was born April 9, 1888 in Lund, Sweden. Her formative years are very remote, but she had a strong history as the Enchantress of Leopards in early 20th century circuses, notably the Barnes show, and in vaudeville. She worked on at least 4 pictures: JUNGLE REVENGE (1915), a short; DeMille's CLEOPATRA 1934), uncredited as a slave girl, but onscreen with her leopards featured in the dance scene; off-camera trainer to Nissa leopard, who played the title role in BRINGING UP BABY (1938); and as trainer for the leopards needed for TARZAN AND THE LEOPARD WOMAN (1946).

Olga retired in 1951. When her last leopard died then, she did not suffer the cruel demise as did her contemporary, Mabel Stark, who ended her life when her Goldie tiger was shot, in 1968. Olga bore up to retirement, and carried on. Mabel often told me of going to visit Olga, driving herself along the freeways in that massive Buick of hers. That Mabel so enjoyed friendship with Celeste was something of a miracle, since Olga (at times) was also a blonde animal trainer. The decisive factor was that Olga preferred leopards, and was never competitive with tigers. Some time back, a blog contributor noted knowing Olga, and where she lived--maybe he'll re-write his comments to refresh our memories.

In the 1930s, Olga was sufficiently established in Hollywood, that she was invited to sign a shirt with fellow film folks Elizabeth Taylor, then a child star, Abbott & Costello, Cary Grant, Mabel Stark, Louis Roth, and little Shirley Temple. In 2005, bids for the shirt ran close to $1,000.

Look up "Luna Park Zoo" for her history and photos there, where she performed from 1925 to 1931. Co-workers were Louis Roth and Mel Koontz. Admission then was 30-cents.

The Enchantress of Leopards, died at 81, in Burbank, California, on August 31, 1969.

26 February, 2011 00:01 From Buckles Blog

Roger S said...

Mabel Stark was very good friends with The Enchantress of Leopards, and used to drive down to visit her. She told me several times, with the zeal of an older person who can be keenly precise, exactly how she took the freeways and what turns she made to arrive at Ms. Celeste's door. Dick McGraw wryly observed that Mabel liked Olga, another blonde, all right, but only because she had eyes strictly for leopards, and didn't threaten to encroach upon tigers.

11 February, 2007 01:41 From Buckles Blog

Luna Park Zoo Lincoln Heights, CA 90031

"Back in the day," of early Hollywood, Luna Park, Selig Zoo, Al G. Barnes Circus, Thousand Oaks, Jungle Land, and the timeless Tarzan movies, in California there were apparently many, many great animal trainers. Some started in the circus, and went to movie animal training career's , some started with movie animals and later went on to become great circus trainers. Not having any "circus roots" or any prior knowledge of animal training history before going to work for Lou Regan, most of what I learned about "West Coast Trainers/Coast Trainers" as they were respectfully called, was from Lou who's roots were "on the coast," having grown up in Pasadena, where his father was a Police Captain. The incredible stories he told of folks like Mel Koontz, Bert Nelson, Chubby Gilfore, Dick McGraw, Pat Anthony, Chet Juzick, Mable Stark, Olga Celeste, etc. etc. were a priceless education for me. Roger Smith(see above) is now the "keeper of the tell," when it comes to all things "Coast Trainers." I think Louie Roth was Lou Regan's idol, as he spoke often of Roth's greatness. Lou almost made me feel like I had known these folks from the past, and he made me realize what an incredible world of animals and animal training I had missed by being born to late.

No comments: