Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Capt. Jack Bonavita and Mae West

In May 1904, Dreamland opened in Coney Island. To the right of the Surf Avenue entrance stood a building that Mae West entered, holding the hand of her father "Battling Jack" West. Almost 11 years old, but looking younger because of her petite frame, little Mae was nearly as transformed by the experience as Alice was when plunging into Wonderland.
• • For years, Mae talked about, and thought about, the impression Bostock's lions left on her. The lead lion tamer was Captain Jack Bonavita. Born in Philadelphia in 1866, his muscular frame and courage - - not to mention his sleek military garb, knee-high boots, and sinister moustache - - made him popular with the ladies. Actress Marie Dressler, then working a concession at Coney Island, caught Bonavita's act as often as she could. And it was an unparalleled performance that the 38-year-old trainer gave with his 26 trained lions.

Mae's fixation on Jack Bonavita and Bostock's lions inspired her to do "I'm No Angel," in which she fulfilled a lifelong dream of being inside the cage with the king of beasts. Born under the sun sign Leo, Mae felt destined for this - - and she insisted on performing her own stunts. The film begins with Mae riding an elephant. How many other 41-year-old actresses are eager to take risks like that?
• • Dreamland burned to the ground on May 1911.
• • Frank Bostock died, after a bout with influenza, in October 1912.
• • From 1913 -1917 Jack Bonavita focused on filmmaking, working as a stunt man, a director, and an actor. His silent films always co-starred wild animals and some of the lion or jaguar tamers he had worked with at Bostock's Circus. A few flickers he starred in were: "Avenged by Lions" [1916] and "The Woman, the Lion, and the Man" [1915].
• • Mae's hero Jack Bonavita died in the month of March from a polar bear attack at age 51 on 19 March 1917 in Los Angeles, California.

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