A brief and cobbled history of when lions ruled the motor drome (aka, The Wall of Death)
A while ago my husband found this photo of a lion sitting in a sidecar riding around the Wall of Death. Not only was the photo itself pretty interesting, but we discovered it was taken locally to us, a few towns over in Revere, MA.
A little Googling and I discovered that this particular photo was put online by a guy named Sidecar Pete. He happened to find it hanging up in a local motorcycle shop full of old treasures and asked the shop owner if he could take a digital picture of it. The photo was taken circa 1929 at Revere Beach MA.
Turns out in the 1930s, the Wall of Death was not exciting enough and they had to add lions to the mix. Lions were taken up onto the wall a few different ways. If they were small, they’d sit in the driver’s lap or a modified sidecar was added to accommodate them. Full grown lions didn’t decide on their own that jumping into a sidecar sounded like a great idea, many were trained as cubs to “stay put” for the entire ride.
From a 1930 issue of Popular Mechanics: “The driver takes as an added passenger a five-month-old jungle cub which crouches in a frame built on the side of the car. The most difficult part of the remarkable stunt is to induce the lion to remain quiet throughout the wild ride, as a move on the part of the animal might be disastrous to both occupants of the car.”
”Lion Drome” Daredevils
Fearless Egbert of Collins Famous Death Riders & Racing Lion. (Pretty sure that’s him in article from Popular Mechanics). He spent many long hours training and acclimating his cats to sit on a special perch while he rode around the wall. He called the finale of his show “The Race for Life” in which his trained lions would be released run and swat at the motorcycles. A variation of this was also adopted by many other motordrome acts.
Filmed in 1934, this is a movie of Fearless Egbert taking a lion for a ride around a Wall of Death.
Ethel Purtle and her husband, Earl were well-known for their Lion Drome.
Kemp Family Lion Drome: Walter Kemp was one of the first to add lions to his motordrome act in 1929. During the finale of his act, a full-grown lion would be released to chase him while he rode. Walter’s wife, Marjorie was also part of the act and was seriously mauled on many occasions, once so severely her arm was almost amputated and on another occasion it took her almost a year to recover.
Lolita Kemp (left), a few other ladies and one big cat onstage at the Kemp Family Lion Drome. Behind them is the barrel of the Wall of Death.
George “Tornado” Smith brought the Wall of Death from America to England in 1929, and featured such spectacles as ”Briton the Wall-riding lion” and “Gymkhana Girls and Girl Protégées”.
The Pelaquin Family, Sonny and Joe ran the last of the lion dromes. Joe was the best lion trainer in the family (and wanted to be a lion trainer like showman Clyde Beatty), although it is said that the cats really loved Sonny.
The end of the lion drome era came in 1964. The Pelaquin family had a lion named “King” that was tame and could be ridden like a pony. One day while Sonny and Joe were away, a drunk carnival worker was show boating for some ladies, stuck his hand into the cage and grabbed King and was subsequently bitten. The police were called and one bullet later, King was gone and the last lion drome closed.
Sidecar Pete: sidecarpete.com
Samantha Morgan’s Thrillarena: thrillarena.com
The Selvedge Yard: theselvedgeyard.wordpress.com
Lillian LaFrance: The Girl Who Flirts with Death
The Wall of Death- a film by Benedict Campbell