In the early 1970s, my parents owned a Plymouth Fury Sports Suburban station wagon. If the image of the Griswold Family Truckster from the National Lampoon’s Vacation movie is racing through your mind, you wouldn’t be too far off. While they exaggerated the features of that station wagon for the film, my parent’s car wasn’t that much different. While we never had a deceased Aunt Edna to tie to the roof, our car was similar in color and was of the same monstrous size.
I have vague memories of my dad folding over the rear seat, dropping the tailgate down, and carrying full sheets of plywood and drywall with it. Then, I began to wonder if I was remembering that correctly. After all, a full sheet of plywood is fairly wide. It only took a few minutes of searching to find the specs on that car and, sure enough, a full 48” (1.22 m) wide sheet could fit between the two rear tire wells, which were separated by 48.5” (1.3 cm). I wasn’t imagining things.
But what that station wagon was really good for was vacations. My dad always drove, my mom assumed the co-pilot position, while my brother and I sat in the rear seat. And one trip that I remember taking was to Warner Bros’ Jungle Habitat in West Milford, New Jersey. Located just over 1-hour from our house, and about 1-hour northwest of New York City, the park didn’t last long. It opened on July 19, 1972, and closed on October 31, 1976. Other than that 4-year date range, I couldn’t tell you when we went there, but I do recall that I was very excited to do so. You see, Jungle Habitat had a drive-through safari where the animals roamed free as the tourists drove their vehicles through the park. Jungle Habitat’s TV commercials always showed wild animals hopping on top of the cars, which was the main thing that I wanted to see. Being a quirky kid, I had no interest in meeting the park’s life-sized versions of Bugs Bunny or Elmer Fudd. So, with my dad at the wheel of our Plymouth station wagon, we drove slowly through the park. I just kept looking out the window hoping that a baboon, tiger, or, best of all, a lion would hop on top of our car. It never happened. The whole excursion through the park proved to be a complete bore. I was too young to realize that I should have packed lots of raw meat in a cooler. If I had done so, I could have quickly cranked the window down and thrown some hunks of meat out of the car. That would have certainly attracted a few of the carnivores to our vehicle. The downside of that idea is that I may have been eaten alive and, therefore, unable to tell this story.
But Jungle Habitat wasn’t the first theme park in the United States to have a cageless zoo for tourists to travel through. That credit goes to Lion Country Safari, which opened in Florida in 1967, where it still operates today. It was so successful that they soon opened a second location in Laguna Hills, California on June 16, 1970, the setting of today’s wild story.
What the owners of Lion Country Safari couldn’t have anticipated when they built the park was that a decrepit old lion would soon bring in a record number of visitors. This was a lion who seemed to be at death’s door, yet he quickly became a national celebrity. In fact, he had his face plastered on everything from t-shirts to bumper stickers to beach towels and on and on. There were even two songs written about him, with one of them being recorded by a famous jazz singer, and even more incredibly, a feature-length movie was made about this lion’s life.
So, let’s set the scene: A family drives up in their family Truckster and they are greeted by a large sign that read, “No Trespassing. Violators Will Be Eaten!” Next came a warning that they should never, under any circumstance, roll down their windows. And should they have been foolish enough to arrive in a convertible, they would be ordered to park it and head on over to the Hertz Hut to rent an air-conditioned safari vehicle. And since the park didn’t want the family’s pet to become some lion’s lunch, the park offered free accommodations for Fido at the Kal Kan Kennel Club.
Of course, if you are going to a theme park named Lion Country Safari, visitors were most curious to see the lions, of which they had nearly one hundred. But shortly after the park opened, veterinarians there were faced with a bit of a problem. Eleven healthy, young lionesses had been delivered to Safari but the staff had been unable to introduce a dominant male to establish a pride.
In their first attempt, they introduced a young, fit male that the vets hoped would take over as head of the family. But they were wrong. So wrong. As one warden later described, “The next morning, we found him beaten and rejected. In fact, we had to rescue him from the outraged ladies.”
Back to the drawing board…
The next night, they introduced a second male and he was also viciously attacked. The same happened the next night and the next. In total, five different males were rejected by the lionesses.
Then, as kind of a joke, someone suggested Frasier. He was everything that the leader of a pride shouldn’t be. Just three years earlier, Frasier had been part of a bankrupt Mexican circus. This not only left Frasier jobless but also half-starved and extremely ill. That’s when Bill York, the chief warden at Lion Country Safari decided to bring Frasier to Lion Country to live out his sunset years.
Jerry Cobrin, vice president of the preserve, would later state, “Our zoologist will tell you that we picked him up out of compassion. He was practically DOA when we got him.”
That’s not an exaggeration. First, Frasier was old. Very old. His age was estimated to be somewhere between 17 and 20 years, meaning he had lived at least five years longer than the average lion.
When Lion Country first received Frasier he was in very bad shape. He was severely underweight, had an injured leg and battered ears, was nearly toothless, rheumatic, and wobbled as he walked. The May 5, 1972 edition of Life magazine added, “His fur resembles an old mothballed coat, and he sleeps 19 hours a day. The muscles in his tongue are so shot that it unreels from his mouth like a slobbery red carpet.”
But the staff at Lion Country were able to save Frasier’s life. Through a special diet, injections of vitamins several times a day, and attentive care, Frasier put on an estimated 100 pounds (45.4 kg) of weight, but he was still old and decrepit.
So, the thought of introducing Frasier to these eleven vicious females seemed ludicrous. But as Jerry Kobrin pointed out, “He was literally our last resort.” The reality was that no one expected Frasier to survive the night. He was certain to be mauled to death.
Yet, surprisingly, that wasn’t what happened. The next morning, Frasier was found sleeping on his back, paws folded over, as if he was incredibly content. He was surrounded by the females, some licking their paws and others napping. A zoo keeper described what happened next, “When we threw them their daily supply of meat, one of them took the first piece to Frasier. None of the females ate until Frasier was finished.”
A few days later, the staff noticed that whenever Frasier desired to go for a walk, two of the females would walk on either side of him and guide him along.
Not only that, but Frasier proved to be a real tiger. He didn’t have just one wife, he had seven. And soon, each of the females became pregnant. By Wednesday, February 23, 1972, less than one and a half years after he had been introduced to the ladies, Frasier had fathered a total of 31 cubs, and there were still more on the way. “Shucks,” a compound warden said, “it takes an ordinary male lion 18 months to father maybe only 12 cubs, if he has 2 or 3 good wives.”
He added, “Visitors used to complain bitterly, and demand we treat him better. Little did they—or we—know about Frasier.” If only they could have known how much Frasier was enjoying himself.
UPI (United Press International) ran a story about Frasier on January 26, 1972, and it wasn’t long before the entire nation knew about his incredible success with the ladies.
“Bouquet of roses to Frasier, the virile lion who has demolished the legend that a 75-year-old male cannot satisfy the ladies,” writes Los Angeles resident James W. Mitchell in a letter to the editor of The Los Angeles Times on March 4, 1972.
Anita Cohen of North Hollywood also wrote, “I want to join Frasier’s Fan Club. Where do I get a T-shirt? Thank you for brightening my day. The story of the old battered cat was a delight and a huge lift to the ego of the more mature folks.”
She continued, “Hats off to all the young lionesses who are intelligent, discriminating and perceptive enough to know what stuff Frasier is really made of.”
M.H. Harrold, also of North Hollywood penned, “So long as we have an old Frasier around to break the daily routine of war, crime, politics and just plain living, what a wonderful place this old world is after all.”
As one would expect, Lion Country took full advantage of this free publicity. It was Kobrin who coined him Frasier, the Sensuous Lion, and the company used it in all of its promotions.
For example, the following advertisement appeared on page eleven of the following day’s Los Angeles Times. It reads, in part, “With increasing pride, Lion Country presents Frasier, The Sensuous Lion.” It continues, “Frasier’s normal life span should have ended some five years ago. Instead, in recent weeks, he has become an international celebrity, acclaimed in media and lionized by the nation’s senior citizenry for his inspirational procreative prowess. Happily posing above with some of the 33 progeny he has sired in the past 16 months, Frasier (and his seven wives) can be admired daily at Lion Country Safari in Laguna Hills, Orange County. Be sure to ask (one of the attendants, not Frasier himself) for a pawtograph of this Marvel of Mammalia.”
And just how much would a visit to see Frasier set you back? An adult ticket was $3.25 (approximately $23 today), $1.50 (approximately $10.75) for children ages 5-11, and children under 5 were admitted for free. Compared to today’s prices for theme parks, that really isn’t that bad.
But Times columnist John Hall warned that should one happen to spot Frasier, one may be sorely disappointed. When Hall visited the park, he found Frasier “asleep on his back, his paws dangling in the sky.” He added, “A ranger in a Jeep tossed meat hunks. Frasier’s eyes popped open. He yawned and struggled to his feet… His favorite wives of the moment walked on each side holding him up…” “He leaned over for the meat and missed, his tongue lolling in the dirt 6 inches (15.24 cm) off target. He didn’t care. He just went back to sleep.”
Without a doubt, Frasier had become a hero to the Geritol set. Could the secret of his success be whatever was in those vitamin shots? People wanted to know. So, here are the ingredients of that magical formula, although the exact recipe was never given: mix up vitamins A, B1, B2, B5, B6, B8, B12, C, D2, D3, and E, with niacin, methionine (an amino acid), chloride, cobalt, manganese, iron, copper, phosphorus, calcium, and salt. But, be warned. This supplement was prepared specifically for Frasier (not humans) and his keepers pointed out that it only worked when combined with the remainder of his diet. That consisted of 12 pounds (5.4 kg) of raw meat a day, made up of 7 parts horsemeat, 2 parts chicken, and one part beef. A park spokesman added, “If you decide to try it, be sure to use the entire chicken; bones, feathers and all.”
Frasier’s popularity continued to soar. The Los Angeles Times announced on March 24, 1972, that two of Frasier’s cubs were being auctioned off as part of a fundraiser for KCET television, which was a charter PBS station at the time. Can you imagine? Not only would these cubs eat you out of house and home, they literally could eat you. Well, the next day, the paper ran a correction. One wasn’t bidding to physically own one of the cubs. Instead, if you won, you could name the cub.
In April, California Assemblyman John P. Quimby honored Frasier with a resolution that read, in part, “Whereas Harry Shuster, president of Lion Country Safari, and the veterinarians and the zoologist at his wildlife preserve extended a humanitarian hand to old Frasier, the sensuous lion, when he was jobless, sick, and starved: And whereas, Frasier has given new hope and stimulus to all animals, including humans, who grow to be octogenarians. And whereas, his monumental record of performance as both husband and father is deserving of a nomination of the ‘California’s Animal Father of the Year.’”
This was followed by Representative John G. Schmitz standing before the US House of Representatives on Wednesday, May 17, 1972, and declaring, “Mr. Speaker, at a time when there is nothing in the news but reports of mayhem, murder, hate, and greed, I would like to call your attention to the story of an aging lion, who lives in the well-known Lion Country Safari in my district, who has captivated the hearts of people from coast-to-coast.” This was followed by a lengthy, humorous article titled “There’s No Lion Like Frasier” by Stan Leppard that appeared in two parts beginning on March 26, 1972, in the Long Beach Press-Telegram. (Read the full text in the Congressional Record.)
In that article, Pat Quinn, the park’s zoological director, told Leppard, “Animals, like people, have individual traits, and Frasier has outstanding ones. He is good-natured, patient, and even-tempered to an astonishing degree. You’ll see him lying out there with the cubs tumbling over him, pulling at his ears and stepping on his ears and stepping on his face. Younger male lions would be likely to bat the cubs a good one when they get this playful, but Frasier just nuzzles at them and yawns.” Quinn added, “He’s been officially recorded as breeding 22 times in an hour and a half, by the way.”
Frasier fan clubs sprung up across the nation, cat food manufacturers sought to use Frasier in their television commercials, and an Ohio basketball team changed its name to the Frasier Lions. Around that same time, Stanford University had retired its Indian mascot over concerns of it being an ethnic slur and they were seriously considering making Frasier their new mascot. (Note: to this day, they still do not have an official mascot. Unofficially, it is the Stanford Tree.)
Frasier was honored with not one, but two songs written about him. The first was “The Ballad of Frasier the Sensuous Lion,” which was recorded by Jack Harrell. The lyrics to that song were written by Lion Country’s President Harry Schuster and VP Jerry Kobrin, which probably explains why it was never a hit. Then there was “The Story of Frasier (the Sensuous Lion),” which was penned by Johnny Mercer and Jimmy Rowles. That one was recorded by the legendary Sarah Vaughan.
Frasier T-shirts, buttons, bumper stickers, and just about anything else that they could plaster his image on. For example, when two of Frasier’s offspring, Super Stuff and Tiny were scheduled to make an appearance at the JC Penney store in The City Shopping Centre in Orange, California on June 17, 1972, they ran a full-page advertisement in the Los Angeles Times listing the Frasier items that they were selling. You could get a Frasier men’s tie for $5.00 ($36.00 today), a wristwatch “with Frasier’s grinning face on the dial” for $15.95 ($115), a Frasier beach towel for $6.00 ($43.00), or a Frasier Bike Bag for $3.50 ($25.00).
On July 5, 1972, it was announced that members of the Frasier (the Sensuous Lion) Fan Clubs had selected twelve nominees for the title of America’s Most Sensuous Man. They were: radio personality Bill Ballance, talk show host (and creator of the Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy game shows) Merv Griffin, crooners Dean Martin and Rudy Vallee, Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinson, actors Kirk Douglas, Ricardo Montalban, Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds, and Cesar Romero, comedian Flip Wilson, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. According to Mrs. Marilyn Arcoli, president of the nationwide organization, these men had been chosen “for their sheer sensuality and animal magnetism, regardless of age.” The winner would be awarded the Golden Frasier, a trophy sculpted in his likeness. I’m putting my money on Henry Kissinger.
So, who won? I was unable to find out that answer, but my hunch was that the prize was never awarded because it was revealed one week later that Frasier was seriously ill with a possible kidney malfunction. Dr. William Y. Higgins, the resident veterinarian at the safari, said that “Everything that can be done for this remarkable animal is being done.”
During the evening of Wednesday, July 12, 1972, Frasier came out of his coma for a brief period and took a feeble swipe at Dr. Higgins. He then fell into a deep sleep and never awoke. He passed away the following morning.
The LA Times ran a story Friday, July 14, 1972, announcing Frasier’s passing. In that article, Bill Dredge, Lion Country’s vice president of administration, told a reporter, “He gained dominance in his own way.” He added, “He did it without fighting his competitors. He did it by sheer weight of personality, character and love, and the females automatically respected him.”
The article concluded, “Frasier’s survivors, in addition to Jonah and 34 other cubs, include his wives, Nadula, Stompy, Lefty, Zona, Sally, Linda and Pacer.”
Harry Schuster, the president of the Safari, declared that all four of the organization’s parks, including those in Texas and Georgia, would have Frasier replicas installed, along with donation boxes. The newly established Frasier Foundation would receive all donations made and 10% of all Frasier merchandise sales revenue. Those funds would then be distributed to animal welfare organizations across the nation.
An autopsy determined that Frasier died from pneumonia, not from kidney failure, as originally thought. In fact, Dr. Anthony W. Orlandella, spokesman for the pathology team, said, “Frasier had beautiful organs; his prostate, kidneys, liver, heart and cardiovascular system were perfectly healthy.” Dr. Robert A. Orlando, associate professor at UC Irvine, added, “It was a case of preservation (of the internal organs) rather than deterioration. Externally, Frasier wasn’t much to look at, but internally, well, he was just remarkable.”
Scores of people lined up along the roadside that Saturday as a large wooden box containing Frasier’s body was carried up a sun-scorched, dusty hillside to his final resting spot. As an official mascot of the Scottish Clan Fraser, bagpipes played as clansmen donning kilts dropped fistfuls of dirt over his grave. A 6-foot tall white cross was erected to mark the spot.
On Thursday, July 20, 1972, the Los Angeles Times ran the following letter, which was written by R. W. Weinshenker of Beverly Hills: “I read with interest that Frasier, the sensuous lion, was buried in a grave ‘marked by a simple white cross.’ I would like to know who the individual is that ascertained old Frasier’s religious preference.
“Isn’t it possible that the grave should have been marked by a star of David, or whatever markings are used by the Hindu, Moslem, Buddhist, etc. faiths?
“Or perhaps no marking at all if Frasier was (God forbid) an atheist.
“Of all the markings, it would seem to me, the least likely will be the cross considering the historical appetite of lions for Christians in their diet.”
After his passing, some members of the public expressed concern as to whether the females would miss Frasier. Pat Quinn assured them that this was not the case. “It is a mistake to attribute human characteristics to animals.” He added, “We haven’t noticed any behavior changes. Still, there is a void to be filled and Jonah will probably fit into that particular niche. It is a very tight social structure in a pride.”
Yet, the decision was made to introduce a new male to the pride. He was Rufus, who the park obtained from the Kansas City municipal zoo. Rufus was about five years younger than Frasier, so the big question was whether or not the females would accept him. They did and a new king had been crowned.
Frasier had barely been in the ground one week when it was announced that a film titled “Frasier, the Sensuous Lion” would be made. It was the brainchild of park president Harry Schuster, would be written by park VP Jerry Kobrin, and produced by Allan Sandler. It was destined to be a classic.
Filming was done at Lion Country Safari with a lion named Shruze playing the part of Frasier. While Shruze was half the age of Frasier, he was chosen for only one reason: his tongue also lolled out of his mouth.
When the film finally premiered, Los Angeles Times writer Kevin Thomas offered up his review. It reads, in part, “Unfortunately, ‘Frasier, the Sensuous Lion’ is a tedious, amateurist bore that was all too obviously made with the single intent of turning a fast buck.”
He continues, “Closer to ‘Francis, the Talking Mule’ than ‘Fritz the Cat,’ the film stars Michael Callan as a virginal 34-year-old professor of zoology who discovers that Frasier can speak and therefore give him advice that will liberate him from his possessive mother.
“Luckily for Callan, Lion Club Safari’s publicist (Katharine Justice) is pretty, unattached and attracted to him. Romance, however, must be momentarily sidetracked because some mysterious tycoon is threatening to kidnap Frasier if Callan fails to learn from the old lion the secret of his virility.
“All this is as silly as it sounds and unfolds at such a snail’s pace, the film’s 90 minutes seen twice that. Considering how dire are the circumstances, it’s actually amazing that Callan and Miss Justice register as effectively as they do.”
It should come as no surprise that the movie was a bomb.
After Frasier’s passing, Lion Country Safari struggled to come up with anything that could draw as many visitors to the park as that Don Juan of Liondom did. For example, an ad from July 28, 1972 read, “The fabulous Brady Bunch kids and Anne B. Davis on ABC—hit TV series ‘The Brady Bunch’ will be special guests in the Entertainment Area at Lion Country Safari Saturday afternoon. Besides personally autographed photos, you may be a lucky winner and have your picture taken with one of Frasier’s cubs.”
Well, apparently the Brady Bunch just weren’t as popular as Frasier was. Attendance to the park began to go downhill. It dropped from a high of 1.4 million visitors at the peak of Frasiermania and had dropped to 600,000 in 1981. The park would close in 1984. Today, only the Lion Country Safari in Florida remains open.
The former site of the Laguna Hills Lion Country Safari is now home to the Los Olivos Apartment Village. If you were to stand near the intersection of Pintado and Dana there, you would see a historical marker that is inscribed, “From 1970 to 1984, Lion Country Safari made it possible for children of all ages to experience the sights and sounds of an African safari – entirely from the safety and comfort of their cars. It was Southern California’s first-ever wild animal park. Millions of Americans and visitors from around the world came here for the unique opportunity to observe free-roaming lions, hippopotami, elephants, giraffes, and other wild animals. One of the park’s most famous residents was Frasier, a former circus lion, who died in 1972.
“The lone oak tree on the hillside across San Diego Creek is no ordinary tree. (view here) It is Frasier’s Tree, named in honor of the beloved lion and his important role in helping so many humans gain a better understanding of, and respect for, the earth’s marvelous wild inhabitants.”
Is that the exact site of Frasier’s burial? No one is exactly sure, since that giant cross was lost in a fire many years ago. Yet, we can be sure of one thing: Near the village, the peaceful village, the lion sleeps tonight.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.