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Saturday, February 16 , 2019, 4:31 am | Fair 50º


‘Mabel’: A Story of the Lady and Her Tigers

Santa Barbara Film Festival presents documentary on Mabel Stark

Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer will have its world premier during at 7 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Lobero Theater, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., during the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

Mabel Stark was the world’s first female tiger trainer. Click to view larger
Mabel Stark was the world’s first female tiger trainer. (Leslie Zemeckis)

"Mabel"  — about Mabel Stark, the world's first female tiger trainer — is the third documentary from Leslie Zemeckis, an award-winning documentarian and Santa Barbara resident.

During the heyday of the circus, Stark thrilled audiences with her act “taming” 18 Sumatran tigers (the meanest), surviving countless life-threatening maulings. Her body was a “network of scars.”
Born into poverty in Tennessee, Stark was raised on a tobacco farm in Kentucky. She ran away, eventually joining the circus as a cooch dancer. Always an outsider, Stark clawed her way up the circus hierarchy, working with goats, riding the horses and training lions. But it was the tigers she fell in love with.

It wouldn’t be until she married a renowned big-cat trainer that she was given a chance with the “stripes.” The marriage wouldn’t last (nor would the three or four that followed) but Stark's enduring love for the tigers would.

She hand-raised many tigers, walking them on the beach of Venice, Calif., and tucking them in to sleep at home.

Eventually, she taught one tiger a wrestling act that horrified the gasping audience as the 300- 400-pound animal leapt onto Stark’s back and brought her to the ground. Nothing stood between the petite blonde woman and death, save a whip and a chair.

Stark was determined nothing and no one would get in the way of her relationship with the cats; not even a husband who was an embezzler.

During the 1920s and '30s, there was no bigger name than Stark's on the circus marquee. And for more than 30 years she trained and performed at the reknowned Jungleland in Thousand Oaks, site of movies such as Doctor Doolittle and all the Tarzan movies. She also worked Hollywood films, doubling for Mae West.

Mabel is the story of a woman who would do anything for her tigers. Said Stark: “It is a matchless thrill and life without it is not worth while ... I hope each new season until my number is up will find me shouting `Let them come.’ "

As the world of the circus, an American institution for decades, is being phased out today, Mabel Stark’s world will never be seen again. The documentary reveals Stark's story as told in her words, as well as those of her relatives, protégés, and today’s female tiger trainers who follow in her footsteps.

Visit www.mabelStarkMovie.com.

— Leslie Zemickis.

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