Skin of Leo, MGM Lion (Gone)
July 2014: This exhibit has been removed for restoration.
Leo the MGM Lion was a popular cat. If you were alive in the 1920s or 1930s, you might have seen Leo at a movie premier, or riding in an airplane or on a boat, or performing any one of dozens of other publicity stunts for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He could be seen all over the country -- sometimes at the same time!
How was that possible? Leo was more than one lion. MGM sometimes deputized alternate versions of the famous beast, generic felines borrowed from local zoos and renamed temporarily for public events.
All of the Leos are long dead and buried. But one of them -- no one's quite sure which one -- had his skin removed in Los Angeles and made into a rug. That rug is now at the McPherson Museum in the center of Kansas.
Executive director Carla Barber filled us in on Leo's postmortem journey. It seems that Francis Vaniman, president of a bank in McPherson, loved taxidermy. One day Vaniman got a letter from a friend in Hollywood, asking if the bank president would be interested in the rug. Vaniman said yes, and Leo became a prize addition to Vaniman's collection of animal skins, which he displayed on the third floor of his house.
After Vaniman died, the house became the town museum and Leo was donated along with the house. He's still on the third floor, in what's now called The African Room, sealed in a glass case. Carla told us that the museum used to display Leo spread across an old black leather examination table, but "people were pulling his hairs out."
The Museum also exhibits the world's first synthetic diamond, made in McPherson in 1926 even though General Electric claims that it invented the synthetic diamond in 1955. McPherson's diamond is so small that you have to view it through a microscope.
Carla and her curator have spent a lot of time researching their rug, and are fairly confident that Vaniman did in fact buy himself a Leo. "I can't say we know it," she said (unfortunately, the rug didn't come with a name tag). "You can research until you're dead and you'll never really know. But we're pretty sure we have an MGM Leo."