The lion wasn’t always just king of the jungle. In the mid-20th century, he also ruled Thousand Oaks—or, as the locals knew it, Jungleland.
It all started in 1926. Louis Goebel, a New York-bred butcher’s son, purchased several lions from his former employer, Universal Studios, when the studio decided to close the menagerie where Goebel worked.
“He bought the lions with the idea that he would rent them back to the company,” explains Bruce Hamilton, Jungleland exhibit curator at the Stagecoach Inn Museum in Newbury Park.
But Goebel’s idea didn’t go exactly as planned. When he was denied land in L.A. County to house his lions, Goebel decided to venture a few miles north into unincorporated Ventura County. He bought five lots—20 acres—for $10 each on the swath of land where Thousand Oaks City Hall, The Lakes and the Civic Arts Plaza now stand.
“The whole thing just kind of fell into (Goebel’s) lap really . . . he tied up his three lions to an oak tree along Ventura Boulevard (now the 101 Freeway),” Hamilton says. “Of course, everyone that drove by went ‘Oh I gotta see this!’ and turned around to go and see these lions.” Pretty soon, Goebel started charging a quarter.
With that, Goebel’s Lion Farm was born. In the years following its official opening in 1929, Goebel’s farm expanded to almost nine times its original size. The zoo was sold in 1946 and renamed the World Jungle Compound. It changed hands several more times (though Goebel always managed to come back as owner) and was eventually called Jungleland under 20th Century Fox.
Goebel did not originally intend for his animal training facility to turn into an amusement park but quickly realized that the money from visitors could be used to feed his costly animals. “He (Goebel) was doing anything to make a buck,” Hamilton explains. The zoo quickly turned into a roaring cacophony of animal exhibits and crowded stadiums.While the public enjoyed hippopotamus drinking fountains, mechanical swan boats, circus-like spectacles and 75-cent elephant and tortoise rides around the park, behind the scenes Jungleland was housing and training celebrity animals, including Jackie, another of the MGM “Leo” lions, and Cheeta, Tarzan’s chimpanzee.
After closing its doors in 1969, the vacant Jungleland property served as an unofficial skate park for several decades before it was sold to the city of Thousand Oaks. All that remains of Jungleland today is a plaque at the Civic Arts Plaza.
In all, Goebel’s animals appeared in 600 films. In 1951 Tamba, the “Jungle Jim” chimpanzee, teamed up with Ronald Reagan in “Bedtime for Bonzo.” And in 1967 a number of animals starred alongside Rex Harrison in “Dr. Dolittle.”
“Birth of a Nation,” “Tarzan” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” were just a few of the movies featuring Jungleland’s animal actors. But animals weren’t the only celebrities to call Jungleland home: in 1938 the world’s first female tiger trainer, Mabel Stark, began performing in the park.Jungleland was a thriving theatrical spectacle that brought exotic animals and Hollywood magic to small, rural Thousand Oaks—sometimes a little too closely, such as when a black panther nearly escaped from the park, earning its title as Newbury Park High School’s mascot. It was Jungleland, arguably, that helped the then-unknown town of Thousand Oaks find its way onto the map.
In the park’s heyday, passersby often saw trainers and their animals strolling down Thousand Oaks Boulevard “mostly for exercise, but also for attention,” Hamilton explains. Even “Leo” the MGM lion made several trips down the boulevard, but he had the luxury of cruising in the backseat of a Conejo Valley Days Parade car as the Grand Marshal in the early ’60s.
Jungleland closed its doors for the last time in October 1969. The rising popularity of Disneyland and a near-fatal incident involving a lion and actress Jayne Mansfield’s son, Zoltan, were partially the cause.
When the park closed, 1,800 animals were auctioned off, including 120 camels, 32 lions, 50 zebras, 43 monkeys and nine elephants. But the era of Jungleland didn’t end without leaving behind a few souvenirs and a little mystery. A lion skull was later found on the property (it’s available for viewing at the Stagecoach Inn Museum) and rumors prevail that one of the other iconic MGM lions is still buried where Jungleland once stood.
And, when it’s quiet, you can almost hear the triumphant elephant shouts and roar of the lions calling you back to a time when wild things roamed the land.
Clark Gable was one of many celebrities who frequented Jungleland. Here, the actor poses with two lion cubs.
Bert Nelson was a lion trainer and vaudeville performer in the ’20s and ’30s. He spent time at Goebel’s Lion Farm and toured with the Ringling Bros. and Al G. Barnes circuses. Nelson was also a stunt double in the 1930s “Tarzan” films.
Birthday parties were a common sight at Jungleland and usually involved an appearance by Chucko the Clown (Charles Runyon). Above, Chucko’s son hosts a party.
While the swan boats were mechanical, kids could also ride live tortoises and elephants through the park. There was also a guided tram and, in later years, a sky tram.
Photos and original graphics courtesy of Conejo Valley Historical Society at Stagecoach Inn. Special thanks to Bruce Hamilton.
Jungleland founder Louis Goebel moved to California at the age of 23 and spent several years preparing horse meat for Gay’s Lion Farm and then the Universal Studios zoo before the serendipitous lion acquisition that launched Jungleland.
One night, in the early years of Goebel’s Lion Farm, Louis was confronted by a resolute young woman who lived down the road. Kathleen Parks was frustrated that Goebel’s lions’ roars kept her cows up at night and intended to speak her mind.
“Well, Goebel takes one look at (Kathleen) and says ‘you’re beautiful,’” laughs Bruce Hamilton, curator of the Jungleland exhibit. “Three months later the two were married and that solved that.”
Louis and Kathleen Goebel began traveling the world in search of exotic animals to sell to other zoos around the country. The two were soon running an exotic animal import-export business at the park. During the next several decades, Goebel sold at least one animal to every zoo in the United States, including most of the animals for Hawaii’s first zoo (now Honolulu Zoo) in 1947.
To Hamilton, it seems that Goebel was more attached to the circus world than he was anything else. Jungleland was home to a plethora of circus-trained entertainers including animal trainers Mel Koontz, Louis Roth, Mabel Stark and Chucko the Clown. When it closed, Goebel donated Jungleland’s iconic circus wagons to the Circus World Museum.
In Jungleland’s heyday, Goebel owned about one-third of Thousand Oaks. His farm was the first property in town to have gas, phone and electricity.
As the Goebels’ success grew, so did their philanthropy. Louis built and donated a fire station next to the Lion Farm in 1931, prompting the Ventura County Fire District to send Conejo Valley’s first fire engine to the park.
Kathleen led the fundraiser for Thousand Oaks’ first church, where the Conejo Valley Masonic Lodge stands today. In the 1950s, Louis donated all of the water used during the construction of the Ventura Freeway. The previously unpaved roads and lack of tow trucks meant Goebel’s elephants would often pull out cars stuck in the mud on rainy days.
In the 1970s, when Jungleland had closed and the dust had settled, the Goebels made one more contribution to their town and founded the Goebel Adult Community Center at the Thousand Oaks Library.
Louis and Kathleen Goebel rest at the Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park, just a few miles down the road from the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park in Calabasas, the resting place of their old friend, Leo the MGM Lion.
The world’s first female tiger trainer was a spunky, stubborn, rebellious woman who loved her big cats more than anything, or anyone, else.
Mabel Stark was known for her worldwide tours with Al G. Barnes Circus and later the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The petite, steely-eyed woman had raised and trained big cats for 27 years before she came to Jungleland in 1938.
Though the star had a lifelong love for wild animals, she began her career as a nurse—and her medical training once saved a Jungleland employee when a cobra spit in his eye. She also made her big screen debut in 1933, standing in as a stunt double for Mae West in “I’m No Angel.”
Her original claim to fame was her wrestling act with a 500-pound Bengal tiger, Rajah, which she had raised from a cub. But once at Jungleland, Stark became a local star. She was an Honorary Grand Marshal of the Conejo Valley Days Parade and elected Thousand Oaks’ first honorary mayor.
Stark’s personal life remains a series of mysteries. She survived several maulings and several marriages, enduring the last of both during her 30-year tenure at Jungleland.
The trainer knew that a wild animal could never truly be tamed, but her love for her big cats never wavered—even when two tigers sank their teeth into her back during a show. She finished that performance before heading to the hospital. Three hundred and seventy-eight stitches later, she returned to the arena with open arms.
Strife with Jungleland’s new owner, 20th Century Fox, brought Stark’s tiger-training career to an unsettling end in 1968. After one of her beloved tigers escaped from Jungleland and was shot, the already-troubled Stark took her own life at the age of 79, marking the end of a remarkable life.