A Lion in Summer: Lions, Ladies and Motorbikes; the Old Days on the Beach

July 31, 2013
By
This scene occurred on Revere Beach in 1929, and featured what was then a very common, but thrilling, carnival attraction from the early part of the last Century. Daredevil motordrome riders often travelled to Revere Beach in the old days, with many of them using live, unleashed lions in their high-speed acts – as shown here in these unbelievable photos that have roots in Revere and have gone viral many times over on the Internet.

This scene occurred on Revere Beach in 1929, and featured what was then a very common, but thrilling, carnival attraction from the early part of the last Century. Daredevil motordrome riders often travelled to Revere Beach in the old days, with many of them using live, unleashed lions in their high-speed acts – as shown here in these unbelievable photos that have roots in Revere and have gone viral many times over on the Internet.

Many might think that things down at Revere Beach in the old days were pretty prudish and conservative compared to the bikinis, tattoos, fast cars and ginormous soft serve ice cream cones that are now a staple of the Beach.

However, those people should think again; perhaps back to 1929 when the main attraction at the Beach had a mane and those big cats rode patiently and unleashed in a sidecar attached to a motorcycle driven on 90-degree angle wooden walls at break-neck speed by daredevil female drivers in short pants.

Yea, it wasn’t all wool knickers and slow walks in the surf apparently.

Recently, two incredible pictures have surfaced amongst the old Revere Beach networks that have brought up a blast from the past – pictures from an attraction on the Beach where stunt motorcyclists and car drivers rode at speeds greater than 80 mph in a wooden, barrel-type structure (called a motordrome) at 90-degree angles. To add to the intrigue, many of the performers did this death-defying stunt with real-life lions riding in a sidecar. Beyond that – and especially important for the time period of the 1920s – was the fact that a great many of these daredevils driving motorcycles with real lions were women.

Peter Ferro of New Hampshire – who writes a blog called ‘Sidecar Pete’ – discovered the sidecar lion photo from Revere Beach about 20 years ago in a Revere motorcycle shop – Avellino’s on Harris Street. He had seen a motordrome as a kid in Maine, and was intrigued by the addition of a lion to the act. He eventually devoted hours of research to the subject and befriended a former female motordrome rider, Sam Morgan.

“If you do a little research, you find out that there is a very old tradition of big cats – mostly lions – riding in these motordromes,” said Ferro. “There were a lot of women riders and many performed the stunt with the unleashed lions right beside them. These were show people first. For the time, it was an extra draw and it was quite common to have lions riding in these motordromes. They advertised the lady motorcycle riders and lady car drivers and that they were driving sideways in the motordrome and then, oh wow, there was also one who did this all with a lion on the side of the car. Believe it or not, it was common for such acts. Of course, women wearing pants in the 1920s was probably pretty much pushing the envelope as well.”

Ferro happened upon the subject after stopping a few times at Avellino’s in Revere – as he was then living in Lynn and working in Boston. The shop owner, Frank Avellino, talked motorcycles with Ferro for awhile and eventually showed him the photos of the lion riding sidecar on Revere Beach. Ferro said he ended up taking a photograph of Avellino’s photo.

Many years later, he put it up on the Internet for fun – and it went viral and is still being passed along at record speed in cyberspace. Virtually everyone is fascinated by the happy lion riding so calmly in the sidecar at such high rates of speed.

“The two pictures I posted have gone viral,” he said. “It’s all over the Internet now.”

‘The Wall,’ as it’s called – short for ‘Wall of Death,’ began in the 1910s when the popular sport of motorbike racing moved from dirt tracks in the outdoors to newer motordromes. According to the website ‘The Selvedge Yard’ – another authority on the ‘Wall of Death’ oddity – much of that was due to better engines and faster bikes. Another factor in promoting the motordromes was the fact that the outdoor, wooden racetracks began to get bad publicity due to numerous, bloody accidents. By 1929, nearly all of those tracks were closed down due to a large public outcry – including the world-famous and popular track run by Nat Butler at Wonderland.

The motordromes were made of wood – looking almost like a gym floor – and had high banked turns that were vertical at the top. Soon, skilled riders learned how to build up enough speed to drive high up on the wall and take their bikes to a vertical position – always amazing the crowd.

Early motorcycle companies – such as Indian – utilized this stunt to promote their motorcycles, creating travelling shows that acted as living commercials for boosting sales. That, of course, eventually developed into more of a carnival act sponsored by the motorcycle companies.

Then, as if riders flying around a circular barrel at 80 mph weren’t enough, someone decided to add a live lion to the act – and it was a roaring success.

According to Sam Morgan – the former female daredevil rider who passed away in 2006 – one of the first acts to carry lions in the sidecar was the Pelaquin family. Members of the family would train lions from birth to learn how to sit in the sidecar at high-rates of speed.

In addition, George ‘Tornado’ Smith also held court with lions and also touted “Fearless Lady Riders” that would ride with the lions. Smith eventually took the lion riders to Europe in the late 1920s and found tremendous acclaim with audiences there as well.

Back in America, numerous lion motordromes popped up all over the country with numerous families and big-named riders attracting and thrilling audiences until the late 1950s when their popularity waned.

By now, such novelties as lions riding sidecar on a motorcycle at Revere Beach are relegated to the dustbin of history – living only in unique corners of the Internet.

But, as evidenced from the overwhelming and astonishing modern popularity of Ferro’s photo, taken right here in Revere at Avellino’s Motorcycle shop, those of old knew how to captivate the attention of an audience – even one numbed by today’s envelope-pushing culture.

Cutline –

SidecarLion1 and SidecarLion2 -

This scene occurred on Revere Beach in 1929, and featured what was then a very common, but thrilling, carnival attraction from the early part of the last Century. Daredevil motordrome riders often travelled to Revere Beach in the old days, with many of them using live, unleashed lions in their high-speed acts – as shown here in these unbelievable photos that have roots in Revere and have gone viral many times over on the Internet.

  • Patrick Murphy

    Memories of Revere Beach are all that remains….

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