End of the Lion

updated 10/03/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/03/1994 01:00AM

OKAY, HIS TITLE MAY HAVE BEEN usurped for the summer. But as any filmgoer over the age of 5 knows, the real lion king is a cat named Leo, who for decades let out a resonant roar at the beginning of every MGM film. Despite appearing in more movies than Liz Taylor, Leo never received a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame or much else in the way of tribute from the industry in which he made his career. Today, 56 years after his death in 1938 at the age of 23, Leo rests in relative obscurity near a massive pine tree on a 13-acre farm in rural Gillette, N.J., at the former home of his late owner, movie animal trainer Volney Phifer.

Now, some 20 years after Phifer's death at the age of 76, Leo's slumber is in danger of being disturbed. The property on which he is buried, owned by Phifer's 78-year-old sister-in-law Alma McCutcheon, is up for sale. Locals fear that developers could buy it and plow Leo's grave under to build a subdivision. "Leo the Lion is one of the most famous animals that ever lived," argues local chamber of commerce president Joe DuPont, 45, who as a boy visited Phifer's Animal Farm, which was also home to Tarzan's chimp Cheetah, now buried next to Leo. "He's a part of American history that could disappear if nothing is done."

It has become the mission of DuPont—and most of his neighbors—to see that something is done. Specifically, they are trying to raise $275,000 to buy the property and turn it into a memorial park. DuPont first appealed to MGM for help but was turned down ("After careful consideration..." company spokesperson Anne H. Corley wrote him in a letter). Now neighbors are scrambling for nickels and dimes. To stir up interest, a restaurant is serving King Burgers and Leo Subs, and the local historical society is lobbying the U.S. Postal Service for a commemorative stamp of Leo.

If the money can't be raised, the archaeology department at nearby Rutgers University has offered to exhume Leo's remains and move them to a park in Stirling, which is part of the same township. But mayor Spiro Koutsogiannis, for one, isn't happy about that prospect. In life, Leo, who was brought to America by Phifer during World War I, survived train wrecks, a Mississippi flood, a California earthquake and a plane crash in Arizona during various promotional tours. Now, says Koutsogiannis, in a sentiment echoed by Gillette's townsfolk, "I strongly support leaving Leo right where he is. He deserves to rest in peace."

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