When conjuror and magician Gustave Fasola was showing at the Melbourne Opera House (later the Tivoli Theatre), he hired Wallace the African lion from the Melbourne Zoological Gardens.

Poster advertising Gustave FAsola, The Famous Indian Faki. Gustave pictured in traditional Indian turban.
Gustave Fasola; P.68/NO.269

Gustave (1875-1929) was a British magician – born Fergus Greenwood – who toured Australia and New Zealand from 1911 to 1913 as ‘The famous Indian Fakir’. Wallace was an 18 year old lion who had performed in circuses in his youth, but was drawn out of his peaceful retirement at the Melbourne zoo to play a starring role in Fasola’s daring illusion, ‘The Lady and the Lion’. The illusion transmuted the lion into a lady in front of the audience’s eyes.1

Poster advertising the Lady and the Lion magic act. "Fasola's latest mystery". Stage depicted with lion in a cage seeming to transmute into a lady, also in a cage. Fasola standing to the right in traditional Sikh turban and robe.
Poster advertising an act of the magician Gustave Fasola, c. 1911; P.68/NO.271
Sepia photograph showing the magician Howard Thurston standing between two cages on a stage with painted mountain scene backdrop. Real lion in case on the left, real woman in cage on the right.
Magician Howard Thurston performing The Lady and the Lion illusion. Photo courtesy of the Rory Feldman Collection

The advertisements breathlessly proclaimed ‘A REAL LION IS USED’. For the audience of Fasola’s Saturday matinee on the 11th February 1911, there was to be no doubt about this by the end of the show.

Newspaper advertisement:
Today (Saturday) Tonight
The Sahib 
Will Present for the First Time His Marvelous and Daring Illusion, "The Lady and the Lion"
The Greatest Masterpiece the Work has Ever Known. The Most Expensive Delusion Ever Built in which A REAL LION IS USED.
The Age, 6 February 1911, p 12

Comedian, radio entertainer, and vaudeville performer Charlie Vaude (1882-1942), gives us a colourful account of Wallace the lion’s escape:

Wallace figured in an act that possibly has no parallel, and so carried away with Fasola’s magic were the audience, that nothing he did seemed impossible…That is why nobody moved when Wallace escaped from his cage and walked down to the footlights. They thought it part of Fasola’s magic. The orchestra under Fred Hall, went on playing as though nothing usual had happened. Many notes sounded tremolo that shouldn’t have been, but uncaged lions have that effect on musicians.

Sporting Globe, 1 July 1939, p 7

The audience was delighted until they realised that Wallace’s escape was not part of a clever illusion:

Wallace sauntered off stage, through the wings to the stage door. At the time I was talking to Harry Daniels, the stage door-keeper. I felt something brush past me, “Whose dog was that?”, I asked.

Sporting Globe, 1 July 1939, p 7

Newspaper article pictured: 
(Wire From Our Correspondent)
MELBOURNE, Saturday 
A lion which performs under the direction of Fasola, the conjuror, at the Opera House, escaped and rushed into the city. After traversing the streets, the lion rushed into the temperance and general building where the door was shut on it by Fasola's attendant, and he was recaptured. Intense excitement prevailed in the streets.
Hamilton Spectator, 13 February 1911, p 5
Image depicting Rickard's Opera House
Harry Rickards’ Opera House & Prince of Wales Hotel, ca. 1892-1900. Photo by Charles Rudd; H39357/188
Newspaper article:
Fasola, the Indian juggler, whose attractive performance is a feature of the programme at the Opera House, had his turn spoiled in a most sensational way at the matinee on Saturday.
The Age, 13 February 1911, p 7

Wallace trotted out of the opera house into Rainbow Alley and down Little Collins Street, while his keeper James Pearson followed cautiously behind. He walked for about 400 metres, before he decided to take shelter at the doorway of the Temperance and General buildings (otherwise known as the T&G building), which ironically enough housed the Victorian Society for the Protection of Animals (est. 1871). The unflappable Pearson managed to coerce Wallace into the building lobby while he waited for reinforcements.

Australian Temperance Assurance Building, corner of Swanston and Little Collins Streets, Melbourne, [1890?]; H2009.43/23 (Originally the offices of the T & G Assurance Society, in 1929 it became the Town Hall Chambers. Demolished in 1968)
Detail image from newspaper article with photograph of Wallace the African lion being prodded into the T & G building lobby with a stick. His handler James Pearson stands on steps within feet of Wallace.
The Australasian, 18 February 1911, p. 32

In the meantime, a large crowd gathered to watch the unique spectacle. The curious crowd became so big that mounted troopers were called in to keep the area clear. ‘Someone rang the fire brigade’, Charlie Vaude recounted, ‘Firemen arrived, but declared that they knew how to put out fires, not lions’.2 They brought a net that was deemed unsuitable. In the meantime Wallace, who was growing weary of the T & G lobby, was placated with large chunks of meat from a nearby butcher.

Some two hours later a cage was finally procured, and Wallace obediently jumped in to be taken swiftly home to the zoological gardens to recover from his big adventure.

Cat-astrophe averted.

Detail from newspaper article showing large crowd gathered around the entrance of the T & G building.
The Australasian, 18 February 1911, p. 32

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  1. Fasola apparently claimed to have invented this illusion in his biography. It was an illusion subsequently performed by other well-known magicians, including Howard Thurston
  2. (Sporting Globe, 1 July 1939, p 7)

This article has 4 comments

  1. That is hilarious, what a fabulous story, Wallace sounds like a very cool cat

  2. Top story. Excellent images too. Thank you for your great research.

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