Joe Lee spoke to Film Ireland about his documentary Fortune’s Wheel, which tells the fascinating story of lion-tamer Bill Stephens in 1950s Dublin.
One Sunday afternoon in 1951 in Dublin’s Fairview Cinema, audiences were being transported to the exotic plains of the film Jungle Stampede, which featured a wild beast stalking its human prey – little did cinemagoers know that outside the cinema that same afternoon, Fairview was playing host to its very own beast roaming the streets as a lioness, owned by local man Bill Stephens, escaped from her pen menacing shocked locals.
Joe Lee’s documentary Fortune’s Wheel, which is currently screening at the IFI, introduces us to the events that occurred that day which ended when police were forced to shoot the lioness dead. From this point on we are led into the remarkable world of the lioness’ owner Bill Stephens, the Fairview lion tamer, whose act, ‘Jungle Capers with Bill Stephens and Lovely Partner’ (his wife, May) travelled around Ireland.
Joe gives a bit of background to Bill Stephens – “he was a welder by trade and something of a mechanic but he was also a drummer in The Billy Carter Swing Band. But he had always had an interest in animals. He bought a lion cub from Dublin zoo and he reared it alongside his own Alsatians. He soon began travelling with Fossetts and Duffys, two of Ireland’s biggest circus families. At the time of the escape in November 1951 Bill was keeping 3 or 4 lions at the back of Fairview cinema, which he used for his act.”
The escape, which is remembered in the film by a colourful cast of local people, turned Bill into a star as the story spread across the world. He became, as Joe describes, “that famous guy whose lioness escaped in Fairview” – but that fame was a doubled-edged sword as Bill had lost a very valuable animal which would prove very difficult to replace. But if he was to fulfill his ambition of taking his act to America, Bill knew he had to do it with his next lion.
The lion he replaced her with was a very difficult lion – a very aggressive one that would ultimately lead to tragedy. Joe refers to Bill’s time with his newly acquired lion as his year of living dangerously. Seeking to emulate his hero Clyde Beatty, the famous American lion-tamer, Bill had raised the stakes, performing more and more dangerous acts with a more aggressive animal. As Joe explains, “He was a guy in his 20s and like a racing car driver he always wants to drive that extra 5 miles per hour to push the boundaries of what it was. All the time he would have been looking at Clyde Beatty with his 12 animals and mixing lions and tigers and wanting to do that himself. In Beatty’s book Jungle Performers it says Get an angry animal into your act. It makes it more exciting.” Unfortunately for Bill, seeking such excitement involved taking one risk too many.
Alongside his partner May, a lot of Stephens’ life has been clouded in myth, stories that had stayed untold and memories that had remained hidden for various reasons. Thankfully, Fortune’s Wheel provides a voice for those stories and a space for those memories culminating in moments of catharsis that are a testament to a remarkable man who truly dared to dream.