Keller’s Jungle Killers

George Keller performs with Zombie, a black panther, in about 1959. Keller’s assistant Bill Scamihorn watches from outside the cage.

BLOOMSBURG NATIVE George Keller was an accomplished artist hired in 1921 to teach fine arts at the Bloomsburg State Normal School. He also had another gift — an outstanding rapport with and love for animals.

In the late 1920s, Keller began raising huskies and in 1933 the student body of the state teachers college adopted the animal as its athletic mascot. However, it was the gift of a mountain lion a year earlier that enabled him to have his own wild animal act, a dream since childhood. For the next 18 years, Keller continued to teach college students while honing his circus act with many breeds of big cats, including lions, mountain lions, tigers and leopards.

Keller ended his academic career in 1950 to devote his full attention to performing with his cats. The act, Keller’s Jungle Killers, appeared as one of the first shows at Disneyland and in Madison Square Garden with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He met singer Virginia Lowery in 1954 while touring with the Polack Brothers Circus. The pair became engaged in early 1956 and bought a ranch together in the Malibu Hills, northwest of Los Angeles.

Lowery, now 87 years old, recently talked for the first time about her years with Keller, recalling their wedding ceremony on Feb. 19, 1957, in a circus ring in Cleveland, Ohio. Although publicized at the time as a legitimate ceremony, Lowery admitted their actual wedding occurred two weeks earlier in Joliet, Ill., with her family in attendance.

The couple continued to tour with the wild animals for the next three years, but the 63-year-old Keller began to experience health problems. He collapsed in front of his wife and 3,000 spectators during a performance in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Oct. 14, 1960. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.

The act continued with Keller’s assistant Bill Scamihorn until a 1971 accident in Colorado killed driver Al Lapchak and injured several of the cats. The remaining animals were sold, bringing an end to Keller’s Jungle Killers.

In honor of George Keller, BU’s Andruss Library Special Collections has more than 30 books about circuses and wild animal training, including his autobiography, Here Keller — Train This.

ROBERT DUNKELBERGER, University Archivist

Editor’s Note: University archivist Robert Dunkelberger interviewed Virginia Lowery in August 2011 near Agoura Hills, Calif., for his upcoming book: Keller’s Jungle Killers: The Story of a College Professor and His Wild Animal Act.

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