Volume III: Biographies


BONAVITA, Captain Jack *

Actor (1916-1917)

Thanhouser Career Synopsis: Captain Jack Bonavita, an animal trainer, worked with Thanhouser in the production of The Woman and the Beast.

Biographical Notes: Captain Jack Bonavita, born John F. Gentner in Philadelphia in 1866, was educated in the same city. Early in his career he was a circus acrobat, after which he became an animal trainer with the O'Brien Shows. Later, Bonavita traveled all over the world with the Frank C. Bostock Animal Shows. In his motion picture career he was with various companies, including Jungle Film and Tampa Film, for whom he played in The Wizard of the Jungle, Diamond Smugglers, and other productions.

In 1915 and 1916 he was with David Horsley, for whom he trained animals and appeared with them in The Rajah's Sacrifice, The Bogy Man, The Vindication, When Avarice Rules, Stanley in Africa, and, among others, The Lion, the Woman, and the Man. His motion picture career included work as an actor, animal trainer, and director.

For Thanhouser in 1916 he doubled for an actor in a dangerous scene with a lion in The Woman and the Beast, a film released in 1917. His name was not mentioned in advance publicity, and only after Bonavita's death, which occurred later in an unrelated accident, was the motion picture community told that he had worked in the Thanhouser picture.

A 1916 directory noted that he was 5'11" tall, weighed 170 pounds, had dark brown hair and hazel eyes, and was an all-around athlete. He met his death on March 19, 1917, from an attack by one of the animals he was training.

The following obituary, datelined Los Angeles, March 21, appeared in the March 23, 1917 issue of Variety: "POLAR BEAR KILLS BONAVITA: Capt. Jack Bonavita, the animal trainer, was clawed to death at the Bostock animal farm Monday. He was training a vicious polar bear when the animal turned and attacked him. A fellow trainer ran two blocks for a policeman, who fired three shots at the bear, killing him. Bonavita was rushed to the hospital, but died on the operating table. Bonavita was one of the most famous animal trainers in the world. A few years ago he lost an arm when attacked by a lion at Coney Island. The fact that he had only one arm was, in a measure, responsible for the Monday tragedy."

An obituary in The Moving Picture World, April 7, 1917, told more: "Captain Jack Bonavita died on Monday, March 19, following a short and fierce fight with a polar bear at the menagerie in Los Angeles, where for more than two years he has been pursuing his dangerous occupation of animal training. Captain Bonavita had become well-known to photoplaygoers by reason of his appearances in pictures produced by David Horsley, who two years ago bought out the Bostock Animal Show and built a large studio on the plot containing the buildings in which the animals were housed. The trainer had been putting the bear through his customary performance when the beast became enraged and attacked him. A policeman killed the bear by putting six bullets into him. Captain Bonavita sustained a fractured jaw and was badly lacerated about the face and body.

"Captain Bonavita was one of the best known animal trainers in the country and his exhibitions have never been equalled for their daring and skill. Before he lost his arm, as a result of his encounter with the lion 'Baltimore' at Coney Island in 1904, Captain Bonavita appeared in the arena with 27 lions, a performance which no other trainer had ever attempted. Baltimore was an untrained and particularly vicious animal. The trainer was attempting to put him through the first 'stunt,' that of mounting a chair. The captain took his eyes off the animal and Baltimore bore him to the ground. For eight months the trainer fought against the amputation of his arm, but was compelled to submit in February 1905. Even the loss of his right arm could not stop him from continuing his chosen work. Captain Bonavita was married in 1905 to Princess Mercy d'Argenteau de Montglyon of Belgium. In private life the captain was John F. Gentner."

Thanhouser Filmography:

1917: The Woman and the Beast (Graphic Features 4-17-1917)

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Copyright © 1995 Q. David Bowers. All Rights Reserved.