Bearing Down From Behind

My mother Roma Gibson was born in 1935 and grew up in the Pico-Robertson area on Los Angeles’ Westside. This is one of her stories.

Roma lived on Alcott Street, a fairly quiet, residential neighborhood just a few blocks south of Robertson Boulevard. At the end of the street, as was quite typical in those times, was the corner grocery store along with an assortment of other shops including a meat market, dry cleaner and produce stand – much like the mini-malls of today.

In those days most of the shops however didn’t have doors, but were open to the outside and were secured at night by large, metal expanding gates.

One morning in 1941, Roma, who was about 6 years old, set out for a walk down the street to the branch library at the end the long block. As she was walking, Roma began to sense that there was somebody following her. She quickened her pace a bit and continued to head down the street. The footsteps behind her sped up as well and Roma was starting to get quite frightened. She hurried along even more, yet the footsteps behind her did so as well. Then, hearing a strange, grunting coming from behind her, Roma turned to see who was following her.

It wasn’t a “who” but rather a “what.” Running down the street after Roma, on all fours, was a large, furry brown bear! Roma was frightened out of her wits.

She turned and ran, faster and faster, trying to outrun the bear. As she looked back, she could see that the bear was gaining on her. Roma crossed the street, but the bear crossed right behind her.

As Roma reached the end of the block and rounded the corner, the bear was closing in on her. She ran screaming into the grocery store, but the bear was undeterred, following her through the store’s open doorway, crashing into the displays of canned goods. Mr. Tinsley, the grocer, grabbed Roma and hid her behind the checkout stand to keep her out of harm’s way.

Moments later, a man appeared in the doorway of the grocery store, holding in his hands a long, leather leash! He loudly called out, “Rosie, ROSIE!” The bear stopped in its tracks, turned, and sauntered back to the man. With the leash attached around the bear’s neck, the man apologized to Mr. Tinsley and quietly walked the bear out of the market. Mr. Tinsley then phoned Roma’s mother to have her pick up her hysterical daughter.

My mother told us this story many times when we were kids, and while we had no reason to doubt her, it always did seem a bit far-fetched. That is, however, until I was perusing through a stack of old Life magazines several years ago. As I was flipping through the pages of an issue dated August 19, 1946, I was stunned. There, staring back from the pages of the magazine was an article titled “Rosie The Bear – A talented young actress makes a career grunting over the radio.” Along with the article were several pictures of Rosie the Bear walking down the street with her trainer, dining as guest of honor at The Lion’s Club, and even riding in a taxicab.

As it so happens Rosie, the bear that chased my mother down the street when she was a child, was a trained bear that appeared on radio and in a number of movies in the 1940s. Rosie lived with her trainers, along with a variety of other performing animals, in an old farmhouse directly across the street from where my mother lived. As mom recalls, every so often one of the animal trainers could be found searching the street for a missing snake, turtle, or what-have-you.

It was true. Rosie the Bear did exist, and not just in the mind of an overly imaginative 6-year-old on Alcott Street.