With a note on the Tenting Show
W. S. MEADMORE
SAMPSON LOW, MARSTON & CO, LTD.
Made and Printed in Great Britain by Purnell and Sons, Ltd.
Paulton (Somerset) and London
THE EDITOR expresses his cordial thanks to authors and publishers who have given him permission to reprint stories and extracts from books. To Mr. A. E. Coppard and Messrs. Jonathan Cape for Silver Circus, Mr. D. L. Murray for The Understudy and Mrs. Ruth Manning-Sanders for The Bear. To the Executors of the late Kenneth Grahame and to John Lane, the Bodley Head Ltd., for The Magic Ring; to Dame Laura Knight for several extracts from her Oil Paint and Grease Paint; to Messrs. Williams and Norgate Ltd., owners of the copyrights, for extracts from Star Turns, by A. H. Kober (translatedby G. J. Renier), and My Circus Life, by James Lloyd; to Mr. Seago for extracts from Circus Company and Caravan; to Messrs. Stanley Paul Ltd. for an extract from Whimsical Walker's From Sawdust to Windsor Castle; to Mr. Wilson Disher for an extract from The Greatest Show on Earth; to Mr. Frank Foster, Clowning Through; To Messrs. Alfred Knopf Inc. for an extract from P. T. Barnum's Struggles and Triumphs; to the executors of the late Mr. Dexter Fellowes, This Way to the Big Top; to Messrs. Jonathan Cape for an extract from Master Showman by Al G. Barnes, and to Messrs. J. M. Dent and Sons for extracts from Coco the Clown and Sanger's Seventy Years a Showman; to the Richard's Press Ltd., the publishers of Richard le Gallienne's From a Paris Garret; To Mr. Louis Golding for an extract from The World I Knew, and to Messrs. George Routledge and Sons Ltd. for extracts from Paul Eipper's Circus. To Major Lewis Hastings, M. C., for the description of Madame Pagel from his Dragons are Extra, and to Mr. A. Stanley Williamson the author of On the Road with Bertram Mills. Also to the executors of the late Eleanor Smith and to Messrs. Longmans Green Ltd. for the description of Satan's Circus from Life's a Circus; to Messrs. Cyril and Bernard Mills for their father's note on training a horse; to Messrs. Dodd Mead and Co. Inc., owners of the copyright of Jules Turnour's Autobiography of a Clown as told to Isaac Marcosson, and to the Poet Laureate for the short extract from his introduction to Mr. Edward Seago's Circus Company.
|THE TENTING SHOW||1|
|SOME LAYMEN AT THE CURCUS||21|
|The Circus Appeal||Dame Laura Knight||22|
|The Unchanging Circus||Richard le Gallienne||22|
|Cedric Hardwicke's Circus||Sir Cedric Hardwicke||25|
|Madame Pagel||Lewis Hastings||26|
|Two Circuses||Louis Golding||27|
|An Artist at Olympia||Dame Laura Knight||30|
|Satan's Circus||Lady Eleanor Smith||33|
|A Child at the Circus||Rupert Croft-Cooke||34|
|SILVER CIRCUS A. E. Coppard||37|
|BEFORE THE SHOW||49|
|A Thing Which Fights||Courtney Riley Cooper||50|
|Walk Up !||James Lloyd||50|
|The Circus Comes to Town||Irving K. Pond||51|
|Training a Horse||Bertram Mills||54|
|Circus Parade||W. S. Beardmore||55|
|Animl Training||Paul Eipper||56|
|THE MAGIC RING||59|
|Clowns the Philosophers||A. H. Kober||66|
|A Born Clown||Rupert Croft-Cooke||66|
|Tom Belling||A. H. Kober||68|
|Sam Pugh||Frank Foster||69|
|Nameless Merry Andrew||Paul Eipper||70|
|Clown or Auguste||Nocolai Poliakoff||71|
|The Clown with a Broken Heart||Frank Foster||73|
|Wolves||"Lord" George Sanger||73|
|A Riding Lion||Al G. Barnes||75|
|Jumbo||P. T. Barnum||77|
|Togare||Lady Eleanor Smith||80|
|Do Elephants Forget ?||A. H. Kober||81|
|The Funnel Trick||Rupert Croft-Cooke||82|
|La Bola Misteriosa||A. H. Kober||82|
|Jugglers||M. Wilson Disher||91|
|The Living Mermaids||James Lloyd||95|
|Alfredo Codona||Irving K. Pond||96|
|Fritz Fischer||Paul Eipper||97|
|Serpent Man||H. Le Roux and J. Garnier||98|
|Arabian Acrobats||Irving K. Pond||101|
|Adah Isaacs Menken||W. S. Meadmore||103|
|Con Colleano||Irving K. Pond||105|
|James Fillis||A. H. Kober||106|
|The Most Beautiful Horses in the World||Paul Eipper||107|
|A CHAPTER OF ACCIDENTS||119|
|P. T. Barnum||Major J. B. Pond||120|
|The Treble Somersault||A. H. Kober||120|
|Elephant and Mouse||James Lloyd||121|
|Louis Colvack||Edward Seago||121|
|The Three Sylvains||John S. Clarke||122|
|A Most Melancholy Accident||James Lloyd||123|
|The Lovely Lietzel||Irving K. Pond||123|
|A Slight Accident||H. Le Roux and J. Garnier||125|
|A Broken Hand||James Lloyd||125|
|One Pole Tent||Edward Seago||128|
|Tom Teriss's Circus||Lady Eleanor Smith||129|
|Tenting Adventure||Rupert Croft-Cooke||133|
|A Battlefield||James Lloyd||136|
|Tame as Lambs||A. Stanley Williamson||137|
|An Artist Goes Tenting||Dame Laura Knight||138|
|Tenting Life||Rupert Croft-Cooke||141|
|A Few Props||Sam Wild||142|
|Pull-Down||A. Stanley Williamson||143|
|A Circus Wedding||James LLoyd||160|
|Where's the Blood ?||Charlie Keith||161|
|The Bishop and the Circus||James LLoyd||161|
|Birth of a Clown||Jules Turnour||162|
|Just Wire-Walking||Rupert Croft-Cooke||168|
|The Devil and the Circus||Dexter Fellowes||168|
|THE OLD DAYS||171|
|Jemmy Ryan||Charlie Keith||172|
|George Sanger||Kenneth Grahame||172|
|Cirkus Rentz||A. H. Kober||175|
|Disraeli on Ducrow||Benjamin Disraeli||176|
|Thomas Batty||Charlie Keith||177|
|Shakespeare and the Circus||Alphonse Esquiros||177|
|Pierre Loti, Acrobat||H. Le Roux and J. Garnier||178|
|Circus in the Seventies||Charlie Keith||179|
|The Remorseless Lion||Alphonse Esquiros||180|
|The Spanish Horse||J. Decastro||181|
|Walpole at Astley's||Horace Walpole||181|
|Rogues and Vagabonds||"Lord" George Sanger||182|
|The English Rose||J. Decastro||183|
|Lion King||Thomas Frost||185|
|A Real Sevillean||Charlie Keith||187|
|Queen Victoria||M. Willson Disher||187|
|Old John Clark||Charlie Keith||189|
|The Gallery at Astley's||Charles Dickens||191|
|THE TENTING CIRCUS TODAY||18-19|
|THE LIFE OF THE CIRCUS ARTIST||18-19|
|SOME FAMOUS ACTS||50-51|
|THE GREAT DAYS OF THE CIRCUS PARADE||66-67|
|ASTLEY'S AND THE EARLY CIRCUS ACTS||114-115|
|FAMOUS CIRCUS FAMILIES||154-155|
In 1815, the year after Philip Astley, "the father of the circus," had died in Paris at the age of seventy-two and which same year had also marked the appearance of Ducrow, most famous of all equestrians, the first tenting circuses began to travel the English roads. Horses, acrobats and talking clowns were the entertainment offered with perhaps the addition of a spectacular dancer on a tight-rope. Rope-walking was the rage: Madame Saqui, fresh from sensational triumphs in Paris, was performing nightly at Vauxhal Gardens where thousands of sightseers congregated and jostled to see her mount the rope at midnight, an enormous plume of ostrich feathers surmounting her head, the spangles and tinsel of her costume glittering and glistening in the sparks thrown off from the grand display of fireworks.
The first tenting circuses pitched on the fair-grounds. Their painted gaudy fronts were imposing but their interiors were small, their fittings primitive. They seldom travelled more than three or four horses (horses were to become one of the glories of the tenting circus) and of these only two appeared in the ring. Unlike Astley, who had an eye for colour, the tenting showmen favoured cream, pied and spotted horses. They stood in a row on the show-front platform while an acrobat showed his skill, a clown cracked jokes and the proprietor, beating on a drum or a gong, shouted to the spectators to "walk up." At the shout, "all in, to begin," the horses were ridden down the steps and through a side entrance of the tent into the ring. Performances were of short duration, but repeated from noon until midnight, as often as the tent could be filled.
Success depending on a fickle climate, the life of the travelling showmen then as now was one of vicissitudes and unremitting effort. Some did not even possess a tent, but pitched a ring in the open-air in a field or on a common. Others gave impromptu performances at cross roads and in market places. If the circus had a tent, the ring was cut out of a meadow and the turves piled to make the ring-fence. There was no sawdust and tan to give a footing to the horses and, there being no seating, the audience stood and watched the performance from behind a wooden barrier. The tallow from candles insecurely held in position to the side poles by nails driven into pieces of wood, dripped on the heads and clothes. The ring itself was lit by cotton wool floating in pans of grease. Candle light gave way to dangerous naphtha flares, paraffin followed, then came gas, now it is electricity.
In no other form of entertainment is tradition so strong and enduring as in the circus. Already, in those years following the Napoleanic wars, entrées, invented by Grimaldi (who never appeared in a circus ring), were being performed in the tenting circuses as, with little variation, they are still performed today. Such entrées as the "tub ballet" and "the bear and the sentinel" date from these days, as also do the riding scenas such as "The Indian," "Shaw the lifeguardsman," and the "Shipwrecked Mariner." As far back as 1819, Bradbury created the principal role in "Dick Turpin's Ride to York," an equestrian spectacle still given on George Sanger's Circus. It is in externals only that the circus has changed; but even now in the smaller tenting shows the seating is of the most primitive description, speed in erecting and dismantling being all-important with one-day stands. And already the names of circus performers and proprietors were appearing in the scanty records whose descendants are still inseparably connected with the circus. Circus genealogy is bewildering. For instance, the Cookes, one of the earliest of the travelling shows, intermarried with such circus families as Boswell (South Africa), Chadwick, Cole (America), Ginnett, Krembser (German), Lockhart, Macarte, Powell, Shelton, Wirth (Australia), Woolford, Austin, Clarke, Crockett, Cruickshank, Franks, Pinder, Rowland, Sanger, Transfeld and Yelding.
So much for the Cookes. The Sangers married into the Pinder, Coleman, Austin, Hoffman, Freeman and Ginnett families: the Kayes with the Bakers, the Bakers with the Paulos, the Paulos with the Fossetts, the Fossetts with the Yeldings and the Yeldings with the Barretts. When I am told that so and so is only a small family circus I sometimes think that all the English travelling circuses are but one big family.
The Cookes, the Sangers and the Chipperfields are among the oldest circus families still performing and travelling the road although a Cooke has not owned a circus for some years. The family has a proud history and is said to have descended from a Sir Thomas Cooke, Bart., of Holkham Hall, Norfolk. Thomas Cooke was one of the pioneers to travel a circus; Burns spent an uproarious evening at one performance when the show was in Scotland, being much taken with the fiddler, who comprised the band, and making him play one Scottish tune after another. Thomas's son, Thomas Taplin Cooke, walked the rope, was a rider, was also noted for his feats of strength, and was one of the first English showmen to take a circus abroad: he travelled in Spain and went to New York. On the voyage, a granddaughter was born and christened Oceana: she became a tight-rope walker of international repute and married Ernst Renz of German circus fame. Thomas Taplin had twelve children. One Cooke, John Henry, "the champion equestrian of the universe," travelled with Hengler's, with Sanger's, with Price in Portugal and Barnum in America. For a time he was the principal artiste and equestrian director at the Cirque d'Ete and the Cirque d'Hiver, Paris.
John Henry's daughter, Ernestine Rosa (she married Valdo the clown, son of Chadwick the clown), was a graceful and accomplished equestrienne. "Whenever she appears she receives the heartiest of welcomes, the audiences greeting her with bursts of enthusiasm, but this is not to be wondered at when one sees the excellence of her performances.... After the arena had been put in darkness, Miss Cooke appears, robed in black, upon a horse, which is also draped in black. Limelight colours being thrown upon her drapery, reveal her performing the unique feat of executing the elegant evolution of the Serpentine Dance, while standing upon the back of her horse. Suddenly she leaves the horse, which now disappears, and is seen flying round and round the building at a great height, clad in pure white robes resembling at one time an angel, the next a human butterfly. After a time she alights in the arena, where she finishes her performance with a pleasing dance in a most beautiful manner."
Ernestine Rosa's brothers, Leicester Alfred and Leon Douglas (who married Iona Ginnett, granddaughter of Pierre Ginnett), were ringmasters in the better-known circuses until just before the war.
Of the forty odd circuses which tented in Great Britain during the season of 1947, Sanger's and Mills's are best known to the public: Sanger's to the older generation recalling memories of the great days of Lord George and his picturesque parades, and Mills to the present. Lord George in his early days travelled the fairgrounds with his father, James Sanger, who had fought at the Battle of Trafalgar, had his head slashed open with a cutlass stroke, and lost three fingers. With the first payment of a pension of £10 a year he had invested in a peep show, later a conjuring booth took its place. When George was a small boy he was taken by his father to Astley's to see the great Ducrow. Sitting in the sixpenny gallery, he was greatly impressed with the brilliancy of the scene and the magnificent chandeliers: he declared that one day Astley's Circus would be his. That winter, at Norwich, in the grounds of a public house by the river, George and his brother John made and painted the show front of their first circus and taught the business to two nieces, a nephew and four other youngsters. In the following spring the show opened at the Charter Fair, King's Lynn, the charge for admission being a penny. The brothers made money from the start. The year was 1853, in ten years the name of Sanger was known throughout the land. In 1871, George bought Astley's from Batty's widow for £11,000 and achieved his boyish ambition. George retained his interest in Astley's until 1893 when the famous old building was demolished. But long before that the two brothers had parted, dividing their circus property with the repeated tossing of a coin in the ring at Astley's. After that George and John went their separate ways and travelled their own tented circus. The present Sanger circus is run by George, a grandson of Lord John. George married Poppy Ginnett, his brother-in-law is Jimmy Freeman who has been (and still is) not only the Pimpo of the show but also its mainstay and backbone. Sanger's Circus has now been unkindly dubbed "Pimpo's Circus."
Lord George Sanger's autobiography, Seventy Years a Showman (said to have been written by George R. Sims, the Victorian journalist and melodramatist), is one of the classics of circus literature, its vivid account of fair-ground and circus life unsurpassed.
Bertram Mills was the son of a coachbuilder. Business obligations necessitated frequent visits to the continent where he exhibited his carriage and horses at the Concourse Hepfrique at Paris and similar shows at Brussels, The Hague and a dozen other places. Then, on the continent, wherever there was a horse show there would also be a circus: there was hardly a European tenting circus of note that Mills did not see. Horses fascinated him, his mornings were free, he spent them watching the training and schooling of circus animals. He met and got to know most of the continental circus proprietors.
It is said that his initial venture into circus management was the result of a wager made in jest. Asked his opinion of a circus he had seen at Olympia in 1919, he replied: "If I couldn't put on a better show I'd eat my hat!" Possessing a keen business instinct and a flair for showmanship, Mills, in the course of the next few years, made his annual circus at Olympia an outstanding success. Introducing a slickness of presentation previously unknown in this country and engaging the finest of what circus talent was available both here and abroad, he brought fresh life into the circus at a time when it seemed to be moribund. As the pre-war grand season at Covent Garden was to the operatic singer, so Olympia became to the circus performer: the goal of his ambition. To appear at Olympia was to put the cachet on a reputation or even to make one. There are few artistes of international fame who have not performed there. Mills gave to circus lovers the opportunity of seeing star turns which otherwise they would never have seen.
His tenting show came nine years after his first Olympia season. For the first year he collaborated with Carmo but these two great showmen, so different in temperament, did not agree and parted company at the end of the season. Carmo, who had made his reputation on the music halls as an illusionist who used wild beasts in his act, never had much circus luck. True, in 1928, when he took a show to Ireland, he made money, but in the end the circus cost him his all and financially crippled the last years of his life. On leaving Mills and against all advice he determined to run his circus through the winter: the result was disastrous, that tour is still talked of on tobers as one of the epics of the circus. Carmo's first tent collapsed under a load of snow and was torn to shreds, a second was burnt to the ground: a few weeks later the show and a third tent was auctioned. Laura Knight has given a graphic description of Carmo's ill-fated tour in Oil Paint and Grease Paint.
A few years later Carmo joined forces and had equally bad luck with Ray Stott. I remember visiting Carmo at his farm in Essex one early spring morning previous to his tour, Carmo greeting me at the gate in panama hat and shirt sleeves. In one of the farm meadows the circus show front was strewn about the grass. We went into the farm at the back: in a cage by the kitchen door crouched Carmo's lion. Inside the house was a profusion of silver plate and pictures: half-way up the stairs was an enormous and over-varnished picture of Rachel. Carmo said his wife had bought all this bric-à-brac, "she had wonderful taste, things had never been the same for him since she died": her going had been the reason why he had given up the music hall for the circus. When, on subsequent occasions, I encountered him on the Stott Circus, he seemed to take little interest in the show and when not performing sat silently outside his living caravan. If someone strolled up for a chat, he would be courteous and polite, but detached: his mind seemed occupied with the past and his memories.
Since the death of Bertram Mills, the Mills Circus has been managed by his sons, Bernard and Cyril. Their tenting circus is the only one to travel by rail, and stands are for three days or a week. Engaging only acts of proved merit, this circus is not only the most popular of all tenting shows but the best.
In The Circus has no Home, Rupert Croft-Cooke has done something more than describe the life from day to day of a travelling circus: he has realised as no one else has the essential character of the small family show and the love of these wandering artistes of their profession and the open air. It is impossible to conceive of the Rosaires, the family of which he writes, being anything else but the members of a tenting circus or of having any existence outside its flapping canvas. Count Rosaire, more prosaically Freddy Ross, the begetter of this circus, was born in 1877 in Saddleworth, a village on the borders of Yorks and Lancs. The Count, like so many other circus artistes of his generation, gained his early training in acrobatics in one of the many gymnasiums which in those days had a place in every town in the north of England. His mother derived from circus performers, no doubt it was from her he inherited his love of circus life and an ambition one day to possess one of his own. He did not find it easy. His early life was one of hazard and hardship. As a contortionist, a jumper, a clown and a stilt walker, he performed in fair-ground booths and on the music hall stage, For a time he led a precarious existence busking in the streets. He tried to get employment as a performer in a small circus but to his indignation and dismay was told he was not good enough. He met the countess, they were married, a lightning wooing, he and his wife had some success as a music-hall act, the Count whistling the countess playing the piano. But this was not the life the Count wished, "he was crazy to get into the circus business." A drunken showman, angered at bad business and about to break up his "square" show at Rippenden in 1904, gave him his chance. The Count offered £4 for the booth, the offer was accepted; at last the Count had a show of his own. The Countess made her own dresses and most of Fred's costumes and "pattered" on the "walk up." Fred appeared for a few minutes in his tights and tumbled, inside the booth he gave a show every half an hour. At the close of the day, the booth was dismantled, packed on a hand-cart and pushed to the next fair. The Countess gave birth to her first son, Aubrey the clown: fair-ground music, hurdy-gurdies, the beat of drums, the background of his arrival. That winter the Count had luck, he was able to buy the top for a round tent cheaply. True there were no wallings, but the Countess made these, stitching at the canvas for weeks and weeks. The next spring, "Rosaire's Circus" took the road. It was called "the one man circus." But it prospered and was enough to provide for a rapidly increasing family. Disaster came with the first world war: the horses were commandeered, the show dismantled: Fred went to work in a mine. After the war he started all over again.
In 1926, the Count toured the fair-grounds in association with Barrett. The summer was disastrous, when tenting came to an end, Barrett and the Count separated, the Count retaining the tent. Next year, headway was made, the show began to attract. The Count's struggles to establish his circus were almost at an end. From these humble beginnings Rosaire's have emerged as the third largest tenting circus in the country; one of excellent entertainment and fine performers.
Essentially a family circus, the backbone of the programme has always been the Count and Countess's four sons, Aubrey, Dennis, Ivor and Derrick, and four daughters, Vivienne, Zena, Ida and Cissie. All are good riders. Aubrey was the clown, "Jimmie Green," the talking clown of tradition, beloved of children. Dennis, who delights in resplendent Spanish costumes and who has married a Spanish circus artiste, is probably the finest wire-walker in the country, he performs without a parasol. Cissie married a knife-thrower with a wild-west show of his own but often the two re-appear in the family-ring.
Before the war, the Count was able to introduce elephants into his ring, later a cage of lions. Their tamer was Marting Hawkes, son of a clergyman. Hawkes, intended for the church, had, after his university days, decided on the circus, convinced his real interest in life was animals. Just before the war, he married Ida, his father officiating ar the ceremony in the church of his living.
Like the Rosaires, Madame Paulo's is a family circus and, again like the Rosaires, the family is eight in number: in this instance six girls, Emily, Lizzie, Madge, Grace, Evelyn, Clara, and two boys, Harry and Frank. All are married: Emily and Lizzie to clowns; Thompson (Billy Bruno), who has performed at Olympia, and Albery Procter, Madge to Carlos Meirs, a music-hall performer with a pigeon act, Grace to McManus, a fly-weight boxer from Plymouth and Harry to a dancing girl who performed in his uncle's circus. Evelyn and Clara also married circus performers. Madame Clara is now over sixty, the only woman owner of a circus in Great Britain: she shows the horses in the ring and can still walk the wire.
For generations her people have been in the show business. Her father was William Wilson, known on fair-grounds as Curly Wilson. Her mother, Elizabeth Silvester, was a clown and a jester. Her brothers were acrobats, benders and posturers. She married Frank Paulo whose mother, Madame Blondin, she was advertised to walk a rope stretched from one church steeple to another. As she was about to start the rope broke: her brother, Tom Baker, as he tied a knot about the two ends, warned her of the danger and begged her not to make the attempt. She insisted. When she was half-way across, the knot turned, she lost her balance. As she fell she managed to clutch the rope with her hands, clinging desperately until a blanket was fetched and held far below into which she dropped. For eight months she lay on a water bed: afterwards she was never much of a performer. Her nerve was gone.
Madame Paulo has written the story of her life: The True Story of a Circus Proprietress. C. Paulo.. It begins: "Edinborough, Scotland, travelling on the road my mother took ill and had to pull in a yard where I were born. My father and mother owned a circus..." When her grandmother died, her grandfather married again and her mother with her three brothers left him and "had to get a living by performing in the streets and where they could. As time went on they got work with circuses but my mother often told me the hardships she went through after having full and plenty at home, so as time went on my mother met my father on a circus: they travelled together on Newsome's and Pablo Fanque's Circus and others, so at last after seven years Father married my mother... so as years flew on they had fourteen of a family, but only nine lived, seven girls and two boys, so as we all got useful to them he got a circus of his own and learnt us all to do something in the circus business. I went in the ring when I was three years old trying to perform some little trick, we all had our hardships, no money, no food, my mother had a hard struggle to bring us up all healthy."
Madame Paulo married at eighteen when Frank Paulo came to work on her father's circus. Frank was a good august and had been with Lloyd's in Ireland. After a few months on the family show and thinking to better themselves, they joined Buff Bill's (William Kayes) Menagerie, "he was a good master to us." Madame Paulo walked the wire, her husband showed a fortune-telling pony, between them they made the show into a circus as well as a menagerie. They were with Buff Bill for five or six years and went with him to Ireland. Here, after experiences with Ned Hannaford's circus, Frank determined to "start on his own." This was at a small village in the South of Ireland and he opened with "mouldings" - no charge for admission but selling tickets for prizes. Their wagon had a flap; on this a song and dance was performed and Clara walked the wire. On the first day the prizes cost six shillings and they sold three shillings worth of tickets. Affairs mended and a houpla and gun stall were acquired. They stopped at cross roads, pitched the stalls and gave their little show with the "mouldings." At some villages they stayed for weeks. Sundays was always the best day when donkey and pony races were staged.
It was an up-and-down life, just enough to live on, little more, sometimes less: somehow a small tent was acquired and for a time life was easier. The Irish, although hating England, did not hate the circus, circus people were different. On occasions after a performance, a few bricks were thrown at the show, but that was all. Then, one evening in Cork, where barrels of oil blazed along the streets, a gang broke in and wrecked the circus. Heartbreaking. Madame Paulo was the seven months gone with her third child.
The tent gone, there was no alternative but to resume the old game of showing at the cross roads. Frank barked from the caravan steps, at the rear a rough ring was marked on the turf. After every act, the hat was passed round. More often than not the family came hungry to a performance, when a few coppers had been collected, Lizzie would be sent running to buy bread and cheese. Food was the daily problem. Clara was born. The day after, Madame Paulo strapped the child to her back and walked to Killarney. Here, hanging head down, she kissed the blarney stone and wished little Clara should never know the life of a circus.
The existence of the Paulos became even more precarious. People now were afraid to come to the show because of the "troubles" and kept at home: with the loss of all they had, the Paulos returned to England by way of a bombed and silent Dublin. Things were desperate, Frank enlisted and before long was in France. His allowance was barely sufficient to keep the family going but Madame, with a courage that never failed, managed. The living wagon was pitched on Home Moor, for two years the family lived there, existing from hand to mouth. In the winter, wood was chopped and sold from door to door or young Frank earned a few coppers performing acrobatics in the streets. Early in 1917, old Frank was back from the war. With his gratuity he bought a couple of horses and broke them for the ring. With the help of a "mechanic," Clara was taught to ride. She loved it. Meanwhile, the other children, excited by these circus preparations, played truant from school, climbed on the horses' backs and imitated their elders. A post was set up for the rings and muscles hardened on them. There was a bit of luck. Mrs Paulo's sister came for a stay and knew where a tent could be had cheaply. Frank bought it and another six horses. An old lion was acquired. Days were spent in practice and in painting the wagon and tent yellow and black with the cheapest paints that could be got. Once more the Paulo circus took the road.
During the summer the show did well, whenever he could Frank bought horses, his stock mounted. For years the winters were hard, the Paulos had to keep travelling through the winter because they couldn't afford to rest. But from season to season the family jogged along. At the end of one winter at Wombwell a proposal came from Anderton and Rowland in Cornwall that the two shows should amalgamate for the summer on sharing terms. Frank agreed, the contract was signed, the show started off on a 350 mile journey to St. Austell with fourteen loads and seventy-five horses. This was in 1929. On the way, Frank who had never been ill in his life, collapsed with pneumonia and had to be taken to Rotherham hospital. "Keep going," he told Clara. "Don't wait for me." He was left behind. Never before had he been off the show for more than a few hours. Now it went on without him. Next day Clara rode a horse bare-back the twenty miles back to see him. At the hospital she was denied admittance: it wasn't a visiting day. But Clara refused to be turned away. Frank seemed no better and no worse. He was cheerful. "How was the show?" Clara broke down and wept: it was not often in her life she had shed tears. All that had come to her had been accepted stoically and with courage. Even when the Irish toughs had stormed the circus and she had fought with them and had her head cracked open, she hadn't given way: only cursed with anger and dismay. Now she looked at her husband with the certain presentiment that it was for the last time. There was that primitive strain in her and her family, a feeling with nature, an awareness. A Paulo knew of the approach of rain and storm, could smell the woods and coppices where poaching was worth while and knew to the minute when childbirth would take them. So Clara sensed the chill of death.
She went back to the show greatly shaken. "How was he?" she was asked. "Dying," she replied. She sat numb and listless in the living wagon. That night, in the ring, she slipped the wire. It was not often she did that. She wanted to go back and sit with Frank until the end. Impossible. The show had lost one performer, it couldn't spare another. Instead, her sister went off in a car for news. That night Clara could not sleep but walked round and round the field where the tent was pitched, walked until her feet were sodden with the morning dew.
Fifty miles from St. Austell, car and sister caught up with the show. To Clara was said: "You'll have to have a cry, I know. But it won't make no matter. He's dead."
Six pounds was taken on the opening night with Anderton and Rowland: omen of a bad summer. It was. The winter was bad too, storms and snow, and Madame Paulo had to quarter in Plymouth. But she was out tenting in January. She had to, otherwise the family would have starved. Somehow the show kept afloat through the summer but with the advent of another winter Madame Paulo had to sell everything. The tent and six horses went for £100. The other horses were sold in twos and threes. Madge went to Bob Fossett's circus, Bob gave her a horse to ride, Grace went to Proctor's as a wire-walker and dancer. For the next two or three years the family was scattered, working for various shows until again Madame Paulo got her own circus together. It wasn't much to look at. "Mrs. Rosaire came over to see me and said how sorry she was to see the small show after the circus I once had. I said: 'I'm not dead yet. I'll have a real circus before I die.'" At Salisbury Fair, the manager said he was going off for a drink. Madame never saw him again. When she opened the bag that contained the takings she found only bricks. But she went on. Her boys appeared at Olympia as a riding act. Just before the war Madame Paulo's fortunes changed, during the war the show at last attracted the money it so well deserved, now it is one of the most prosperous tenting circuses in the country. What grit these circus people have! I have told the story of the Rosaires and the Paulos at some length, they are typical of the brave little family shows that wander from English village to village during the tenting season. Madame Paulo, the Count, the Countess, they are grand people.
The Ginnetts claim to be the third oldest circus family in the country: the present generation being the descendants of Jean Pierre Ginnett, a French prisoner of war brought to England after the Battle of Waterloo. On his release, Pierre acquired four canaries and trained them to perform little tricks. He stood on the kerb at Ludgate Circus and lived on the contributions of passers-by. Being told of Barnet Fair, Pierre decided to show their with his canaries and a fortune-telling pony. A circle of canvas four feet high was his tent. At Barnet, made enough money to buy a sixty foot round top: from then on the Ginnetts became circus proprietors. When his son, John Frederick, died, he left three circus buildings: the Eden theatre, Brighton (now the Grand), the Hippodrome, Belfast, the Hippodrome, Torquay, £80,000 in cash, 274 horses and a large tenting circus.
The Chipperfields can trace their genealogy for 300 years: a Chipperfield erected a booth on the frozen surface of the Thames in the seventeenth century during the great frost. They now tent in the West Country and specialise in animal acts. Animals are bred on a large scale and supplied to the other circuses. On my last visit to their quarters I saw twenty lion cubs varying in age from three to eighteen months and a magnificent litter of tiger cubs. James William Chipperfield, father of Richard, the present proprietor, was born in the Tottenham Court Road and boasted that he knew every village in Great Britain and could train any animal from a rabbit to an elephant. The great grand-father was a boot-maker and costumier in Drury Lane who trained pigs and dogs in his leisure time. He entered the show business as a conjurer, also carrying a puppet show in his back and was over eighty when he died.
The present Richard Chipperfield is a painter in oils of animals and a decorator of shields and flashes for rides and stalls. In the early days of the twentieth century he was a pioneer of moving pictures which he showed on the fair grounds. His sons and daughters, Richard, John, Marjorie and Maud, all perform on the show.
The Yeldings are another prolific circus family: their name has appeared on circus programmes all over the world for the last 100 years. Thomas Yelding, a jockey act, died just before the war while with Pagel's Circus in South Africa. He was eighty-one. His three brothers, Robert, Harry and Johnny, were also riders, Robert being distinguished for his finished displays in such scenas as "The Gambler," "The Shipwrecked Mariner," "Shaw the Lifeguardsman" and "The Indian" Harry, for some reason tiring of the family name, called himself Sloane and his two sons and two daughters, who clown on stilts, are known as the Sloane family. Johnny's three sons all performed with the Mills Circus, Tony as a rider, Claude and David as trapezists. At one performance Claude, missing a catch, fell and was killed. Bob's daughter, Eleanore, is the only English girl who performs on the sliding wire. Once she was nearly killed. This was about ten years ago when she was performing with Ray Stott's Circus. The light failed and in this emergency the circus ring was lit with the lamps of a motor car: the audience, mostly miners, shouted they couldn't see and rioted, destroying the seating and cutting the rope for the dive to death act just as Eleanor begun her slide. She crashed and sprawled in the ring, everyone thought she must be dead, but she was all right, only badly bruised.
The Kayes have long been known as bare-back riders and wild beast trainers. Old Buff Bill Kayes had a family of Victorian length: two, Tommy and Priscilla distinguished themselves as lion tamers , Priscilla with Bertram Mills and Tommy in many of the tenting shows. In 1944, Tommy, suffering from lung trouble, was advised to give up performing with lions, the ammoniated smell of the animals was bad for him. "I can't give up my lions," Tommy said. "I couldn't live without them." But the "chest cold" which Tommy said was a "silly little trouble" which he wouldn't let interfere with his work, at last compelled him to rest. He pulled his caravan into a stable yard in Battersea and there he died in the spring of 1946.
Buff Bill's wife was a Baker, his brother-in-law, Tom, the father of the present Baker Boys. For many years Tom ran a little family show in the villages and market places. His sons, Tommy, Billy, Dicky and Pat, all rode. When Tommy the eldest was barely thirteen the show was at Balham. Mills saw it and offered Tommy a contract for Olympia. There as "Young Steve," he made a great success. His brothers practised with him, some years later they rode together as a juvenile troupe at Olympia. It was with Tom Baker's Circus that Edward Seago gained his intimate knowledge of tenting life. He travelled with it, broke through the family barriers of reserve and lived the circus life in a caravan as one of the family. Seago watched the development from childhood of the Baker boys who now have the reputation of being the best bare-back riders in England. He wrote his experiences of tenting with them in Circus Company. Illustrated by himself, it is a book of great sincerity: towards its end he describes the running away of young Tommy from his father's circus to marry a fellow circus artiste and his death soon after of peritonitis: this a week prior to his engagement for the winter season at Olympia, eagerly anticipated and awaited through the spring and summer. Tommy was only twenty-two.
His death temporarily disrupted the Baker Boys' riding act; undeterred that they were unable to appear at Olympia, the remaining brothers spent the following tenting season with Silvester's Circus and practised so assiduously that they regained their position with Mills for the following Olympia season.
A newcomer to circus management in 1946 was Billy Smart who, having made what even in these days would pass for a fortune on the fair-grounds with rides and other forms of mechanical entertainment, spent £30,000 on a tenting circus and engaged as his ringmaster and equestrian director Frank Foster. Foster had spent long years in a similar capacity (after even a longer years with the George Sanger show as a juggler, rider and trapeze artiste) with Bertram Mills and his sins and had helped considerably to build up the great reputations of Olympia and the Mills tenting circus. Smart did so well in his first season with an attractive show (which, however, irresistibly reminded one of the Mills tradition guiding it) as to suggest the possibilities of an outstanding circus. He is said to be ambitious and, preceding the 1947 season spent a further £30,000 on the show.
There are two Fossett circuses in England and one in Ireland respectively run by Bob (Sir Robert), Tom and Ted. Bob and Ted are brothers, Tom a second cousin.
Sir Robert Fossett has the most superb living wagon I have seen on any circus. When his circus gets to winter quarters at Hopping Hill, Northampton, old Bob lives in the farmhouse for a few days then, complaining of the draughts and colds, returns to his wagon. Mrs. Fossett prides herself on her china, when you drink tea with her it is served in such a fragile ware that you almost fear it will come to pieces as you touch it.
When he was a boy, Bob's grandfather sold almond rock in Petticoat Lane. Then, one after the other, he had a bird show, performing birds, a fortune-telling pony and finally a small circus. Outside this he stood and played a one-man band: drum strapped to shoulders and hit with sticks tied to elbows, cymbals on his knees and a concertina in his hands. At Sheffield Fair, a crowd of toughs rushed the pay-box, stampeded into the ring, pulled Carrie Fossett from the back of a horse and roughly handled her. The Fossetts fought the toughs grimly: bare fists, whips, tent stakes, mallets, anything which came to hand. They gave no mercy, the toughs, pitched outside the tent, took to their heels. But the excitement had been too much for grandfather Robert: he had a seizure and died. After his death, grandmother Fossett ran the show with her four sons until at Newport she got into difficulties, bailiffs took possession, and the show was sold under the hammer. Lord George Sanger bought it and characteristically offered it back to the widow, but she would not have it. Uncle Harry Fossett took it over. Robert's father started his own circus, buying Sequa's wagons. When he died, Sir Robert sold the show and gradually built up his own. Sir Robert believes the more horses a circus has the better it is. He has always bought horses, good horses, and he must now possess upwards of 150. Although motorised, his circus is perhaps the only surviving circus which still relies on horses for transport.
The jockey act which came into existence in early Victorian days and is still one of the most spectacular of circus acts, is a family tradition with the Fossetts. Eighty years ago, Sir Robert's father was acknowledged to be the champion jockey of the circus and, in competitions, acquired an amazing collection of cups and medals. Sir Robert has the same reputation, now the family mantle has descended on the present Robert, but as he is over thirty and still unmarried it looks as if this hereditary distinction will die out. Young Robert, like his father before him, runs across the ring, his feet tied in large wicker baskets, and jumps on a galloping horse. Old Sir Robert was the first to achieve this trick: he had a sack tied over his head into the bargain.
Teddy Fossett, the younger son of old Bob, began with clowning in his father's show and riding: like all circus children he was riding bare-back at an early age. At the time of the first world war he went to Ireland and had a few experiences with the rough "fit-up" shows and with Johnny Duffy. While with Duffy the thought came to him "If he can do it so successfully, what is to stop me?" He collected some "rags and sticks" (poles and canvas) and ventured out as a circus director with a show whose name, Heckenberg, was a colourful twist on Hagenbeck. He had all the trials and tribulations one expects in Ireland and which have been so vividly portrayed by James Lloyd in his auto biography, but possessing perseverance and fighting abilities: the right kind of fighting abilities in a country where many circus tents have been wrecked by Irish audiences, he won respect in the wilds and villages of the south and the excellence of his show attracted custom and made money. Whenever he had a good day's business he added to his equestrian stock. To carry too many horses has often been the undoing of small showmen: with Fossett it worked in his favour. To-day he has between eighty and a hundred coloured horses, a good tent and equipment and a show of considerable reputation. In the years preceding the second world war he imported and introduced many first-class continental acts to the Irish public who before had seen little else but the sons and daughters of touring circus managements.
Ned Hannaford's was one of the first of the family shows in Ireland to give programmes of first-class talent. Jimmy Freeman, the second Pimpo of George Sanger's Circus, acquired his early experience with this show as also did du Calion, Billy Merson and Richard Hearne, later to make reputations on the music hall and in the theatre. In 1910, Hannaford's show was invited to tour England by E. H. Bostock and met with success until, on reaching Penzance, Ned died. The show, having lost direction, now did badly and Ned's children, Poodles, Georgie and Lizzie, attracted by dazzling salaries, went to America. Poodles, at one time considered the finest bare-back comedy rider in the profession, re-appeared at Olympia a few years before the war, but a sprained ankle prevented him from giving of his best.
For many years prior to Fossett's arrival and having outlived Hannaford and Lloyd, John Duffy, "Imperial" John, was the only tenting show in Ireland. Imperial John might have been the creation of a novelist's fancy so amazingly did he confirm to the stock figures of fiction: picturesque dress, game leg, bombastic manner and a lively flow of language. He was a character. He paid his artistes well but expected much. During performances he stood at the ringside: if he liked an act he would shout at the top of his great voice: "Come on you b--------- baskets - clap! - he's good." But if an act displeased him, he was equally vociferous with blame and disgust. "He's lousy!" he would yell. " An' me paying the spalpeen twenty quid a week. A fabulous amount. Give him the bird boys!"
No man had such control over an Irish mob in the mood to fight and destroy. Many were the battles he had before his fame and popularity spread, and, like Lloyd before him, he knew how to get the priests on his side. He also had courage. Often, in early days, when an audience was getting out of hand he would stump his way on his gamey leg to the middle of the ring and there tell the trouble-mongers exactly what he thought of them and what miserable "creatures" they were. Imperial John was worshipped in Ireland.
He must have been a good boss for many of his performers remained with him for years. Among these were George Knight, a rider and wire-walker who had a way of listening to John's lurid phraseology with a set grin, and Rosie Mayne, also a wire-walker, who began with John when she was in her 'teens. Now close on sixty years, I believe she is still "treading the silver wire." I have heard it said that she has never missed a performance during the forty odd years she has been with the show.
John's beginnings were obscure, it is said that he and his wife came to the circus from the fair-grounds. He was a good clown, an acrobat and a singer with an exceptionally fine voice. When he died, colour departed from the Irish Circus. He was a great showman. Imperial John founded his circus in 1875. Now it is run by his sons, John and James, and his grandchildren perform in the ring.
W. S. MEADMORE.
I have often tried to analyse the circus appeal. It is the display of indomitable courage that one sees and admires, an admiration inherent in the human race. Gravitation is defied - the impossible is possible. I heard an acrobat say once, "No matter what we come to, we have lived. I was the King of the Earth when I was young, the laws that governed other people did not govern me, I could do anything. I clawed my way through the air back to the net once when I missed my grip on the flying trapeze." It is the feeling of defiance for the laws of nature that makes the circus people a race apart; they are one, although gathered from all races. I never felt a stranger among them; their acceptance of me as one of themselves has always seemed a miracle for usually, like fisher-people, they are difficult to know intimately. Circus performers are the hardest-working, the cleanest-living people I have met, with a pride in their bodies, an ideal of attainment, and an infinite capacity for endurance.
DAME LAURA KNIGHT.
Oil Paint and Grease Paint, 1936
"But don't forget," said my English friend, "that there is one good thing about winter in Paris - the Cirque d'Hiver."
It was an Englishman, Philip Astley, who in 1780 developed his riding school into the first Paris circus, the Cirque Olympique, in the Boulevard du Temple. Then we spoke of Barnum and talked of famous clowns from Tarleton in Shakespeare's day to Carlin and Grimaldi, right along to the Fratellini brothers, who we ended up the evening by seeing. And we agreed that there was no one entitled to the name of human being who did not love circuses, clowns, acrobats, wild beast shows, performing fleas, lion-tamers and those wonderful, friendly seals, "lions du marin," at once clowns, acrobats, and almost human humorists.
The Frenchman, who had some learning, reminded us of the antiquity of the circus, of the Circus Maximus in Rome, which was at once a race-course for horses and a gladiatorial show, and seated a hundred and fifty thousand spectators, and he added how cruelty of that original circus was to be found now, appropriately, in the bullfigts of Spain, while only the fun and nonsense and skill of it had been retained in England and France. And he told us how, when the spring came, and the Cirque d'Hiver broke up, some of its component parts would set up as side-shows in the provinces, or in the outlying suburbs of Paris.
We spoke, too, of fairs - particularly of the Foire Saint-Germain, in the Place Saint-Sulpice, which has gone on since the twelfth century. And we talked of romances written about strolling players, of Gautier's Le Capitaine Fracasse and Anatole France's La Rôtisserie de la Reine Pedauque.
Then as we three separated, I wandered a little aimlessly, thinking of the old times we had been talking about, and reflecting how humanity goes on liking what it has always liked. And, oddly enough, I found myself before a canvas tent, with a stylish barker talking eloquently in front, and a lurid poster behind him of four lions and a beautiful lady with them in their cage. Of course I went in, and the poster was true enough, and I saw the beautiful lady, quite a pretty young woman, take hold of a huge lion by the mane, open his jaws, and place her pretty marcelled head inside his throat. My impulse, of course, was to marry her on the spot. She was so beautiful and so brave. But I reflected...
Amid all the sophistications of the day it is consoling to find that this love of the average human being for the circus seems stronger than ever. Never was the circus a more prosperous institution, and, while it still remains the paradise of the children, it would seem that their fathers and mothers, particularly their fathers, make up the majority of circus audiences. Nothing perhaps so much as the circus evokes the saving simplicity in human nature. As one sits around the sawdust ring and watches hardened old middle-aged men of the world enjoying the same unchanging spectacle of performing horses, Mercury-winged acrobats gaily swinging across the gulfs of death, and clowns performing antics and cracking jokes as old as the world, one realises that it is no mere figure of speech that has declared man, however broad his waistcoat or hard his head, to be eternally a child, filled with wonder at the most familiar marvels and easy to amuse with the simplest of toys.
This unchanging quality of the circus is undoubtedly its greatest strength. It never disappoints us with irrelevant novelties. We can rely upon it always to give us the same old dear form of entertainment. Always the same thrill of desperate skill and the daring, always exactly the same slap-stick humour we thrilled with and laughed with - ah, so long ago. The lovely equestrienne who leaps through the paper hoops is still there - not a day older than when we first fell in love with her and dreamed of giving up all for her sake. And the clowns with those fantastically painted faces, so unlike anything human, yet so human, and with those same baggy trousers that - well who shall describe what it is that is so irresistibly and immortally laughable about the trousers of a clown? - and the astonishing capacity they have for taking innumerable thwackings and rising jauntily from the severest beatings, smoking a cigar that explodes soon after they have lit it, swinging a cane like some dandy in Piccadilly, while a bump the size of an egg on their belaboured crowns goes up and down and squeaks like a child's toy balloon.
Then there is the tradition of the roving life of these circus folk, whose tents suddenly sprout overnight in a meadow like giant mushrooms and are vanished tomorrow, a wandering gypsy-like existence under moon and stars which, oddly enough seems to appeal to the stodgiest of city dwellers, who of course, have no idea of its hardships and who would die of pneumonia if they slept a night out of doors.
Somehow a circus within four walls does not seem the real thing, for their stationary quality is at variance with the original circus idea, which is that of an essentially nomadic entertainment, here today and gone tomorrow. And here the proprietors of the Paris Cirque d'Hiver - whose clowns, the Fratellini brothers, are, I suppose, the most famous in the world - have been wise; for they still retain the vast traditional tent, with its gigantic tent-pole guyed up by ropes and crowbars, a structure of canvas and cordage suggesting a transient caravan of strolling players and mirth-magicians, who are eternally on the road to charm away the melancholy of mankind. And though, of course, this exceedingly rich organization, for all its affectation of wandering, is one of the best-known fixtures of Paris, I was delighted recently to find that the great tent is actually taken down sometimes and that the Cirque d'Hiver is at once an institution and a gypsy and goes a-wandering along the roads in the summer-time, like any other hand-to-mouth circus.
It was on one of its wanderings that I happened to meet it in a great vacant lot in the ancient city of Nice, where it had encamped for only two evenings, and I couldn't help feeling that the Fratellini brothers, the acrobats, the equestriennes, and even the performing elephants, acted with an even gayer gusto than usual, as though they were glad to find themselves once more real wandering circus folk "on the out trail, the old trail, the trail that is always new."
RICHARD LE GALLIENNE.
From a Paris Garret, 1943
One of my earliest recollections is of Barnum and Bailey's Circus at Olympia, to which I was taken at the age of four. I was much impressed with the "freaks," and thought that I had been rather badly treated in resembling them in some way! But it was the sword-swallower who fired my boyish ambition. As soon as I reached home I endeavoured to emulate his feats by trying to thrust a carving knife down my throat. My mother's alarm when she discovered me so engaged quite startled me. Even the resulting interview with my father did not dampen my enthusiasm for the circus, for my next escapade was to stage as much as I could remember of the show on the lawn, my younger sister being the one other human performer. She, however, was only allowed to give an exhibition of high-school riding on her pet donkey. The household cat and dog were pressed into service as performing animals. On the whole their performance was disappointing. They certainly entered into the spirit of the show, but the great hit of this cold January afternoon was my representation of the lion-tamer. The cage was built up with clothes horses, and inside it I gave a magnificent display of courage and nonchalance; this ended with the lion(alias Snad, our Irish terrier) escaping and causing a welcome panic among the audience - which, by the way consisted of two shivering maid-servants.
My next theatrical venture was inspired by a visit to Hengler's Circus which then used to give a season every Christmas at Oxford Circus. A thrilling, spectacular display was then a feature of Mr. Hengler's ring, and on this occasion the attraction consisted of real redskins shooting rapids of real water in birch canoes. This seemed well worthy of reproduction. Arriving home I was lucky enough to find some soiled bed sheets in the linen basket. These I rigged up in the kitchen so that I could slide down their surface into a large hip bath which had previously been filled with water. For this act my sister was again required, and in order to transform her into a convincing Indian squaw I blackleaded her face. Not content with the matt finish, I put a high polish on it with the dusters and brushes normally used to clean the kitchen range. Thus I anticipated, in a way, the metal fairies that Granville-Barker, many years later, was to introduce into his production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Our performance was accompanied with earpiercing, if hardly authentic, Indian war-cries. My father suddenly appeared in the kitchen doorway, and forthwith Cedric Hardwicke's Circus was disbanded for good and all.
It took my mother and a maid the better part of three days to scrub my sister's face clean, her howls during the process being far superior to any I had been able to extract from her in the course of my Indian scena.
SIR CEDRIC HARDWICKE.
Let's Pretend, 1932
One of the best known of all circuses in those day's was Pagel's. Madame Pagel, the dominant partner in the concern, was an unforgettable character. She had at one time been one of those fairy-like creatures who hop lightly through hoops on the back of a prancing skewbald. But when I knew her this little Lancashire woman had the curves of an outsize Juno, a coruscating temperament, and a flow of basic English that would have broken the heart of an old-time sergeant-major. She was the most kind-hearted and generous soul alive, and had a wonderful way with animals. She sat at the ticket-office when the show began, and if by any chance you asked for change, the ensuing invective would blast you straight into your seat.
Pagel's performances were usually first-rate, but they varied. I remember on one occasion at the mining town of Gatooma in Rhodesia, the first part of the show was not to the taste of the tough mining crowd, and a storm of jeers and whistles greeted one of the turns. Out of the pay-box and into the tent came Madame Pagel, a whirlwind in tempestuous petticoats. Standing in the middle of the ring she shook a fist at the crowd and in the rich accents of Lancashire, she shouted:
"If you don't shut your bloody row, I'll turn the bloody lions loose."
The sporting crowd roared their approval, and from that moment the show went with a bang. Herr Pagel, a vast gloomy German, the junior partner in the show, was a lion tamer when he wasn't doing innumerable other chores about the place. He had started his career as a strongman, and his immense thighs and biceps remained to mark this early profession of his. Evil-minded persons claimed that he had taken to the lions' den as the only way to escape Madame his wife. But this was undoubtedly slander. The two were as devoted a couple, after their peculiar fashion, as any in Illyria.
I had once the honour of driving round Bulawayo with Madame Pagel in a large rickety saloon car, while she distributed her various orders and lowered the town's level of Guinness'stout at various houses of call. While we travelled, the admired of all beholders, I sat in the back seat, Madame Pagel drove, and on the front seat sat a small, melancholy, black-maned lion, which Madame Pagel fed from time to time with chocolate creams.
Dragons are Extra, 1947
In the autumn of that year I got mixed up with a circus. It was not my first circus. There had been another in Suez. They tied up with each other in my mind touchingly and beautifully.
The first, I said, was in Suez, (The mind, anyhow, could still travel as fast and far as it liked, despite the thousand barriers). A queer place, Suez. It might easily have been one of the most beautiful cities in the world; if, for instance, the Venetians had taken it in hand, in their great seagoing days. But they didn't; so it is one of the shabbiest and pokiest. And I happened to be locked up there for a week or more, waiting for my Ford desert trucks, during an early stage in that Mosaic journey I told of.
And I got more and more claustrophobic there in Suez. There was nothing to do, nothing, except walk up and down the Grand Boulevard of the Railway, watching the trains go this way and that way. (It is not to be believed that Suez is a wicked town. It is not. It is about as wicked as the Albert Memorial).
And then suddenly a circus appeared out of nowhere on the scruffy fringes of Suez. I rubbed my eyes and said firmly: "No, it isn't there!" I had had enough of mirages lately, in the sweltering westward desert where the Nile peters out into dust and ashes. "It's only a mirage!" I said.
And then the circus got going and organised a grand pageant to defile through the streets of the astonished town. There was no mirage about the band that led the way, with its pipes and cornets and euphonium and big drum. There was no mirage about the funny men with their long, false noses, or the strong men with their muscles like steam-boilers, or the six fat maidens in long, white nightgowns with their hennaed hair falling loose below their shoulders.
And yet somehow I never quite lost the sense of mirage, though I spent almost every moment of the day and night with the circus, during the rest of the time I spent in Suez. It was run and manned by the members of a single family, the Rihanis, their name was. (Circuses are just about as much a family business as a Big Film Executive or Being King of England).
I did not lose the sense of mirage, because it seemed impossible there could be so much charm and simplicity on the edge of such squalor. Suez is a town of touts, sworn to the task of getting a pound out of you for a pennyworth. The Rihanis were not happy unless they gave you a poundsworth for a penny. It is only because even the Rihanis were susceptible to fatigue that they were not a Twenty-four-Hour-Long-Non-Stop-Circus.
The old man, Ali Rihani, was the clown-in-chief. He was also a magician, straight out of Arabian Nights, with a long yellow robe and a pointed cap. One of his sons, wearing a black mask and a black domino, was his first djinn, his attendant spirit. Two other sons were his Strong Men. Another son jumped incessantly through a wooden frame stuck round all its perimeter with long and nasty daggers, to make it a little harder. Six of his daughters sang and danced. Other daughters balanced lighted lamps on thin rods, in turn poised on the edge of drinking-glasses.
Some of these sons and daughters were sons-in-law and daughters-in-law. Some were grandchildren. Once I came to them when a show was not on. To make sure they would give value for money when the show started again, they were all practising their tricks. I took them off in batches to drink coffee (the men) and eat Turkish Delight (the women). They asked me could I do tricks, too. I showed them a unique trick that (so far as I know) I alone in all the world can do. It is a manipulation of a digital tendon of the second finger of the right hand. They applauded generously. Then we had more coffee and Turkish Delight.
I cannot tell you how sweet a salvation Rihani's Circus was from the touts and the postcards and the flies, in Suez there, on the edges of the wilderness. It happened exactly like that, in the autumn of 'thirty-eight, on the edge of London, in the Home Counties somewhere. It wasn't London's fault. It was, as they say, Life. And the Lord led me to Malambri's Circus! Or at least my friend Hastings did! Glory be to them all!
Hastings had come across them four years ago in a remote village in Exmoor. He had been on their track ever since, and had only just a few days ago come up with them again.
That was part of their charm. They were as elusive as the cuckoo. Despite their two massive elephants, their troop of horses, the over-arching splendour of their "Big Top," here they were today, tomorrow they were gone. How they managed it is hard to say. They gave two shows a day. They put in a good many hours practising, for really they had no other interest in the world than whether Rosa could do that double somersault off the pony and on again, or whether Antonio ought to try out a rumba on the tight-rope. They retired at length to the narrow bunks of their wagons. Before dawn they were off again... like a stream, like a whiff of honeysuckle on the wind, like a snatch of a song. And yet they carried about those two elephants with them wherever they went, as if they were not elephants but white mice. Many a working man lives in a house smaller than either of those elephants. The Malambris were enchanted people, I think. It must not be imagined that the Malambris were a race of beetle-browed Sicilianos chewing black moustaches and rolling torrid eyes. They were about as English as blackthorn, or Cornish pasties, or the River Ouse, or Mr. Billy Bennett, or "When that I was but a little tiny boy." It was part of their fantasy, their fairy-tale, to call themselves "Malambri," like Rosa's tights and spangles when she leapt from horse to horse like a seagull from wave to wave. She did not wear them when she was peeling potatoes. It was also a part of the fantasy for Rosa's father and mother to be called the "Conte" and the "Contessa." You can call a tankard of nut-brown ale a bottle of Asti Spumante, but it remains a tankard of nut-brown ale.
One of these days, I vowed, I would bring together the Rihanis of Suez and the Malambris of the Home Counties. The Rihanis only talk Arabic and the Malambris only talk English. But they would understand each other, I thought.
The world I knew, 1940
In the morning Olympia is drear inside. Daylight shows in streaks through the strips of tenting cloth overhead. Practice appears curiously lonely and unreal, surrounded by thousands of empty seats. In the stables round, a few lights burn, showing up rows of horses' rumps half hidden by their rugs. Here a groom plaits a long white tail; here a skewbald stands across its stall; a groom brushing it in long arm sweeps, hissing the while; here a door stands open, inside hang rows of brightly coloured harness. "Horse," would spring into your mind wherever you saw the elderly man who, yellow cloth in hand, is shining up the metal studding. In the shadow under the back of the seating the Shetlands are lined; one nibbles another's neck, an old pony stands propping one hind leg against another. The Liberty horses watch through the bars into the building, but all are half asleep.
Practice is over and a man sprinkles patterns with sweet yellow sawdust on the dark tan of the ring, the mist-filled vastness of the building echoes to the banging of the brooms, as the attendants remove last traces of dust.
The horses are dressed. I look along the curve; a row of heads stick out, each chained from side to side of its stall. One foreleg is extended, pawing impatiently.
The public is coming in. As I stand drawing I must back into one of the partitions, and to finish my subject peer between the legs of a pair of horses. They are now assembling in readiness for the parade as pair after pair come along, nearly encircling the show; from the ring doors, looking back, many necks form richest arches above tucked-in heads, as plumes toss up and down, in protest to the bearing-reins. A white riding costume gleams pearly above a superb black, half-hidden by groups of satined and sequined figures, a kaleidoscope of colour in the light streaming through the open curtains. As I make notes, I press myself against the whitened matchboarding of the entrance. The elephants come in. All view is blocked with greyness. A glimpse shows a turbaned Indian astride a monstrous head, silhouetted for a moment against a limelight shaft. The slant of the edge of the seating forms a part background of richest crimson; attached to it, a rope-ladder curves across from above, cords and staves dark against the house. The winter afternoon light combats the electricity and tobacco smoke, rendering the rows of pink faces mistily faint as they rise tier above tier. Subjects, subjects, subjects everywhere. Without selection I fill sheet after sheet of paper with anything in front of me, hoping to memorise the movement. My subject may be Willy Schumann speeding up the entrances, as he stands resplendent in his shiny top-hat and perfectly cut morning suit, or it may be the dwarf Zoli, a weary figure sitting on a carpet barrow, his legs too short to reach the ground; a group of acrobats, their muscles cleanly modelled in the concentrated light as they loosen up, the trapeze artistes drawing their cloaks around them, or as they kick off the slippers that protect their kid and gold boots; a group of clowns sitting and leaning on a pile of boards, behind them a row of big heads, rosy, shiny, hanging upside down from their strings, with silly grins on their faces, as real as the make-up of the clowns.
I hurry up the stairs to the balcony. At the far end is Whimsical Walker's and Joe Craston's dressing-room. I join in a meal made ready by Mrs. Walker and Mrs. Craston. Whimsical has taken off the top of his clown's dress and his three-pointed wig. His make-up is still on and he is wrapped in his old check dressing-gown. Joe Craston also wears his dressing-gown; his tight-fitting white cap is topped by a black curl. It is difficult to find room on the little table for the tea-things, and the plates of ham and sausages. Some of us sit on boxes, our plates on our knees. The teapot stands on the little washstand, touching the enamel wash-basin that is aslant in its hole; the water in it is chalky. Both the wash-basin and the jug that stands on the floor are black and white in patches, piebald like the Shetlands. Every inch of three walls is covered; many dresses hang from the hooks, sequins scintillate, crimsons and yellows glow, greens and blues give a cooler note, satin gleams in contrast with the dull white of neck frills. Oddments fill the shelves; false dogs, dolls, hoops, big coloured balls, clown's caps - an incredible amount of gear for the comedy entrées.
The two "buffers" sit on everybody's knees in turn, ready for the tidbits.
Footsteps pass constantly, and a clatter of foreign tongues is heard; banging sounds from the dressing-rooms all around, and next door someone is twanging a guitar - a collective cacophony...
Directly tea is over I bring out my sketch-book. I draw Joe nursing his buffer "Bill," who watches me with round black eyes. Turning, I see Mrs. Walker settling Whimsical in an old basket armchair for his nap, his white-stockinged feet propped on another. The gay embroidered flowers show up on the side of the hose where his dressing gown parts. Behind him are the slatted shutters, "a bit draughty," a make-up towel is fitted around that side of his head, "so he shan't get a touch of his bronchitis. Daddy easily takes cold." As I make a rapid sketch his mouth falls open, a drooping gape beneath the painted smile. Who would laugh if they now saw the old whitened face?
I steal out, shutting the door with great care, though goodness knows enough noise is going on outside to wake the dead, and practice on a fiddle has joined in to make the pandemonium complete.
I go on to the balcony. Many performers draped and half-dressed stroll up and down - I join Joe and Mrs. Craston. We spend many evenings, between shows, leaning over the railings, watching the fun-fair below. The grey-black of the crowd of sight-seers surges about aimlessly - screams come from the switchback and the water-chute. In front of us is a new fangled roundabout with motor-cars instead of horses. It has a queer cant to it, like "modern art." I make a study of it as a background for a dry point of Joe in his dressing-gown and black curl with a cigar stuck in his vermilion mouth, his handsome, fur-coated, auburn-haired wife by his side. The iron girders spring up from the supports as they go, a fine setting for a big composition.
Joe tells me of his adventures.
When travelling with Hengler's Circus, one of the lions had to be slung in chains over the audience for some special act. On one occasion the chain carrying the lion broke - the beast was free among the audience! A young country girl, one of the public, rushed up and grabbed it by the mane - all the circus people expected to see her torn to pieces - it was a particularly savage animal. Hengler called across to her in a gentle voice, "That's right my dear, stand just as you are, perfectly still," knowing as he did that the slightest movement on her part would almost certainly precipitate tragedy. They cleared the house and enticed the lion away. They had terrible difficulty in netting the creature.
When all was over Hengler said to the girl, "My dear, you did a wonderful thing; whatever gave you the courage to think of doing it?" "Oh that was nothing," she replied. "It was just like a great big dog."
Joe was in the ring once when he saw a lick of flame on the canvas of the tent. He quickly passed the word round and went on with his clowning. The fire was put out without the public ever knowing it had started.
He told me of "pulling down" by lantern light, of nights on the road after one day stands, fitful snatches of sleep - hands still holding the reins, red sunrises and new towns and villages half-hidden by mist or rain; another day of pitching the tent afresh; another day of the supreme endurance in which they gloried.
Joe was never at a loss for matter or for words; his descriptions were extraordinarily vivid, almost poetic at times; and that poetic strain I found, was evident in many of the old performers. One thing is certain, these descriptions fired me with desire to go on the road with the circus, and on the first opportunity.
DAME LAURA KNIGHT.
Oil Paint and Grease Paint, 1936
"There are some funny fellows in our business... take old Brandt, who owned what artists used to call 'Satan's Circus.' Once Brandt was touring short-handed in North Africa when he picked up two men who seemed desperate for a job. Brandt never asked questions, so he took them along with him into Spain. When they reached the French Frontier, the two men gave in their notice. This didn't suit Brandt, so he sent for them to the office, and you would have thought butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.
" 'I know,' said he, 'why you fellows want to leave me... you're deserters, aren't you, from the French Foreign Legion?'
"The two men couldn't deny it so they said nothing.
" 'Well,' Brandt says, 'you don't think I'm likely to shop you? Why should I - I need hard workers like you two... I'll raise your wages if you stay on, and what's more I'll protect you from the French police... that's fair enough, isn't it?'
"The two men talked matters over and decided to stay on, for they had no other work in view, and so they went over the frontier to France.
"Now, Brandt had at this time a very dangerous mixed group of wild animals, and one night his trainer was badly mauled. He had no one to take this man's place, and so he sent for the two deserters.
" 'Men,' he said, 'I've a little proposition for you. You know my trainer's wounded? Well, someone's got to work those cats tomorrow at the matinée. There's all the morning for practice, and you can draw lots which of you it's to be...'
"Naturally, the two men burst out laughing, but they didn't laugh long. Brandt said:
" 'If neither of you will do this, I'll send for the police. You know what deserters from the foreign legion get? Eight years in the salt mines... think it over...'
"The men did not need to think much. They drew lots, and the one who lost went into the cage with a pack of raging lions and tigers... In ten minutes' time he was torn to pieces. Then Brandt said to the other, cool as a cucumber:
" 'Your turn now...' "
"What happened?" I asked, eagerly, for the old man seemed to have fallen into a reverie.
"What happened? Oh, I was forgetting... well, the other fellow went into the cage looking as though he were a corpse already. But it's funny - some people irritate wild animals just by their presence, and others have a sort of soothing effect on them. The second legionary was one of the soothing kind. Nothing happened to him. You know him. He's X now, and you know yourself what a good trainer X is. You might call that a lucky day for X."
"Hasn't Brandt got a very beautiful wife?" I asked.
"His wife's worse than he is, which is saying quite a lot. Once she took a lover, and she got tired of him, but he kept on pestering her. The story goes that she had him poisoned by a cobra, and that, naturally, was the end of him..."
"Do you believe that?"
"Who can say? Strange things happen in out business, just as in any other."
LADY ELEANOR SMITH.
Life's a Circus, 1939
Act after act - it was a long and generous programme. I remember turning to watch the children who squatted on narrow forms near the ring fence, and I saw one child not far from us whom I shall remember. He was not more than four years old, and there were no parents visibly with him, only a cluster of slightly older brothers and sisters. He was watching the ring, his small face flushed with rapture, fixed in an expression of such happiness that the smile seemed a part of him. His hands were clapping, slowly and gently, moving apart and together in a rhythm out of his own consciousness. He had forgotten he was clapping, forgotten his brothers and sisters and the other children, forgotten his existence. Only his eyes went greedily in pursuit of more colour, more movement, more comedy. I shall think of him whenever I hear of the appeal of the circus questioned, whenever its tradition is called into doubt. If he had sat alone on the benches instead of being one of several hundred deliriously happy children, the effort of the performance would have been justified.
The Circus has no Home, 1940
Most of us, when young, have known the delight of going to the Circus. To those with imagination it is a delight that doesn't lessen much with age, but remains unchanged, year after year. The old have been known to leave the circus-tent saying that thus, surely, Paradise will first appear to the entering soul, as a world of strangeness and beauty in which all inhabitants have a loveliness, a skill or a swiftness not before seen, and where even the oldest jokes take on a new life. The young can seldom leave the circus-tent without the thought that this is life itself, real life, the heart and glow of life, not the ordered pretence of grown-ups, and that this very night, when the grown-ups are asleep, that way of life shall be trodden by young feet. The middle-aged, coming from the circus, reflect that whatever their own wisdom, position or power may be, yet here has been something for which one would give much. For what sage is there so wise that he would not give a finger to be able to do a "jump-up," or somersault upon the back of a ring-horse, or hold a thousand people spellbound, like the clown in the red and white?
Introduction to Edward Seago's Circus Company, 1933
Hans Siebanhaar, a street porter, is basking on his stool in a fine street of Vienna, for anybody to hire for any sort of job. He is a huge man with a bulbous hairless face that somehow recalls a sponge, and this sponge is surmounted by a flat peaked hat encircled by a white band bearing these words in red: Wienner Deinstmann. His voice, which we shall hear later on, is a vast terrifying voice, that seems to tear a rent in Space itself. At fifty years of age Hans is a conspicuous man. But, a street porter! Not a profitable way of life, yet it must serve, and must continue to serve. It is a hot July morn, tropical; there are many noises, but no one speaks. The fruit-stall women are silent and hidden, they have pinned newspapers around the edges of their big red umbrellas. It is stifling, langorious; one thinks of lilac, of cool sea, of white balloons; the populace tears off its hat, fans itself desperately, sips ice tea in the cafés, and still perspires. The very street sounds are injurious to the mind. The drivers of carts wear only their breeches, their bodies are brown as a Polynesian's and lovely to behold.
Just such a day it was as the day twelve months gone when Mitzi Siebenhaar, his second wife, had run away with that Julius Damjancsics. Yes, please very much, she had left him. Hans took off his hat. After contemplating its interior as if it were a coffer of extraordinary mystery, he sighed huskily into it. How was it possible to understand such an accident! Smoothing his brown bald skull with the other hand he collected so much sweat upon his hairy freckled fingers that as he shook them drops simply splashed upon the pavement. Young Mitzi! It was her youth, ah, God bless, she had the pull of him there, a whole fifteen years, fifteen years younger, youth as well as beauty, beauty as well as youth. At thirty-five she was a lovely girl, fitful and furious just like a girl, so he was only able to keep her for one little year; that is to say, keep her faithful to himself. One little year! That is not long, but for a man of fifty it is so difficult, yes; but then Julius Damjancsics was just as old. And she had gone off with him! What could she see in Julius Damjancsics? How was it possible to understand such an accident? They had all been friends together, and Julius could play the mandoline, but Hans could pound him into dust. What could she see in Julius Damjancsics? He could crush him in one fist, just like a gherkin. If he had caught them - but that was difficult, too. Belgrade he had gone to, for Julius Damjancsics was a Serbian, and Buda-Pesth he had gone to, for Mitzi was a Hungarian, but this Julius was a wandering fellow and very deceitful. So. Well, it was pitiful to think of in such hot weather, there was nothing to be done, he had come back to Vienna. And now here he was brooding, here he was groaning; pitiful to think of. At last he said to himself: "Let us wipe out tears and forget that Christ died. Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto," he murmured, for he was a good Catholic man, as Father Adolf of Stefans Dom could testify.
"Porter!" cried a voice.
Hans looked up quickly and put on his hat.
"Sir," said he.
A big man, with a big important foreign face, and fat and flourishing appearance, and shiny black boots with grey cloth tops, stood as it were examining the porter. Although the boots were fastened with what appeared to be pearl buttons, they were rather uncared for, but to offset this a large gold watch-chain was lavishly displayed, with jewelled tiepin and studs. The man's fists were in his trousers' pockets; he twirled a long thin cigar between his rich red lips. Immense and significant, he might have been a Turk or a Tartar, but he was neither, he was the boss of a Roumanian Circus.
"Come with me, I want you," and the huge Hans followed the circus man to a bier-garten where was waiting another man who might have been a Tartar or a Turk. He called him Peter, he was certainly his brother, and Peter called him Franz. All three sat down and drank together.
"Tell me, Hans Siebenhaar," said Franz, "you are a strong man?"
"Yes, I am a strong man, that is so."
"You have a good voice?"
"Please..." Hans paused. "I am no singer, not much."
"Ah! No, no, no. You have a strong voice to speak, to shout, you can make great sounds with your voice?"
"Oh aye," Hans agreed, "I have a strong voice, that is so, very strong, I can make a noise." And there and the he accorded them a succession of hearty bellows in testimony. There was only one other occupant of the bier-garten, a man with an Emperor Franz-Josef sort of face and white whiskers like the wings of an easy chair, who sat smoking a china pipe under an acacia tree. And he seemed to be deaf, for he did not take the slightest notice of the appalling outcry. Two waiters rushed with alarm into the garden, but Franz waved them away.
"Good," said Franz reflectively. "Listen now." And sitting there between the brothers, Hans heard them propound to him a scheme that smote him with amazement and bereft him of sympathy; it filled him indeed with any and every emotion but that of satisfaction. They wanted him, in brief, to become a tiger.
"No." Hans was indignant and he was contemptuous. "I do not understand, but I do not do this."
Not at once - they cried - not today. No, no. Plenty of time, a week's time in fact. And they would instruct him in the art of impersonating a tiger, they would rehearse him, and for a single performance, one night only, they would give him two hundred Austrian shillings. Peter the Turk declared it was far too much money. Franz the Tartar invoked his God.
There is more in this - thought Hans - than meets my ear; I have to beware of something. Aloud he inquired: "Two hundred shillings?"
"Two hundred," said Peter.
"Shillings," echoed Franz, scratching the table with a wooden toothpick.
"And, please very much, I am to do?"
They told him what he was to do. He was to be sewn up in the skin of a tiger; he was to enact the part of a tiger in their menagerie; he was to receive two hundred shillings. Very very simple for a strong man. Hans Siebenhaar was to be sewn up in the tiger's hide for two hundred shillings; he was to prance and fight and hideously roar in the best way he knew so that the hearts of the audience be rocked within them and fly into their throats - and the two hundred shillings was his. It was his voice, it was because of his great bellowing tigerish voice that they had come to him. Such a voice was worth some riches to them, and so they were going to pay two hundred shillings for his services.
"Two hundred shillings?" murmured Hans.
"Two hundred," said Peter, and Franz said "Two hundred."
It is not - thought Hans - to be sneezed at, but there is more in this than strikes my hearing; I must be wary.
"Why do you not have," he asked them, "a real tiger?"
"But we had!" they both cried.
"And now he is dead," said Peter.
"A real proper tiger," Franz declared.
"But now he is dead," repeated his brother. "Ah, he had paws like a hassock."
"And the ferocity!"
"Beautiful," said Peter. "He died of grief."
"No, no, no," objected Franz. "I would not say that of this tiger."
"But yes," affirmed Peter. "Of grief. He loved me, and lately I married again."
"The heart was broken, yes, perhaps," Franz admitted.
"His voice died away like a little whistle." There was sorrow in Peter's eyes. "No fury."
"Two hundred shillings," said Franz.
"Brr-o-o-o-owh!" Hans suddenly roared, and skipping up he began capering and pawing madly about the garden. "Oohak, pookah, boddle, oddle, moddle, miowh!" he roared.
The deaf old gentleman with the Franz-Josef whiskers gently laid his china pipe on the table before him; he neither observed or heeded Hans, he only put his fingers into his mouth and extracted his false teeth. These he calmly examined, as if they were a foreign substance he had never noticed before and was wondering how it came to be there. Hans began crashing over the tables and chairs; waiters rushed into the garden and flinging themselves upon the perspiring maniac, rolled him over into a corner.
"That is good!" cried Franz. "Very good."
"Absolutely," Peter said, "absolutely!"
Three waiters clung to Hans Siebenhaar with the clear intention of throttling him.
"Enough!" shouted Franz. "Let him go," and with his powerful hands he dragged two of the waiters from the prostrate body of Hans as you would draw two pins from a pin-cushion, and likewise did Peter do with the other waiter.
"It is all right," said Franz, and Peter said it was quite all right. They gave the waiters a few coins and soothed them. In the meantime Hans had resumed his seat, and the deaf old gentleman was replacing his teeth.
To Hans the brothers said: "Listen," and Hans listened. Their circus-menagerie was now on view in The Prater, and at the festival next week they had contemplated to stage a novel performance, nothing less than a combat between a lion and a tiger - ah, good business! - but just at this critical moment what does their tiger do?
"It dies," suggested Hans.
"Dies," agreed Franz. "It does. So now!"
"Yes, now?" Hans said, and nodded.
"You must be our tiger, that is the simple fact of the business. You have the voice of a tiger, and the character. You will get two hundred shillings. Hooray! It is like lapping honey, yes."
"But what is this?" cried Hans. "To fight a lion!"
"Pooh," Peter said. "It is more friendly and harmless than any kitten."
"No," said Hans. "No."
"Yes," said Franz. "Yes. It is a caterpillar, I tell you."
"No!" shouted Hans.
"It has no teeth."
"Not I," cried the intended victim.
"It has been in our family for a hundred years."
"Never," declared Hans with absolute finality, and he got up as if to go. But the brothers seized each an arm and held him down in his chair.
"Have no fear, Mr. Siebanhaar; it will love you. Two hundred and fifty shillings!"
"No; I will not; ha!"
"Mr. Siebenhaar, we can guarantee you. Three hundred shillings," said Peter.
"And fifty," added Franz.
"Three hundred and fifty!" repeated Hans. "So? But what? I cannot fight a lion. No. No. I am not a woman, I have my courage, but what is three hundred and fifty shillings for my life's blood and bones?" In short, a lion was not the kind of thing Mr. Siebenhaar was in the habit of fighting.
"Ach! Your blood and bones will be as safe as they are in your trousers. You have not to fight this lion..."
"No, I will not, ha!"
"... you have only to play with it. This lion does not fight, Mr. Siebenhaar, it will not, it cannot."
"It is too meek, it is like a lamb in a meadow that cries Baa. You have only to prance about before it and roar and roar, to make a noise and a fuss. It will cringe before you. Have no fear of him. A show, you understand, make a show."
"I understand a show," said Hans, "but, please very much, permit me, I will not make a spectacle out of my blood and bones."
"So help me heaven!" shouted Franz, exasperated, "do you think we want your bones?"
"Not a knuckle!" cried Hans.
Peter intervened. "You misunderstand us, Mr. Siebenhaar; we desire only entertainment, we do not want a massacre."
"You do not want a massacre!"
"A massacre is very well in its way, perhaps, in its time and place," Peter continued, "but a massacre is one thing, and this is another."
"Thank you," said Hans, "it is very clear, that is very good."
And Franz and Peter intimated that they were simple men of business whose only care it was to bring joy and jollity into the life of the Viennese populace; that the fury of the lion was a figment, its courage a mockery, its power a profanation of all men's cherished fears. If there was one animal in the world more deserving the kindness and pity of mankind, more subservient, more mercifully disposed than any other - Franz assured him - it was a lion. And if there was one lion among all lions more responsive to the symptoms of affection - added Peter - it was this identical lion. Was three hundred and fifty shillings nothing to him?
"No," Hans conceded.
"Is it a bunch of beans?"
"Three hundred and fifty shillings is three hundred and fifty shillings, is it not?" Peter questioned him; and Hans replied: "For what is past, yes; but for what is yet to come, no. The future - pardon, gentlemen - does not lie in our behinds."
"Three hundred and fifty shillings is three hundred and fifty shillings, it is not a bunch of beans," said Franz severely. They had men in their employ who implored him on their knees to be honourably permitted to enact the part of this tiger, but they had not the physique, they had not the voice, and, if Mr. Siebenhaar would pardon him, they had not the artist's delicate touch. One thing he, Franz, was certain of: he knew an artist when he saw one, hence this three hundred and fifty shillings.
At the end of it all Hans once more determined to wipe his tears and forget that Christ died. In effect, he agreed to be sewn up on such and such a date in the tiger's hide and to make a manifestation with Messrs. Franz and Peter's ingenuous lion, on the solemnest possible undertaking that no harm should befall his own blood and bones.
"Thunder and lightning! What could harm you?"
And after parting from Hans, and when they were well out of hearing, Mr. Franz said, "Ha, ha!" and Mr. Peter said "Ho, ho!"
Hans Siebenhaar had several rehearsals before the eventful day. Submitting himself to be sewn up in the tiger's skin, he dashed his paws upon the floor, pranced, gnashed, snarled, whirled his mechanical tail, and delivered himself of a gamut of howls eminently tigerish. Perfectly satisfactory.
"Where," Hans would ask, "do you keep this old lion?"
"Yes," the brother always replied, "he is not well, he is sleeping; you see him next time."
And thus it happened that Hans did not see his adversary until they met in the cage of battle. The morning of that day was dull and Hans too was dull, for on awaking he felt so strange, so very unwell, that he greatly feared he would have to send Franz word that he could not come to perform his tiger; but as they day wore on and brightened, Hans, sitting on his stool in the sunny street, brightened with it, and while thinking of the three hundred and fifty shillings his sickness left him. A nice sum of money that! And what would he do with it? Ah, please very much, what would he not have done if Mitzi, the shameless one, had not forsaken him! They might have gone again, as they had gone of old, on one of those excursions to the Wiener Wald. He liked excursions, they were beautiful. With their happy companions they could climb the mountains, prowl in the forest for raspberries and mushrooms, and at noon they would sit under the chest nuts in the bier-garten at the Hunter's Meadow and lap the rich soup and gulp lager and talk of love and wealth and food and childhood. That was life, that was wonderful! Then they would all go and loaf in the grass and Mitzi would throw off her frock and lie half naked, browning her sleek shining body, while Julius Damjancsics thrummed his mandoline and they all murmured songs. Ah! such music! She loved it. She had a dimple behind each shoulder, a rare thing, very beautiful. In the cool of the evening there would be dancing, and they would be at Dreimarkstein in time to see the fireworks go up from The Prater - he liked fireworks, lovely. Or to the trotting races, they might go, and win some more money, for when luck was on you the fancy could never deceive; beautiful horses, he loved horses. Or to the baths at Ganse-hàûfel - the things one could do with a little money! But there was no longer any Mitzi, she had gone with Julius Damjancsics now. But a man with three hundred and fifty shillings need never lack companions, there was a lot of friendship in three hundred and fifty shillings. But that Mitzi - she was very beautiful that Mitzi.
So the day wore on and the evening came and The Prater began to sparkle with the lights of its many booths and cafés, to throb with its much music, for youth was gallant and gay and there was love and money in the world. It was the hour at last. Hans had been sewn up in the tiger skin. Now he crouched in a corner of a shuttered cage, alone, trembling in darkness, seeing no one and seen of none. There was a door in the side of his cage that led into a large empty lighted cage, and beyond that was another like his own in which walked a lion. At a certain moment the doors of the end cages would be opened and he would have to go into that central cage and face that other beast. But no, he could not, he was limp with fear. To the stricken man came the excited voices of the people coming in to witness the calamity, and the harsh tones of the trumpeting band playing in pandemonium outside on the platform, where there was a large poster of a combat between a tiger and a lion. Hans recalled that the lion's teeth were buried in the tiger's belly amid the gushing blood, and it seemed that his very heart violently cried: "No! No! Let me out!"
Beating upon the walls of his cage he gasped: "In Christ's name, let me out!" but nobody heeded, no one replied, and although he tore at his tiger skin his paws were too cumbersome for him to free himself. He was in a trap, he knew now he had been trapped. For an eternal anguishing time the clamour went on, then that dreadful side door which led into the central cage slid quietly open. Hans saw that this cage was yet empty, the lion's door was still closed, he was to be the first to enter. But he averted his eyes, he lay in the corner of his trap and would not budge from it. Almighty heaven! was he going to sacrifice himself for a few pitiful pieces of silver that he had never seen and never would see? He was not fit to do it, he was an old man, even his wife Mitzi had left him for another man - did they not know that? And all day long he had been unwell, sick as a dog. As he lay in his corner, refusing to budge and sweating most intensely, a sharp iron spear came through the bars and pricked him savagely in the behind. With a yell he leaped up, trying to snatch the spear. He would use it, it would save him - but he could not grasp it with his giant paws. Then came bars of red hot iron searing him, and more spears; he was driven screaming into the central cage. The door closed behind him and he was left alone behind those terrible bars with a vast audience gazing at him. Then, ah then, in a frenzy, an epilepsy of fear, he dashed himself so violently against the bars that the audience was spell-bound. The band played riotously on, drowning his human cries. The other side door slid open, there was a silence in that other cage, but he dared not turn to meet whatever was there; he crouched half swooning, until he caught sight of a face in the audience he knew. Wonder of God! It was Mitzi, she herself! Oh, but there was something to fight for now, and he turned resolutely. As he did so, there was a titter in the audience that surged into general laughter - the lion had come into the cage. Truly, it was a cadaverous lion. Without the least display of ferocity or fear it stepped quietly into that cage and fixed its strong eyes upon the eyes of its enemy. Not a leap did it make, not a roar did it give, it padded forward quietly, and the tiger retreated before it. Thus they circled and circled round the cage. Would that mocking laughter never stop?
God! Hans could bear it no longer, he turned and faced the lion, in appearance bold, though trembling in his soul. The lion paused too.
"Pater noster qui es in coelis," Hans gasped involuntarily.
To his unspeakable astonishment he heard the lion answer:
"Et ne nos inducas in tentationem. Sed libera nos a malo."
In an incredible flash Hans realised that the lion was also a spurious creature like himself; his fears vanished, he knew now the part he had to play, and he hurled himself upon the lion, howling:
"Brrr-o-o-owh! Ookah, pookah, boddle, oddle, moddle, miowh!"
Over they rolled, lion and tiger, together, and the onlookers shook with mirth.
"Not so rough, brother!" cried a voice from inside the lion, and the tones struck a strange echo in the mind of Hans Siebenhaar. They disengaged and stood up on all fours facing each other. From the moment's silence that ensued there issued a piercing cry of fear from a woman in the audience. Hans turned, the lion turned. It was Mitzi, shrieking: "Julius! Watch out!" Hans' throbbing mind caught at that fatal name, Julius. By all the gods, was it possible! Heaven and hell, he would tear the heart out of that lion! Not so rough, brother! Ha, ha, he knew it now, that voice. Ho, ho! and with a cruel leap he jumped with his heel savagely in the middle of the lion's back, the back of Julius Damjancsics, thief of Mitzi the beloved of Hans, and down sank the lion with the tiger tearing at its throat as fearfully as any beast of the jungle. Ah, but how the people applauded; this was good in spite of deception. They had paid to see a real lion and a real tiger contending, and they felt defrauded, insulted, but this was good, yes, it was very comical, good, good. When they noticed a man's hand appear outside the flapping paw of the tiger their joy was unbounded.
"Tear him!" they cried, as one cries to a hound with a fox. "Ha, ha, tear him!" And Hans' loosened hand ripped up the seam in the lion's neck, and his hand went searching within the rent for a throat to tear. At once the teeth of Julius ground themselves upon it; in a trice Hans' smallest finger was gone, severed. But Hans never uttered a cry, he gripped the throat with his wounded hand and crushed everlastingly upon it, moment after moment, hell or glory, whatever destiny had devised for him. The lion moved no more, it lay on its back with its hind legs crooked preposterously, its forelegs outspread like one crucified. The people hushed their laughter as Hans slunk trembling and sweating from that droll oaf wrapped in a lion's skin. He was afraid of it now, and he crawled on all fours to the bars of the cage. The thing behind him was awfully still. The onlookers were still. They were strange, as strange as death. Mitzi was there, craning forward, her face as pale as snow. Hans caught hold of the cage bars and lifted himself to his feet. The onlookers could hear wild tormenting sobs bursting from the throat of the tiger as it hung ridiculously there. The door of Hans' first cage now slid open again, it was finished, he could go. But Hans did not go.
Silver Circus, 1927
Perhaps you still imagine a circus to be solely a place of spangles and tinsel and gold and lace; of blaring bands and funny clowns; of beautiful equestriennes and sleek, graceful "rosin-backs"; of swirling, fairylike aerialists, and shimmering beauty everywhere? That's only the veneer! A circus is a fighting machine of gruelling work, of long, hard hours which begin in the grey of dawn and do not cease until the last torch has been extinguished down at the railroad yards late at night; a thing which fights constantly for its very life against the demons of adversity, of accident, of fire and flood and storm; a great, primitive, determined organization that meets defeat every day, yet will not recognize it; that faces disaster time and time again during its season, and yet refuses to countenance it; a place where death stalks for those who paint the bright hues of that veneer which is shown the public - a driving, dogged, almost desperate thing which forces its way forward, through the sheer grit and determination of the men and women who can laugh in the face of fatigue, bodily discomfort, and sometimes in the leering features of Death itself! That's a circus!
COURTNEY RYLEY COOPER.
Under The Big Top, 1923
A Mr. Paulton's Exhibition in 1875. What they said from the stage: "Valk up, valk, Ladies and Gemmens, here's the most wonderful bird, fish and vild beast and beastesses ever vos in the world from the Vest Indies. Alive! alive! alive!"
Mr. J. Conquest's Show and what they said from the stage: "Show 'em up, show 'em up, Ladies and Gemmens, for to see this extraordinary man that was never seen before and won't be seen again, and never will be seen at all if you do not see him now."
My Circus Life, 1925
Let us for the moment be boys again in the old environment - only it was not environment when we were boys; it was surroundings. It was before the days of "railroad shows." All vehicles were horse drawn and the circus moved from town to town over the dusty or muddy country roads. The posters had been stuck up for weeks and we boys had studied the contour of the back of "James Melville the Australian Horseman" as he was pictured gracefully poised upon his flying steed. The curve of his back entranced us. The pictured lions and tigers and rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses - these we took for granted, for that was nature and nature in some form we saw everyday; but that pose and the curve of that back! That was art! And art, living art, was what the eyes of our spirit were longing to see.
The morning of the circus day dawned and we were up betimes and out on the Dexter road to see the show come in. But first we visited the circus lot and watched the lot boss and his satellites, who had arrived upon the scene very early in the morning, stake out the tents. They worked with a long tapeline or a surveyor's chain, and having established the site of the centre pole as a base, they stuck into the ground, wherever a stake was to be driven, a slender iron pin with an eye formed by a loop in which was tied a strip of bright red flannel. And while we were watching the lot gang, the wagons, containing first the poles, then the stakes, and then the canvas, began to straggle in, and the stake wagons circled the lot, dropping stakes of various sizes where they were needed, sometimes one, two, three or more at a single point; smaller stakes to hold the supports of the tent walls, stouter to stay the great centre pole. And then the gang of tent men, standing in a circle about the stake, got busy with their heavy sledges, the leader striking the first blow. Then each of the half dozen men struck his blow in turn, the stake being driven home with a rhythmic succession of blows which was a pleasure to deliver as it was to watch. Within the outer circle a little later were driven stakes to which to anchor the secondary or quarter poles so that the wind might not lift the big top from its moorings; and last - but not least to the heart of the by - the stakes to which would be made fast the guy lines that hold taut and level the frames from which are suspended the flying trapezes, the double trapeze, the flying rings and the swinging ropes.
Having seen the tent stakes well placed, the canvas spread and laced, and having, perhaps, seen the top elevated, we "skedaddled" as fast as our short legs would let us out to meet the real show which formed on the outskirts of the town and marched in triumphal procession through the main thoroughfares and out to the circus lot. That was the early morning routine of the first circuses I remember, Later, as the shows became larger and better organized, the cook's tent - or in circus jargon, the "cookhouse" - was the first one struck at night and the first one pitched on the new lot in the morning; and all the various functionaries of the show came to the lot in quick succession, partook of the morning meal and went about the customary business of the day - whether it was pitching the tents, feeding the stock, or tending the animals. When the procession started it wended its way out of the tents, through the town and back to the lot.
Years have not robbed me of the sense of pleasure more than once experienced in going out to meet the show; in watching the gathering caravan as it straggled up to the rendezvous at Allen's Creek, where horses were watered and wagons washed, and where the procession was formed as sleepy acrobats and retainers donned their uniforms, took their places in the saddle or on the box, while musicians slung the big drum into its brackets overhanging the back of the ornate and heavily gilded band-wagon, and the cavalcade started off in the morning sunshine, the elephants leading, towards town and the circus lot. Somewhere, possibly, though horse-drawn vans are giving way to motor trucks, shows still are coming to town somewhat after the same manner and boys are experiencing the same sensations; but mostly now the hauls are longer and are made by train, and the show, if met, has to be met at the railroad yard or, technically, at the runs. This concentrates interest but takes a bit of the glamour and romance out of it all; for a railroad comes from somewhere definitely marked on the map, some place to and from which one may buy a ticket, while a show coming in over a country road comes right out of the land of pure imagination and vanishes as mysteriously as it came.
IRVING K. POND
Big Top Rhythms,1937
At six o' clock came the sound of deep, primeval music, the organ-like roar of the lions. The circus day had begun. A heavy fist knocked at the wagon-door: "Good morning. I'm starting my rehearsal!"
The air has grown cooler overnight, the meadow has turned into morass. One has to make daring leaps in order to reach the circus tent without completely wetting one's feet. A bathrobe over my pyjamas, I sit on the first-tier seat, close to the raised wooden barrier that encloses the ring proper. Rudolph Matthies stands in the middle of the iron-barred arena in yellow overalls. Then he calls out "Ready!" to an unseen aide in the rear, and, one after another, the fifteen tigers come jogging in, passing slowly through the shadowy run-way, blinking, stopping occasionally, again lounging on. When they pass a certain spot in the barred passage, a warm glowing light - probably through a gap in the connecting tent - falls from above on the red-and-black striped cats; the morning sun makes their bodies radiant.
Now they are all in the circular cage. The tamer stands in their midst, as peaceful as any shepherd. He speaks softly, seats himself on one of the pedestals, and leaves the animals to their own devices. Indus slinks snuffling through the circle, curving the tip of his tail, and arching his back like a bow. Amur howls most lamentably. The slender Bengal tigress rubs her flanks against the cool iron bars. Is it electricity that crackles, or is it the song of her sensuous purring? Two half-grown royal tigers start to play, embracing each other with their fore paws, standing upright on their hind ones, like a pair of boxers. Toni wallows uncouthly in the sand, showing her milky-white, silkily glistening belly. The cubs whet their claws on the swing-apparatus, and the good-natured Sumatran blusterer with the thick ruff stalks on broad paws over to Rudolf Matthies, snorts, and rubs his rosily gleaming nose against the man's leg; this is his unmistakable greeting to his friend. Meanwhile the two "boxers" have begun to race around, speeding through the ring like living flames, shooting up along the bars, and thrusting their gaily striped tails straight up like long oar blades.
"That's enough, children! Take your places!" The trainer speaks with entire calm, almost softly. He rises and cracks his whip with a graceful gesture. But fifteen seconds later fifteen tigers are sitting on their seats, willingly and as a matter of course. The tamer - what a harsh word to give such an animal-lover! - passes from one tiger to another. Great, glassily clear pupils stare at him. He touches most of the beasts, scratches them between the ears where each is marked with the identical snow-white circle, and they all sniff his caressing hand amiably. Even the Sumatran is peaceable. Matthies speaks to him at length, scolds him a little, and then has the brawler climb the pyramid together with Ulla. They do so two or three times in succession.
Rudolf Matthies turns around to me. "He's a subtle rascal. During rehearsals he acts like a lamb. He knows that he has to mind, or else there will be repetitions without end. During the performance, when everything must move on the dot, he kicks over the traces. But as you see, he is not impudent, and neither is he treacherous. So long as he respects me we can get along."
The tigers rehearse until eight o' clock, then a voice from somewhere or other shouts: "Rudolf, go home with your cats! The rest of us want to use the ring as well as you do!" The voice is that of the service manager. Circus workers come quickly, skilfully take down the wild-beast cage, and the mules are already neighing as they trot into the ring.
Elephants practise, bareback horses amble about, seals perfect their skill, zebras are led around in a circle on the longerein. Great Italian oxen, silver-grey, with horns a yard long and diverging widely, sway by in a kind of toddling trot. The impressions are always new, but again and again one recognizes the basic fact that no circus man torments an animal. All moves calmly at these rehearsals. Naturally, one hears the occasional sharp command, and a whip cracks, for nowhere can education progress without "concrete stimulation," whether in the case of animals or in that of human beings. But the artists are well aware that nothing can be done with a beaten, terrified beast.
Given promising material, a young horse can be trained for the ring in about nine months. This will be under strictly professional conditions, with twice-daily schooling in the company of trained animals and under the care of experts. Occasionally, however, you will find an amateur who, without these devices, has trained a pet animal to an almost equal condition.
There was, for example, Lord Lonsdale's shooting-pony Merlin, which we had one year in the ring at Olympia. Merlin was the foal of Usuary, one of a team of cream Hanoverians which formerly drew the royal coaches and which His late Majesty King George V had presented to Lord Lonsdale. Merlin proved the equal of the professionally trained horses. He danced, bowed, jumped, begged, picked up handkerchiefs, lay down, rolled over, and crossed his legs on the command - perfect circus stuff. Yet Lord Lonsdale assured me that Merlin was in no way exceptional, and that any of his thirty shooting-ponies could do the same.
Training for the circus does not differ from ordinary schooling of horses in that the prime essential is patience, patience, and again patience. A horse will suddenly stop at practice and refuse to budge; the trainer quietly looks round the ring for something unusual - a shaft of sunlight falling across the tan, a workman's coat on the ring fence, even a small lump in the tan. A quiet, soothing word, the sunbeam is shut out, the coat removed, the tan raked smooth, and the horse, completely reassured, resumes work.
Later in its training it undergoes a modified version of police-horse methods. It must grow accustomed to working in a ring, brightly lit, surrounded by thousands of spectators, with the rhythm of the band, the laughter and applause, and the cacophony of the adjacent fun fair in its ears. The process is gradual. In its training quarters a loud speaker is introduced; bright arcs are gradually switched on; squads of grooms and stable hands stand around the ring, shouting, clapping, and waving "programmes." All this over weeks. Bit by bit the horse gains confidence, and finally complete nonchalance.
Training secrets? There are none. Patience, understanding, and carrots are the eternal triumvirate. There is no other way with a horse, and never was....
Country Fair, 1938
The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the tenting circuses at the height of their glamour and popularity. In those days the names of Sanger, Hengler, Ginnett and Bostock were household words, and the sound of the hoofs of circus horses on country roads was music to the countryfolk. The coming of the circus was a red-letter day in any town or village, the streets always thronged to watch the slow procession of the Circus Parade. Lord George Sanger prided himself on his: it must have been a grand sight. There was a mirrored tableau, a wagon weighing the tons with carved and gilded woodwork, drawn by thirty cream horses; the Brittania tableau, three tiers high, surmounted by Mrs. George Sanger arrayed as is Brittania on a penny, holding with her left hand a shield painted with the colours of the Union Jack, and with her right, a golden trident. A Greek helmet crowned her head; crouched at her feet were Nero the lion and a lamb.
This was followed by a string of camels, a herd of elephants, two hundred and fifty historical characters on horseback, and a great chariot which contained the band who blew furiously into their brass instruments. Angels, sirens, Neptunes, and mermaids disported on the sides of the chariot among foamy seas and palm-fringed coral reefs; the gilding of the chariot glittered and dazzled in the sun, while the bandsmen were magnificent in uniforms of white and gold (later these same bandsmen with their resplendent uniforms would "scarper" for the better remuneration of sea-side bands). This chariot was drawn by forty horses, ten teams, four abreast.
Finally came the wild beast cages, grooms leading zebras, llamas, and ostriches, and the performers in their ring costumes mounted on prancing thoroughbreds.
The war nearly killed the travelling circus, it certainly killed the old-fashioned Parade. Modern traffic conditions forbade its slow progress through over-crowded streets. During the war the gilt was scraped from the surviving Sanger tableau wagons and sold for a few hundred pounds. The wagons, with their wonderful carvings, now stand neglected in the fields of the Sanger winter quarters at Horley, rotting to pieces, each year sinking lower and lower in the ruts they have made for themselves in the hedgerows.
W. S. MEADMORE.
Up into the last third of the preceding century wild-beast tamers of all nations presented their numbers in ordinary wagon-cages that were driven close to the audience for the purpose, and were lit on every side. By means of pitch torches held in front of them, and by blows with red-hot iron bars, lions, tigers or bears were roused from sleep. The tamer ventured into the cage - not quite man-high - with whip and club, and forced the beasts to leap through hoops and over obstacles and rails. At the end of the performance he shot off a pistol and made his escape. The beasts, however, buried their bleeding noses in the sawdust covering the cage-floor - beaten cowards, impotent in their hatred.
It was approximately in 1880 that the brothers Willhelm and Carl Hagenbeck invented their "gentling" method of training. "Training" and "tamer" are words unpleasantly suggestive to many animal-lovers, especially to persons of any sensitivity. But on the basis of extended experience I can assert that nowadays there is no longer any reason to regard each and every performance of tamed and trained animals with suspicion.
Lions and tigers are felines, hence all their life long are subject to the play-impulse. It is a good trainer's first duty to exploit this play-instinct, and the curiosity of the beasts. By preference he includes in his group beasts freshly imported from the wilderness, because they are less miseducated than those born in captivity. Inbreeding results in organic weaknesses, and often spoils character.
All cats are vain and take pleasure - consciously or unconsciously - in graceful poses and elegant movements. That is the second point of departure for the trainer. The rest must be supplied altogether by him and him alone - love, attention, care and observation, patience and fearlessness.
We called him the funny man because he was sad and serious, and said little, but gazed right into our souls, and made us tell him just what was on our minds at the time, and then came out with some magnificently luminous suggestion that cleared every cloud away. What was more, he would then go off with us at once and play the thing right out to its finish, earnestly and devotedly, putting all other things aside. So we called him the funny man, meaning only that he was different from those others who thought it incumbent on them to play the painful mummer. The ideal as opposed to the real man was what we meant, only we were not acquainted with the phrase. Those others, with their laboured jests and clumsy contortions, doubtless flattered themselves that they were funny men; we, who had to sit through and applaud the painful performance, knew better.
He pulled up to a walk as soon as he caught sight of us, and the dog-cart crawled slowly along till it stopped just opposite. Then he leant his chin on his hand and regarded us long and soulfully, yet said he never a word; while we jigged up and down in the dust, grinning bashfully but with expectation. For you never knew what this man might say or do.
"You look bored," he remarked presently; "thoroughly bored. Or else - let me see; you're not married are you?"
He asked this in such sad earnestness that we hastened to assure him we were not married, though we felt he ought to have known that much; we had been intimate for some time.
"Then it's only boredom," he said. "Just satiety and world-weariness. Well, if you assure me you aren't married you can climb into this cart and I'll take you for a drive. I'm bored, too. I want to do something dark and dreadful and exciting."
We clambered in , of course, yapping with delight and treading all over his toes; and as we set off, Harold demanded of him imperiously whither he was going.
"My wife," he replied, "has ordered me to go and look up the curate and bring him home to tea. Does that sound sufficiently exciting for you?"
Our faces fell. The curate of the hour was not a success, from our point of view. He was not a funny man, in any sense of the word.
" - but I'm not going to," he added, cheerfully. "Then I was to stop at some cottage and ask - what was it? There was nettle-rash mixed up in it, I'm sure. But never mind, I've forgotten and it doesn't matter. Look here, we're three desperate young fellows who stick at nothing. Suppose we go off to the circus?"
Of certain supreme moments it is not easy to write. The varying shades and currents of emotion may indeed be put into words by those specially skilled that way; they often are, at considerable length. But the sheer crude article itself - the strong, live thing that leaps up inside you and swells and strangles you, the dizziness of revulsion that takes the breath like cold water - who shall depict this and live? All I knew was that I would have died then and there, cheerfully, for the funny man; that I longed for Red Indians to spring out from the hedge on the dog-cart, just to show what I would do; and that, with all this, I could not find the least little word to say to him.
Harold was less taciturn. With shrill voice, uplifted in solemn chant, he sang the great spheral circus-song, and the undying glory of the Ring. Of its timeless beginning he sang, of its fashioning by cosmic forces, and of its harmony with the stellar plan. Of horses he sang, of their strength, their swiftness, and their docility as to tricks. Of clowns again, of the glory of knavery, and of the eternal type that shall endure. Lastly he sang of Her - the Woman of the Ring - flawless, complete, untrammelled in each subtly curving limb; earth's highest output, time's noblest expression. At least, he doubtless sang all these things and more - he certainly seemed to; though all that was distinguishable was, "We're-going-to-the-circus!" and then, once more, "We're-goin'-to-the-circus!" - the sweet rhythmic phrase repeated again and again. But indeed I cannot be quite sure, for I heard confusedly, as in a dream. Wings of fire sprang from the old mare's shoulders. We whirled on our way through purple clouds, and earth and the rattle of wheels were far away below.
The dream and the dizziness were still in my head when I found myself, scarce conscious of intermediate steps, seated actually in the circus at last, and took in the first sniff of that intoxicating circus smell that will stay by me while this clay endures. The place was beset by a hum and a glitter and a mist; suspense brooded large o'er the blank, mysterious arena. Strung up to the highest pitch of expectation, we knew not from what quarter, in what divine shape, the first surprise would come.
A thud of unseen hoofs first set us a-quiver; then a crash of cymbals, a jangle of bells, a hoarse applauding roar, and Coralie was in the midst of us, whirling past 'twixt earth and sky, now erect, flushed, radiant, now crouched to the flowing mane; swung and tossed and moulded by the maddening dance-music of the band. The mighty whip of the count in the frock-coat marked time with the pistol-shots; his war-cry, whooping clear above the music, fired the blood with a passion for splendid deeds, as Coralie, laughing, crashed through the paper hoops. We gripped the red cloth in front of us, and our souls sped round and round with Coralie, leaping with her, prone with her, swung by main or tail with her. It was not only the ravishment of her delirious feats, nor her cream-coloured horse of fairy breed, long-tailed, roe-footed, an enchanted prince surely, if ever there was one! It was her more than mortal beauty - displayed, too, under conditions never vouchsafed to us before - that held us spell-bound. What princess had arms so dazzlingly white, or went delicately clothed in such pink and spangles? Hitherto we had known the outward woman as but a drab thing, hour-glass shaped, nearly legless, bunched here, constricted there; slow of movement, and given to deprecating lusty action of limb. Here was a revelation! From henceforth our imaginations would have to be revised and corrected up to date. In one of those swift rushes the mind makes in high-strung moments, I saw myself and Coralie, close enfolded, pacing the world together, o'er hill and plain, through storied cities, past rows of applauding relations, - I in my Sunday knickerbockers, she in her pink and spangles.
Summers sicken, flowers fail and die, all beauty but rides round the ring and out at the portal; even so Coralie passed in her turn, poised sideways, panting, on her steed; lightly swayed as a tulip-bloom, bowing on this side and on that as she disappeared; and with her went my heart and my soul, and all the light and the glory and the entrancement of the scene.
Harold woke up with a gasp. "Wasn't she beautiful?" he said, in quite a subdued way for him. I felt a momentary pang. We had been friendly rivals before, in many an exploit; bet here was altogether a more serious affair. Was this, then, to be the beginning, of strife and coldness, of civil war on the hearthstone and the sundering of old ties? Then I recollected the true position of things, and felt very sorry for Harold; for it was inexorably written that he would have to give way to me, since I was the elder. Rules were not made for nothing, in a sensibly constructed universe.
There was little more to wait for, now Coralie had gone; yet I lingered still, on the chance of her appearing again. Next moment the clown tripped up and fell flat, with magnificent artifice, and at once fresh emotions began to stir. Love had endured its little hour, and stern ambition now asserted itself. Oh, to be a splendid fellow like this, self-contained, ready of speech, agile beyond conception, braving the forces of society, his hand against everyone, yet always getting the best of it! What freshness of humour, what courtesy to dames, what triumphant ability to discomfit rivals, frock-coated and moustached though they might be! And what a grand, self confident straddle of the legs! Who could desire a finer career than to go through life thus gorgeously equipped! Success was his key-note, adroitness his panoply, and the mellow music of laughter his instant reward. Even Coralie's image wavered and receded. I would come back to her in the evening, of course; but I would be a clown all the working hours of the day.
The short interval was ended: the band with long-drawn chords, sounded a prelude touched with significance; and the programme, in letters overtopping their fellows, proclaimed Zephyrine, the Bride of the Desert, in her unequalled bareback equestrian interlude. So sated was I already with beauty and with wit, that I hardly dared hope for a fresh emotion. Yet her title was tinged with romance, and Coralie's display had aroused in men an interest in her sex which even herself had failed to satisfy entirely.
Brayed in by trumpets, Zephyrine swung passionately into the arena. With a bound she stood erect, one foot upon each of her supple, plunging Arabs; and at once I knew that my fate was sealed, my chapter closed, and the Bride of the Desert was the one bride for me. Black was her raiment, great silver stars shone through it, caught in the dusky twilight of her gauze; black as her own hair were the two mighty steeds she bestrode. In a tempest they thundered by, in a whirlwind, a sirocco of tan; her cheeks bore the kiss of an Eastern sun, and the sand-storms of her native desert were her satellites. What was Coralie, with her pink silk, her golden hair and slender limbs, beside this magnificent, full-figured Cleopatra? In a twinkling we were scouring the desert - she and I and two coal-black horses. Side by side, keeping pace in our swinging gallop, we distanced the ostrich, we outstrode the zebra; and, as we went, it seemed the wilderness blossomed like the rose.
I know not rightly how we got home that evening. On the road there were everywhere strange presences, and the thud of phantom hoofs encircled us. In my nose was the pungent circus-smell; the crack of the whip and the frank laugh of the clown were in my ears. The funny man thoughtfully abstained from conversation, and left our illusion quite alone, sparing us all jarring criticism and analysis; and he gave me no chance, when he deposited us at our gate, to get rid of the clumsy expressions of gratitude I had been laboriously framing. For the rest of the evening, distraught and silent, I only heard the march-music of the band, playing on in some corner of my brain. When at last my head touched the pillow, in a trice I was Zephyrine, boundlessly riding the Sahara, cheek to cheek, the world well lost; while at times, through the sand-clouds that encircled us, glimmered the eyes of Coralie, touched, one fancied, with something of a tender reproach.
Dream Days, 1899
Clowns are the philosophers of circus life. While everybody laughs they alone are serious. They know that their art consists in making people laugh at their own follies as portrayed by the clown. The great clown is only able to do this work by drawing on the experiences of a rich and varied life. Take Olschansky, the Danish clown, who knew twelve languages and commanded the highest wages in America as well as in Europe. In 1885 he went with his seventeen-year-old wife and their two-year-old child (they were expecting another child) to Irktutsk accompanied by... six trained geese. During their journey by sledge, Olschansky had to fight hungry wolves, was once stopped by robbers, and reached his destination only with the greatest difficulty. He received the customary applause, proceeded to China where he buried his child, came back to Petersburg, and went on to America. Tom Belling went through the same variety of experiences. At one time he begged as a tramp, at another he shared the revels and champagne parties of a prince. There were moments when he would jump and risk his life for a plate of potatoes in their jackets as his sole reward. At other moments he gambled with diamonds, went stag-hunting with grandees, fought duels with noblemen. He rushed through the heights and the depths of European life and really knew mankind.
A. H. KOBER.
Star Turns, 1928
Charlie Austin, the oldest of the three clowns, the one on whom fell all the victimization of the comedy, outside the ring was of all people on the show the most beloved of the children.
Rarely indeed would one see him about the tober in the morning while the big tent was being built up without a multitude of boys and girls who seemed as enchanted to follow his instructions as the children of Hamelin were to obey the piper. It was pleasant to see the old chap giving them jobs in an easy authoritive voice always attributing to them his own choice of Christian names.
"Now then, Alf and Bert," he would say to a pair of youngsters, whose names might have been William and Alec for all he knew, "you get hold of this. And you three carry that round to that man over there."
Charlie seemed quite unaware of the devotion they gave him. His secret was probably his patience, for while they worked under his instructions he always found time to answer their questions.
"Are there any lions, Mister?"
"What do they eat?"
"Does anyone ride on the elephants?"
"What do you do Mister?"
Charlie would answer each of these as his party continued to work, never talking down to them, never deceiving them. Other men on the show, wishing to be rid of the children, would send them helter-skelter across the field to ask Little Freddy if he had watered the camels. Charlie never tricked them. As if some instinct guided them they collected round him not in one or two villages but in every place at which we stopped.
Charlie himself was the rarest of men - a born clown. Not a noisy practical joker, or a bumptious suburban "funny man," but a human being of whom one might almost guess, seeing him in a train, that he earned his living by clowning. His long face had features as flexible as dough, his large mouth seemed preternaturally wide when he had put on his thick make-up. His kind old eyes and something gentle in his bearing and manner of speech were evidence of his love of children, and I think he must have been happy that for forty or fifty years he had been making them laugh.
Not that he was a sentimentalist. Four decades of circus work had taught him hard living, and there was nothing maundering about him. But it was commonly said on the show that you could not make Charlie angry. He lived his own life, interfered with no one, was invariably cheerful and a great favourite.
During those weeks in Yorkshire it was his job to bring on one of the sleek ring horses from place to place, and I used to pass him in the early morning riding bare-backed at a steady walking pace. With a battered hat over his eyes he would sit there like a country horseman in an eighteenth-century engraving. It seemed that his popularity was not only with the children, for more than once on a cold morning I have seen an early-rising housewife pass him a cup of steaming tea over her gate, which Charlie would drink without dismounting, and smack his wide lips after it with gratitude, for like all circus people he loved his tea.
"Got a cup of tea for us, Col?" he would ask solemnly of Frank, when the latter had a big urn hissing in the Barracks. And "col" invariably had.
The Circus has No Home, 1941
When he was only starting his career, Tom Belling was once punished with four weeks confinement to his room - for those were sterner days - because he had fallen during an easy acrobatic turn. He did not worry overmuch and passed the time in playing pranks to amuse his friends. He was a favourite with everybody because of his unvarying good humour and because of the real inventiveness with which he thought out new practical jokes. One evening he was standing on a bed, juggling with an old worn-out wig that belonged to a pantomime outfit. "You can have it for eighteen pence!" shouted one of the artistes. "Try it on! I am sure it will fit you to perfection!" Belling tried it on, but back to front. He twisted the curls and tied them up at the back of his head in a knot which stood up like a comb, while in front of the hair was smooth. He turned his riding coat inside out and as he was buttoning it up somebody shouted: "Five shillings if you go down like that and show yourself to the others!" "Why not?" rashly replied Belling, "I'll go down as far as the curtain, provided of course the Old Man isn't about."
Sure enough, young Belling went down, and his comical appearance highly amused everybody he met. He did not want to show himself to the public - his chief concern was to avoid the "Old Man," if he should unexpectedly appear. But so intent was he on doing this that he forgot to look behind him. Turning around all of a sudden he actually collided with Renz. "Who the deuce is this?" said the amazed director, putting his hand on Belling's shoulder and looking him up and down. Belling, with the silly wig on his head, the riding uniform turned inside out, and his frightened, guilty look, was so irresistibly comic, that Renz burst out laughing and said: "Superb! You look simply splendid! You have made good! Go straight into the ring like that. Quick march! Don't wait, straight into the ring, I tell you!" Belling, completely taken by surprise, was ashamed and frightened and did not even know whether the director was serious or only wanted to make him feel awkward. Renz gave him a push, the young man spun round and round, stumbled against the door, and fell right down into the ring. It was not a stage-tumble, but a genuinely awkward trip, which made him roll bewildered into the sand.
The public, of course, thought that this was a new turn and began to laugh. Belling scrambled to his feet. The people saw his comical rig-out, his bewildered face, his awkward posture, and the laughter redoubled. "August!" shouted somebody high up in the gallery, and the public laughed again. Belling looked at the galleryite with genuine indignation. This too was taken to be part of the play, and from every side people shouted "August! August!" Belling turned round to run away. He fell down pursued by the shouts and derisive laughs of the spectators. He was received by the director behind the curtain with laughter no less genuine: "Splendid, my boy, splendid!" said the director. "You have done marvellously. Of course, you are going out again in the second act, aren't you? Why the deuce didn't you tell me before of this turn? I shall certainly extend your contract."
A. H. KOBER.
Star Turns, 1928
And there have been failures. Men who might have been great artistes or clowns.
Among these, Sam Pugh stands out most vividly. He was an apprentice of the old school which was reared and nurtured with more stick than sugar. Clowns may be born, made or practised, but it is difficult to state definitely which of these rules apply in the case of Sam Pugh.
He was a character whom I admired in my younger days when my ambition was at its highest. His talents appealed more to me than those of any other man, yet with all his perfections, admitted by the critics of the period, he never (perhaps through some lack of business acumen or professional foresight) got nearer to fame than being regarded simply as a useful, lovable and well respected performer.
Outstanding in his ability, his amazing tricks were a running double forward somersault, a veritable masterpiece in the art of tumbling; a forward somersault from a stance face to the wall, a backward somersault underneath a table where a crouching position was necessary. All these accomplishments, together with his knowledge of music, and allied to a histrionic talent which never failed him, should have made him one of the most prominent figures of his time. Here was a clown, admired by his fellow performers, every difficult aim in the circus achieved, who never gained the popularity he deserved, and he died in a workhouse!
Clowning Through, 1937
Every age has had its "comedians," and sometimes they were wise men and jesters in one and the same person. Aristotle, Kant and Schopenhauer have considered the nature of comedy. Kings have had their court fools. Buffoon, pantaloon, Pierrot, Jack Pudding, eccentric and clown - it is a long chain, leading from the mime of antiquity, who stained his face red with the lees of wine, to Charlie Chaplin. Yet all of them, the nameless Merry Andrew in the gypsy-wagon as well as the world-famous star, draw from the same fount of inspiration, today as a thousand years ago. They merely reflect their own time, using the knowledge with which they are endowed to underline the weaknesses of humanity, and in most cases they secure the greatest applause from their audiences by making them rejoice at the misfortune of others.
Distinctions are made between wit, the humour of given situations, grotesqueness and parody. There are clowns who are acrobats, and who obtain their effects by their apparent bodily clumsiness. There are talking clowns, stage, variety, and circus clowns. If a clown can do everything, if he can turn a reverse somersault from a galloping horse's back, talk like a New York boot-black, do a toe-dance, trill in cadences on the clarinet, if he is an actor with many masks, can imitate geese, train goats, show himself to be a practical philosopher, a virtuoso in language and speaking gesture, sure of holding his audience in Amsterdam as well as in Tokyo, if - in a word - he is a universal genius, then he is truly the greatest clown of his age.
Grock, who squats in his little chair like an orang-outang, who plays seventeen musical instruments and endows every stage-prop with life, can dictate his own terms to the international theatres. The Spanish Barazettas; the four Fratellini brothers; the Rivels, with their tall, red-shirted principal actor; the Belgian Barbusios - it is quite possible that each of these troupes uses the same "entry," for these buffooneries have been handed down for centuries, and their origin has been completely forgotten. But they do not petrify. François Fratellini exploits his part in an altogether different manner than Charlie Rivel. Barbusio owes his effects to his sparkling temperament and his tremendous flow of words, while his Spanish colleague captivates the public with gentle melancholy and tender song. Each one dramatizes himself within the traditional frame, and so the ancient plot enjoys eternal youth.
People call me Coco the clown; but I am not a true clown according to the rules of the circus. I am an Auguste.
There are three kinds of artistes who are known to the public as clowns: white clowns, who are the real clowns; augustes; and carpet clowns. The white clown is not supposed to be funny in appearance. He must have good looks, good clothes of a smart and conventional style, and good manners. He must speak well, in a pleasant voice. His make-up is always white, either zinc-oxide or wet white, with the expressions put on with red or black grease-paint. He wears the traditional clothes of the clown - a white pointed hat, shaped like a cone, and a white suit covered with sequins. Sometimes the clothes of a clown are worth a lot of money.
One of the most famous of English clowns was Whimsical Walker, who made his last appearance in Bertram Mills's circus in 1934. Another is Joe Craston, who was trained by Lord George Sanger and is now the eldest clown of the Olympia circus. Joe Craston's daughter, Lulu, is also a clown. Another well-known clown is Harry Sloan who belongs to a family which is famous for stilt walking.
Unlike the true clown, an auguste must be funny at first sight, and funny all the time. He can wear whatever style of clothes or make-up he likes, but it must be grotesque. Usually he has a big nose, baggy clothes, big boots. He may look as untidy and ragged as a tramp or beggar, though in fact he keeps his comic wardrobe carefully cleaned and brushed.
The auguste was first of all an assistant to the proper clown. He was the buffo or the foil, who had buckets of water poured over him or his face covered with paste. Nowadays the auguste is an act of his own. Often he has ingenious mechanical tricks, like the parasols and other gadgets which are displayed by Pinocchio. All the well-known augustes have a style and make-up of their own. It is not exactly their own copyright, but nobody else in the profession would dare to copy it. In the last ten years I have mostly used two styles. In one of them I wear an old cap with the peak at the side, a big and baggy coat, a large dress shirt and collar with an untidy black tie, a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles, and a big walrus moustache. But this is not my best known make-up. Most people know me by my huge boots (which cost as much as £5 a pair), my floppy check suit, my big round nose and raised eyebrows, and the lank red hair that stands on end when I want to express surprise or fear.
In spite of all their queer devices, their electric eyes, false ears, exploding hats, enormous safety-pins and watches, boomerang hats, and strange wigs, augustes still keep one important part of their original character. They are still the butts and foils. They are always wrong. Everything they do is wrong. If the white clown is doing some conjuring trick the auguste joins in and spoils them. If there is anything to trip over, the auguste trips. He must be a skilled tumbler, and he must not mind cold water, for he will have plenty of falls, and many buckets will be tipped over him. Often, too, he must be a musician - enough of a musician to play the wrong notes at the right moment.
Thomson, Beasy, Busti, McGeachie the dwarf, Alby Austin, and Boston, these are some of the clowns well known to British audiences who are really augustes.
The third clown is called a carpet clown. This is a different style entirely. The augustes and the ordinary clowns only appear at regular intervals, either in the clown entrée and charivari, in individual comedies, or between other acts. The carpet clown however, had to be in the circus from the beginning to the end of the performance. It is his business to move amongst the audience, and keep everyone laughing in the moments when nothing else is happening. A few carpet clowns, like Kelly, the American hobo clown, have a special character which they keep all through the show. But most of them rely on a great number of different gags, costumes, and props. Theirs is a hard job. If they get a long engagement, such as a seven month's winter season on the Continent, they have to be always altering their acts, always thinking of new gags. What is a greater help to them than anything else is a good ring-master, such as Frank Foster, with whom to work their gags.
I have often acted as a carpet clown. I have tumbled, played musical instruments, done acts with dogs, worn hundreds of different costumes, spilt thousands of buckets of water. But I have never worn the make-up of a true white clown. My face is not that of a clown. Coco the Clown is really Coco the Auguste.
Coco, the Clown, 1941
I cannot, for the life of me, recollect a circus film during the course of which some acrobat or other is not dashed to violent death. Nor have I ever seen a film clown who did not play the fool while his heart was breaking.
I cannot deny that these things do happen in the circus, just as they happen in any other profession or mode of life. But I wish to emphasize that these accidents, these tragedies, are uncommon; they happen rarely; they are not, and never will be, commonplace at the circus.
And, although I have once seen an acrobat fall, I have never - and I know many artistes - encountered that intolerable bore - the Clown with the Broken Heart.
Clowning Through, 1937
At the Zoological Gardens I had established at Margate I had twelve full-grown wolves, all bred at the Hall-by-the-Sea from old animals that had passed away with age and infirmity, and all as tame as dogs. Still they were wolves, the genuine article, and could be trusted to act as such upon occasion. So I advertised them to perform at my London theatre, and in due course the large den containing them was placed by itself in a thirty-horse stable with plenty of centre room for my purpose.
Then I sent for my slaughterman from Margate. When he arrived I said, "Now, Jim, here's a quid for you," at the same time, to his gratified astonishment, handing him a sovereign. When he had done thanking me, I said, "Now, Jim, I want you to go into the stable at 11 o' clock tonight, and you will see an old, worn-out cream horse, whose life has become a misery, tied up near the wolves' cage. When the audience have left the theatre, kill him quickly, and leave him where he falls. Be sure you don't say a word to anyone for six months, and I will then give you a tenner."
I had a young man from Margate at this time whose name was Taylor, but who was professionally "Alpine Charlie." He had a very remarkable countenance, deeply sunken eyes, a heavy jaw, and a most determined expression. His voice matched his looks; his whisper would make a giant tremble, and he was to have the credit of capturing the wolves in the little sensation I had arranged.
Mr. Oliver, my agent; Mr. Reeve, my son-in-law; Jim, the slaughterman, whose mouth was closed by visions of the coming tenner; myself, and Mrs. Sanger were the only people in the plot. Mrs. Sanger was certainly nervous, and kept on saying, "Oh George! I wish it was all over!" "Oh!" I said, "my dear, it'll be all over, and all right very soon. Don't worry!"
So, after some supper, I stole out. The theatre was closed, with the watchman, night fireman, property master, and perhaps a dozen of the hands getting a parting drink at the pit bar as I passed unseen to the stable, which had four doors to it. I closed three, knowing my way quite well in the dark, took down the shutters, opened the iron door, went into the den, and drove the wolves, who had been two days without food, loose into the stable. Then I lit up two jets of gas, and there sure enough, lay the poor old cream-coloured horse. The slaughterman had done his work. Having observed this, and that the wolves were sniffing the dead gee-gee, I went down to the pit bar for a drop of Scotch.
Having drunk it, I said to the others at the bars, "Now, lads, come on! We want to lock up." Of course, all made a move, and as we went up the drive which led into Palace Road, suddenly looking through the large iron-framed window, I said, "There! What's this? Call the fireman and tell him to turn off the gas. Why is it burning there to waste like that?"
Wells, the fireman, at once came along, but no sooner had he got a glimpse through the window than he cried out, "Oh, my God, the wolves are loose! They've killed one of the horses!" With that he ran frantically into the Palace Road, and, meeting the policeman at the gate of the theatre, told him the news, with the result that the constable set off at full speed for Scotland Yard.
Meanwhile my company were full of excitement, and were bustling about, after a glance at the hungry wolves tearing at the carcase of the horse, white-faced and full of fear.
"Where is Alpine Charlie?" I shouted. "At the New Inn, I think, sir," was the reply. "Find him, then!" I cried, and off went a whole army of searchers for the Margate-bred Mountaineer, who had his cue as to when he should be discovered.
The searchers ran from public-house to public-house, with the result that those who thronged the bars at once made for the theatre. By this time twenty policemen were guarding every door, stopping all who tried to enter and were not connected with the theatre. Thousands of people gathered in the roadway, stopping all carriage traffic, and all night long pressmen from the various newspapers and press agencies besieged the building. The excitement was intense. I had achieved my sensation.
Next day the papers, not only in London and the provinces, but all over Europe, were full of it. They were quite wolf-struck. The Lord Chamberlain and the wise men of Parliament swallowed the bait, and the Prime Minister was asked if he was aware that "Wolves had broken loose in London, killed a horse, and jeopardized the Queen's subjects?" The Prime Minister was aware. He had heard of the occurrence, and that the wolves had been safely caged again by a plucky performer at the circus named Alpine Charlie. What he did not know, and what he was not likely to learn, was that the terrible animals had slunk without protest into their den when Charlie, with a rattan cane, had appeared amongst them and said, "Get in there!" Even Prime Ministers may miss the inwardness of a pre-arranged wolf-scare!
The following week the wolves appeared in conjunction with the circus and pantomime, and everybody came to see them and their marvellous tamer, Alpine Charlie. There have been times when I have been quite sad about the deception I practised in connection with those wolves, but a liver pill has invariably restored my equanimity.
"LORD" GEORGE SANGER.
Seventy Years a Showman, 1926
Then came my riding lion, who created a sensation.
When I arrived home one day with a young mountain lion and informed my wife I had paid twenty-five dollars for the cub she declared that it was a sorry day when she married such a spend-thrift. She recalled the only weak moment she could remember and repeated her old astonishment at it - the moment she had been so thoughtless as to say yes to my proposal. Now she was through with me for ever. She demanded at least a normal brain in a husband; She was not obliged to live with a fool who spent twenty-five dollars on a mountain lion.
Within a few months the lion grew old enough to be trained to ride horseback, to our own profit and the amazement of all who beheld the unbelievable sight, and my wife began speaking to me again. Presently she was obliged to admit that my young mountain lion was one of our best investments, and he became a "feature act" that caused unusual interest.
Nero was his name. He was only a baby when I bought him from a dentist in Portland, Oregon. The dentist had secured him from a hunter who had shot the mother lion and captured the cub.
The young lion was introduced to the dogs, and the ponies and the two goats that made up the old wagon-show troupe, but he made friends very slowly. Young as he was, all the other animals were afraid of him, and Nero high-hatted them in great disdain. He would bask in the sunshine and play with me at odd moments, but I was his only friend. Although his heart contained as much affection as the big cat animals ever possess and he would purr in contentment when I stroked him, he was quick to resent the slightest presumption on my part with a spitting growl and deft slashes with his razor-like claws.
When I finally decided on the riding-lion act that later created a big hubbub, Dandy Boy, my first trained pony, forgot all the years I had spent in teaching him to be the best-trained pony in the world and bolted like a wild horse as soon as he saw Nero. I recaptured him and tried again and again. On his back was placed a thick pad, and on the pad was Nero, who sat upright and spat and slashed at me, wanting to commit murder because of the new blow to his dignity. He might not eat a pony, but it was mortifying to have to ride one without being permitted to bite a chunk out of him! After many weeks of patient work on my party, Dandy consented to carry Nero and Nero consented to ride.
When I finally succeeded in developing a good riding act, my admiration for good old Dandy Boy was great. His feat was altogether unheard-of, and there were many sceptics who, until they witnessed the act, could not be made to believe that it could be done. It was harder to train Dandy to the new stunt than it was to teach Nero.
The lion grew to enjoy the act. He liked the exercise, and after he got rid of fear at the sudden roar of clapping hands and became a seasoned trouper he would leap to the pony's back like a playful kitten and ride about the ring as if he had been born on a horse.
AL G. BARNES.
Master Showman, 1938
"Jumbo," the largest elephant ever seen, either wild or in captivity, had been for many years one of the chief attractions of the Royal Zoological Gardens, London. I had often looked wistfully on Jumbo, but with no hope of ever getting possession of him, as I knew him to be a great favourite of Queen Victoria, whose children and grand-children are among the tens of thousands of British juveniles whom Jumbo has carried on his back. I did not suppose he would ever be sold. But one of my agents, who made the tour of Europe in the summer and autumn of 1881 in search of novelties for our big show, was so struck with the extraordinary size of the majestic Jumbo that he ventured to ask my friend Mr. Bartlett, Superintendent of the Zoological Gardens, if he would sell Jumbo. The presumption of my agent startled Mr. Bartlett, and at first he replied sarcastically in the negative, but my agent pushed the question and said, "Mr. Barnum would pay a round price for him." Further conversation led my agent to think that possibly an offer of $10,000 might be entertained. He cabled me to that effect, to which I replied: "I will give ten thousand dollars for Jumbo, but the Zoo will never sell him." Two days afterwards my agent cabled me that my offer for Jumbo was accepted, I to take him in the garden as he stood. The next day I dispatched Mr. David by steamer to London, with a bank draft for £2,000 sterling, payable to the order of the Treasurer of the Royal Zoological Gardens, London. From that time an excitement prevailed and increased throughout Great Britain which, for a cause so comparatively trivial, has never had a parallel in any civilized country. The council and the directors of the Royal Zoo were denounced in strong terms for having sold Jumbo to the famous Yankee showman, Barnum. The newspapers, from the London Times down, daily thundered anathemas against the sale, and their columns teemed with communications from statesmen, noblemen, and persons of distinction advising that the bargain should be broken at all risk, and promising that the money would be contributed by the British public to pay any damages which might be awarded to Barnum by the courts. It is said that the Queen and the Prince of Wales both asked that this course should be adopted. I received scores of letters from ladies and children, beseeching me to let Jumbo remain, and to name what damages I required and they should be paid. Mr. Laird, the ship-builder, wrote me from Birkenhead that England was as able to pay "Jumbo claims" as she was to pay the "Alabama claims," and it would be done if I would only desist and name my terms. All England seemed to run mad about Jumbo; pictures of Jumbo, the life of Jumbo, a pamphlet headed "Jumbo-Barnum," and all sorts of Jumbo stories and poetry, Jumbo Hats, Jumbo Collars, Jumbo Cigars, Jumbo Neckties, Jumbo Fans, Jumbo Polkas, etc., were sold by the tens of thousands in the stores and streets of London and other British cities. Meanwhile the London correspondents of the leading American newspapers cabled columns upon the subject, describing the sentimental Jumbo craze which had seized upon Great Britain. These facts stirred up the excitement in the United States, and the American newspapers, and scores of letters sent to me daily, urged me not to give up Jumbo.
The editor of the London Daily Telegraph cabled me to name a price for which I would cancel the sale, and permit Jumbo to remain in London:
London, February 22.
P. T. Barnum, N.Y.:
Editor's compliments; all British children distressed at Elephant's departure; hundreds of correspondents beg us to inquire on what terms you will kindly return Jumbo. Answer, prepaid, unlimited.
Lesarge, Daily Telegraph
I cabled back as follows:
New York, February 23, 1882
To Lesarge, Daily Telegraph, London:
My compliments to Editor Daily Telegraph and British Nation. Fifty-one millions of American citizens anxiously awaiting Jumbo's arrival. My forty year's invariable practice of exhibiting the best that money could procure makes Jumbo's presence here imperative. Hundred thousand pounds would be no inducement to cancel purchase. My largest tent seats 20,000 persons, and is filled twice each day. It contains four rings, in three of which three full circus companies give different performances simultaneously.
In the large outer ring, or racing track, the Roman Hippodrome is exhibited. In two other immense connecting tents my colossal Zoological collection and museum are shown.... Wishing long life and prosperity to British Nation and Telegraph and Jumbo, I am the public's obedient servant,
P. T. Barnum.
This dispatch was published in the London Daily Telegraph the next morning, and was sent by the London Associated Press to the principal newspapers throughout Great Britain, which republished it the following day, giving the excitement an immense impetus. Crowds of men, women, and children rushed to the "Zoo" to see dear old Jumbo for the last time, and the receipts at the gates were augmented nearly two thousand dollars per day. A "fellow" or stockholder of the Royal Zoo sued out an injunction in the Chancery Court against the "councillors" of the Zoo and myself to quash the sale. After a hearing, which occupied two days, the sale was declared valid, and Jumbo was decided to be my property.
The fateful day arrived when Jumbo was to bid farewell to the Zoo, and then came the tug of war. The unfamiliar street waked in Jumbo's breast the timidity which is so marked a feature of elephant character. He trumpeted with alarm, turned to re-enter the Gardens, and, finding the gate closed, laid down on the pavement. His cries of fright, sounded to the uninitiated like cries of grief, and quickly attracted a crowd of sympathizers. British hearts were touched, British tears flowed for the poor beast who was so unwilling to leave his old home. Persuasion had no effect in inducing him to rise, force was not permitted, and indeed it would have been a puzzle what force to apply to so huge a creature. My agent, dismayed, called me, "Jumbo has laid down in the street and won't get up. What shall we do?" I replied, "Let him lie there a week if he wants to. It is the best advertisement in the world." After twenty-four hours the gates of his paradise were reopened and Jumbo allowed to return to his old quarters, while my agents set to work to secure him by strategy. A huge iron-bound cage was constructed with a door at each end and mounted on broad wheels of enormous strength. This, with the doors open, was backed up against the door entrance to Jumbo's den, and the wheels sunk so that the floor of the cage was on a level with that of the elephant's. A passageway was thus formed through which Jumbo must pass to reach outer air. After much hesitation, he was persuaded to follow his keeper, Scott, through this cage to take his daily airing. For several days this ruse was repeated, then, as he entered the cage, the door behind him was swiftly closed, then the door in front of him, and Jumbo was mine.
Meanwhile Jumbo came up in Parliament, where the President of the Board of Trade was questioned in regard to precautions being taken to protect the passengers on shipboard. Mr. Lowell, our American Minister to the Court of St. James, in a speech given at a public banquet in London, playfully remarked, "The only burning question between England and America is Jumbo." The London Graphic, Illustrated News, Punch, and all the London papers published scores of pictures and descriptions of Jumbo, in prose and poetry, for several weeks in succession.
On the morning of his capture, March 25, 1882, the wheels of his cage were dug free of the ground, twenty horses attached, and in the comparative silence of the following night, Jumbo was dragged miles to the steamship, Assyrian Monarch, where quarters had been prepared for him by cutting away one of the decks. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals hovered over Jumbo to the last, and titled ladies and little children brought to the ship baskets of dainties for Jumbo's consumption during the voyage.
After a rough passage he arrived in New York, in good condition, Sunday morning, April 9th, and next day was placed on exhibition in the menagerie department of our Great Show where he created such a sensation that in the next two weeks the receipts in excess of the usual amount more than repaid us the $30,000 his purchase and removal had cost us.
P. T. Barnum.
Struggles and Triumphs, 1927
"Now," said Fred Martin, "we'll go and see the lions. They're not working today - it's too cold. They're in the stables."
He threw open a great door, and there I saw an amazing sight.
In a straw-filled den eight huge golden-brown lions lay sleeping. On top of the lions, using them as a careless sofa, sprawled a tawny half-naked man.
"Who's that?" I asked.
"Can I speak to him?"
"Can you speak German?"
"I don't think he speaks any other civilized language. He's a Serb - half-Turkish."
"I'd like to try," I persisted.
Whereupon Togare was summoned, and appeared with ill-grace. He was a big, handsome man with slanting eyes and high cheek-bones. He made an indifferent, Eastern salaam, and looked extremely bored.
I did not know that I was meeting for the first time one who was to be a faithful friend. Togare was monosyllabic. I finally discovered that he understood Spanish, and we conducted a halting conversation in this language. Months afterwards, Togare would learn English, and we were to have some interesting experiences tenting, but that was not to be for some time.
When I wrote my first article for the Carmo Circus, I christened Togare, "The Valentino of the Ring," and this title still stuck when Valentino was even more a memory than in those days. Some years afterwards Togare asked me to invent another title for him. He was then working tigers in Paris, and I suggested that he should be known as Togare, "le Tarzan du Cirque; le fils du jungle." He agreed, and this description met with great success.
LADY ELEANOR SMITH.
Life's a Circus, 1939
Elephant-tamers, however, are not in agreement as to whether elephants possess the retentive memories imputed to them. After forty years' work Conklin is very sceptical on this point, and denies them the capacity to store up a grudge for years and avenge it at the first belated opportunity. On the other hand, an artiste who toured India with Harmstone tells a tale of an elephant that visited, after ten years' absence, the docks where he was formerly employed to transport timber; he was greeted by his former mates with a loud flourish of trumpets and promptly went to join them at their work. I can also vouch from my own experience for an elephant that sustained a grudge against a certain person for a period of years, but in any case the elephant's capacity for learning is proved beyond a doubt, and he is the only animal that acquires such a taste for tricks that he will invent and rehearse new ones of his own accord. Many tamers will attest to this feat.
A. H. Kober.
Circus Nights and Circus Days
The clowns did the immemorial funnel trick. You know it? You would not find it funny again? Perhaps not, if it was produced on a music-hall stage. But watch Aubrey do it to Charlie, Charlie to Freddy, and Freddy once again to Aubrey - who, of course, has no inkling of its significance. Watch little Freddy running round Aubrey in wonderment when a whole bucket of water has been emptied into an enormous funnel stuck in Aubrey's capacious trousers. Hear him shrill, "But where's the water? Where's the water?" And watch Aubrey as he draws out the giant glass bottle into which the water, after all, has been poured - and I challenge you not to laugh. I remember once, years later, when Ruth Manning-Sanders had rejoined the show after an absence, watching her while the trick was played. She was alone on a seat, laughing madly. "But Ruth," I said, "you must have seen it hundreds of times!" "I know," she replied weakly, "but it's always funny." And it is.
The Circus has No Home, 1941
Ludwig R. had created another sensation with his mysterious globe. He might have entertained the highest expectations for his coming tour in Spain, whither he was now bound and where his trick with "la bola misteriosa" had been thoroughly advertised, if he had not met with an accident which had incapacitated him for the time being. There he lay, with a bandaged leg, on the deck of the Southern Cross, bemoaning his fate to his fellow traveller, the eccentric clown Cavallo.
"But why do you do such foolish things?"
The question may have seemed harsh, but it was deserved. Ludwig, who was sixty-three years of age, had wanted to show the cavalry officers, whose riding school was next to the circus in Sydney, how to break in an unruly horse. The horse had thrown him and he had broken his leg. So there could be no further question of work for some months to come, and he had cancelled his engagements. Luckily the journey to Spain was a good opportunity for allowing the cursed thing to heal. Every day the artist was becoming more and more odd. He would whisper about thieves who were after his money. He had quarrelled with Cavallo, suddenly made it up with him and implored his assistance in case the scoundrels fell upon him. Shortly before the ship crossed the line his leg was well enough for him to hop along the deck, but this brought no improvement in his temper. He could talk of nothing but money; he complained how pitiably low his earnings had been during the Australian tour, and at the same time trembled at the thought of thieves robbing him of his savings. He had now only brief moments of lucidity and cheerfulness, when he remembered how, shortly after the tour had started, his wife and daughter had returned to Germany and had thus saved the spectacle of all his misery.
Preparations for a festive celebration of the crossing of the line were being made. On the eve of the event Ludwig and Cavallo were standing by the deck rail, looking at the play of the waves. "Just a moment," said the old man, pushing the clown on one side. Quick as lightning, he vaulted overboard and disappeared into the water. The gesture was so unexpected that the artist found it difficult to collect his wits and raise the alarm. Before the ship could be stopped there was no trace left of poor Ludwig.
With this strange man there disappeared into the ocean the secret of a most remarkable trick, the technique of which has never been completely understood by anybody else. There also disappeared a mysterious individual, whose life was dominated by unusual phenomena, if not by occult forces. Those who really know the life of these stars are seldom inclined to romance about them in the way which appeals to the great public. But in the case of this small, slender man, all who had dealings with him became aware of mysterious and unfathomable depths. Ludwig might for some time walk normally through ordinary life, but there always came a moment when the difference between him and other men would appear. He was unable to explain the compelling power which made him suddenly run away from his parents' home, and which always manifested itself at the turning-points of his existence. I feel no better able to provide an explanation. All I can do is repeat what has been told me and give it as the raw material of the psychology of a performing artist.
Ludwig was the son of an officer. He was frail and small for his age. He was sent to the Grammar School of the little town in Siebenbürgen where his parents lived. Their life seemed to him entirely mechanical, without any mental or spiritual background. It revolved round the routine of garrison life and was divided only between the demands of the service and the almost equally exacting demands of society. The more acute this conviction became the more completely did he seek refuge in his books. He developed an almost morbid love of knowledge. Hi parents did not even notice that their boy sat up half the night in his room, reading and ruminating with the fascination of a hermit. The word hermit really gives the best idea of the state of mind of the strange boy. He was completely shut up in himself. He was quite unable to impart anything of the learning he had acquired. He was far from being a bright or keen scholar; his reading made him solitary, heavy, and brooding. Companionship gave him no pleasure, he did not like games and he gave himself up so exclusively to reading that he failed to develop properly the possibilities of his young body. One night the thirteen-year-old boy was reading the confessions of a saint. As usual it was mere chance that had determined the choice of his book, of which he did not grasp the real meaning. He was identifying himself with the saint about whom he was reading and the saint's experiences appeared to be his very own. Suddenly an uncanny sensation came over him. He felt as though all the blood and all strength had been sucked out of his body. He felt as if he were a phantom without weight, which might be blown away with the next gust of wind. He stood up in front of a large mirror. What he saw was a perfectly built young body with a beautiful radiant face, like those of the statues of saints he had seen. This lasted only an instant; with equal suddenness the blood started rushing again through his veins, he became aware of the weight of his limbs and all he saw in the looking-glass was the short and ill-shaped figure of an untidily dressed boy, with a thick and heavy head and a wild mop of dishevelled fair hair hanging over his forehead. Mechanically Ludwig made a gesture. He repeated it intentionally, as when going through physical drill at school. He moved, walked, and ran through the room under a strange compulsion. It was as though motion were the only salvation from rigidity or volatization. And on that night the Grammar School boy left his parents' house.
By the following noon he had already walked several miles. He had brought nothing with him and began to beg for food from the houses in a distant village. The first stage of his destiny was accomplished smoothly and rapidly. He met a travelling conjurer who took him away and gradually taught him all his tricks. The weakly boy, for whom school-drill had always been something well-nigh unbearable, proved an apt and willing pupil. The open-air performer scarcely ever had to use a rod to his teaching. Nobody who saw him could have believed that Ludwig had been unfit, nor did it seem possible that he had formerly been at home in surroundings so different from the dismal yellow caravan which carried him through a slow life, oscillating between hunger, swearing, juggling and begging. Never did Ludwig feel any longing for his parents or his home - he did not even remember his room and all his books. He was a sturdy jumper, and India-rubber man, a tight-rope dancer, an acrobat. When, after all these performances he covered his face with flour and put on his tinselled frippery, he was the perfect clown, whose jests were greeted with uproarious mirth by the spectators.
For five years Ludwig travelled to and fro through Siebenbürgen. Then, at Kronstadt, he met a lemonade vendor who told him about Budapest, and without a moment's hesitation he started walking to the big city. After tramping for three weeks he reached Budapest. He walked along the main streets without any excitement or surprise; everything was precisely as he had expected. He took a room in a little inn, paid for his lodging, ate one-half of the loaf he carried and went to bed before ten o'clock. He rose very early, dressed and prepared himself with the utmost care, ate the remaining half of his loaf and went to the Royal Circus. There he boldly asked for an engagement. "I can do everything," he told the stage manager. "That means nothing at all," was the reply. Nevertheless he was allowed a trial performance as a jockey that same night. He was given a costume and told to choose a horse. "I don't care which horse I ride, give me which ever you like," said Ludwig. They gave him the vicious chestnut "Mustapha." Ludwig rode it with perfect elegance and daring and his death leaps created a sensation.
For the next five years, which he spent in Budapest, Ludwig's existence was uneventful and even happy. He was popular with his directors, his colleagues and the public. Every night he performed to the applause of a brilliant house all the tricks of a rider who has completely mastered his art. He might well be satisfied, for he wanted nothing; he had good wages, a growing account at the savings bank, a reputation, champagne orgies with the officers of the hussars, and love affairs with their wives. One might almost have spoken of the "embourgeoisement" of an artist's life. To Ludwig and to all his associates it had become something that was accepted without question.
Suddenly Ludwig was lifted out of his rut by that strange power which seemed to interfere with him from time to time and which one evening prevented his usual performance. He was riding the Arab horse, "Mehemed" in the haute école. During the first two performances the animal had worked perfectly. It reacted without spur or whip to the music. When, after the brief interval, Ludwig entered the ring for that enchanting turn in which to the sound of a gay waltz the horse dances with light movements of the knee, he noticed that "Mehemed" behaved in an unusual way and advanced with reluctance. He gave it the spur, but at each step the horse shuddered and drew back. It was as if an invisible elastic barrier impeded its progress. The rider looked up. There, from the opposite side of the ring, he saw himself seated on another "Mehemed," in riding coat and top hat, moving towards the centre and laughing. He gave the horse a sharp touch with the spur and close by he saw his double puffing up its head into an ugly red ball. He used the spur once more, gripped the bridle frantically and lashed the horse which, in an agony of terror, reared and threw him off.
Next day Ludwig left for Bucharest. He had not told a living soul where he was going. After the accident he had entered the office of the director and obtained his release from the contract, after which he packed his belongings, visited "Mehemed" to see that the horse had suffered no injury, sadly caressed its lovely head and flanks and then, by a roundabout way, avoiding every familiar face, slunk back to his hotel. He found immediate employment in the Circus Sidoli in Bucharest. He performed precisely as in Budapest, did the same tricks and met with the same success. Only he no longer found pleasure in his work. What he wanted was a new type of work in a new sphere. At the first opportunity, therefore, he left the brilliant circus and entered a tiny show that was travelling the provinces. It was just a family affair. The director, with his wife, his children and his children-in-law, filled the whole programme. The performance of these nine muses was so feeble that Ludwig appeared to them an unheard-of wonder, a universal genius belonging to a higher order whom they venerated accordingly. It was not long before the whole business was in his hands. He felt at home among these gypsies and by his intelligence and his pure conception of the art, he soon brought the show to a high pitch of excellence. They bought horses, wagons and material, and as an altogether revolutionary innovation Ludwig made them adopt the system of transport by rail, with the result that they moved quickly from town to town and skimmed the cream of the almost unexploited parts of Eastern Roumania right up to the Russian border. It was Ludwig's most constant endeavour to be able to travel as fast as possible and to change their pitch as often as could be done. He could not bear life if it was not full of unrest and movement.
They had put up their show in Jassy, the town of the 250 churches and 249 temples. Shortly before the start of the first performance, Ludwig passed a little alley which was full of people. He pressed through the mass of onlookers and saw an unusual game of chance. A board was divided into nine square fields, marked by the figures 1 to 9. In each field was a hole, and behind the horizontal board stood a spiral about one foot high. The gamblers put their stakes on any of the squares and then the owner of the game allowed a ball to roll from the top of the spiral, shouting excitedly while the ball was coming down. It stopped, of course, in one of the holes and the lucky gambler in whose field the ball rested received one-half the total stakes, while the other half went to the owner of the game. The business was a roaring success. People were pushing one another aside in order to have a chance of putting on their money. When the circus opened in the evening only a few places were occupied, because the showman had placed his gambling table outside the entrance and the people were spending the money with him that would have paid for their seats in the circus. Ludwig was furious. He tried to persuade the police to stop the gambling, but without success, and was compelled to look on helplessly while this Turkish mountebank destroyed his business.
This situation lasted a whole week. Suddenly it was announced throughout the town that Ludwig's circus was also going to show a lucky spiral, but that it would be 12 feet high. Such was the excitement and the general desire to see this apparatus that in the end the Turk himself, to whom nobody was paying further attention, folded up his table and entered the circus. Ludwig allowed the usual performance to take place. Then from the middle of the ring he announced the new number. When the spiral that was really 12 feet high was brought in, the excitement inside the tent became indescribable. The curved surface was twisted round a strong mast from which four heavy ropes ran downwards to pegs that fixed them solidly to the ground. Amidst a hush of expectation two uniformed servants carried a gilt ball 6 feet in diameter into the ring and deposited it at the bottom of the spiral. Slowly and without any visible assistance the ball started rolling upward. At first the public were too amazed to stir, then applause and shouts of enthusiasm, which gathered in volume, accompanied the mysterious ascent of the ball. When it reached the top it oscillated a few times, as if uncertain what to do, and then it slowly rolled downward. The applause had by that time become a deafening roar. As it reached the floor, the ball split into halves and out crept Ludwig, bowing to the spectators as soon as he had risen to his feet. The people left their seats, rushed into the arena and carried the artist on their shoulders. At the following performances many applicants for seats had to be turned away. Jassy had its sensation. Ludwig and his friends did the best business they had ever known.
On the evening of this remarkable début Ludwig's colleagues were just as surprised as the public. He had worked in complete secrecy at the construction of the apparatus and at the first rehearsals. If it had not been evident that the idea of the trick had come to him from seeing the spiral of the Turkish showman, one would positively have believed the whole thing to be a miracle. The news of Ludwig's sensational performance soon spread abroad by means of the subterranean communication which links the whole world of artists. The thing was generally considered as an unfathomable mystery, a sudden stroke of genius. Everywhere the agents arranged performances of the Man of Wonder with his troupe. In the course of a gigantic tour, which lasted two years, Ludwig gained them celebrity and wealth. Then he left them and once more joined Sidoli at Bucharest. When, only a few weeks later, he took the train for Constantinople, he left behind him a grateful director delighted with the colossal receipts of so brief a period.
Engagements were now offered on every side, and all European directors fought for the special turn which had gradually been brought to the pitch of perfection. Between 1888 and 1893 Ludwig made a real triumphal procession through Europe and appeared in every circus and on every important stage on the Continent. His mysterious ball was by this time rolling up and down a spiral 24 feet in height. In the midst of all this success, Ludwig, who was receiving a record salary and reaping honours and applause, remained a modest, unpretentious man. The refinement of his manners and of his language struck everybody. In many a university town, where for his sake the professors paid what was in many cases their first visit to the circus, the surprising discovery was made that a variety star could be a gentleman.
It was in London, where he performed in 1893, that for the first time Ludwig had ill-luck with his ball; while it was rolling down it opened when still half-way from the ground, tipped over the side of the inclined surface and dropped down. Happily nothing worse than a sprained wrist was suffered, but Ludwig immediately gave up his engagement and paid the heavy fine stipulated in his contract. He did not leave London, but stayed moping in his hotel. All that could be got out of him by his colleagues was that on the night of the mishap he had become uncertain of himself and that while inside the ball he had some kind of vision of which he refused to give further details. Four weeks later the news spread suddenly that he was going to America, where he had obtained an engagement with Barnum's. He left England by the first available steamer. He did not sail by himself, for in the interval he had married, and nobody was more surprised at this than Ludwig himself. The story about his marriage was about as unusual as everything that happened in the life of this strange man. He was sitting with a friend on a bench on St. James's Park. Falling into a reverie, he paid no further attention to what his friend was saying. Suddenly he woke out of his trance; the friend was showing him a photograph of a family group. Ludwig noticed a young girl among them. He asked who she was, found out that she was a music-hall singer who was then performing at the Alhambra, jumped into a hansom, proposed, and was married within a fortnight.
At Barnum's he worked in the Central Hippodrome. That means that he had reached the highest step in the world of artists. For five long years he travelled with the biggest circus in the world, visiting every part of the United States. His existence was as calm and uniform as it had ever been. Work, success and salary were all that interested him. The marriage was happy. In 1898 Barnum prepared his famous expedition to Europe. "America's loss is Europe's gain," announced the posters which were stuck up on every hoarding in Europe. It was when the expedition was on the point of starting that the big break-up in Ludwig's life took place. After his last performance in America he was superintending the packing of his apparatus. As was always the case in the perfect organization of Barnum's, everything proceeded flawlessly. The spiral was packed already and it was the turn of the ball. Suddenly the artist burst into a passionate fit of temper. He seized the arm of one of the negro workmen and shouted at him: "Look out, you idiot!" The negro was, of course, quite surprised, but shrugged his shoulders and resumed his work. Ludwig shouted hoarsely: "Don't you fellows see that this black devil is trying to break my skull with the ball?" He gazed vacantly and, after a few silent minutes, passed his hand over his forehead, shook his head and walked off. He reached home in a vile temper, quarrelled with his wife and behaved like a different man. The following day, when the Barnum troupe took ship, his wife did not appear. She had left him during the night, never to return.
Barnum's show made a quick triumphal tour through Europe. Ludwig took part in it, sure of himself and of the success of his "attraction." The only new experience in his life until Barnum returned to the United States was his second wife. He had married a middle-class girl whom he met in Berlin. Nobody knew how he had made her acquaintance, or how they had managed to get married. Nobody asked him any questions, because all the changes that occurred in Ludwig's life had for many years been taken as a matter of course. He remained another three years with Barnum; then he returned to Europe and, with the fame he had gathered in America, he found no difficulty in obtaining engagements at star salaries in all the circuses and variety shows between Bergen and Taormina, London and Odessa. The year 1908 brought unpleasant interruptions into his usual nomadic existence. His first wife appeared with a copy of his mysterious ball and broke her leg in the course of a performance. At Glasgow he himself met with an accident. He fell and hurt his spine. He had the same bad luck a few weeks later in Madrid.
On both occasions he had to be dragged from his ball where he was crouching in a trance and on his sick bed he talked in an incoherent fashion of the aspect which did not suit him and of the necessity of recovering his own true nature.
In October, while he was in Petersburg, he broke his engagement and went to Berlin where he took a house. He warehoused his apparatus and decided to give up work. He had saved 60,000 dollars, which was quite enough to enable him to retire. Determined to prevent his daughter from becoming an artist, he sent her to a commercial school. He lived with his family like any other rentier and none of his neighbours had the slightest suspicion that this friendly gentleman had once been a performer of world-wide fame.
"I knew that 1908 would bring me bad luck," he said one day to his wife. "Just work it out: 1873 - 1888 - 1898 - 1908. Every ten of fifteen years something evil happens to me. At present I am only afraid of 1918 and 1923."
When in 1918 Ludwig was on his way to the Labour Exchange to find a job he suddenly remembered his words. As was the case with so many artists he had invested all his belongings in German bonds and he was once more a poor man. In 1921 he was working as a night-telegraphist in the Friedrichstrasse. There he met Sarrasani, who took the apparatus from the dusty attic where it had been stored for thirteen years, paid the accumulated rent and gave the artist a contract.
Ludwig rolled his mysterious ball with a steadiness and a certainty that seemed uncanny after such a long rest. He simply took up his artistic career from the point where it had been interrupted in 1908. Engagements followed one after the other, he was still without a competitor, and remained the same unobtrusive personality. He accompanied Sarrasani to South America, then to Australia, made a contract for performances in Spain and treated all these journeys across the world with no more concern than if they had been merely a matter of taking a local train in the country of his birth. Whether in Dresden or in Rio de Janeiro, in Buenos Aires or in Sydney, he performed his turn with precision, kept for himself only enough for bare necessities, and sent the main part of his large earnings to his family. I still remember him, modest and a little shy, standing at my side at the counter of a bank in Montevideo, arranging to send home a big sum of money.
While crossing the Equator he jumped into the Atlantic. That was in the year 1923.
No doubt he had seen his own image reflected by the waves; he had seen it as it had appeared to him when he was a boy of thirteen in the house of his parents.
Now the mysterious ball is stored again somewhere in Berlin.
A. H. KOBER.
Star Turns, 1928
Nobody can define the word "juggler" neatly and precisely. Refer to as many dictionaries as you like and see what a bad guess they make at it. Most of them seem to get it badly mixed up with "conjurer," though you and I and all people who have ever been inside a music-hall know that these two kinds of entertainments are quite distinct. Modern juggling has nothing whatever to do with deceit, no matter what the Shorter Oxford Dictionary may say; it is distinct from sleight of hand partly because it is - or should be - entirely open and above board without using any trickery to gain effects. It has been called the poetry of motion by someone, and the art of throwing things about by somebody else. Our lexicographers ought to read Hazlitt's essay on the Indian juggler who came to London in his day.
"To conceive of this effort of extraordinary dexterity," he said, "distracts the imagination and makes admiration breathless. Yet it costs nothing to the performer any more than if it were a mere mechanical deception with which he had nothing to do but to watch and laugh at the astonishment of his spectators. A single error of a hair's breadth, of the smallest conceivable portion of time, would be fatal: the precision of the movements must be like a mathematical truth, their rapidity is like lightning."
And now he goes into raptures over the feat of juggling with four balls - four, mind you, mere child's play nowadays. Here is his famous sentence:
"To catch four balls in succession in less than a second of time, and deliver them back so as to return with seeming consciousness to the hand again, to make them revolve round him at certain intervals, like the planets in their spheres, to make them chase one another like sparkles of fire, or shoot up like flowers of meteors, to throw them behind his back and twine them round his neck like ribbons or like serpents, to do what appears to be an impossibility, and to do it with all the ease, the grace, the carelessness imaginable, to laugh at, to play with the glittering mockeries, to follow them with his eye as if he could fascinate them with its lambent fire, or as if he had only to see that they kept time with the music on the stage - there is something in all this which he who does not admire may be quite sure he never really admired anything in the whole course of his life. It is skill surmounting difficulty, and beauty triumphing over skill."
That's how we felt about the performance of Rastelli, which I shall describe presently. Before that I want to talk about Cinquevalli, a juggler with all the charm, humour, self-assurance, and geniality of a star of the stage. He was born at Lissa, in the province of Posen (then Prussia, now Poland) in 1859, and educated in Berlin. For two years he toured as an acrobat until he fell from a trapeze; while lying for several weeks in hospital he taught himself to juggle. He came to London in 1885, in the circus that was installed at Covent Garden and adopted us as we adopted him. He became a naturalized British subject on March 23rd, 1893 and settled down at Brixton as all good "variety artistes" did then. His curly, golden hair - a wig, for actually he was bald - won the hero-worship of womankind, and somehow it was certainly the thing to have seen Cinquevalli, whoever you were. But 1914 changed all that. His Teutonic "name" like his Teutonic curls gave offence. Even old acquaintances were antagonized. "It broke his heart," said H. G. Hibbert, who knew him well. Though Emil Otto Braun was Cinquevalli's real name, he had no other country but England, no other people but this. He died in the summer of 1918 before the war was over.
Nobody is likely to approach his grace and kindliness of manner. We shall never see another like him. But our affection for him, which is so sadly mingled with regrets, should not have blinded us to the gifts of another tragic juggler who succeeded him.
I share Mr. Charles B. Cochran's opinion that greater skill was possessed by Enrico Rastelli, the finest juggler in the world. Why did his name never become well known in this country? One morning I found him in a very despondent mood at practice on the stage of the Coliseum. It was not his first engagement in London, for he had performed in the circus of Bertram Mills at Olympia. Since then he had toured Europe and America in triumph. Everywhere he had been greeted as a genius until his return to England. He wondered why we had no eyes for his art.
In the dim grey light behind the scenes three or four of Diaghileff's dancers had stopped in their exercises to stand in quiet admiration of Rastelli's skill as he sent nine balls flying through the air. Then he increased the number to ten for a few seconds. When he stopped and the dancers had resumed their leaps and twirls, I said: "There's the reason for the coolness of your welcome." It is not surprising that he could not understand. How could I convince him that London audiences, carrying critics with them had gone mad. As the Ballet was "good copy" then, there was no space in the papers for a juggler.
Rastelli accepted engagements in cities abroad. George Black went to see his performance in a Paris circus with the idea of booking him for the Palladium. But by now Rastelli was no longer a music-hall turn. His powers of endurance had grown so remarkable that his unerring display of juggling lasted forty-five minutes.
Rastelli died so suddenly, at the age of thirty-two, that his friends in England did not hear of it until it was too late to pay him tribute in obituaries. To anyone capable of appreciating the poetry of motion, his loss was as great as the death of a virtuoso on piano or violin would be to a musician. To Rastelli juggling was an art, and he devoted his life to it. His father and grandfather, and their fathers back to the eighth generation, had been jugglers. His earliest memories were of juggling, and he thought of nothing else. He travelled the world without seeing it, because when not performing he was practising - nine hours a day at one time. His aim was to break every record, and he succeeded.
French critics speak of the "purity" of his juggling. It is this quality which gives him the title of the "finest in the world." He never thought of effect; he chose feats of the greatest difficulty, performed them with "properties" that were never prepared in any way, and left to his rivals all the best ways of winning applause. That was why he could not hope to win fame in a night. He had to be seen again and again before the full delicacy of his work could be understood. In many ways he was the opposite of Cinquevalli, the hero of our schooldays. Cinquevalli was essentially a showman, with a personality as strong as Rastelli's was subdued, and he never wasted a thought on feats that cost more in effort than they were worth in applause. As a humorist, too, he had as great an advantage over Rastelli as Pachmann had over Paderewski. Cinquevalli kept us laughing as well as gasping. He was undoubtedly a greater "turn" than Rastelli could ever have hoped to be; but his skill as a juggler was small by comparison. Cinquevalli always won a round of applause when he caught a tennis ball on his head; Rastelli received less when he kept two balls, bouncing alternately in diagonal directions on his.
How Rastelli was discovered while in his father's circus at Naples has been told to me by Mr. Henry Sherek, who watched the performance with his father. He had been working in the circus as his father had done before him, all his life, and until the English agents burst upon him, never had any thoughts or dreams of doing anything else. "My father," says Mr. Sherek, "engaged him for two weeks at the old Alhambra, Paris, and a tour of England at what was to Rastelli the magnificent sum of £120 weekly." As they were leaving, his little father turned round and said: "You might be giving my son a fortune, but I feel this is not for his happiness and good will not come of it." He was born at Bermago - the fortified city of Lombardy where Harlequin came from - and there, returning to make his first appearance on its stage, he died. Jugglers themselves believe we shall never see his like again.
M. WILLSON DISHER.
Article in The Sawdust Ring, Winter 1937-38. "Jugglers and Juggling."
That year I engaged a lady and gentleman tank performers. They were a great novelty. Their performance consisted of diving in a glass tank of water, ten feet long and eight feet wide and four feet of water. They would play cards, drink milk, turn somersaults, and remain under water five minutes. I advertised them "The Living Mermaids." One Saturday they could not get lodgings - both were champion boozers. So after the night's performance they placed rugs round the glass tank with a little straw. They slept in the glass tank, which was secured to a lorry. Of course, the tank was emptied after the performance.
On the Sunday we travelled a long journey. They had a bottle of whisky. It was a cold day. We stopped halfway to rest the horses, to give them a meal and water. By the time we got into the village the rugs fell to the bottom of the tank, and there you could see the two beauties asleep, embracing each other in their performing clothes. The sight caught a crowd round the carriage. Some were afraid of going too near. Some of the crowd said they were monkeys; others said they were bears. As they were fast asleep, an Irishman said they were dead animals. A little boy went close to the tank; a woman pulled him away, saying, "Come out of that, ye devil. Do ye want to be eaten alive?" As one man went close, just then the mermaid moved; the poor fellow jumped three yards back, and said, "What kind of baste is it at all?"
They both began to wake and stretch themselves. When they were wide awake they saw their position. Now they wanted to get out of the tank. A ladder was secured. They got out, and made their way to the first public-house.
An Irishman said to me: "I have studied natural history. Bedad, I never saw nor read of such animals, for mermaids have tails."
I said: "Yes, but these misbehaved themselves, so I cut their tails off."
The man said: "You did right, sor."
This was a big advertisement for me.
My Circus Life, 1925
Alfredo Codona, of the flying trapeze, whose triple somersaults to his brother's hands are world famous, made more than one miss without a doubt, even after he had achieved what may be called perfection in the turn. One of these misses, so the story goes, was so spectacular that he worked up certain elements of it into a stunt which now and again, but not very frequently, he would "spring" upon a throng already thrilled by the beauty and daring of his performance. I had never had occasion to witness this fake, indeed I never had heard of it until, one evening in the backyard before the show, one of my friends among the aerialists asked me if I ever had seen it and said, "Alfredo is going to put it on this evening." Therefore, from my seat just off the centre and in very good range, I watched for the fall. Somehow it seemed to me that the announcer was particularly unctuous in his manner at that particular turn. Had I not known, in part at least, what was about to happen, I might have entertained an "illusion of the unexpected;" but my body, sensitive to movement, reacts to reality - and to unreality perhaps. There seemed to be a hesitation in the turn which was not in accord with the beauty and freedom of the previous movements. I was prepared for the fall into the net, but not for the climax. Codona struck, with intention, near the edge of the net and, throwing out his arms wildly as if seeking an object to grasp, bounded out of the net on to the floor of the ring, breaking his fall not by grasping the rim with his hand, but by catching it under his arm. It was all very deft and clever; but knowing that Alfredo was not hurt, nothing more serious, possibly, than that a few square inches of skin might be scraped from his chest and from the under side of his arm, I cast my glance aloft to where Lalo, the catcher, sat swinging quite unconcernedly in his trapeze while Mam'selle on the perch smiled as though a fall like that were of ordinary everyday occurrence. I have been told that Lietzel, just previous to her marriage with Codona, placed a ban on that act; and I am glad she did for, clever and startling as was the trick, it was a fake and, as such, unworthy of the great art of the Codonas. But let us not take too seriously nor set down as evidence of an insincere aesthetic nature Alfredo Codona's boyish delight in such stupendous foolery as was that which might be called "his fall from grace."
IRVING K. POND.
Big Top Rhythms, 1937
Julius Elias, the greatest authority in all circus matters, said with regard to Fritz Fischer, that since Sawade was no longer active, he was the greatest master in his line.
The erstwhile Baker's apprentice from Aargau Canton gained this mastery in the course of fourteen years of circus roaming. A solitary by nature, shy and reserved, for a long time his sole contact with the external world was in the affection of his beasts, which tenderly fawned on him during rehearsals. In his rare hours of leisure the tamer, whenever he had a chance, sat by some stream, fishing-rod in hand, gazing at the water. In his narrow living-wagon was a bound edition of Brehm, and not only the volumes devoted to mammals had been read and re-read.
We said farewell to each other on Good Friday, 1926, in Berlin. The future seemed full of promise to Fritz Fischer. The struggle between human intelligence and brute power that he exemplified had excited attention, and the man had become a "big number." Love, too, had found its way to his heart. At the conclusion of his tour through Holland, the wedding was to be celebrated in Antwerp. Underway Fritz Fischer had an attack of blood-poisoning. Half-cured, he returned to the ring, and I saw him once more, standing on tip toe, in an attitude of silent restraint, as with loosely drooping arms and clenched fists he compelled his beasts to obedience. I have a last recollection of his drawing his whip-stick downward over his out-thrust shoulder, as though he were drawing a visible line for his glance to follow.
On Wit-Sunday, 1926, the bride, who had made all her preparations for departure, received a telegram: Fritz Fischer mort à Tournay ce matin. His enfeebled body had not been able to withstand the strain of the continual setting-up and taking-down inciden to circus travel, and an apoplexy of the brain had ended the life of this "wild-beast tamer" two days before the date set for his wedding.
The performances of Walter, called the Serpent-man, are not less extraordinary.
I will not insult you by supposing that you have not seen and applauded this wonderful artist; it is, therefore, for the inhabitants of hyperborean countries that I shall now describe his work.
J. H. Walter appears in black tights spangled with silver, classic as an antinous, nervous as a stag. He looks as though he could reach the friezes with a bound, and one is quite surprised to find that he does not leave the "carpet." His performance opens by an important and novel act, in which the bust is reversed, and the head touches the back of the knees, whilst the right hand seizes one of the ankles, and the left is extended in an inverse sense, flat upon the ground. And the startling series of leaps, of movements, of contortions, which follow, end in an alarming pose, which recalls the monstrous gargoyles of Gothic sculpture; for the acrobat drops his feet, knots them under his head, and in this attitude, with starting eyes, and rigid, open lips, he resembles a skull supported on cross-bones.
When we were introduced to each other, I complimented him upon his artistic skill.
J. H. Walter seemed please with my praises; his British stiffness thawed, and we chatted familiarly.
I was very curious to know whether this acrobatic monstrosity had attracted much notice from the woman. He frankly replied:
"Sir, the chastity which monks do not always observe is forced upon an artist of my class. You will guess that I did not obtain this complete flexibility in one day. On the very morning of my birth my father commenced to bend my joints. I grew up with the idea that I would be the greatest disarticulated artist of the century, or perhaps of all ages. I never had any other ambition. With regards to the point on which you question me, the greatest reserve is imposed on me. I have all the appearance of a strong man; my chest is wider than your own, but beneath it I conceal the lungs of a child; they are stunted by the daily pressure of my thoracic cage. Consumption threatens me, and will carry me off very early unless I break my neck in the circus some evening, which I should certainly prefer."
The acrobat told me all this without affectation, in so natural and decided a tone that I did not feel justified in pitying his fate. But since I wished to know what sentiment could survive, in being of such mediocre intellectual culture, his resignation to the sacrifice of life, I said to him with some interest:
"I quite understand, dear Monsieur Walter, that the applause you receive seems to you, while it lasts, a sufficient reward for your past sufferings and approaching end. But, tell me, when the fever of the circus has passed away, in your hours of leisure and solitude like this one, do you not curse your destiny?"
The Englishman smiled quietly.
"I have," he replied, "a specific against ennui - a passion which saves me from reflection. I gamble, sir, gamble madly for whole nights at a time. I stake the thousands of francs which the managers pay me every month; worse than that, I have staked my skeleton, and lost it!"
The terrace of the café, where we were talking, had become empty through the lateness of the hour; the waiters had already closed the front, and were taking in the chairs.
The serpent-man rose; and as I stared at him with wonder in my eyes, he added:
"We are driven from here, sir. Will you accompany me to my hotel? I will tell you how it occurred."
He led me to a family boarding-house in the Rue du Colisée, which has no customers except the acrobats who pass through Paris. J. H. Walter occupied a fairly comfortable room on the first floor. He lighted a lamp, and when we were seated, facing each other, he continued his story in these words:
"It happened about five years ago. I was performing in London, and every evening I played poker in the taverns with an ill luck that would not change. All my savings were lost, and when I had no money left the idea occurred to me to insert an advertisement in The Era (you know that is our professional newspaper), in which I said:
"'J. H. Walter, the celebrated Serpent-man, will dispose of his skeleton upon his death for one thousand guineas, payable at once.'
"On the following day I received a visit from a celebrated surgeon. He made me undress, carefully examined my back, felt the vertebrae of my spine, then drawing out a pocket-book, he handed me a cheque for a thousand guineas without a word!
"Alas! my ill-luck still pursued me, and the money soon followed my wages.
"It is now eighteen months since I lost the last guinea of the surgeon's money on the card-table. But if the treasure has gone, the contract still stands. In obedience to a formal clause in the agreement, I always travel with this...."
The Serpent-man rose, went to his bed, and, stooping down, he drew a long, narrow oak box from under it. An address was painted in large black letters upon this queer violin-case:
The acrobat raised the lid, and I saw that the box was empty.
"This," he said, "is my coffin; I always travel with it. Now, when I break my neck, I shall be hurriedly embalmed and packed into it. You see this paper gummed inside the box? It contains instructions from the doctor himself, written in four languages, for the undertakers, who will lay me out. Look, here are the directions."
The Serpent-man stooped down with the lamp in his hand; I knelt beside him, and read:
"The persons who place the acrobat, J. H. Walter, in this coffin, are begged to inject a solution of chloride of mercury and acetic acid into his veins, according to the method used by the American, Doctor Ure.
In default of the above, an injection of about four quarts and a half of sulphate of zinc may be used. The latter is even preferable, if the coffin will be more than forty days on the road."
"Well," said the acrobat when I had finished reading, "what do you think of it all?"
"I think my friend, that you must have been tempted more than once to leave this box in the cloak-room."
I smiled as I spoke, hoping to induce the Englishman to speak out; but the Serpent-man replied rather dryly:
"No sir; such a temptation has never occurred to me: a gentleman keeps his word."
HUGHES LE ROUX AND JULES GARNIER.
Acrobats and Mountebanks, 1890
In the late sixties or early seventies I witnessed the performance of a troupe of Arabian acrobats who were said to be the first or among the first to demonstrate the Arabian system in this country. The troupe appeared under the auspices of P. T. Barnum's "Greatest Show on Earth." In due course I had seen the leapers and the white-skinned tumblers going through the usual line of round-offs, flips, backs, fronts, twisters, etc., all movements which I thoroughly understood and in some of which I myself was fairly proficient.
Then into the ring came the Arabs, tawny or dark-skinned sons of the desert, in flaming burnouses which with haughty air they condescended to lay aside for a time to appear in loose ill-fitting garments - as it seemed to me - each individually cut, striped and coloured with no regard to uniformity. When they began, as they did, with impetuosity, individually motivated and in seeming disregard of one another, young, critical and highly superior as I was, I felt a distinct shock of disappointment go through me. Did Barnum bring these people over here to show us something worthwhile, or was it another case of buncoing the public? You, dear reader with experience, must forgive me, for, as I say, I was young, in my early teens, and had my own ideal of beauty. I had seen "brandies" and "butterflies" but I had never seen them done like this. I had seen flips - but why did these chaps interupt the movement as they did? They would jump high into the air, hang there for an instant, stretch out their hands toward the earth and, bent backward nearly double, would alight on hands and feet, sometimes, as it seemed, simultaneously, sometimes the feet preceding the hands by a fraction of a second and sometimes the hand touching first. Then one hand first and then the other! Didn't they know anything about rhythm? Didn't they feel the rhythmic flow of forces through the body? Why didn't they take their art seriously and tumble to the tune of "Old Hundred" or something staid instead of working to "Pop Goes the Weasel" and getting out of time at that. They jumped high into the air and threw sideways somersaults like free cart-wheels with arms and legs widely extended and away off the ground. They revolved in air backward, forward or sidewise, rolled up like a ball - "balled-up," the technical term is - and from that position would "let out" and come to earth with bodies bent severely backward. All was done with immense speed and intensity of feeling!
I dreamed that night over that exhibition of physical prowess in which the spiritual, that essential concomitant of beauty, seemed wanting. It was many days later and after many unsuccessful attempts to demonstrate the thing to myself by imitation of the movements that I came to the conclusion that Barnum was not fooling us, but that there was something in it, something spiritual, racial and inherently beautiful, which because of my inexperience and lack of knowledge I had not been able to grasp or fathom.
I came to a full realization of the value and character of Arabian art as I pursued my architectural studies at home and in the lands of the Saracens. These troupes of Arabian acrobats are made up of Arabs of the desert, Moors of Tangier and Fez with now and then a black from Sudan; but their racial characteristics are differentiated only in detail, especially in the case of the Moors and Arabs. One characteristic is their love of unstable equilibrium demonstrated in their riding, their tumbling and especially in their pyramid building, in the latter exemplified by men standing four or five high upon the shoulders or backs of those beneath; demonstrated also in their architecture and decorative design. The architecture of defence alone is stable; but the horseshoe arch at gates is the racial carving for fantastic movement and precarious balance.
From what has immediately preceded we may be the better able to appreciate certain racial differences between the art and character of the Oriental, best exemplified in the Arab, and those of the Occidental, or men of the Western World. In the decorative arts the lines of the West flow symmetrically from a parent stem. Whether the composition is symmetrical or asymmetrical there is always maintained a spreading base and a balance of parts which keeps the whole firm and solid. This same idea of composition determines the form of Western Music, which is built upon an eight-tone scale, and though admitting of and abounding in transitions and modulations, yet moves ever with a definite forward flow in the development of the theme. And so with the movements in Western tumbling; there is a certain sinuosity, but in general, the feet and hands touch the ground in a measured rhythmic beat, without deviating from the preconceived thematic scheme. The music of the Arab is based on a chromatic scale and moves in broken rhythm following the mood of the individual performer, with many a quirk and twist. You have noted the same characteristic in Arabian tumbling. Where in the West the character of the composition is expressed in a long, gradual sweep, in the East it is demonstrated in a succession of brilliant chromatic runs. These limitations and characterizations apply equally to the decorative arts and to the architecture of these widely and idealistically divergent branches of the human family.
And now that I have given some little insight into the character and idealism of the Arabs, we may watch their movement with keener appreciation of the underlying poetry. Poetry and mathematics, both so necessary to creation and accomplishment in all the arts, and especially in acrobats, lie deep down in the character of the Arab. His mathematical sense, his mastery of interwoven geometric patterns in his decorative arts, underlie his tumbling, even his human pyramid building. You feel the presence if your discernment is keen.
IRVING K. POND.
Big Top Rhythms, 1937
Smith and Menken came to terms, although Smith declared the contract she insisted on was "wicked and preposterous." Menken was to play Mazeppa at Astley's, to be guaranteed half the nightly receipts and the costs of grooms and equestrian directors, to be provided with a full supporting company; the piece to be mounted in a lavish style worthy of her reputation. Also she was to have a stage box and a well-appointed dressing-room for the reception of her visitors.
Smith was an adept at the art of publicity. Sly paragraphs were inserted in the newspapers; nudity was hinted at; Menken moved to a better-class hotel, drove about the town in an open carriage, and displayed herself in the park. All day crowds gaped at life-size posters on the walls of Astley's of a nude woman knotted and roped to the back of a galloping horse. If the crowd was taken in by this display of flesh, that must be credited to their credulity: Menken was always better clothed on the stage than on her posters.
It was given out that she was an emancipated woman and had "views." She did not approve of marriage for women; it made them "sink into nonentities." She said that good wives were rarely clever, and clever women never good. What shocked the public even more than her pink tights was her smoking. She was always smoking, not only cigarettes but long cigars.
On the first night of her appearance, October 3rd, 1864, not a seat was left unsold. Menken wore the tight fleshings of previous Mazeppas, but instead of a dark brown "half body," loose folds of white linen descended "only slightly towards the knee" and left the upper limb exposed. When, on her "fiery" steed, she galloped, slowly enough, because she had to remain in sight of the audience for fifteen minutes, along the zigzag rakes towards the painted mountain "flats" under the sympathetic lights of the gas jets, the audience rose and cheered vociferously. Night after night, Astley's was crowded, the enthusiasm unabated.
She was more discussed and argued about than any woman in London. Receiving £300 a week for her performance, she recklessly squandered large sums, but seldom on herself. She helped the actors, the actresses, the supers, and the stage hands in the theatre; she could never refuse an appeal for help, and in the streets would thrust handfuls of silver into the palms of beggars or of strangers who attracted her pity.
Dickens, on one of his nocturnal strolls to cool "a boiling head," presented himself at the box-office and was told "standing room only." The clerk, recognizing hem, said he would be sure Mr. Smith would be glad if Mr. Dickes would make use of his box. The novelist preferred to walk away. Menken was furious and mortified when she heard of this, and sent him a letter of apology. In reply she received the briefest of acknowledgements. Later, in another letter, Dickens gave permission for her to dedicate a volume of verse to him. On such slender threads has been built the story of Menken's friendship with Dickens.
She played at Astley's for ten weeks. Then Mazeppa had to be withdrawn for the annual pantomime, and she crossed to Paris for a few weeks' holiday. She returned to find actresses impersonating her Mazeppa all over the country. But her provincial tour in no way suffered, and receipts were more than satisfactory. She returned to Astley's in the Autumn. Critics said she was a plumper, some hinted she padded. To satisfy himself, a super, lifting her onto her horse, pinched her leg, and received such a vicious slap on his ear as made his head sing for an hour. But he testified that what he had pinched was solid flesh.
In 1867, she was in Paris again, playing a Mazeppa scene at the Gaîté in Les Pirates de la Savane. She swept Paris as she had swept London; the theatre was crowded to its capacity at every performance, and rival managements grumbled. One theatre even persuaded Cora Pearl to appear in an Offenbach operetta; but even the spectacle of the most famous courtesan of the day, wearing little else but her jewels and singing out of tune, could not persuade the public to desert their beloved Menken.
"Through the gateway of Paris I shall reach the door of Paradise," Menken had once rhapsodized. One evening she saw "old" Dumas standing in the coulisses of the Gaîté. Menken threw her arms around his neck. Dumas was sixty-five, with hardly a franc in his pocket: his only possession of any value was a fine Delacroix, given him by the artist, and which he refused to sell. Dumas had been rebuffed by Rachel; he was more successful with Menken. She had always doted on writers. "S'il est vrai que j'ai de talent, comme il est vrai que j'ai de l'amour, tous deux sont à toi," he told her; and Menken accepted the statement and him.
W. S. MEADMORE.
Adah Isaacs Menken, 1938
It is not through his seeking that he is billed and announced as the "great Con Colleano;" and despite the tendency of publicity men to talk and write in terms of circus ballyhoo, Con Colleano is great. A more wonderful performer on the tight wire has not been seen in our day, for a more consummate artist of the silver strand has not, to my knowledge, appeared before a modern public. Just what, in detail, the ancient Greeks saw upon the wire which eclipsed or paralleled what we now see, it is difficult to say. We have no definite record of the detailed performance which, however, we do know enthralled the spectators at the games and circuses. We know from what has come down to us that the somersaulting bull-baiter was clever - quite as clever as some of the performers of modern times! And we know that the Greeks, idealists as they were, could be satisfied with and acclaim only the best.
But as to our modern wire workers. Other men quite possibly have done and are doing the single features of Con Colleano's act; but of those whose performances I have witnessed in over sixty-five years of comprehensive circus experience, none has done the turns so consistently and with such beauty of form. He does not "concentrate on the back somersault," as a magazine writer has stated. His forward somersault is featured, is given the spotlight; but he concentrates deeply, almost painfully to himself, throughout his entire period on the wire. He has to meet conditions the spectator cannot sense; conditions of light, of temperature, of noise and air currents, of sudden distraction near and more remote. To accomplish his somersaults, flips and pirouettes on the steel strand and right himself after every turn without the assistance of balancing pole or umbrella, he must have his extraordinary sensitive body under almost superhuman control. It is inevitable that now and again he should miss a turn and leave the wire; and it is inevitable that sometimes in passing he grazes the wire with painful shock to muscle or nerve. This, however, is not what really hurts Con Colleano; some pity and, worse, some profess to think that the loss of equilibrium and consequent fall were faked in order to impress upon the public the difficulty of the turn. Although my mind reverts to Codona's byplay, I most deeply appreciate Con Colleano's feeling that a consummate artist, always striving for perfection and knowing the deep satisfaction which comes from perfect achievement, rests ill at ease under any impeachment of his integrity as an artist.
IRVING K. POND.
Big Top Rhythms, 1937
In 1892 the Circus Schumann, in Berlin, was privileged to harbour the high school rider who is known as the greatest of modern times and may be fitly described as the Goethe of the art of equitation. I refer, of course, to James Fillis, who was then in his fifty-eighth year.
Fillis was the son of a London barrister. He literally grew up with horses, and at the tender age of nine we find him riding for racing stables and horse-dealers, but in his twenty-third year he made the great decision of his lifetime when he saw François Baucher ride in Paris. The impression created by this classic master of the high school was so striking in its effect that Fillis swore to his employer that henceforth he would only ride in Baucher's style. The latter, who was the owner of the French "Tattersall's," was sensible enough to grant the youthful enthusiast time and leisure to develop himself into the best rider of his epoch.
For fifteen years the world saw and heard nothing of James Fillis. Then one night he was billed at the Cirque Franconi in Paris; the patrons of the establishment smiled when they glanced at their programmes and saw the name of the new high school rider, for since Baucher's retirement in 1862 only very mediocre exponents of the art had appeared in the ring. Then the wiry Fillis entered on his Irish thoroughbred, McGregor, and after the first few paces horse and rider were the favourites of the evening. The next morning Fillis was the sensation of Paris; the following week saw him a European celebrity.
James Fillis was a fantastic devotee of the high school. He rode the whole day long, sometimes trying as many as a dozen mounts in as many hours. He was known for his partiality for bloodstock, which became a principle from which he never swerved, and he justified it by his success. He taught the most beautiful and difficult of the "new Spanish trots" to Markit, a horse of the blood with an evil reputation that had become international, and after three years of hard work exhibited this horse to a Paris audience in 1890. Fillis was also induced by the late M. Clemenceau to write a book entitled Principes de dressage et d'equitation which afterwards became the bible of every high school rider. Readers may sense from it how truly great is the art of equitation, and it breathes real poetry when it depicts the entrancing beauty of harmony between rider and steed.
In the person of James Fillis, high school riding celebrated its greatest triumphs as an art and a science. When the little wiry man grew grey-haired his seat still remained so perfect and his organic harmony with his thoroughbreds so complete (even when he performed the Spanish trot in alternate tempi of one and two, which in his own opinion was the most difficult feat in the art of the high school) that the fashionable portrait painters (who always occupied boxes when he appeared in the ring) went into ecstasies.
A. H. KOBER.
Circus Nights and Circus Days
Now another man - a spare horseman type, in a black frockcoat - enters the ring and bows; Lulu Gautier. In his right hand he holds a long, white whip, a magic wand of great elasticity with which he can cut the air into curves. Its lash whirls snakily above his head, the red curtain hisses open, and the Lippizan steeds, "the most beautiful horses in the world," hurry out and circle around their trainer. If they did no more than keep moving they would score a triumph, these eight white stallions with their golden head-gear, and their crowns of dark-violet ostrich plumes. Magnificent creatures, delicate and musical, provocative and coquettish, impetuous, born to dance, and unapproachable in their pride.
Their trainer, too, is proud. He looks radiantly from one animal to the other, smilingly says, "Maestoso," and with a neigh of agreement one stallion at once turns and circles by himself, in contrary motion to the remaining seven. All this without the aid of the whip, of his own volition, out of sheer pleasure of movement.
Anyone, incidentally, who thinks that the long whip is a harsh implement of punishment is very much mistaken. It is an instrument that only a master can control. In his hands it becomes a guide, a lure and a barrier, an elongated finger that gives every kind of signal. What the spectator thinks he recognizes as a rough, loudly cracking blow, is in reality a crack in the air, at the very most a touch measured and applied to the inch, an art known as "touching."
The Lippizans race through the sand at full tilt, bending their bodies inward to the centre of the ring, snorting with satisfaction because they are able to give free rein to their high spirits. The human voice calls, the storm ebbs to rest, and the stallions confront the man in one row. The whip drops down, shoots up again like a bird, and carries up all eight stallions into the air in a "curvet royal," setting them upright on their hind legs like marble statues. It marks the end of the Lippizans' act.
"Amateurs?" said the old clown, looking over the top of the steel spectacles that gave him such a severe look when in plain clothes. "No; you won't run across many amateurs in our business. You see - " he shook out the shimmering silk folds of a pair of vermilion pantaloons on to which he was sewing gold and silver stars - "ours is a job for what you might call specialists. Even to make a clown's dress like this, so as to hit the people slap in the eye, needs experience. And you may take it from me, you can't become a rider - what we reckon a rider - nor yet an acrobat, nor yet go on the wire nor the trapeze, without you've studied from the first days you could stand. That's why many circus people will tell you all this fancy education today is ruining the business: it takes the kids away just when they most need to learn something useful. I'm speaking of what I know."
He paused in his sewing to gaze for a moment at the yellow flame of the Beatrice stove on which his tea-kettle was beginning to murmur. "Of course," he went on, "there are just one or two lines you can take up later in life with a fair chance of doing well. There's the haute école, for instance. I've known handsome girls who had the luck to find a good teacher and could afford to buy horses ready-made for 'em, leave the stage for the ring to show their looks off in a long habit and a tall hat. I'm speaking of years ago, but I daresay it's done still. In Paris they was all the rage at one time; you'd find young women of good family that had been used to horses from childhood posing as haute école stars, and collecting rich young fellers round them like flies over the treacle-pot. In my eyes, of course, they couldn't compare with the girls that belonged all their lives to the circus. I used to think it was their horses really earned the flowers and bonbons, while they just sit still in their saddles ogling the front rows; and I couldn't see that did any good to the business, teaching the public to swallow fourth-rate work like that." He let his sewing billow over his knees and ruminated. "No," he declared, "I never knew but one amateur do us a good turn - and that was a very queer case indeed."
I looked inquisitive, but the old man shook his head. "You won't want to waste all your afternoon listening to my yarning," he grumbled.
I bought out my cigar-case coaxingly. "I'd like your opinion on one of these weeds," I told him.
He stretched out his veined and wrinkled hand with alacrity. "You know my weak spot," he chuckled. He bit the end off and spat it out; a minute's enraptured silence followed. Then: "You've found something good this time, hain't you?" he enquired. "This reminds me of those brands those Austrian officers used to smoke."
"You worked in Austria, then?"
"Quite a time - long before the big war, you know. That was where this queer thing happened. I was with Rudolph Linden's show - Rudi Linden, we called him. It wasn't a big affair; he never reached a dozen wagons, I don't think. He was too soft-hearted a chap to get on; if ever he had a good week, some sucker would pitch him a sad tale and get away with most of it. He was one of these huge, yellow-bearded South Germans, looking like a holy man in a church window. I was his ring-clown; he had a Pole with four brown bears, two sailor-chaps that did perch-balancing and the slack-wire; he himself had one act with dogs (he never used to beat 'em), and another with singing canaries, and the horses he left to his wife - who, I may say, not wishing to hurt my own feelings, was the show."
"A real circus-woman, I suppose?"
"Born in it. She did what he called his 'liberty' horses. There were three of them, and I used to annoy old Rudi by clinking a milk-can behind the third. When he heard that he would stalk on a few paces very stately - till he judged he'd come to the next house on the round. But Helga, that was Mrs. Linden's name, did a better act on her own. She had a great fierce stallion - Marshal Radetzky some wag had christened him - that would let no one else mount him - which, I suppose, was how she was able to afford to buy him from the military who had got sick of him - and she had trained this brute to haute école: Spanish walk, waltzes, all the bag of tricks. I don't want to see a better performer."
"A pretty powerful woman I suppose."
"You wouldn't have said it to look at her. Tall, yes, but slim as a branch of blossom. Pale, laughing face, with a large mouth, like a schoolgirl's, flaxen hair, almost white, and the daintiest hands you ever saw ... No, I don't know how she held the Marshal with those little fists; p'raps it was just because she didn't tug at him and wasn't a weight on his back that he was kind to her. Anyway, they made a match of it; and she was as pretty a spectacle as you could see, sweeping round the ring on him with one of the long old-fashioned skirts she always wore, floating behind and a tiny black lace veil from her silk hat to the tip of her nose.
"And did the flies buzz round the treacle?" I hazarded.
"Oh, no! no!" said the old clown gravely. "She wasn't that sort at all. She was wrapped up in Rudi and he was wrapped up in her - there wasn't a loose end hanging over on either side. She used to send the flowers to the nearest children's hospital, and the brooches back by registered post. They were a pair of babes, she and her husband, and that made my gentleman's action all the more rotten."
"Hauptmann, that means Captain, Sieghold Ritter von Ehrenstein, and you'd think with a name like that an officer would take pains to be a gentleman, wouldn't you? But it is, or it used to be, different with these Continental army men. Splendid to look at; you should have seen the Hauptmann in his white tunic and sky-blue pants, sabre trailing, pince-nez on his long thin nose - that's comic to our ideas, I know - but a man all the time. First-class horseman at all the big jumping shows; killed three chaps in duels, and later, in the war, I heard, one of the finest officers they had, and most loved by his men. But when it came to women - women, that is, whom we took to be of a certain kind - just a wild beast. He started in after poor little Helga at Innsbruck where we showed for a day or two. She turned him down pronto, and thought she was rid of him. But no; next pitch we stopped at, the Hauptmann was there again - seemed his military duties were pretty slack - and when he was to wipe off another refusal he begins to turn nasty."
"But she had her husband to protect her?"
"She never told Rudi these bothers when they happened. He'd have gone first melancholy, then mad; and it didn't do, not in those days, for a travelling showman to have a row with the military. He'd have gone for Ehrenstein with his great hams of fists, and Ehrenstein would have struck a sword through him without a thought or any enquiry afterwards. That's odd, too, according to our notions; but they called it the 'honour of the army' then." I nodded, remembering several notorious cases.
"Well, the show moved up into the Zillerthal in the Tyrol. It was the holiday season, and the places in the hills crammed with tourists and climbers, besides several big shooting-boxes belonging to the nobility, who had their parties too. We looked to do well, making one-day stands from pitch to pitch, and we were doing well, but Helga wasn't laughing anymore. The audience felt there was something wrong, and so did Marshal Radetzky; he turned sulky, and sometimes got quite out of hand in the ring. I had a hunch what was at the bottom of it, for at our last two stands I'd seen Ritter von Ehrenstein hanging round our tents - in mufti, with his glasses, he didn't look the fine bird he did in uniform, not by chalks; hang-dog, rather. At last, seeing Helga's pale face looking transparent with worry, I begged her to treat me, though an Englishman, as a pal, and say what was wrong; perhaps I might hit on a way to help her. Then she broke down and blurted it all out to me, and I tell you, it made me go prickly hot all over with rage as I listened to her. It appeared that it wasn't just because of being girl-mad that this pretty soldier-man was hunting her down in such a blackguard way. No: he owned it, he'd made a bet with his brother officers in the mess, that she'd lower her colours to him, as he put it, before the circus left the district. Seemed he had a reputation to keep up in this line; and anyhow, he told her flatly, he couldn't afford to pay what he'd lose all round to the mess if he didn't carry it off."
"Did he think that would melt her?"
"There was nothing soft about it anywhere, my boy. I told you Rudi couldn't shut his hands tight on his makings, didn't I? Some time before, he'd backed a bill for a friend in his profession, like the warm-hearted fool that he was. He believed the matter had all been settled but it hadn't. That bit of paper goes from hand to hand till a firm in Vienna gets hold of it. They have an agent in Innsbruck, who is instructed to look out for Linden's circus coming along. He hears they are up in Zillerthal and takes the train to go and dun Rudi for the debt. In the carriage coming up he falls in with Ehrenstein. The agent shakes his tongue a bit too free; and the next thing is, he hurries back to Innsbruck with a cheque in his pocket for his principal, and Ehrenstein has the bill.
" 'Now,' says he to Helga, 'now, I don't want to have to break up your prosperous tour and perhaps sell up your husband and his show. But I know you can't either of you pay, and so, if you're sensible, you'll do what I ask, and you shall have the bill to burn. It's agreed,' he goes on, 'with my friends that I shall bring back to show them that enamel locket of a lover's knot you always wear on a red ribbon round your neck when you ride.'
"That little trinket," the old clown broke off to explain, "was the first present Rudi had given her when courting her; she wore it always in the ring as a sort of mascot, with no other ornament, and the crimson ribbon showed up on her dark habit as it had been a royal order - very impressive. Everyone who knew anything about her would understand what her giving it away would mean; and Ehrenstein told her brutally she must find her own explanation of its disappearance for her husband. I couldn't think what to advise when she had done telling me. I asked her how much the bill was for, and I think it ran to something near £200 of our money. I said, 'Your only hope is that, if we have an extra good week, Rudi, if you tell him the bill has been presented, may be able to scrape up enough to pay. And you've a chance,' I told her, 'if we fill the house both shows on Saturday at Rotenfels; for all the biggest hotels in the neighbourhood are round there and one or two swagger hunting-lodges, so we ought to draw a wealthy crowd.'
"But, poor Helga! Her luck seemed dead out. On the Saturday morning at Rotenfels she was rehearsing Marshal Radetzky. We had a grass ring under a tent, and after a lot of rain the night before, there was a slippery, muddy patch by the entrance. The Marshal reared up, playful-like, coming in the ring; his hind-legs slip under him and he comes down on poor Helga. If she'd been riding a man's saddle, as they most of 'em do today, she'd most likely have slid off on to her feet. But she had the old heavy side-saddle; she couldn't disentangle herself in time and the pommels drove into her. Well, it was lucky she wasn't killed. The doctor we found for her said she hadn't broken any ribs by a miracle, but had bruised herself internally pretty badly. So there was no chance of her riding, and no chance of good houses at Rotenfels; for who was going to come over mountain roads to see our show with Helga and Marshal both out of it?
"I went to see her, lying strapped up in bed in her wagon; tried to cheer her and Rudi up (he was in a worse state than she was) and came down the steps of the wagon feeling as blue as washing-day. Then, I saw two ladies coming over the grass towards me, with alpenstocks and Tyrolese hats - been on a mountain ramble evidently.
" 'has there been an accident sir?' asks one who was walking in front, a dark woman with a mighty pleasant voice. I could see she had gold ear-rings and was a swell of some sort.
" 'A bad accident, Frälein,' I answers, 'and our show's ruined,' and I went on to tell her what had happened. When I had done, her friend, a tall, slim creature with funny, rather vacant eyes, who'd been prodding the turf with her stick and gazing round the hills as if she were trying to count the peaks, without seeming to listen to me a bit, suddenly turned round and asked me, 'Won't the great stallion appear at all then?'
" 'There's no one but Frau Linden can ride Marshal Radetzky,' I informed her. She kind of stiffened. 'No one?' she said. 'That remains to be seen. Marie,' she turned to her friend, 'I think the chance of my life has come!'
"The dark woman gives a start. 'You can't mean, my dear - ' she begins with a horrified look.
" 'Why not?' interupts the other, like ice. 'Haven't I paid enough for training? Am I not bored enough at Rotenfels in that stuffy lodge? Can't I be of some use to somebody for once?' She turns her head sharp to me. 'Where's the proprietor? Fetch him here immediately.' I stared at her, not knowing what to make of the business.
" 'Well, but don't you hear?' raps out the dark woman excitedly. 'Run, quick!' She had a way with her, this one, that meant she was used to being obeyed; so I plunged back into the wagon and dragged out Rudi. He was so stupefied at first, the poor devil, that he couldn't understand anything. But at last he made out the tall woman wanted to try Marshal Radetzky at once, and, if she could manage him, take Helga's place in the show. He thought she was mad, and very respectfully asked her what she knew about riding and where she had been trained. Quite calmly she gave the names of three of the biggest haute école teachers on the Continent at the time. It came to my mind then that I'd heard the Vienna society ladies had been making a craze of circus-riding for some time past, giving private shows and so on; so I whispered to him, 'Let her rehearse if she wants to; it's her risk.'
" 'Don't whisper, man!' cries the tall woman suddenly, stepping back with her queer eyes alight with suspicious little flames. 'What are you plotting? Speak!'
"Her friend puts out a hand as if to calm her, and says: 'Let us speak to your wife, Herr Linden; we shall be able to arrange it with her, I am sure.'
"She seemed all of a trouble, darting her eyes to her friend and back again, then looking round nervously, as though she were afraid someone was coming after them. 'Would you like to see the poor woman?' she said at last, eyeing the other one in a doubtful way.
"Rudi and I followed her look, and saw the tall lady actually smoking a cigarette. Well, of course, that's usual now; but it wasn't then, though some of the Hungarian countesses were known to do it. She seemed all vague again, and the dark lady had to touch her arm and speak to her in a low voice for some minutes, before she followed into the wagon, Rudi opening the door for her with a face that I, as a clown, quite envied.
"I squatted down on the grass and waited. After nearly an hour, the door opened again and out came Helga in her hat and habit. I jumped up with a shout of surprise, and then I saw it wasn't Helga at all, but the tall lady wearing Helga's things. She'd really taken me in. When she heard me shout, she stepped back and glowered at me again. 'Marie,' she called excitedly to her friend, 'I can't have all these sheeps'-heads staring at me. Find me a thicker veil than this, to cover my face right up = ' "
The old clown took off his spectacles and nodded solemnly into the past. "We went down to the show-tent and, would you believe it, this strange woman mastered the Marshal the first go off. Rudi showed her what paces he was used to in the act, and she rode him at both performances with immense applause. We was full at the first show, crowded out at the second. One or two things, I could see, were not quite right; but she knew the business well enough, and pulled him through, better the second time than the first."
"What did the audience think?"
"They thought she was Helga. They were both much of a size, and she had the thick veil she had asked for over her face. That puzzled 'em a bit, and made them all the more keen. Two or three officers, who had come up from the garrison in uniform, were teasing her with opera-glasses all the time; I could see she hated it, kept turning her head away."
"And her red ribbon?"
"They saw that too all right. It was a complete take-in."
"And by an amateur?"
"H'm - yes; but the strangest part's to come. Some of it, I saw; but the rest Helga, told me when it was all over. As soon as the show was finished, while Rudi, according to his custom, was counting over and storing up the money in the ticket wagon - it took him longer than usual that evening - von Ehrenstein, very smart in white tunic and silver spurs, clinks round to Helga's living-wagon and raps at the door. He pushes in without waiting for leave, and says loudly to the strange woman, still in Helga's habit, 'Well, and what's my answer? Time's up, my lady!'
"Then he catches sight of Helga herself lying on the bed, and stares about him, flummoxed. 'It wasn't you that rode this evening?' he cries, 'then who - ?' He stares hard again at the woman in the riding habit. 'Cuadage Fraulein,' he says with one of his killing grins, 'won't you complete the double pleasure by removing your veil?' She was standing very still and upright and Helga said she had, all in a moment, turned somehow different. Helga herself felt so frightened, that she wanted to stand up, only she couldn't move. She saw the stranger put her hands up slowly and unwind the veil. As it fell, the officer jumped back as if he had been shot, and came to attention with a face whiter than his tunic and looking as if a poker had been shoved down his spine.
" 'Hauptmann Ritter von Ehrenstein,' says the unknown in a voice that reminded Helga, so she said, of delicate glass breaking, 'you have a bill you wish to give to Frau Linden; do so.'
"To Helga's amazement the officer brings out his morocco pocket-book with shaking fingers and hands her over the paper without a syllable. 'Thank you,' says the lady with a little bow of her head, which he answers with a jerky salute.
" 'In return,' she goes on, 'you were to receive, you hoped, a token on a red ribbon.' He still said not a word; and Helga, by the swinging lamp of the caravan, actually saw his thin face flush. The strange lady unfastened the red ribbon she was wearing round her neck and held it out. A little silver monogram sparkled at the end of it.
" 'You will show this,' says the tall lady, 'to your brother-officers, and tell them that a certain wager, unworthy of men of honour, is cancelled - by order of their Colonel-in-Chief.'
"Von Ehrenstein fell on his knees to take the ribbon and the badge, and Helga now saw it was an 'E' with a double-eagle and a crown. Then... I wonder if you will believe the rest?
"A carriage with outriders in uniform and Jaegers in green Tyrolese livery swept over the grass and halted with yellow lamps shining outside the showman's battered wagon: I saw it come, from where I was watching between some trees. The door was opened by one of the Jaegers and a little old man in hunting dress with a monkey face and fuzzywhite whiskers sprang out alertly and hurried up the steps of the caravan.
" 'Elizabeth!' I heard him cry, as he entered. 'What does this mean? Are you unhurt?' Helga inside saw von Ehrenstein stiffen in the most rigid salute he had yet given.
" 'I am perfectly safe, Franz,' said the lady. 'I came on an errand of help to one of our people in great distress. You will not blame me for that?'
" 'But to put yourself in such danger! Where is Countess Marie Loredo?' cried the old gentleman.
" 'I relied for protection,' said the lady, fixing those cold eyes on von Ehrenstein, 'on the honour of an officer of my own 19th Imperial-Royal Hussar Regiment, and he did not fail me.'
"And she walked straight out to the carriage without a word more to anyone; Helga felt that she had already forgotten her completely.
"There was a great crowd then gathered round the outriders in the dark, waiting; for it had gone about like a wind who our exalted visitors were, and I could hear the cheers running right through the night as they drove away through the pine woods under the glittering cold stars."
"And the people knew," I asked incredulously, "that their Empress had ridden in a country circus?"
"Well," said the old clown, with a quizzical grimace, "they knew the Empress had visited the circus. Whether they knew enough as Court circles in Vienna might have done, of her private craze for circus-riding, and her queer, uncontrollable character (some folk used the word insanity, but that was cruel) - whether they knew enough, I say, to guess that she was the veiled lady they had seen on Marshal Radetzky, I shouldn't like to assert. But they were very loyal in any case, and you may take it from me that Rudi was too big a gentleman to do what some might have done, and for ever afterwards put on his bills 'Linden's Imperial-Royal Circus.' "
D. L. MURRAY. 1931
That afternoon one of the Amazons in the great Amazon march, which was a feature that year, was run over and killed by a chariot near the entrance of the ring. Mr. Barnum did not move, and I said:
"That is dreadful, isn't it?"
"Oh," he replied, "there is another waiting for her place. It is rather a benefit than a loss."
I think I never knew a more heartless man or one who knew the value and possibilities of a dollar more than P. T. Barnum.
MAJOR J. B. POND.
Eccentricities of Genius
The best imitators of the Hegelmanns are the Silbons, who were a permanent feature of Barnum's programme. People would talk with hushed admiration of the double somersault in the air which they invented. Then, in 1922, a flyer appeared who turned treble somersaults! He was the twenty-eight-year-old Mexican, Codona. His achievements recall a tragic page of circus history, for the double somersault on the ground is perilous enough. The first artist who executed it was Tomkinson, who did it in Edinburgh in 1835. He required a jumping-board that was provided with a spring, and created a great sensation. But his invention cost the life of many artists. Richard killed himself in Petersburg in 1866; Muller at Carlscrona in 1886; Bourgeois in Toulouse in 1888; Olga Posposchill in Barmen in 1889; James Wise was killed in the same year; Ulrich at Nördlingen in 1890; Toner at Painsville in 1893. All these artists died in precisely the same manner. They landed on the back of their neck and broke it. The treble somersault from the ground was never placed in the repertoire. If it ever happened it was sheer accident. The first to attempt it, the American clown Gayton, killed himself in 1842. The same fate befell Hobbes in London in 1845, and the American, Amor, in 1859. Dutton actually performed it once in an American circus in 1860, but he never tried it again.
A. H. KOBER.
Star Turns, 1928
In the morning Jumbo, the large elephant, killed a boy, and nearly killed his keeper. They made the elephant more secure. We were having our supper at 6.30. Jumbo gave a roar which nearly shook the earth, and all the wild animals joined in. It was that which an elephant is most afraid of. All the company jumped from the table and ran to the elephant's tent. We saw Jumbo with his trunk curled up and his legs close together and discovered the reason. It was a mouse running between his legs. The mouse escaped. The reason the elephant is afraid of the mouse is that he fears it running up his trunk.
My Circus Life, 1925
Louis Colvack was one of the few men to take a black panther into the ring, which he did together with his tigers and five leopards.
It was in the Tower Circus at Blackpool, about three years ago, that Colvack showed his supreme power over his beasts and courage of which one cannot speak of too highly.
During a performance one of the tigers turned and sprang upon him. Colvack jumped to the side, but was not quick enough entirely to escape the cruel claws, and his arm was torn from shoulder to wrist.
For a moment he swayed, and gazed at the crimson blood as it spattered on the canvas floor; then he wheeled round and placed a pedestal between himself and the angered beast. The ring-master and other artistes signalled to the trainer to leave while he was able, but Colvack remained standing in the centre of the ring, a limp arm swinging crimson at his side, and as it swung the blood spurted. To stop the flow, Colvack bound his whip above his elbow, and then he turned his attention to his cats. With a firm voice and unflinching eye he once more became the master, and through the remainder of the show he went, performing each one of the tricks and finally sending the animals sullen to their cages. He stood a moment to make his bow, then he turned, and with a face that was deathly white he left the ring.
Behind the scenes they clustered round him, but he did not want their help. "It is nothing," he said, "only a scratch; it was done in play. It is nothing at all."
Two years later he was so badly mauled while working in Paris that he left the ring for the last time, a crippled man.
Circus Company, 1933
Sometimes tragedy of a more sinister kind destroys a great circus act. I once knew the Three Sylvains. Two of them, brothers, are dead. It happened this wise. The third partner of this almost incomparable trio was a girl who joined the group after their erstwhile partner had become permanently disabled through a fall. Everything went smoothly until the brothers discovered they were both in love with their co-worker. No one was to blame. So far from playing one off against the other, Helena, the girl, tried her very best to maintain a strict impartiality. During an entire tour the two brothers refused to speak to one another. The younger one, Dolf, vacated the living-wagon, and took lodgings at every halt. Jealousy kept the fires of hatred ever smouldering, and an incessant brooding turned the hitherto light-hearted brothers into the bitterest enemies. At every performance the three went up into the dome and completed their act, bowing their acknowledgement when applauded and smilingly taking their call at the conclusion.
When Willhelm let go of his trapeze-bar and pirouetted towards his enemy brother, he had no fear. He always knew those strong arms would be waiting and that those sure strong wrists would be at the right spot to clutch. The "Act" was everything; it subordinated everything; it belonged to the public and to the circus. Left to brood alone in his wagon, however, Willhelm took to secret drinking. His nerve remained unimpaired, but his judgment went away, with ghastly results.
They carried him from the ring with a broken back, and next morning Dolf committed suicide by swallowing some powerful disinfectant. The act was ended for ever.
JOHN S. CLARKE.
Circus Parade, 1936
A most melancholy accident happened half-way to Longford, at Edgeworthstown. That morning I drove my carriage in front to get in the village to have a meal and water ready in time when the others arrived. When I had got all ready, I saw at a distance one of my men on horseback, galloping towards me. He rode up to me and said, "MR. Lloyd, go back. Little Artie" (that was my youngest son, fourteen years old) "has hurt his hand." I said, "Tell my two sons to drive on quick." My man persuaded me to go back. I jumped on the horse and galloped back, and before I reached the carriage I saw my two eldest sons with their sleeves smeared with blood. I felt sure that something very serious had happened. They had put my darling son in my daughter's carriage. I went in there, and beheld my son dead. Imagine my feelings at such a sight! It was only an hour before he had been by my side well. My son had accidentally shot himself. I took the reins from the driver and galloped into the village for a doctor, who pronounced my boy dead. I could not cry. I became dumb. I must have lost my reason, for I was told afterwards that I did some strange things. The people of the village gathered round me. I went on my knees, and said, "God's will be done." I don't think there was a dry eye. My company loved my boy. At this time the churchyard was closed for burials. They wanted my boy to be buried in the new cemetery - my boy would have been the first - but a friend of mine in the village went and dug a grave in the old churchyard (he moved a policeman), close to Miss Edgeworth, the great writer. There my boy lies at rest.
My Circus Life, 1925
The lovely Leitzel fell to her doom by the breaking of an inconspicuous piece of her apparatus, and she might have been saved had the net been underneath.
Let us again behold her crossing the Hippodrome track from the stage entrance (the back door to her) in the glare of the spotlights, to wind her way upward along the loosely hanging rope in lovely and intricate convolutions to her work at the top of the tent. It can be said with slight fear of contradiction that the circus has furnished no finer combination of effective showmanship and perfectly adapted body than was exhibited by Lillian Leitzel. Few in circus history have come into the spotlight with more grace and charm and few have emerged with greater acclaim than did this artist of the tops through a course of many commanding years. Her performance was given in two distinctly different parts. The first was an exquisite gymnastic turn on the Roman rings high in the air. It was, as noted above, the breaking of the attachment of one of these rings which caused her death. The second and concluding turn was a stunt which, though once her mother's speciality, Leitzel for many years made her own, with no imitators in the field. Briefly, the turn, called the "arm plunge," consisted of a full swing of the body around the shoulder as a pivot, with one hand free while the other gripped a loop which encircled the wrist. This revolution was repeated scores of times in succession without a break in the rhythm and finally became so monotonous as to dull for me, at least, whatever of interest may have attached to it at the start. The interest soon resolved itself into "how many times will she do it?" - "how long can she keep it up?" When that point was reached art, of which otherwise Leitzel was the embodied spirit, had, to my notion, vanished.
In her performance on the Roman rings Leitzel had no rival, no imitator. Nature and her own rare personality had protected her in that. Dainty feet, tremulous and twinkling, and exquisitely formed lower limbs and hips, which while seemingly in proportion were really abnormally small for her wonderfully developed chest and shoulders, gave her a body which, in an act like that, she had absolute mastery. Standing on her hands in the rings with dainty feet in air above her, or pendant, or in shifting postures, she was always in command and, in whatever position, could rest or move with poise, with grace, with charm. The same peculiar physical structure which so helped with the rings gave her an advantage over others when it came to ascending or descending the pendant rope by bodily twists and convolutions. In all this, to my thinking, she had no rival. But the announcement of the arm swing as "a test of endurance" carried a challenge and competitors entered the field. Wiry young aerialists, charged with a will to "endure," kicked up their feet and let their bodies flop down. These girls would kick up, sometimes over, some ninety or a hundred times, the number to which Leitzel had confined her act during these last few years when the loop had eaten into the flesh of the wrist making the turn for her one of excruciating pain; she, however, never let the spectators guess this. Leitzel's form in this particular turn was so distinctly her own and her showmanship so brilliant that many circus lovers found the imitations on other shows verging on the ludicrous, especially when Leitzel's mannerisms were copied.
IRVING K. POND.
Big Top Rhythms, 1937
During the years that I have frequented the Parisian circuses, I was once present at a cruel accident.
An equestrian, named Prince, was performing at the Cirque d'Eté a vaulting act on two horses, which were leaping fixed bars. Suddenly one of the animals fell on its knees, and the man was thrown forward upon his head. The assistants at once rushed towards him and covered the body with a mantle. It was carried out, and M. Loyal, in a choked voice, but with a smile on his lips, came forward and said:
"It is nothing, ladies and gentlemen - a slight accident. M. Prince begs that the public will excuse him."
The truth was that the rider had been killed on the spot - he had broken his neck. And whilst a number of clowns tumbled into the ring, reassuring the public by their jokes, Prince's wife and children were weeping over his body in the great whitewashed room, where the reins of the performing donkeys were hanging on the walls side by side with clowns' wigs, training whips, and spangled tights.
HUGES LE ROUX AND JULES GARNIER.
Acrobats and Mountebanks, 1890
When I was five a friend of my father, a Mr. Ginnett, who had a travelling circus (the grandfather of the present family), offered to take me to see if I would like the business. This was in 1850. It was agreed I should go. I joined. The rough edge had been taken off me at Astley's and Vauxhall Gardens in riding and business in general. After I had practised on a bare-back horse Mr. Ginnett and his company were surprised. They gave me some money. I was only three months with Mr. Ginnett, and I was able to appear before the public on a bare-back pony. Now I was in my glory. Practice and progress were my ambition. It was punishment to me if I could not practise. Mr. Ginnett was very good to me; he acted to me like a father. I never was idle. There were four more boys beside me, Johnny Newcome: three sons of Mr. Ginnett, and a Johnny Whitley, near all one age. They set me a trick I never attempted or thought of. They thought I would fail. To their surprise I did it. The trick was to throw a somersault over the pony. When coming to my feet I fell back, put my hand to save myself and broke my hand. I did the trick, which caused jealousy; I cared not. I was laid up three weeks. That little accident did not intimidate me. When my hand got well, I went at it again harder than ever. It put more resolution in me. This little accident happened in a town, Holywell, in Wales.
My Circus Life, 1925
The little one-pole tent, patched and worn, with its cluster of wagons, rather like an old hen and her chicks, may seem an unlikely setting for any great display of talent. But you are wrong to suppose that such a modest little outfit, so hopefully flaunting its gaudy posters, could only harbour the tail end of the circus.... There is no tail end to the circus.
Powers of organization, business ability, capital and showmanship are the points which grade the difference between the twopenny slang and the "starback" splendour of the outside show. Because of these things one may well admire the enterprise of these showmen and be grateful to them for presenting the art of the circus ring with the dignity of a pageant. Such a show is a noble sight to see, and every man, woman and child must sense the glamour of the hollow world beneath the Big Top.
But do not shun the shabby one-pole tent.
Pay your sixpence and go inside. Beneath the dark canvas is another dignity - the dignity which comes to a small family of artistes struggling against considerable odds. Here, too, you will find the glamour of the circus; not in braided trappings or snow-white steeds with nodding plumes, or spangled dresses sparkling in the glare of the arc lamps. There is glamour in the mystery that surrounds a handful of wandering players appearing on the village green with a jumble of wagons and horses, and who later flour their faces and display with such complete confidence that art which is entirely their own.
In the smallest circus you may see talent equal to that seen in any of the big shows in this country or on the continent. In the confined space at their disposal they are unable to do anything spectacular, but I have seen in the one-pole tent a troupe of riders whose names appear on the bills of some of the best-known shows of today.
The next season I had great opposition - Powell and Clark's Circus, who had 150 horses and thirty carriages. They looked on my circus as an easy victory. They had been in Ireland eleven years and had no opposition. They thought they were the masters of the situation. At this time I only had nineteen horses, six ponies and nine carriages. They tried, like an eagle would pounce on its prey. They sent out scouts and bills condemning my circus. They tried their hardest to get in a town the same day as my circus. One of Powell and Clark's men came to me one day, saying he had left Powell and Clark's, and could I give him a job. This man was a decoy. He said he could not get his money. I grasped the purport of this. I said: "You are the kind of man I want." This trick was done to get to know what part of the country I was going to. I engaged this man at £3 a week. I said: "consider yourself engaged." I wrote a telegram, and gave it to the decoy to take to the post office. The telegram was to my agent. It was directed to where my agent was not. I told him to take towns I did not intend going to. This was to deceive Powell and Clark, and I gave the man 2s. for the wire. He went. I never saw him again. The little circus proprietor was not to be caught! Through that wire I got well in front of his circus. The opposition circus arrived at Clonmel on the morning my circus was leaving. Powell and Clark discharged the decoy. I ran into winter quarters that season with forty horses, ten ponies, eighteen carriages, and four donkeys.
My Circus Life, 1925
The fact that I myself first learned to appreciate the Circus in the atmosphere of a great modern show by no means satisfied me, and I was not until I made friends with the owners of a little circus up in Norfolk that I was really content. I became so much attached to this small show that I feel I must at some length touch upon the time I spent with it, for it was typical of the little circus that has existed in England for so many years, owned and controlled by one family, wandering in a vague, haphazard way all over the British Isles, playing one-night stands, off again in the morning before the ashes of its nomad fires are cold.
Tom Teriss's Circus consisted of one patched and shabby tent for the spectacle itself, another for the grandly named "stables and menagerie," a pair of aged tractors, some battered lorries, and a number of caravans. Its joy and pride was a young elephant named Lucy, but the circus also possessed six black liberty horses bought from an undertaker who had gone bankrupt. Quite apart from the encouraging singularity of such a disaster occurring to an undertaker, the contrast in the horses' lot never ceased to amuse me. One day, so to speak, they were drawing hearses, and on the next they were waltzing to public applause. They seemed unmoved by so much variety; they were old, and always looked dejected.
Tom Teriss also possessed two shaggy white mountains of horses for trick-riding, and four piebald Shetland ponies. The disdainful grey Barb standing next to them was not his horse, but belonged to my enemy, the Prussian high-school rider. It was called Sultan, and always had the infuriating expression of one who, having come down in the world, thoroughly despised its present circumstances. The grooms, who were often the same as the clowns, or vice-versa, called it "The Char of Persia."
The menagerie consisted of three puppy-like young lions, a cage of monkeys, and a three-legged cow named Daisy, but of course the elephant was the star turn.
Tom Teriss was a short, florid man with a fierce black moustache and extraordinary gifts as a weather prophet. I never knew him to be wrong.
"Tomorrow," he would say, looking up at a cloudless sky, "it'll be fine till they're inside for the matinée. Then it'll come on to drizzle for an hour or so. It'll clear off then till it's time for the evening show, and then we'll catch it all right. Regular cloud-burst. But we'll have a fine night for the jump - wait and see."
Tom was a native of Yorkshire, but one could only tell this from his speech when he was agitated. He was born and bred in the Circus. His parents were wire-walkers; he was fond of boasting that he was born after the matinée and that his mother appeared the same night at the evening performance, but I am a little sceptical of so much resilience, even in a wire-walker.
Tom was an acrobat as soon as he could toddle, and for many years he toured England as an apprentice to a Risley act. That is to say his Uncle Willie, lying on his back, kicked Tom in the air and balanced him with his feet rather as though he were a rubber ball. Some years later, Tom, after having been in succession bare-back rider, clown, and equestrian director in circuses all over the world, achieved two ambitions: he married, and he bought the small circus but recently acquired by his Uncle Willie of Risley fame.
By his first wife he had three children, Roy, Millie, and Kitty. He then encountered Romance. He married a fortune-teller. It appears that he was at Blackpool on a "busman's" holiday when, to quote his own words:
"A silly sort of idea came over me. I thought I'd like me palm read. Don't ask me why - I never had it read before nor since. But that's how I met Ma."
Ma was a buxom lady with a high colour, snapping black eyes, and a predilection for mixing stout with port. She had a child of her own, Mabel, and she had very hard things to say about the profession from which she herself had so recently retired.
"Palmists!" she would snort. "Give me ten sharp girls for a week and you'll have ten palmists that nobody won't know aren't Gypsy Lees, the whole damned pack of them. Palmists, indeed!"
Ma presided efficiently over the box-office, always wearing a hat with a dashing black ostrich feather. She was sharp of tongue, but kind-hearted. When Ted, the elephant-keeper broke his ankle, she insisted that the injury was a sprain, and she went to enormous trouble to massage it for hours daily. The result was hospital for Ted, and he limped for the remainder of his days, but there is no doubt that Ma's intentions were of the best.
Tom's son, Roy, was stocky and ginger-headed. He had once fancied himself as a boxer, and he even ran away to join a booth, but Tom's indignation was so great that he was forced to return after a few months. It was impossible for Tom to conceive of any child of his in a profession that was not the Circus, and Roy's defection shocked him to the core of his being. Roy himself was thwarted, and given to brooding. He was convinced that he had the makings of a light-weight champion, and the walls of his wagon were plastered with boxers' photographs. He will be eternally grateful to me because I produced a signed picture of Carnera for his collection. Roy trained the young lions, clowned, presented the elephant, Lucy, demonstrated a lariat, drove a tractor, and was an excellent blacksmith.
Millie and Kittly were red-haired, plump, and pretty. Millie was supposed to be engaged to Kurt, the German rider, but some doubt existed in Tom's mind as to whether or not Kurt was already married, and the engagement was not a popular one. Kitty had "an understanding" with Tadpole, the clown from Lancashire. Tadpole was an active little man with an indiarubber face and a stamp collection that was supposed to be of great value.
One day there was a frightful hullabaloo when it was discovered that Lucy, the elephant, had devoured what was, according to Tadpole, the major portion of this collection. I never discovered the truth of this story, nor did I ever learn why Tadpole had left his stamps within reach of Lucy's exploring trunk, but the ensuing quarrel threatened to rend the circus in twain, and when the clown was discovered trying to administer an emetic to Lucy, Kitty declared that the "understanding" between them was at an end. Everyone sulked for some days, and the affair was only concluded by compensation being paid by Tom to his future son-in-law.
Millie and Kitty contributed sex-appeal to the circus. As Eastern houris they "dressed" the elephant act; in flesh-coloured tights they walked the wire, balancing themselves with Japanese paper sunshades; in spangled costumes they demonstrated "balloons and banners," the "toe-to-pummel," the "baguette," and other mysteries of bareback riding, both of them perched precariously on a vast, shaggy horse, smiling, frisking, kissing their hands to the awestruck little boys on the benches below.
LADY ELEANOR SMITH.
Life's a Circus, 1939
The clown's costume is often a veritable work of art. Much of a clown's spare time is devoted to spangling his own dresses by hand, and many intricate and beautiful designs are employed. It is quite a common thing to hear that a clown has spent several years in the making of one costume, but when it is at last completed, it is something that cannot be bought from even the best theatrical costumier.
The object of sewing each separate spangle on by hand, though tedious, is a severely practical one, as hundreds of thousands may be used on a single dress. One hand-spangled garment will stand up to wear and tear in the ring. When, through rough usage, a spangle or two is torn away, the damage does not travel further, and they can be replaced with the minimum of trouble. But with the machine-spangled variety, such as the costumier supplies, once a spangle stitching has gone, it will automatically release hundreds of them, spoiling the effect in a moment.
The clown who sets out to spangle his own costume will buy transfer designs when he is not clever enough to draw them himself, and a great variation of designs are used, ranging from ducks, cats or pigs, to fearsome Chinese dragons, in order to produce the desired effect, whether humorous or ornamental.
Clowning Through, 1937
"I'm not sure," went on the Count, "that those weren't the best times of all. We were not capitalists, you understand; we hadn't much reserve behind us, but we were growing every season. We were always buying something for the show - harness, seating, a new ring-fence - and we kept it looking smart. There was enough for all of us, and the children had taken to the ring, every one of them. Aubrey was a man now - Dennis and Ivor big chaps in their teens, Zena, Cissie and Vivienne all performing, Derrick a little fellow with long hair riding his pony round the ring, and Ida just out of long clothes. We were happy enough.
"When we got to the place in which we were going to show we'd go out ourselves and bill it. But sometimes it was hard to find anywhere suitable. I remember once..."
"They're finishing the day show," he said, "but I've just got time to tell you this story. It's the sort of thing that happened to a little show like ours, without a proper route planned out. I shall never forget it.
"We had showed at Budworth on the Friday, and we had nowhere to go next day. Saturday can be the best day in the week if you get the right place, and we didn't want to miss it. So that when someone told me there was a village fête and flower-show at a place sixteen miles away I decided to chance it, and set out.
"It was about this time of year, but I said to the wife before I started the tractor up in the morning that the weather wouldn't hold. You could feel one of those summer storms coming up. So I got what speed I could out of the tractor, and we arrived at about 10 o'clock in the Saturday morning. The whole place was rigged out. The village fête in country places even fifteen years ago caused much more excitement than it does today. The people were all going about in their best clothes, and there were stalls set out in the field where the fête would be, and posters up and everything.
"I left the wagons by the side of the road, and went over to the field to find the Secretary. He looked rather unfriendly from the start, and when I told him that we wanted to build up and would either give half our takings to the fête or pay rent for being there, he flatly refused.
" 'Oh no,' he said, 'All show people are barred from this.'
" 'But look here,' I said, 'it's going to pour with rain presently, and you've got no marquee. I'll lend you my tent for the afternoon if we can give one show at five o'clock, and again for the evening if we can do one at night.'
"He got quite impatient then, and said he didn't want us on the ground. I saw it was no use arguing, so I went back to the wagon.
"Well we were in a fix. To miss a Saturday showing was serious for us, and we'd come quite a long way. So I decided to go down to the pub to make enquiries. You know what it is in a village - every one knows every one else's business, and probably there are some grudges and jealousies here and there. Anyway as soon as I told the publican the story I could see that he was on our side.
"Now right opposite to the field where the fête was to be held was a bit of common, open to the road. So I asked the publican who that belonged to. He said he thought it was common ground, but the lord of the manor had some rights over it.
" 'I'll tell you what, though,' he said, 'the policeman will be going by in a minute. He'll tell you all about it.'
"When the policeman came down the road on his bicycle, making for the fête, I stopped him and asked him about the ground. But he didn't seem to know much about it. He said there had been a circus there before now, but he believed they got permission from the squire, but he was away now. So I told him I wanted to build up there, and asked if he could give me permission to do so.
" 'Oh no,' he said, 'I couldn't do that.'
" 'Could you turn me off?' I said.
"He scratched his head a bit then. I could see he didn't know what to do.
" 'Well,' he said at last, 'I don't see how I could do that either.'
"That was good enough for me. We started to build up at once. All the time we were driving the staked in people were passing us on their way to the fête. They didn't seem to like us being there at all. And they looked as if they didn't mean to have anything to do with us. But something happened to change all that. Just as we finished building up, the rain started to come down in torrents."
The Count paused to chuckle wickedly.
"I've never seen rain like it," he said. "It poured out of the sky like a waterfall. You might have said the hand of God was in it if this fête hadn't been run by the village parson to put a new clock in the church tower. The people who had come out to the fête were all in white. The village girls used to wear white cotton stockings then, you may remember. And before you could count ten they were making for the gate of the field as though wild beasts were after them.
"Of course, you can guess what we did. We had one of those big roundabout organs then, and we started this up and shouted out that the show was about to commence. Our tent was the only shelter for a quarter of a mile, and in a few minutes they were fighting to pay their money and get inside. I think we had about two hundred people in the tent that afternoon, and they took it all in good part and cheered the whole performance.
"But at five o'clock when we'd finished showing, the rain was still coming down fast, so I went out in the ring, thanked them for their attendance and applause, and said that if they liked to stay in the tent and shelter from the rain they were welcome to do so. Then the wife started serving tea, but there was such a run on it that Aubrey had to run down in the rain to the pub to borrow another dozen cups. The organ was going, and the people laughing, and of course the afternoon part of the fête had been ruined.
"But that wasn't the end of it. It was really funny the way the weather seemed to help us that day. At six o'clock the rain had stopped, and at six-thirty the village band paraded through the streets with a banner, saying that the fête would be resumed at half-past seven. And - would you believe it? - at eight o'clock the rain started again as conveniently as we could have wished, and in a few minutes we had lit our flares and filled the tent to its capacity of three or four hundred people. We didn't wish the fête any harm, you understand, although they had refused to let us show. But we couldn't help laughing at the way things had gone.
"Presently the policeman arrived, dripping with rain and perspiring like mad. He told me he'd got in a hell of a row for not turning us off, and that the parson was on his way down to see me now. That sounded awkward, but I thanked him, and promised to say that he hadn't given us permission.
"When the parson arrived I was in my tights - just come out of the ring. I thought at first he was going to be nasty about it. He looked at me very straight.
" 'This has been a terrible loss for me,' he said.
"I told him I was sorry and made him a proposition.
" 'I'll tell you what,' I said. 'If we can stay here Monday we'll give half our takings to go towards the church clock.'
"He smiled at that, and I saw that he was a good old sort.
" 'You can stay for Monday, so far as I'm concerned,' he said. 'And you needn't pay us half your profits. If you like to make a subscription to the fund we shall be quite happy.'
"So there and then I asked him to accept five pounds. He seemed to take to us after that and while we were there he used to send down eggs and milk for the children. He came to see us off, too, on the Tuesday morning. He shook hands all round, and just as we were starting I told him not to forget we had an interest in his clock. He smiled at that. I don't know if he's still there - we've never been back that way again."
The Circus has No Home, 1941
We showed in John's Town, Pennsylvania. In the midday show some of our working men struck a town man because he was cutting the canvas. Where we were performing at night we saw a good crowd coming towards the tent. They were going to have revenge for their town man being struck. Fortunately our men got tidings of their intention. Our men were prepared, and in fighting form. The mob rushed through the canvas. The audience rushed out of the tent. I should think there were 5,000 people. Our men were lying down and met the enemy with a volley of shots. I got under a table in my dressing tent, because they could see the shadow outside of any one on the canvas. One of the American artistes said: "Come out, you English coward." I replied: "I am not used to being shot at." About twelve o'clock things got quiet. I thought all was safe to go to town, which was four miles. I got well off the show ground. There was one coach waiting for one more passenger. I jumped in. I was overjoyed, thinking I was safe. We got about two miles from the show ground when the carriage was stopped by a gang of men. They asked if there was any of the show boys in the carriage. Imagine my feelings! It was lucky for me that day I bought an American large hat. We all looked around at each other. We all said "No." This was the first and only time I tried to imitate an American's voice. I said: "I guess no." The crowd shouted "Pass on." Fancy, had I been recognized I would have met my doom.
I hastened to the sleeping cars and got there safe. The show ground looked like a battlefield. There were five dead and sixteen wounded. The wounded were taken to hospital. We heard no more about it, because the town boys were the aggressors.
My Circus Life, 1925
I remember an episode with a very bombastic little man in Bury St. Edmunds. In a hotel lounge full of people he was ridiculing our tigers. "Tame as lambs - all bluff - half doped - too old for words - I'd go in any time."
Ill-informed people often carry the audience with them and this fellow appeared to be doing the same. Eventually I butted in and made myself known. This was just what the fellow wanted - he challenged me to let him go in with the tigers for five minutes in public. I accepted, and promised to arrange the matter if he would insure his life for £500 and pay the premium himself.
I got one of the party to ring up Lloyd's of London and let us know what the premium would be. The boaster had about ten minutes more in which to hypnotize his audience by his prowess. Then the other man returned from the telephone. "Ninety-seven pounds per cent is the premium," he announced.
The hero then walked into my carefully prepared trap. "I couldn't afford any such premium on five hundred pounds," he said.
"Very well then, on behalf of Mr. Mills, I offer to pay it."
That was the end of the hero. He knew very well that Lloyd's don't want ninety-seven per cent for a man to go in with tigers as tame as he had made ours out to be.
A. STANLEY WILLIAMSON.
On the Road with Bertram Mills, 1939
When I arrived the ground was still untrampled and everything fresh, sparkling and clean. While standing one glorious day in the stable tent, all detail aglow in an ambient haze, Joe Bert, in his simple way, said: "When the grass is green below and the canvas is all white above, it makes an old performer open his nostrils wide."
Months and years out of work were forgotten. It was a great show. It was going good. It was going to be a fine summer.
All were keen on doing their best. The love of the life was evident, its constant change and moving on to fresh places. A sense of unending calm prevailed which communicated itself even to the stock. The elephants swayed lazily to and fro, the lions basked in the warmth and comfort. Sometimes on a blazing day they all crowded into one den, packed like sausages, lying in ridiculous attitudes, some on their backs, mouths wide open showing all their teeth, paws waving feebly. "Look at the king of the beasts," people would say and laugh. If one moved all must move, though the adjoining den was empty but for one beast. He, feeling lonely, must join his fellows. He would let all his legs go loose as he flopped into the middle of the heap. The others grumbled in a silly whine at the intrusion, too lazy to move - another animal would be squeezed out. Through the space at the bottom of the dens paws flopped, inert, one hung at a right angle, harmless looking, the back covered with brown fur, white tipped, the other paw turned, squeezing through the opening to show the pretty pattern of black pads underneath, each separated by a line of short tufted hair. Other paws pushed lazily against the bars, displaying in the pulse of their expansion the fierce arching curve of their talons. From some great throat a roar broke the silence, feeble in comparison to the chorus that would ensue. Still lying on their backs, too lazy to get up, heads upside down, eyes closed, they roared and roared, till the noise was deafening. Shouts of "Shut up!" would be added to the tumult. To everybody's surprise they occasionally obeyed the order you scarcely heard, then all was as before till another lion started a diversion.
Every morning, at the back of the field, out of sight of the public visiting the menagerie, practice took place: Bonnelly trying to learn to walk the wire, wearing a striped blazer and old black trousers, in his hand a Jap sunshade or a pole. Up he steps carefully - he's got his balance - a wobbly step or two - a short run - he tries to make a swift turn - off he comes before rocking backwards and forwards on the wire, suspended from scissor-pole to scissor-pole.
The two Hanson boys wear on their heads the padded caps they perform in, their old white duck trousers kept in place by a bright-coloured belt, as stripped to the waist they rehearse; the muscles of their arms, backs and shoulders lump up or lie slab-like, clean, chiselled, powerful; the ivory skin sweats and glistens in the open daylight. Behind are the stable and hands' tents, grey, white, green-striped, red-striped; the varnish still shines newly on the wagons; the black of the tractor-engines provides a deeper note and from the stack of one thick smoke rolls. A long line of handsome white leather gloves hang suspended on a line, drying ready for each fresh entrance into the ring that Captain Ankner must make with his Liberty horses or the "Plum Puddings." The sky overhead is a cool blue, across which streaks of white are flung.
A black cat strolls around the tober with haughty stride. The cat was, like myself, a circus fan; he adopted the show. Every time we moved we thought we had lost him, but every time he appeared again - he was not going to leave the circus. We never knew in which wagon he hid.
He pretends that he does not know that "Astie," the Ankner's pride, a fat white terrier, is nosing about, his short pointed face poking with interest into every new and ancient smell, yelping in high staccato barks at horses' heels. "Astie, Astie, Astie," Mrs. Ankner's voice calls. At last the rascal is caught, a grunt issues from his portly body as he is tucked under an arm to preserve him from further indiscretion.
The artistes retire, for a rub-down and a change.
Some run down to bathe. Mackintoshes and rugs are spread out for a sleep or a rest, or for a gossip in the shadow thrown by the wagon. It is near noontide now, the sun is strong. Dinner-time is close.
"Look sharp - get a move on - we open at half past two. I've got your zinc powder and some fresh lard; they're all robbers here. It was only fourpence at Chatham, they're charging sixpence ha'penny here - they must think we're visitors. It's on the shelf in the wagon. Come on you two; one's as bad as the other. Here give me your canvas." This from Ally, who speedily gathers my scattered materials, pencils and sketch book full of notes of the moving figures, paints and canvas on which I am painting Herbert Hanson in his dressing-room. Joe and I are bundled off to eat the chops, tomatoes and potatoes Ally has made ready on a little oil stove. The stove is set in the middle of the clown's tarred dressing-wagon, used to carry the V's and brackets on the road. Inside, the savoury smell of food mingles with that of burning oil, a hiss sounds from the kettle put on to replenish the tea-pot. On the travelling boxes we take our seats. We eat with appetite, braced by the sea air, Joe with his exercise, I with my work and Ally by her walk in the town to search for the shops that sell the best bread, the best meat and chickens, the best tea and fruit. A tumbling clown must have his food chosen and cooked with care. He is in training month in and month out. He must do his hand stands, the roundall-flip-flap back, which goes with a rrr-rrr-rrr-rrrrr and other feats even when he feels not any too good.
Hanging at the mouth of the wagon, where we take our meal, is a length of old Willesden, to be pinned across when lights are lit and to help keep out the rain and wind. Three clowns, a gymnast, and an old Arab who takes the tickets at the entrance, all dress in there. Along the sides make-up shelves are irregularly spaced, each piece of three-ply is pierced at the corners and threaded with string to suspend it from a batten. These boards are splodged with red and black and powdered with white, and wax drippings lie in little grey-white mounds with the remains of burnt-out wick languidly slanting among the mess. Large-spotted, striped and flowered dresses together with comedy evening-suits hang from nails, almost covering the walls. Between them Mr. Marba's life-sized dummy lady hangs by a string at her waist, doing a side bend that would be possible to no human, her legs dangling, toes turned in, her arms hanging loosely on either side of her head; even though upside down, she retains her cheerful expression, her long-lashed blue eyes open and ogling in spite of an adverse situation. Clean tights, socks and cotton gloves are drying on a line. Ally is endeavouring to air off by the heat of the stove the last feel of dampness from the white skull cap that she has crocheted with fine stitch and cotton to fit Joe's head snugly, hiding his black hair under his white felt-pointed cap.
After our eating is finished, we make ready for the afternoon show. With Joe's assistance my easel, canvas and gear are set up in the stable tent. Their position is by no means a permanent one. The only space available is in the lane between the stalls - up and down the lane all traffic goes to and from the ring. "Look out, the baby's just coming," someone shouts, seizing my easel while I step hastily aside, nervously watching my study hang, expecting it to pry loose and fall face down in the dirt. The grey bulk of June, the elephant, lopes by, her trunk held forward, upturned, sensitive, gold tassels dangling from her blue velvet cloak, as she avoids stepping on my paint-box which there had been no time to move.
DAME LAURA KNIGHT.
Oil Paint and Grease Paint, 1936
"Thirty years of travelling every day from March to October - you see something of England," said Dennis Rosaire. "I could take you through any county without a map. Every sort of weather and road. And every sort of people. We've spent all night looking for the horses when they'd got out of the field and tramped for miles in rain and darkness after them. We've had a good many stand-up fights, as any one in the show business must have done. Ivor and I between us had to fight our way right down a street against five American showmen, and the whole lot of us had to stop the show one night to tackle a gang of hooligans brought in by an anti-performing-animal crank. It took us nearly an hour to get them out of the tent, and then I remember having to chuck a set of false teeth after them. I fought three Lancashire fellows who'd been cheeky to one of the girls, and a six-foot miner whose son had been thrown out of the field for peeping under the canvas. The usual sort of barneys - you can't avoid those.
"We've been nearly frozen to death trying to build up in cold weather, and nearly suffocated by the heat when we've been showing in summer and there isn't a breath of air to fill your lungs. I've been so hard up that I've had to walk twenty miles to save a fare, and flush enough to buy a circus of my own when I've been working on the halls a few weeks. We've made some pretty queer acquaintances among circus-followers, and some good friends among circus people. We've had people fussing over us, telling us our acts ought to be top-liners in London, and we've been treated as though we were gypsies escaping from the police. We've travelled for days on end with horses and right through the night with lorries. I've done every act in the show, as each one of us has. We've had to make up a full programme when only half of us were there, and seen it go just as well as the real thing. I've had to improvise when my props have failed to arrive, and I've fixed the old wire up in all sorts of places. We've been so tired we've gone fast asleep standing up, and we've had to sleep for exactly ten minutes between two acts (and even that's a help when you're really dead beat). We've gone through a whole week with an average of two hours' sleep a night, and we've slept the clock round. We've been afraid for twenty years of losing the use of a limb - and seeing our livelihood go out like a light - because I don't think that any of us could settle to another job. We've known blow-downs and floods, empty houses and houses so packed that the people were standing six deep round the doors. We've had to face all sorts of people who hate the circus, fools who think animals are trained by cruelty chiefly, and some pretty hard competition from other circuses. We've seen the show grow from the little one-pole affair pulled round by a tractor to what it is now."
The Circus has no Home, 1941
While we were at Bury, "Great Saturday" - usually observed at Rochdale as a holiday - came round. Tom, Adam, I, and several others of our company, went over there in the afternoon for an hour or two. Amongst the places of entertainment for the feast was Sangers' Circus. We agreed to accord it our patronage. As we made our way towards it, Adam suddenly recognized the property of Messrs. S. and T. Wild, in the two pairs of portable steps leading to Sangers' parade, and upon looking about us we also found several poles belonging to that same firm. Upon taking our seats in the circus we further discovered that most of our brackets had been employed in erecting the gallery seats, and here and there sundry other articles of ours put to profitable uses. Never having been asked for our permission, we considered this general appropriation of our property as a rather cool proceeding, but as the circus was such a poor affair - there were only three horses, and those not of the sprightliest sort, while I do not think the entire staff of performers numbered more than half a dozen - we rather sympathized with the proprietors than otherwise. But we couldn't resist the opportunity of having a little amusement at their expense. So returning to the money keeper (who was a Mrs. Sanger I believe), I said: "I find there has been some of our property removed." What kind of property and who was I? "Portable property," I rejoined, "belonging to Wild's Theatre, of which I am one of the proprietors. And what is most strange, I find some of the missing property here; these are our steps, those our poles, and within, I find our gallery brackets have been utilized. A policeman might probably assist me in unravelling the mystery how these things found their way here." Never was a poor mortal in such a state of agitation. "Stop," she said, "and I'll call Bill Chappell, our clown; it was him who brought them here." Bill Chappell was called for, but he then being in the thick of his business within, intimated that he couldn't possibly leave the circle. "Come at once," said the money taker authoritatively, "and never mind the performance." Whereupon the clown appeared. "Here is Mr. Wild inquiring about certain articles which have been removed from his wagons." Chappell looked very woe-begone, but excused himself by explaining the emergency of the Brothers Sanger, and the confidence they had in our readiness to lend the properties in question, and wound up by a few encomiums on the well-known character of the Wilds for kindness, and so forth. The clown stated his case so well that he was not only assured that there was no harm done - it was only our holiday fun - but permission was granted Messrs. Sanger to avail themselves, until we required them, of any other properties they might find of service to them.
These were the brothers Sanger, John and George, so poor that they had to borrow properties from "Old Wild's" to build themselves a place to perform in, and look at their position now! the most wealthy and famous of circus proprietors. Does this not remind one of the adage, "It is better to be born lucky than rich?"
Old Wild's, 1888
On the last night of our visit, as soon as the second "house" is in and the show has commenced the "pull down" begins.
Whereas the first performance finishes with a wild-animal act, the second performance would begin with it, thus saving the considerable labour involved in dismantling these heavy iron cages. As soon as the lion act is over the animals are bedded down, the cages boarded up and taken by tractor to the station. This same system applies to the horses, ponies, elephants and other animals. By the time the show is over there are no animals remaining in the stables.
The same with artistes. As soon as they are through, their props are stacked until a wagon is completely loaded and ready to be hauled to the station and run on to the trucks which comprise the three special trains. The two trains which carry the bulk of the Circus are made up of about thirty trucks each, each truck selected for its particular utility.
The tractors lumber across the ground hitching up, and hauling away, any trailers or wagons which are ready. Men and women who have appeared in their acts quickly change into overalls and lend a hand, packing or loading, according to the usual arrangements. Each artiste is responsible for the packing and loading of their own costumes and props.
For the men working outside there are three or four small searchlights to provide the illumination.
By the time the audience finally leaves the tent the outside is bare - where there were offices, caravans, fire-tent, side-show and electric lights and signs galore, there will now be nothing but the night.
Just before "Auld Lang Syne" is played by the band groups of the working staff take up their positions at different parts of the seating. Immediately the audience makes a move to go - most of them lingeringly - the men attack the seating. Passing quickly along each row, each man keeping his line, they jerk the seats to pieces. Other men come in, and these thousands of pieces of timber are neatly packed in the many waiting trailers. In this way forty tons of wood and steel supports are finally stowed away. Dismantling and packing the seating is the longest job, but in the meantime much other work will be going on. Programme-girls, in their overalls, strip the seats and boxes of their plush coverings, which they fold and pack in skips. Fitters, electricians and carpenters go about their various work - no orders are given - every one of them knows the job. Like sailors, riggers climb up the two main poles and release a variety of ropes, wire and lights attached to them. Aerial artistes, being responsible for their own particular gear, climb up rope ladders to unhook or unleash their ropes and wires. Outside again sledge hammers ring on iron and wooden stakes, all of which must be pulled out of the ground before a "pull down" is complete.
Though everything appears to be falling to pieces and dropping about haphazardly, the system is really working to perfection. The tent men will be unhooking the sides or walls of the tent, so letting in the cool night air - the canvas is rolled and left for the trailer men eventually to pick up. Ceiling and ring-side lights are lowered. The forty quarter poles are also lowered and packed in their own special trailer. By now the "Big Top" is empty. One little pilot-engine supplies all the light that remains - the other generators having been whisked off to the station. There remain now only two hundred and sixty guy ropes to be unfastened from their stakes. A couple of men give the canvas its final Coup de grâce and Great Britain's biggest tent is dropped to the ground.
The canvas is unlaced and each of the six parts is rolled and left waiting for collection. The King Poles are lowered by pulleys as quietly and gracefully as the launching of a ship. The last of the stakes are drawn, the King Poles placed on the special trailer, then all hands are called to collect and load the various huge bundles of canvas. The canvas and stake wagons go on their way, the last of the lights go out and the pilot-engine chugs its lonely journey to the station. The debris of straw, paper and empty bottles is cleared, and less than four hours from the end of the performance little can be seen to show that the place has been the encampment of Britain's biggest show.
The Circus has come to town - the Circus has been to town - Here today, gone tomorrow.
A. STANLEY WILLIAMSON.
On the Road with Bertram Mills, 1938
On a spring evening, in the orchard behind the farm where Tom Pagett's circus was still in its winter quarters, the entire Pagett family, together with such other circus folk as wintered with them, were gathered in front of the brown bear's cage.
In the adjacent cages, the lions and tigers, having been fed by Josef, their Spanish trainer, were settling themselves for sleep. But the brown bear's supper - and his morning's breakfast - lay untouched on the floor boards of his cage.
The bear, whom they had christened Boxer, because of the enormous strength of his fore paws, had been with Pagett's for exactly a week, and all that time Tom had been putting food before him - tempting him with every delicacy he could think of. And all that time Boxer had eaten nothing.
Now, as the circus folk stood in a puzzled group and stared through the bars at him, Boxer, with his face so devoid of expression that it did not even express grief, sat humped against the back wall of his cage, and stared over their heads into vacancy.
"Anybody'd think we were trying to poison the animal - he's so suspicious," said Hester Pagett, Tom's wife.
"I don't like being beaten," said Tom, "but I reckon we'll just have to send him back. He's pining, that's what it is - he'll be nothing but skin and bone presently."
"That's right - send him packing," agreed Hester. "He's nasty-tempered. He'd as soon crush somebody's head in as look at 'em. And those claws! I feel queer every time you go to put food before him."
"He misses his brothers and sisters," said Josef, who had a very tender and understanding heart. "He is alone for the first time in his life - you comprehend? It would have been better, Boss, if you had bought the whole troupe."
"So I would have - didn't get the chance. Was let down over the job," explained Tom.
"Those animals - they've got poker faces," observed Ferny, the elephant keeper. "You can't read 'em like you can pachyderms. You can always tell what a pachyderm's thinking."
"We can do all right without a bear, anyhow," said young Jacky Pagett, who at sixteen, had just been promoted to show the monkeys, and didn't, at the moment, "give a durn for anything but simians," as he put it.
"Pity, though," remarked a groom. "He must weigh above six hundred pounds. And the coat on him - never see such a creature!"
"But 'tisn't as if he was a horse," chimed in Dan Pagett, the boy rider. "It's horses make up the circus, ain't it, Dad?"
"All of us make up the circus," answered Tom Pagett. "But that animal's going back to where he came from tomorrow."
With her small, sharp face upturned within six inches of the bars, little Andalusa, Pagett's "youngest," stood amongst the group of older people, and stared, as they all stared, at the bear. She looked rather a top-heavy little figure, with her mane of dark chestnut hair falling heavily over her shoulders, and her childish legs encased in a diminutive pair of jodhpurs. Her mouth was slightly open, and her lips were slightly pouting, and her yellow-brown eyes were almost as vacant-seeming as the bear's own. This was the expression she wore when she sat amongst the audience in the circus tent, and followed every act, and every inflection of every act, of Pagett's show. It signalized an all-out concentration on the matter in hand. As Tom Pagett had been more than once heard to remark, "There's no flies on our Lu when she pulls that face."
Well, come to that, there weren't many flies on Andalusa at any time.
One after another the older folk drifted away from the bear's cage. Hester went to prepare the family's evening meal. Ferny went back to the elephant shed, where that seven tons' weight of petted childishness, the Queen of Sheba, who couldn't bear him out of her sight for more than a few moments, weaved restlessly at her picket and trumpeted her need of him. Josef went to telephone the knackers about a further supply of meat for his big cats, and Jacky to give the monkeys their supper; there was no question about their appetites, they were complaining now like a nursery full of hungry babies.
Left alone in front of the bear's cage, Andalusa became conversational.
"Aren't you a silly bear?" she said derisively.
There was no response to this sally. Andalusa pressed her nose against the bars to look at Boxer, and Boxer stared over Andalusa's head into vacancy.
"Don't you want to work on our show?" queried Andalusa. "You've got to work on some show - got to. And there's none so good as ours."
Humped dejectedly against the back wall of the cage, Boxer gazed into vacancy.
"You get treated good on our show," said Andalusa persuasively. "You know that."
Boxer didn't seem to know it.
"But we can't have skinny things about," went on Andalusa. "Doesn't look well. You best make up your mind to eat."
A stale bun-loaf was lying just inside the cage. Andalusa got a stick and poked the loaf across the floor boards. "This has got currants in," she explained, prodding the bun-loaf against Boxer's haunch. "Come on, eat it!"
A queer sound that was something between a growl and a moan sounded in Boxer's throat, but he didn't look at the loaf, not at the stick, nor at Andalusa. Nor did he move a muscle.
Andalusa pulled the stick out of the cage and threw it away. "You aren't tough enough," she remarked. "That's what's the matter with you. I'm tough. I don't mind where I go, or who I go with. Went to Ireland once, and wasn't sick. Might go to America tomorrow. And I wouldn't mope the way you do. I'd eat and eat all the way over."
"Anda-lus-a!" That was Hester calling. "Supper!"
Andalusa pushed back her hair from her face, and expressed herself finally.
"You aren't bad looking - in your way. But you aren't tough enough."
Hester had done a big baking that day, and the kitchen smelled warm and rich of home made fruity cake. There was tripe and onions for supper, but Andalusa demanded cake and tea with Nestle's milk in it. Andalusa had her fancies, and being the only girl, and years younger than her brothers, she was certainly spoiled. But, as Hester said, "If the child won't drink cow's milk, what can you do?"
Having eaten her fill, Andalusa yawned, rubbed her eyes and announced, "I'm going to bed now."
She dipped a spoon into the milk tin, and brought it out with the bowl brimful and the milk spilling all up the handle. Hester snatched the tin from her. Andalusa smiled cheekily, put the spoon in her mouth, turned it round, and sucked the handle.
"You limb, you!" exclaimed Hester.
Andalusa slipped off to bed.
Her tiny bedroom was at the back of the farm and overlooked the orchard. The moon was up, and from her window Andalusa could see its rays glimmering on the dew-wet bars of Boxer's cage. Behind the bars were the moonlit boards streaked with thin, slanting shadows, then a glitter of heaped straw, and behind that a motionless rock-like shape with a spot of light on the end of its nose.
"He's not moved - not one inch," said Andalusa.
When she got into bed she was "pulling that face," as Tom Pagett would have said.
"Flouting me Dad, doesn't know when he's well off," she muttered indignantly.
A turbulent lock of hair fell across her mouth. She brushed it away with a sticky little hand. The hand tasted sweet. Andalusa sucked at it blissfully. It occurred to her that by a little manoeuvring she might manage one night - perhaps tomorrow night - to secret a whole tin of Nestle's milk about her person before coming up to bed.
"Then I should have sweet dreams," she chuckled.
Well, of course, a spanking might follow, but it would be worth it. She was almost asleep when a thought struck her. Bears liked sweet things; probably they liked them as much as she did. If she would sin for Nestle's milk, surely a bear - even if he had made up his mind to pine away and die - wouldn't be able to resist it?
Wide awake now, she swung her legs out of bed. She was going downstairs to tell her Dad to try Boxer with a tin of Nestle's. Then another, and most exultant idea occurred to her. She wouldn't tell her Dad, she would feed Boxer herself, and in the morning prove to them all that she knew a thing or two. Her Dad had said that if once they could coax Boxer to eat anything, he'd get his appetite back and be all right.
"I'll get his appetite back for him," thought Andalusa, "see if I don't."
A great adventure this! Now she must keep herself awake till all the family were abed. She sat with her hands clasped round her knees, and waited. But nobody came upstairs, and surely hours must have gone by! When she found herself nodding and instinctively snuggling down under the bedclothes, she fetched a chair and put it on her pillow with the legs prodding into her back. That kept her awake for a little while; then she nodded forward. Determinedly she got another chair and placed it on the bed with the legs against her chest.
"Now you can neither lie back nor forth," she told herself.
Hours passed again - or so it seemed to Andalusa. She swayed and drooped in her narrow prison; out of a swoon of sleep the chair legs prodded her, first in her back, then in her chest. And still the family did not come up to their beds.
"Coo!" she muttered drowsily. "This is nearly as bad as that time at Blackpool when the seating c'lapsed, and the fat man fell on top of me."
She slept and dreamed that Boxer was holding a tin of milk over his nose and growling, "More! More!" A chair leg poked her awake and she realized that it was not Boxer but her father snoring.
"That's all right then," said Andalusa, and got up and felt her way, tiptoeing, down into the kitchen.
The moon was bright outside the uncurtained window, and the whole room was vaguely radiant. Andalusa looked in the store cupboard and counted seven tins of milk, including the one Hester had opened for her tea. She took a basket, climbed on a chair, and reached down the tins. What else? A tin-opener from the table drawer. Could she open tins? Trust Andalusa! A small girl that could already do the splits and the flip-flaps, and ride standing on a pony, was not to be defeated by such a trifle as a tin opener!
Then her eyes fell upon the brave array of Hester's big cakes, set in the windowsill, covered with a white cloth. One by one those cakes went into the basket, till it was mounted to the handle. And, so laden, she cautiously opened the back door and stepped out into the moonlight.
"Coo!" said Andalusa. "Isn't this a treat!"
Every grass blade on the rough turf at the end of the yard wore a fiery jewel; the blossom in the orchard was purest snow, and under the trees was such a tangle of dark shadows and gleaming lights that you might fancy yourself performing on some spangled trampolin under the Big Top.
Lion smell, horse smell, blossom smell, wet grass smell: a line of light showing far off under the closed doors of the elephant shed. But that meant nothing. Andalusa knew that Ferny kept a lamp burning all night because the Queen of Sheba was afraid of mice. She stood still a moment and listened. The night was full of familiar noises; a flump, as one of the big cats turned over in its sleep, the snort of a horse far away in the grazing fields, then a gentle wuffling, and the soft stampede of unshod hoofs. Andalusa came with her basket to Boxer's cage.
Boxer was not asleep. He was still sitting against the back wall staring into vacancy. The thick straw glittered, and the moon whitened his eyeballs.
"You'll be dead by morning, if you go on as you're going," said Andalusa severely.
She put down her basket, tore a hunk of cake, tipped sweet milk from the opened tin over it, and held it between the bars.
"Come on," she said, "this is real nice."
"Haven't you got any guts - or what?" asked Andalusa. "It's good, I tell you."
To prove how good it was, she pulled back her hand and took a bite herself; then another bite. But that wouldn't do! She hadn't come out to gorge herself, but to make Boxer eat. Fearful where her greed might lead her, she took aim, flung the sticky cake through the bars, and hit Boxer on the nose.
"That startled you, didn't it?" she said, rather anxiously.
It had startled him; the cake fell at his feet, but the sweetness remained on his nose. He turned his heavy head once or twice from side to side, as if he had just woken up and didn't know where he was. Then, slowly, his tongue came out and licked his nose.
Andalusa gripped the bars with both her hands, and almost held her breath. Boxer had his head down now, he was sniffing, half-heartedly, amongst the straw.
"There, there - there at your feet!" breathed Andalusa.
Languidly, and after the manner of a reluctant invalid, Boxer put out his tongue again, and licked the cake. Yes, Andalusa was right. He might think he was pining to death, but he couldn't resist the taste of Nestle's milk, any more than she could. She wanted to shout and skip, but she heroicly restrained herself. Not for nothing had she watched wild animals being trained.
"The cake, now the cake - eat it! No need to starve because you said you would. I say things, often I do, and take 'em back!" she whispered urgently.
Would he, or wouldn't he? He didn't seem to know his own mind. Gripping the bars with whitened fingers, Andalusa breathed a prayer. Boxer sniffed the cake, took it in his mouth, dropped it, picked it up again - and swallowed it.
Andalusa heaved an enormous sigh, and immediately became business like. "There's plenty more where that came from!" she said, smearing another piece of cake with milk. "Here y'are! But this time you can use your legs - do 'em good!"
Boxer raised his nose to sniff, and his muzzle gleamed.
"You're drivelling!" exclaimed Andalusa triumphantly. "Your mouth's watering!"
Boxer's mouth actually was watering, and what was more he was up on his legs, and shambling stiffly across to the bars.
"I could kiss you!" cried Andalusa, as, after a few hesitant rollings of his head, he took the cake from her hand.
It was easy after that, except that the milk tin was soon empty. Andalusa pushed the empty tin through the bars for Boxer to lick out, whilst she struggled to open another. She cut her fingers on the jagged tin, and blamed the bear for it.
"Here I am cutting myself to pieces for you," she said. "And are you grateful? I don't think!"
Boxer put the tip of his muzzle meekly through the bars, and Andalusa playfully smacked his nose. Then she offered him a whole big cake, dripping with sweet milk. Of course he couldn't pull it through the bars, and it fell on to the wet grass. Andalusa picked it up, broke off a fragment, and pushed it into the cage.
But she was beginning to feel cold, and also impatient. "Shall be here all night at this rate," she said, as she dribbled more cake through the bars. "If the door was open, I'd feed you good and quick."
Well, why shouldn't the door be open? The bolt was high above her reach, but that difficulty was soon overcome. A pedestal that Josef had been painting stood under an apple tree. Andalusa dragged it over, climbed on to it, and swung the door back.
Then basket and all she stepped into the cage.
"Do you know who this is?" she asked Boxer. "This is Andalusa Pagetta, the all-over-the-world famous bear-trainer. Up on your hind legs for Andalusa Pagetta, you great booby! Up, I say! Or you get no more cake from me."
Ho, ho! He was up on his hind legs, his huge body towered over her, and his long sharp claws shone silver. Andalusa wished she had an audience; then she was glad she hadn't, for though she held the cake high above her head she couldn't reach anywhere near Boxer's muzzle. He dropped on all fours, and Andalusa, to escape being bowled over by the descending avalanche, backed hurriedly against the bars. With the jerk she gave the cage door vibrated, swung slowly, swung faster - and clanged shut.
"See what you've done now!" exclaimed Andalusa reproachfully.
Boxer had his head in the basket. He had just discovered how very hungry he was. He took a tin of milk in his paws, sat on his haunches, crushed the tin open with his teeth, and tilting his head back tipped the milk down his throat. Andalusa watched him with her lips parted. She didn't feel frightened, exactly - it had been drilled into her from babyhood that a Pagett never did feel frightened - but she felt a bit awed. The great, thick-coated beast was so very big, and it looked now as if he was out to eat the world.
"Seeing that you've got your appetite back," she announced, "I think I'll be going."
Boxer took no notice whatever. The tin was over his nose, and his tongue was busy at the bottom of it. Standing tiptoe, Andalusa put up her hand to the door catch, but she kept her face to the bear as she knew a good animal trainer should.
"Good night," she said.
It was only then that she realized that the catch was a tricky one, designed to frustrate any over-curious or over-impulsive occupant of the cage. Do what she would the door would not open. She pulled, she pushed, she rattled, she jerked; forgetting the habits of all good animal trainers she turned her back on Boxer and fiddled till her fingers were sore. But the catch would not budge, and in the end she gave up trying.
"Well," she said resignedly, pushing the hair back from her face, "seems you and me's got to make a night of it."
Boxer crunched the last tin of milk between his teeth.
"There's all these bits and pieces you haven't eaten yet," said Andalusa, pointing to Boxer's discarded breakfast and supper. "May's well make a clean sweep. But if you hadn't been so greedy, I could do with a bit of cake myself."
At six in the morning, young Jacky, who had risen early to clean out the monkey cage - because he purposed to take the day off with a girl he was sweet on - burst into his parents' room shouting hysterically.
"Our Lu's in the bear's cage!"
"You're crackers!" said Tom Pagett, waked suddenly from soundest sleep and frowning incredulously. But even as he said "You're crackers," he was out of bed and pulling on his trousers.
"She is, I tell you!" cried Jacky. "She's asleep and he's asleep."
Tom Pagett was through the door by this time, and Hester was out of bed and thrusting on her dressing-gown. In less than no time everyone on the farm was assembled outside the bear's cage.
They spoke in whispers as they peered through the bars.
On his bed of straw Boxer lay full length in sleep, with his ponderous fore legs stretched, paws slightly curled, and long, murderous-looking claws carelessly extended. And between those claws and the bear's muzzle lay Andalusa, with her head on his broad chest, one arm flung across his neck, and the straw pulled up round her pyjama-clad body. There was not a morsel of food left in the cage, but on the floor there were the crushed remains of seven tins of condensed milk and a broken basket.
"Oh, my God!" whispered Hester Pagett. "When he wakes, he'll kill her!"
"I'll try and snatch her up quick," murmured Tom, "before he realizes. You all stand by with the poles."
They ran for poles. They stood with the pole ends through the bars, ready to thrust back Boxer should he wake to kill. There might be uproar enough in a few moments, but now they neither moved nor spoke. Tom reached to the cage door, opened it with scarcely a sound, and swung himself inside.
It wasn't much of a noise he made as he took a step forward, only the faintest vibration of his feet on the floor boards. But it woke Boxer. He eyed Tom Pagett, and growled.
"Easy then, easy old fellow!" said Tom.
Boxer growled again.
"He's vicious!" whispered Hester.
But Boxer wasn't really vicious; he was only feeling protective of his new companion. Perhaps it might have come to the same thing as far as Tom Pagett was concerned, but, as Boxer growled again and again, and watched Tom with unwinking eyes, Andalusa woke up.
For a moment, not finding herself in bed, she blinked in amazement. Then she took in the situation: her father's stealthy inching forward, the tense faces outside the cage, the pole ends at the ready, poked through the bars. Yes, she took it all in, and the long generations of her circus ancestry seemed epitomised in the magnificent gesture with which she rose to her feet.
"You're ignorant," she announced superbly. "The whole boiling of you's ignorant. You don't know how to manage bears! Eat? 'Course he'll eat! Fetch me some bread, and I'll show you!"
"Come out, Lu, come out for God's sake!" pleaded Hester.
Andalusa gave her mother a queenly smile. Then she stooped and patted Boxer's head.
"I'll bring your breakfast d'reckly," she told him. "You aren't going to be sent packing, not today, nor yet tomorrow."
Tom Pagett watched every movement, poised to leap forward at whatever risk to his life, should Boxer turn nasty. But Boxer was feeling full and contented. He had wakened into a realization that life was pleasant, and that he was not friendless after all. He seemed to understand now that his new playmate was not being wrenched from him, but was merely removing herself temporarily and of her own free will. He lifted his massive head and licked her fingers. Then he dropped his head to the straw again and stretched luxuriously.
Andalusa walked proudly to the cage door, and Josef lifted her down. Tom Pagett stepped out after her, and clanged the door shut. Now that the crisis was over, a great burst of laughter seemed to be welling up inside him. Laughter and, yes, pride.
"Out Lu, she doesn't know what fear means," he thought. "And she's got personality. She'll be a stunner on Pagett's come by and by!"
He turned away so that Andalusa should not see how he gloried in her, for she was minx enough already.
But Hester pounced on her small daughter, doubled Andalusa's head under her arm, and began to smack her. The smacking was by no means a light one, Hester had a strong hand and arm, and she was relieving her feelings. However, Andalusa's sense of showmanship did not desert her. The chastisement was taking place in full view of her friend the bear - indeed, as he got up and padded uneasily to the front of the cage, he might be said to have a front seat for the performance. Andalusa peeped at him from under Hester's arm, and her sharp little face, though it shook to the rhythm of the smacking, wore a look both impudent and triumphant.
"Told you I was tough, didn't I?" she shrilled. "Now you see I wasn't speaking a lie... I can take it!"
RUTH MANNING-SANDERS. 1947.
The grandfather of the present Ginnett family died. The eldest son, Frederick, took charge. The three brothers worked under him. Mr. Frederick married a young lady from Stratford-on-Avon. She was a perfect lady. I was about seventeen at this time. Mrs. Ginnett invited her sister to travel with the show. She was a nice young lady. I never took any notice of her. I had no idea of speaking. She was there when I practised. I thought more of improving in my business. Now this young lady began sowing the seeds of love. She made me love her. She subdued me. It took me longer to learn to ride than it took me to learn to love. I really thought it was a waste of time. It interested the young lady more than it did me; so after a time this young lady gave me up. She made it up and became friends again. She treated me in this manner three times. I was in the dark way. I found out I had a rival. Really, I did not worry over it. Jealousy was a stranger to me. She returned all the presents I gave her. I consoled myself by thinking I was ignorant in the art of love-making. I troubled not. After two months this lady threw down the gauntlet. Like a fool I picked it up. This young lady got on speaking terms. I could not be rude to her, so I spoke. I gave way. Oh, it was terrible! I went over the same ground again. It was a trouble to me. Whenever she mentioned marriage I changed the subject. After a lot of persuasion I let her have her own way. We were at Brighton. Well, she named the day and made all the arrangements. We were to be married at twelve o' clock. I was in bed. The landlady came and called me, and said: "You know you are going to be married. It's now eleven-fifteen. Get up quick!" I went without breakfast and finished dressing in the carriage going to church. I did not take it seriously. I was trapped for life. So I made my mind up to put up with the consequence; so there was an end of that chapter.
My Circus Life, 1925
I must give the following concerning Johnny Wells, which happened in Manchester: he appeared for the first time in the well known act of Shaw, the Lifeguardsman, which his father had been carefully teaching him for many days. At the finish of this act Shaw is killed by someone firing a pistol from the outside of the ring. He falls across the horse, and is so carried out. To give the act a more realistic appearance, when the pistol is fired the rider representing Shaw presses a sponge, soaked with red paint or dye, to his forehead, to make it appear like blood. All went well until the dying scene, when Johnny, having forgotten to take the sponge with him, on being shot and falling across his horse, suddenly started up at this solemn moment (when he ought to be dying) in anything but a martial way, and to the surprise and laughter of the public and performers, cried out, each time his horse passed the ring doors, where Mr. Wells was peeping through the curtains - "Father, father, where's the blood?"
Circus Life and Amusements, 1879
The same season I called at a town called Fethard, Co. Tipperary. The show got in the town early, and we got the tent up and all ready by nine o'clock. A messenger came to me from the parish priest, saying that he would like to see me. I went and saw him.
He said: "Indeed, Mr. Lloyd, I am very sorry, for you will do no business today for the Bishop of Cashel arrives today from Rome, bringing the Pope's blessing to the people of Ireland. I hope you will not have procession; I am afraid it would interfere with our arrangements."
Now I grasped at the situation. Before he could say another word I said: "I am sorry I have forty horses, nine ponies and fifty people and a band. Whatever you suggest, it shall be done. I place myself in your hands."
I knew the Irish well. The priest was surprised. I asked what time the Bishop would arrive. The priest said 3.30 p.m. I also said: "With your permission my band shall meet the Bishop at the station."
The priest was pleased with that. Just the thing he wanted to complete the reception. I struck the right note.
The priest said: "Let your band be on the platform at three-fifteen." He asked what tunes would they play. I said, "Leave that to me."
My band that year wore red coats and white hats, and were eight in number. The town was crammed with people. The band marched and played to the station. When there they played selections. I could play the cornet, and I acted as leader. The train arrived. My band played, "Home, Sweet Home," "Auld Lang Syne" and "St. Patrick's Day." The Bishop put his head out of the carriage window. He was surprised. He got into his carriage and drove twice round the town - the band was marching in front playing its loudest and best. We stopped at the parish priest's house. The Bishop got on the balcony and addressed the people, delivering the Pope's message.
After the Bishop gave his blessing he asked: "Where did you get that band from?"
He thought the English soldiers were there to arrest him. He was told it was the circus band. He publicly thanked me.
Before my band left they played a selection. The Bishop told the people not to get drunk, but to go to the circus and enjoy themselves. My circus was crammed. This was in all the Irish papers the next day.
My Circus Life, 1925
I suppose it was destiny that I should be a clown because I was born in a circus wagon. It happened in this way. My mother had been a première dancer on the French and English stage and had appeared in many of the great Covent Garden and Drury Lane Christmas pantomimes, but she grew stout, which is always fatal to that kind of dancing. She did not want to leave my father, who was also a dancer and general acrobat, so they invested their savings in a small circus.
In those days - it was more than fifty years ago - Europe was alive with small circuses; most of them very modest, but all furnishing a very popular form of amusement. There were few, if any, theatres scattered throughout the country. Only city folk could enjoy the benefits and pleasures of plays. It followed that the great mass of the country people flocked to the circus, and the coming of one of them was an event. Often the circus showed in a large enclosure built for meetings and public entertainments. There was no top to the structure and in case of rain the people either went home or ran the risk of spoiling their clothes for the privilege of remaining. The shows travelled from town to town in wagons, much smaller but not unlike the big red creaking wagons of the modern American circus.
Up to that time the menagerie was not considered necessary to the circus, but it was good business to have at least one cage with a wild beast in it. My mother's circus had a performing lion who was a sort of patriarch. He was so amiable that he would eat out of the hand of a child and he was so gentle that he had to be prodded into a roar. The circus bill included several acrobatic acts, a juggler, a sleight-of-hand worker, and the faithful lion who was both useful and ornamental. My mother, who was as clever in business as she had been with her toes, managed the show and my father was the principal performer. It was a happy-go-lucky life, this wandering from town to town, in the pleasant sunshine by day and under the stars by night.
During the year so fateful to me our little show had travelled through the south of France and made its way into Spain. On a clear, hot July Sunday we reached Galicia and camped on the edge of a wood. It was there that I was born. My mother and father cooked, ate, and slept in one of the wagons which was for years the travelling home of the family. My mother always told me that the first thing I saw when my little eyes gazed out of the wagon was old Albro, the French clown, who sat in the sun whitening his face for the afternoon performance. My than once my baby cries mingled with the rude jests he hurled at the audiences. He was often my nurse and he told me wonderful stories of his travels in foreign countries. I toddled about the wagons and often slept under the very hoofs of the horses. When I cried late at night my mother would take me out near the lion's cage and tell me that the old fellow would come out and roar if I did not stop. I never cried during the performances, but lay in my little bed in the wagon charmed by the music. I was, in truth, a child of the circus.
Autobiography of a Clown. As told to Isaac F. Marcosson, 1915
After Pablo Fanque's Circus changed hands, I joined John Powell's show at Bristol, but finding there was no money accepted an engagement with a circus called "Rettort" (spell the word backwards and you will find it is "Trotter") which was going to give a performance on Easter Monday at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham. I tramped it from Bristol to London, loaded with my properties - a dancing spade, a long pair of stilts, a short pair ditto and a little portmanteau.
The mistress of the circus was a Mrs. Bonfantie, and I looked her up on Easter Sunday at the Half Moon Hotel, Hammersmith, where she was staying. I was nearly bootless and with ten shillings she lent me I went off to the New Cut and bought a pair of patent leather shoes for 2s. 11½d. Early in Easter Monday I set out to walk to the Crystal Palace. It rained all the way and by the time I reached the palace my patent leathers had turned out to be brown paper and the soles had to be tied together with string. No matter, I went into the ring just the same.
The circus was in the grounds, and the tent was crowded, the people being glad of the shelter out of the pouring rain. The seats being soddened with wet, the audience stood upon them, the supports slipped in the soft muddy ground, and then the seats collapsed. The scared crowd rushed into the arena, and I in my clown's dress got considerably mixed up. That was the last of Trotter's Circus as far as I was concerned - only one day.
In those happy-go-lucky times nothing seemed to matter. Some money was due to me from Trotter's, and their lawyer called at the coffee house, Westminster Bridge Road, where I had put up, and paid me a bright golden sovereign. I owed for my board and lodging and also for a washing bill. Which should I pay? "Toss up," said Johnny Purvis, my pal. We stood under a lamp post (it was night). I tossed, muffed it and it disappeared into the gutter! It was an agonising moment. Anyhow, we found the coin, but whether we paid the coffee house or the washing I can't remember.
The next few years was a jumble of odd experiences. Once I was with Croueste and Nella's Circus at Blackburn. Business was very bad, so the proprietor of the circus asked me if I would do a double somersault over the horses as he thought that would bring a good house, and I agreed to do so after I'd had some practice. Bills were printed with the announcement in large type: "Greatest wonder in the world! The Little Clown will turn a double somersault in mid-air over five horses before alighting on his feet." We only had three horses but that didn't matter. The night came off for this wonderful feat. The house was packed. I had practised the double somersault about half a dozen times and had got on all right. However, I suppose on the night I was over excited. I hit the vaulting board a terrific thump, and I went up in the air. How many somersaults I turned I don't know, but my head came down on the ring fence and broke it (the fence I mean). I got up, smiled, and they led me out of the ring. I was bad for about three weeks, and I never tried that game again.
I remember another unexpected accident at the same circus. A performer of the slack rope had been engaged and we boys at practice in the morning thought we would try this trick. I was wearing little top boots and I put on a pair of what we call "slings" - fastenings which, attached to the ropes, enabled the performer to attempt certain feats without the risk of falling - round my top boots. The boys gave the rope a good swing and I started doing somersaults, thinking I couldn't fall as I had the slings on. "Try the 'throw out,' " shouted my pals below - that is, whirl myself head downwards. I did try, and to my horror I came out of my top boots and went crash down. Luckily I fell on the seats, and I got up without even a scratch on me. Meanwhile, my top boots were dangling in the air, and just as I was going to get them my master came in and said, "What's this?" I told him what I had done. Result - a lovely hiding for trying to do another man out of his performance. That taught me a lesson!
While I was with Croueste and Nella two things happened on the same day which fixed themselves on my memory. One was not of much importance, the other was a terrible business. The circus was at Bolton, and by this time I was getting on in my teens and had begun to fancy myself considerably. I saw myself a full-blown "pro" and had visions of an overcoat with an astrakhan collar, wide bell-bottomed trousers, my hat stuck on one side, and with all the airs which the budding actor then affected. I was well satisfied with my general appearance save in one respect. I could not grow a moustache and this made me look younger than I really was.
The great drawback to my youthful aspect in my eyes was that the girls took no notice of me. All my circus pals of my own age could get sweethearts without any difficulty, but never a one had I. I persuaded myself or my friends persuaded me that the cause was the absence of hair on my face. They worked zealously on my behalf, but whether this zeal was genuine I have now reason to doubt, though I thought it was all right at the time.
To begin with they got some stuff from a druggist which I had to rub on my face. I rubbed and rubbed, but nothing came of it. Then Joe Smith, one of the circus men, said to me, "Why don't you go and get shaved?"
"What's the good?" said I, "there's so little to shave."
"That's nothing to do with it. The more your face is scraped the quicker your moustache will grow."
Acting on the advice of this authority I paid a visit to a Bolton barber. His charge was not high, it was only a halfpenny. Plucking up my courage I went into the dirty little barber's shop, looking round before entering to see if anyone was seeing me going in. I saw a miserable old man about eighty, and directly he caught sight of me he called out roughly, "What do you want?" and I told him. He got a filthy dirty towel and put it round my neck, and I began to feel horribly nervous. I'd been reading about Sweeney Todd, the barber of Fleet Street, and I wished I was out of the shop. He got the brush (I will never forget the brush - if you call it a brush) and he put some stuff on the brush supposed to be soap (I don't know what it was). He was very shortsighted and he lathered my face, not forgetting my eyes, my nostrils and my mouth.
After scrubbing my face for a minute or two he turned round and began stropping a razor, accompanied by a loud muttering, which I thought sounded like "N-ow-ow!" Maybe it was his cough, anyhow to me he was Sweeney Todd! In a flash I was out of the chair - through the door and running down the streets with the soap stuff on my face, scraping it out of my eyes, out of my nostrils, spitting it out of my mouth, and I ran until I became exhausted. At the show (it was a penny circus by the way) Joe Smith enquired anxiously whether I'd had a shave yet. "No," said I stoutly, "and I don't want one." Nor did I. So much for the unimportant event of that night.
Bolton fair was on and later, when the various shows were closing we heard a frightful screaming. It was then nearly eleven o'clock. We rushed out of the circus on to the fair ground and saw a crowd pouring from Mander's menagerie shrieking with terror. Feeling that some dreadful disaster had happened we ran up the steps to the entrance and into the menagerie.
Our fears were too truly realised. A terrible tragedy met our eyes. The lion tamer, Mr. Macmart, was being worried and mauled by his lions. He had been giving a sort of extra show after the ordinary public performance was over, to amuse a party of students, and no red-hot irons were handy. What had happened was this: One of Mr. Macmart's tricks was for the lioness to lie at his feet while he put his foot on one of the lions. By a great mischance he stumbled over the lioness and fell, and directly he was on the ground the lions leaped at him.
I shall never forget to my dying day the terrible scene. One beast was at the poor man's head and the other at his feet, roaring and snarling like two dogs over a bone - it was frightful. We fired revolvers with blank cartridges, hoping to make them desist, but it was in vain. However, at last we got him out by dividing the cage into three parts by the shutters provided for the purpose, but it was too late, the poor fellow died within twenty minutes. He was an Irishman with one arm and for some reason the lion had probably taken a dislike to him, as a few years before the same creature attacked him and so injured his arm that it had to be amputated.
Among other engagements in my teens was one with Powell and Clarke's Circus, during which time the Southamption Circus was let to a preacher, for Sunday service. It so happened that young Powell had just bought a reece monkey off a sailor, and on a certain Sunday morning, when the circus was crowded to hear a noted preacher, the monkey got loose and crept very gently to where the reverend gentleman was. There was no viciousness in the monkey, but he just pulled the reverend gentleman's trouser leg. The clergyman naturally turned to see the cause, dropped the hymn book as though it were red-hot, and with one jump was across the ring and through the stable door quicker than I can tell you, his flock scooting off after him. That finished the preaching in the circus.
Some time after this, when I was at the Theatre Royal, Manchester, Mr. Levy, the manager of Sanger's Circus in Deansgate, asked me if I would appear for his benefit, and I got permission from my manager to do so. The night came. I did my clown's business and after I had finished I returned to my dressing-room. I was just undressing, when I heard the door locked, and the next moment I saw something move in the distance in the corner of my dark dressing-room. It was one of the lions. I was so frightened that I lost speech. I made myself as little as I could and did a bit of horizontal bar on the rafters, and after being there about ten minutes, the door was unlocked. It was just a practical joke and I think the lion was more alarmed than even I was. It took about three or four men to shove him out: he was so old, poor old dear! This poor lion was as docile as a kitten, but I was not supposed to know that!
Some sort of joking was always going on among the boys. I remember once at Astley's we let four of the lions loose one evening for a lark. It was more of a lark than we bargained for. Lions wanted catching in a large place like that - and at last we had to beg Cooper, the lion tamer, to get them back in their cage.
Another practical joke and I come to the end of my boyish "whimsicalities."
There was a clown once with Adams' Circus called Nat Emmatt, and he had a performing goat. Nat was always very nasty to us boys, was always getting us in trouble, and we determined to get our own back. On one occasion Emmatt was in the ring and his goat was waiting at the wing doors to go in the arena. Now this goat had a funny little tail, and we tied a halfpenny squib to the excrescence, set the squib alight and sent him in the arena. The antics that goat performed with "bang, bang" going at his latter end, and the fury of Nat Emmatt, sent the audience into convulsions. Of course, they thought it was part of the show. A reward was offered to find out who frightened the goat, but the culprit was never discovered.
From Sawdust to Windsor Castle, 1922
"I started walking the high wire soon after our Isle of Man tours. I liked that, and took to walking across lakes - "
"Took to what?" I asked.
"Walking across lakes," replied Dennis as casually as if he had said "streets." "I walked across the North Park Lake, Cardiff, once. It looks pretty spectacular, but after all it's only wire-walking."
"Quite," I assented, "just wire-walking."
The Circus has no Home, 1941
The American of that day was a singular mixture of depravity and righteousness. He saw no particular harm in state lotteries and wildcat banks, but when a circus came to town he locked his children indoors rather than have their innocent eyes behold the immoral spectacle of a circus parade.
Some showmen are of the opinion that the menagerie and the street parade were introduced to circumvent this prejudice. The parade attracted the people to the circus, and the menagerie afforded an excuse for "taking the children to see the animals." Yet in the face of ministerial denunciation the circus was a break in the dreary monotony of dull and uneventful lives, and people flocked to tent shows as though drawn by some overmastering spell.
That very spell was characterized as of the devil, and in certain sections of the Middle West one may still find benighted folk who believe that the circus is Satan's own show. Here is an example of how that idea may have arisen.
One season when the John Robinson show was playing a small town in Missouri, its lot was next to a negro church. The preacher objected to having temptation put right under the noses of his congregation, but the town officials refused to move the circus to another location. The clergyman, however, was determined to protect his flock, and on the night of the show held a service which was attended by about a dozen persons. The sexton tried to drown out the circus band by tolling the church bell.
Uncle John Robinson rode four horses in what was called the "Bottle Imp" act. Made up as his Satanic Majesty, he galloped his steeds around the ring whooping and yelling until the audience was beside itself and ready to take an oath that he was one of the devil's own children.
At the completion of his act, Robinson slipped out of the tent just as the clergyman was as the height of his denunciation of the goings-on next door. He was shouting and ranting that, if he could only get his hands on the devil who had humiliated them by bringing this unholy performance to their very doorstep, he would tear him to pieces. At that moment Robinson, in all the trappings of the Prince of Darkness, stepped inside the room and in a loud voice cried out:
"I am victorious. I am victorious. I've got a bigger crowd than you have."
The clergyman forgot entirely his desire to annihilate the devil and dived head first through the nearest window. His congregation followed him in a wild scramble through the woods.
This Way to the Big Show, 1936
In Birmingham almost everybody knew Jemmy Ryan (as he was called there), and respected him greatly. He was many years proprietor of one of the best circuses in England, and made Bristol and Birmingham his chief quarters. A season in Birmingham, or Onion Fair without Ryan's Circus, was a thing in those days unknown. Jemmy Ryan made and finally lost a great deal of money. He was a little, thick-set man, of fine build and appearance; but had the misfortune to have partly lost the sight of one eye, and was what is vulgarly called "cock-eyed." He was the cleverest rope dancer the world has ever seen; and as a general performer, good at riding, tumbling, and every line of business. In his time (and perhaps since) he never had an equal. He was so successful in Birmingham with his temporary wooden building, that he determined to build a permanent brick structure. As is often the case with circus directors who have made money in temporary circuses, and have established permanent ones in provincial towns, Ryan, after spending a lot of money in his Birmingham building, through lack of patronage was ruined by it. It has since been converted into a chapel - retaining the name, I believe, of the Circus Chapel; and illustrating the adage believed in by circus proprietors, that it is dangerous to dabble with bricks and mortar. The Amphitheatre at Liverpool (built by the elder Cooke), and the Holborn Amphitheatre, London, were never successful; nor will they answer for equestrian establishments.
Circus Life and Amusements, 1879
George Sanger's parents were Wiltshire people; his father, "press-ganged" at eighteen, served ten years afloat, and fought (and was severely wounded) in the Victory at Trafalgar; from which event, and his consequent retirement on a pension of £10 per annum, we date his entry into the show business, with a self-made peep-show he could carry on his back. As described by his son, he seems to have been a man of fine character. But the father, though reaching out at times in this direction and that, remained faithful in the main to the peep-show with which he had first challenged fortune. It was young George who was always the climber, the aspirant, the seeker after new things. While still a boy, he must needs start his own little show, which, composed of performing canaries, redpolls and white mice, strengthened later by two tame hares, bore in it the seed of the mighty circuses and menageries that were to follow. At eighteen he was on the road with a travelling van of his own; when about twenty-six he entered the great circus-world, and passed from success to success, their culmination being the purchase of the famous Astley's Theatre in 1871. Followed his Continental tours and triumphs, during which, as he used to boast, his circuses travelled the roads of every country in Europe except Russia; and thereafter he was not so much a man as an institution - and a British institution too.
Mr. Sanger, like a good showman, married in the profession, choosing for his bride the popular Lion Queen of a rival establishment, somewhat to the disgust of the rival establishment, who evidently held, not unnaturally, that showmen ought to marry their own Lion Queens, instead of poaching on those of other people. She made as good a wife as she had made a Lion Queen - who dares to say that an early training is ever entirely wasted? - and when, after forty-eight years of happy married life, he lost her, he pays touching tribute to all that she had been to him, both in solid worth and in affection. "Lovers to the last," he says - and that is saying not a little.
In 1905, Mr. Sanger, finding himself approaching his eightieth year, sold up all his circuses and animals, and finally retired from active business, settling down on his farm at East Finchley; and there it might have been expected he would end his days peacefully, looking back, in his well-earned repose, on many golden memories of past struggles and successes. Fate ordered otherwise. Many will remember the tragedy. In 1911 a manservant in his employ, of a sullen and revengeful disposition, fired by some real or fancied grievance over which he had probably brooded long, suddenly ran amok, as it were, attacked two fellow man-servants, wounding one of them severely, and battered the life out of poor old Mr. Sanger with a hatchet.
In so piteous a fashion passed away the famous old showman, the gallant and kindly of spirit, the friend and benefactor of all poor travelling show-people, the founder of the Showmen's Guild, the author of an autobiography which contains not an unkind word of anybody.
Introduction to "Lord" George Sanger's Seventy Years a Showman, 1926
When the Amphitheatre closed, Ducrow took his company and stud to Sheffield, where he had an immense structure of a temporary character erected for their performances. He ruined the prospect of a successful provincial season, however, by indulgence of his overbearing disposition, which manifested itself on all occasions, in and out of the arena. The Master Cutler and Town Council determined to patronize the circus officially, and appeared at the head of a cortège of between forty and fifty carriages, containing the principal manufacturers and their families. But, on the Master Cutler sending his card to Ducrow, in the anticipation of being personally received, Ducrow replied, through one of his subordinates, that he only waited upon crowned heads, and not upon a set of dirty knife-grinders. The astounded and indignant chief magistrate immediately ordered his coachman to turn about, and the entire cavalcade returned to the Town Hall, where a ball was improvised, instead of the intended visit to the circus. Thus Ducrow's prospects in the hardware borough were ruined by his own hasty temper and overbearing disposition.
Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, 1875
One of the advertisements of Astley's performances for 1772, one of the very few that can be found of that early date, is as follows:-
"Horsemanship and New Feats of Activity, This and every evening at six, Mr. and Mrs. Astley, Mrs. Griffiths, Costmethopila, and a young Gentleman, will exhibit several extraordinary feats on one, two, three, and four horses, at the foot of Westminster Bridge.
"These feats of activity are in number upwards of fifty; to which is added the new French piece, the different characters by Mr. Astley, Griffiths, Costmethopila, &c. Each will be dressed and mounted on droll horses.
"Between the acts of horsemanship, a young gentleman will exhibit several pleasing heavy balances, particularly this night, with a young Lady nine years old, never performed before in Europe; after which Mr. Astley will carry her on his head in a manner different from all others. Mrs. Astley will likewise perform with two horses in the same manner as she did before their Majesties of England and France, being the only one of her sex that ever had that honour. The doors to be opened at five, and begin at six o'clock. A commodious gallery, 120 feet long, is fitted up in an elegant manner. Admittance there as usual.
"N.B. Mr. Astley will display the broad-sword, also ride on a single horse, with one foot on the saddle, the other on his head, and every other feat which can be exhibited by any other. With an addition of twenty extraordinary feats, such as riding on full speed, with his head on a common pint pot, at the rate of twelve miles an hour, &c.
"To specify the particulars of Mr. Astley's performance would fill this side of paper, therefore please ask for a bill at the door, and see that the number of fifty feats are performed, Mr. Astley having placed them in acts as the performance is exhibited. The amazing little Military Horse, which fires a pistol at the word of command, will this night exhibit upwards of twenty feats in a manner far superior to any other, and meets with the greatest applause."
Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, 1875
When in 1846 Ernest Renz started his "Cirque Equestre" in the Hippodrome of the Sophienstrasse in Berlin, the public had been used to the very high standard of the French circuses which has practically a monopoly in Germany. During the first ten years of his activity in Berlin, Renz had to struggle against these rivals. His fight was only one aspect of a wider movement which was then taking place in Germany. An immensely wide choice was offered to the Berlin public. They could see the Frenchman Cuzent, Lejars, Lagoutte, Tournaire, Dejean, Loisset; The Englishmen and Americans Price, Belling, Boorns, Chapman; the Spaniard Guerra and a crowd of balloonists, magicians, tight-rope walkers and Chinese. There were also ambitiously staged cabinets of physics and monkey theatres. Renz soon defeated all his competitors by his excellent stud and by the quality of the performers whom he gathered from many countries. Every star passed through his circus. He had only one dangerous rival, the Parisian Dejean, who had his own building in Berlin where he gave the choicest turns. In Breslau, Hamburg and Dresden Renz issued victoriously from the contest. At last he compelled the Frenchman to leave Berlin also, and took over Dejean's Circus, which was at the time the most comfortable in Europe.
Renz remained there for twenty-five years, after which he moved several times, until, in 1879, he went to the big theatre which his circus still occupies. Old Renz died in 1892, and his son Franz took over the direction. When in 1896 the Renz Circus celebrated its jubilee, it was absolutely without a rival in Germany. The 235 fine horses in its stables were trained to a pitch of perfection rarely seen nowadays. The most gorgeous pantomimes, ballets and riding performances were given at Renz's. One is amazed at the international array of artists who performed there at that time. There were such riders as Loisset, Bridges, Drouin, Guerras, Monnet, O'Brien, Petzold, Rasch, Richard, Baucher, Fillis, Hager; such acrobats, clowns, and aerial performers as Conrad, the Cotrellys, Dare, Delevanti, Godlevsky, Olschansky, Godfroy, Lee, Wheel, Belling, Bradbury, Qualitz; the lion-tamer Senide, her colleague Batty, the elephant-trainer Thomson. Never since has there been such a collection of stars to draw the people in their millions.
A. H. KOBER.
Star Turns, 1928
I dare say, some of you have heard of M. Ducrow, that celebrated gentleman who rides on six horses. What a prodigious achievement! It seems impossible; but you have confidence in Ducrow. You fly to witness it; unfortunately one of the horses is ill, and a donkey is substituted in its place. But Ducrow is still admirable: there he is bounding along in spangled jacket and cork slippers! The whole town is mad to see Ducrow riding at the same time on six horses; but now two more of the steeds are seized with the staggers, and lo! three jackasses in their stead! Still Ducrow persists, and still announces to the public that he will ride round his circus every night on six steeds. At last, all the horses are knocked up, and now there are half-a-dozen donkeys. What a change! Behold the hero in the amphitheatre, the spangled jacket thrown on one side, the cork slippers on the other. Puffing, panting, and perspiring, he pokes one sullen brute, thwacks another, cuffs a third, and curses a fourth, while one brays to the audience, and another rolls in the sawdust. Behold the late Prime Minister and the Reform Ministry! The spirited and snow-white steeds have gradually changed into an equal number of sullen and obstinate donkeys; while Mr. Merryman, who, like the Lord Chancellor, was once the very life of the ring, now lies his despairing length in the middle of the stage, with his jokes exhausted, and his bottle empty.
Disraeli, In a speech at High Wycombe, 1836
Thomas Batty, the renowned lion-tamer (known in all the capitals of Europe), was with us, and was an immense draw. The lions were so savage that his encounter with them seemed like a real combat; and it was this danger that attracted such crowds. I truly believe many people went with the hope of some terrible accident taking place.
Once, in Hamburg, on the occasion of his benefit, his uncle (the famous Batty, of Astley's) sent him a glittering spangled dress that you could see yourself in like a mirror. Putting this on he entered the cage, and turning his back on one of the lions (which saw its face reflected on the dress) it put its paws on him, and, as quick as thought, tore the dress off him and scored his back. The audience were paralysed to see him there, half naked, with blood streaming down his back, and struggling with the lion. Turning round he belaboured the lion with the butt end of his gun (which he always carried), and backed himself out of the cage. He then put on the dress he usually performed in, and would have re-entered the cage had not the police and the audience prevented him. The performance was stopped, and Batty went to a doctor's to have his wounds dressed. The same lions afterwards killed Lucas, in Paris: and have, I believe, been the cause of many accidents. No person ever had such command over them as Batty. He has now given up lion-performing, and is proprietor of a circus in England.
Circus Life and Amusements, 1879
Mr. Cooke, one of the latest managers of Astley's Amphitheatre, had the idea of applying the resources and pomps peculiar to this theatre to Shakespeare's historical plays. He accordingly brought out here Richard III, and for the first time, the hump-backed Richard was seen on the stage, surrounded by his staff on horseback, and himself mounted on that famous steed, "White Surrey," whose name Shakespeare has immortalized. The noble animal marched bravely through the battle, and died with an air of truth that quite affected the spectators. Encouraged by this success, Astley's company next appeared in Henry IV and Macbeth. I will not assert that Shakespeare's plays thus converted into equestrian pieces satisfied all artistic conditions; but when I look at the moral effect, I cannot but applaud the experiment. Astley's is the theatre of the people; here the Eastend workmen, costermongers and orange-women, come to seek a few hours of recreation after the fatigues and struggles of a rough day's toil. Shakespeare's plays - decorated rather than well performed, and hidden by processions and cavalcades, which, perhaps, denaturalized their character, but which, after all, were adapted to the instincts of a class of the population which lives specially on what strikes its eyes - at any rate allowed some portion of the poetical horizon to be brought within their view.
English at Home, 1862.
Whilst the acrobat was endeavouring to become a man of the world, the man of the world was becoming an excellent acrobat. The "governing classes" determined to have their Léotard. The gentleman quitted his stall in the circus to ascend the pad and the trapeze.
Lieutenant Viaud - in literature Pierre Loti - was one of the first to achieve this metamorphosis.
Those who have read his novels with a little attention will know the high value he places on human beauty. Azyadée particularly, contains whole pages, infinitely curious, a little disquieting, very pagan in their candour, in which gymnastics are extolled with technical knowledge and lyric warmth.
M. Pierre Loti thinks, with Platonics, that the body should be formed and embellished with as much refinement as the intelligence. Certain of the superiority of his mind, he wished that this cerebral strength should be served by the muscles of an athlete, and worked with indefatigable patience to correct in himself the weakness of nature.
And he has really transformed his body by the practice of gymnastics. Now, well set up, although of medium height, he produces an impression of strength and agility. One feels that in him exists that spring of elasticity which raises a body from the soil and wrests it from the laws of gravitation.
And indeed, or so it has been said, Pierre Loti joined a troupe of acrobats a few years ago, and appeared as a trapeze "novelty" in a circus in the south of France.
HUGUES LE ROUX AND JULES GARNIER.
Acrobats and Mountebanks, 1890
I am compelled to confess, and I believe it will be owned, that cheapness at home is often thought of more than talent; and that travelling circuses have of late years greatly degenerated in England, more especially since the time when famous pugilists were introduced into them, to the detriment and injury of the real equestrian artiste, who is now very seldom connected with them. As the outside show or procession is the chief attraction, his services are dispensed with; and the clever artiste is now only to be found in buildings in England or in circuses abroad, where he gets better paid and enjoys more comfort.
Many circuses that travel daily are so glaringly puffed and gagged, and the entertainments presented are so mediocre, that the public, having no further faith in them, fight shy of all such exhibitions, and refuse to patronize them. For this directors have only themselves to blame, as legitimacy in the end is the safest card to play.
To see the circus in all its glory one must visit the Continent, where it enjoys a distinguished popularity. Perhaps it is better conducted and more highly appreciated in Germany than in any other nation, the circus there holding as high a position as Italian opera in England. The name of Renz in Germany, as the first equestrian director in the world, is as celebrated as Bismarck's himself, - no director or manager in England being so well known or possessing so much property. In Berlin he is as popular as the king. The name alone, without giving the name of an artiste, is sufficient to cause overflowing houses, the public well knowing they will be served with a superior bill of fare. After Renz comes Coure's, Salamousky's, and Ciniselli's circuses, establishments that can boast of a stud of 100 superior horses and the best English and foreign artistes. (Note.- Since this was written, however, Salamousky, by the splendid circus he has erected in Berlin, has risen to be the first and principal director in the world.) In the large towns, handsome stone buildings are erected and devoted expressly to the noble equestrian art; and kunstreiters (equestrians) hold as high and commanding a position in Germany at the present time as ever they did in the ancient Roman hippodromes.
London, which is the largest, is also the only City in Europe of note that cannot boast a permanent circus. Could permission be granted by the authorities, as in other nations, to erect a national circus in the waste space in Leicester Square, or a summer building in one of our parks (as in the Champs-Elysées at Paris), where the building would show itself and bespeak the nature of its entertainment, an ornament to the place, and conducted on the foreign principle, with handsome stables thrown open to the public (an indulgence the English have not yet received), I am certain equestrianism would become as popular and as fashionable in England as abroad. Many first-class companies, and the first artistes in the world, have paid occasional visits to London, but have never had a fair chance of displaying their abilities, or of securing patronage, through the cramped or unsuitable place they have been located in.
Circus Life and Amusements, 1879
Astley's Amphitheatre, as it is called, though it has undergone various transformations since the death of its founder, is still a celebrated place for equestrian performances, exhibitions of trained ponies, elephants, dancing the tight rope, and even wild beasts, more or less tamed. I saw performed there a grand spectacle, in which appeared a lion that had killed a man on the night before. This painful circumstance, as may be believed, added a feeling of sadness and a species of tragic interest to the performance. The principal actor - I mean the lion - expressed no remorse for what he had done on the previous night; his face was calm and even benignant; he performed his part as if nothing had happened, and he followed the lion conqueror (Van Amburgh) through the various situations of the piece.
English at Home, 1862
This charger was called the "Spanish Horse," and lived to the age of 42 in his service. Mr. W. Davies, the present proprietor and manager of the Royal Amphitheatre, was so fond of this same horse from its wonderful tractability and extreme docility, that when, from his loss of teeth by age, he was unable to eat his corn; and from a lively remembrance of his former services, he very humanely (and such feelings do honour to the heart of humanized society), allowed the decrepit, aged, and nearly worn-out animal, out of his own private purse two quartern loaves per day.
N.B. This beast was accustomed, at a public performance, to ungirt his own saddle, wash his feet in a pail of water, fetch and carry a complete tea equipage, with many other strange things. He would take a kettle of boiling water off a flaming fire, and acted in fact after the manner of a waiter at a tavern or tea gardens.
At last, nature being exhausted, he died in the common cause of it, and Mr. Davis, with an idea to perpetuate the animal's memory, caused the hide to be tanned and made into a thunder-drum which now stands on the prompt side of the theatre, and when its rumbling sounds die on the ear of those who know the circumstance, it serves to their recollection as his "parting knell".
London at this time of year is as nauseous a drug as any in an apothecary's shop. I could find nothing at all to do, and so went to Astley's, which, indeed, was much beyond my expectation. I did not wonder any longer that Darius was chosen king by the instructions he gave to his horse, nor that Caligula made his horse consul. Astley can make his dance minuets and hornpipes. But I shall not have even Astley now; Her Majesty the Queen of France, who has as much taste as Caligula, has sent for the whole of the dramatis personae to Paris.
In a letter to Lord Strafford dated Sept. 12th, 1783
The old custom had always been for the showmen to draw into the town to take up their pitches the day before the fair. But authorities had come into power who did not recognize old customs, and who, moreover, desired as one of them said, "to keep the vagabond showmen in their place."
The Mayor of Warminster, who was a man of very narrow opinions, looked upon show-people as little better than emissaries of the Evil One, and resolved to harass them accordingly. He had been told by his clerk, or some other wiseacre, that if the showmen drew into town the night before the fair and slept in their caravans, as the latter were in no sense houses, they could be arrested for the atrocious crime of "sleeping out," and so dealt with as "rogues and vagabonds."
My father on this particular night had, therefore, no sooner got warm in bed in his caravan, which lay on the outskirts of the fair, than down came the beadle of the parish with his three-cornered hat and gilt staff and two assistants and arrested him. They also from an adjoining caravan took Richard Hunter, who had a travelling museum, and then conveyed their two protesting prisoners to the lock-up.
The next morning they were brought before the Bench and duly charged with sleeping out as against the "statute made and provided." The mayor, who presided, read them a long lecture in the iniquity of their calling, and said that in order to show the other caravan dwellers the pains and penalties their "irregular" mode of life rendered them liable to he had resolved to treat the prisoners as "rogues and vagabonds," and they would be sentenced to twenty-one days' hard labour each.
Here was an example of justices' justice with a vengeance, but my brave old dad was equal to the occasion.
"Stop a minute, your worship," he said, "stop a minute! You have no power to send us to prison, for we were not trespassing, and were sleeping under a roof. In my case, too, I carry the Royal Prescription allowing me to get my living as I choose, providing I do it honestly. I'm only a poor showman, but I know the law, and you will have to pay for this outrage."
One or two other justices looked rather uncomfortable at this, but the mayor said, "Pooh! What is your word worth? What's this nonsense about a Royal Prescription, eh?"
At this my father pulled out a little waterproof bag which he always carried hung around his neck by a cord, and, opening it, took out a parchment.
"Here," said he, "is the document. I served his late Majesty King William for ten long years as a sailor, and was with Nelson on the Victory at Trafalgar. When I left, I got ten pounds a year pension and this parchment, which, amongst other things, says: 'James Sanger, as aforesaid, having so done service for his Majesty in the wars with France, is hereby privileged and entitled to carry on any trade, craft, or profession whereby he may honestly provide for himself, in any manner he may consider suitable to the needs of the said trade, craft, or profession.' "
The document further went on to give the holder certain exemptions and travelling rights, and to declare that those interfering with those rights might incur certain penalties. After it had been handed to the justices and perused by them, it was given back to my father, and the mayor said: "I have never before seen such a document. I cannot say whether it is yours or not, but I will give you the benefit of the doubt. You ought to go to gaol, both of you, but this time you may go away."
So father, and Hunter with him, both went free, and did very well at the fair, in spite of the mayor's attempt to interfere with them. They afterwards consulted a lawyer to see if they could get any compensation for their arrest, but the man of law advised them to let well alone, as it would cost a lot of money to bring an action, the result of which, even if they gained it, would hardly be likely to pay them for their trouble.
"LORD" GEORGE SANGER.
Seventy Years a Showman, 1926
During Mr. Astley's stay, that season, in Paris, the late Mr. Astley, jun., then a fine young man, was sent for by the late unfortunate Louis XVI., and his (equally so) beautiful Queen Consort, Marie Antoinette, to perform, by their command, before them, at the court of Versailles, when they were so highly delighted with his manly agility, symmetry of figure, elegance of attitude, and gentlemanly deportment, that they were graciously pleased condescendingly to present him with a gold medal set with diamonds, and, at the same time, in the most dignified and handsome manner, designated him the "English Rose," in allusion to that most accomplished of dancers, the original, "Vestris," who was then styled the "French Rose."
Another of the stories I have alluded to relates to a man that used to look after an elephant in a circus, and put him through his performance. He got pretty deeply in debt - the man I mean - in a midland town where the circus had been staying some time, and his creditor, not being able to obtain payment, and finding that the company were about to remove to another town, determined to arrest him.
The cavalcade of horses, performing mules, camels, and other quadrupeds, was just ready to start from the circus when the sheriff's officer appeared on the scene, and tapped his man on the shoulder. He was recognized at a glance, and the man ran into the stables, with the sheriff's officer after him. Running to the elephant, the debtor dived under his belly, and took up a safe position on the other side of the beast. The officer attempted a passage in the rear, but was cut off by a sudden movement of the elephant's hind quarters. Then he screwed up his courage for a dive under the animal's belly, but the beast turned its head, and fetched him a slap with its trunk.
"I'll have you, if I wait here all day," said he, as he drew back hastily.
"You had better not wait till I unfasten this chain," says the elephant keeper, pretending to do what he threatened.
The officer growled, and went off to find the proprietor, but he didn't succeed, and when he returned to the stables, his man was gone. That was as good a dodge as the lion-tamer's, who, when the officers went to the circus to arrest him, took refuge in the cage containing the lions. They looked through the grating, and saw him in the midst of a group of lions and lionesses. They were philosophic enough to console themselves with the reflection that their man would come out when he wanted his dinner; but they had not waited long when the lions began to roar.
"The lions are getting hungry," says the keeper. "If he lets them out of the cage, you will have to run."
The officers exchanged frightened glances, and were out of the show in two minutes.
Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, 1875
The equestrian profession in England owe, indeed, a debt of gratitude to Mr. Charles Hengler for having raised it to that degree of popularity it now enjoys. Through his untiring endeavours it has reached a more elevated position in the eyes of the British public, and received a greater amount of support and patronage from the higher classes than was ever before accorded to a circus in London. This is the result of Mr. Hengler's judicious catering and sound judgment, in selecting the best available talent, and never allowing the circus (which all know at times contains such a sameness) to become in the slightest degree dull or monotonous. Mr. Hengler understands and gauges the public taste (which constantly requires variety), and introduces other performances suited to the ring, such as pleasing scenes, skating, and children's spectacles, - I having as a visitor last winter seen (when Red Riding Hood was produced, a spectacle that has never been equalled in the arena) the most charming, varied, refined and first-class equestrian entertainments ever given in a circus. For many years acknowledged as the chief circus director in England, the name of Hengler is a guarantee for a genuine entertainment. Commanding success in the principal provincial towns he annually visits, he has at last established himself in London, each winter becoming more widely known. The result of this prosperity is solely obtained by good and honourable management and purely legitimate means.
Circus Life and Amusements, 1879
Sanger's were prompted to take a leaf from Batty's book, and introduce performing lions. The lions were obtained, and the appointment of "lion king" was offered to a musician in the band, named Crockett, chiefly on account of his imposing appearance, he being a tall, handsome man, with a full beard. He had no previous experience with wild beasts, but he was suffering from a pulmonary disease, which performing on a wind instrument aggravated, and the salary was tempting. So he accepted the appointment, and followed the profession literally till the day of his death. It is worthy of remark, as bearing on the causes of accidents with lions and tigers, that Crockett was a strictly sober man; and as also was the equally celebrated African lion-tamer Macomo, who never drank any beverage stronger than coffee. Many anecdotes are current in circuses and menageries of the rare courage and coolness of both men.
One of Sanger's lions was so tame that it used to be taken from the cage to personate the British lion, lying at the feet of Mrs. George Sanger, in the character of Brittania, in the cavalcades customary with tenting circuses when they enter a town, and which are professionally termed parades. One morning, when the circus had been pitched near Weymouth, the keepers, on going to the cage to take out this docile specimen of the leonine tribe, found the five lions fighting furiously with each other, their manes up, their talons out, their eyes flashing, and their shoulders and flanks bloody. Crockett and the keepers were afraid to enter. But George Sanger, taking a whip, entered the cage, beat the lions to one side, and the lioness, who was the object of their contention, on the other, and made a barrier between them of the boards which were quickly passed to him for the purpose. This exciting affair did not prevent the lions from being taken into the ring on the conclusion of the equestrian performance, and put through their regular feats.
If Crockett temporarily lost his nerve on one occasion it must be acknowledged that he exhibited it in a wonderful degree at the time when the lions got loose at Astley's. The beasts had arrived the night before from Edmonton, where Sanger's circus was at that time located. How they got loose is unknown, but it has been whispered, as a conjecture which was supposed not to be devoid of foundation, that one of the grooms liberated them in resentment of the fines by which he and his fellows were mulcted by Batty, and in the malicious hope that they would destroy the horses. Loose they were, however, and before Crockett, to whose lodging a messenger was sent in hot haste, could reach the theatre, one of the grooms was killed, and the lions were roaming about the auditorium. Crockett went amongst them alone, with only a switch in his hand, and in a few minutes he had safely caged the animals, without receiving a scratch.
These lions were afterwards sold by the Sangers to Howes and Cushing, when the latter were about to return to America, and Crockett accompanied them at a salary of £29 a week. He had been two years in the United States, when one day, while the circus was at Chicago, he fell down while passing from the dressing-room to the ring and died on the spot.
Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, 1875
I met in Seville the original and afterwards famous Donato, the one-legged dancer. He lost his leg, I believe, when a boy, through being too venturesome in entering the bull ring while a bull fight was going on, being attacked by a bull which he thought was killed. Boys often jump over the barriers to get the banderellis sticking in the bull as a kind of trophy, when the dying beast will sometimes rise and make a rush, doing injury to those too near.
When I first saw Donato he was performing in the street - giving imitations of bull fighting and Spanish dancing. He used to follow the bull fighters from town to town, and being very agile on his one leg, would often leap over the barriers, seize a bull by the tail, twist it round, and get clear away without being hurt. He made a great deal of money in the streets by his one-legged dancing, and afterwards went to Russia, where he first made a name. From thence he went to London, and received an enormous salary at Covent Garden Theatre. Being consumptive, he retired to the south of France, and when in the height of his success died. There have been many who have assumed his name; but none of them could dance or use the cape in the same artistic way as he could, who was to the manner born, being a real Sevillean.
Circus Life and Amusements, 1879
By Royal command, "A Grand Equestrian Day Representation" - this was before matinées were invented - was given at Astley's in the April of 1846. As the life of the Queen had recently been threatened, and as she had twice been fired at, the building was strictly searched and strongly defended, although such precautions were not usual during Her Majesty's habitual playgoing. Footguards now lined the passages of the theatre, posted sentries at the stage door, garrisoned The Ride, and occupied the main entrance in force. The auditorium, though empty, was "gorgeously embellished." The Queen, with Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales, and the Princess Royal, watched the performance from a box in the centre of the first circle, where the Royal Arms were superbly emblazoned on the hangings of crimson and white silk.
Circuses always attracted Queen Victoria. To use her name as a label for the activities of her most solemn and portentous subjects is unjust. She does not come into this history by accident. If Diderot was right in dividing humanity into the drab and the flambouyant, she must be classed with the flambouyant. When the Panoptican in Leicester Square was assisting "by moral and intellectual agencies, the best interests of society," she stayed away even though she had granted it a royal charter; but when, as the Alhambra, it housed an American circus, she attended with Prince Albert and their children, a private performance, as at Astley's. Her character is revealed in the records of showmanship as spontaneously light-hearted, especially in an episode at the Princess's when the manager fell while walking backwards along the passage to the box with lighted candles, and became "covered with confusion and candle-grease." Although Prince Albert was shocked at her levity, she leant against the wall to laugh "long and loudly." She opposed the rigid etiquette of Colonel Phipps, her equerry, especially when he ordered the player of a blacksmith not to act the part before her in his shirt-sleeves.
Madame Pauline de Vere, the Lady of the Lions, otherwise Ellen Chapman, who became George Sanger's wife, was commanded to appear at Windsor Castle. Queen Victoria sat at a window over-looking the courtyard where the "den," containing a lion, a tiger, and the tamer, was drawn up. Afterwards Madame Pauline was conducted into the castle, where the Prince Consort patted her on the back, and the Queen gave her a gold watch and chain. Tears of gratitude poured down the girl's cheeks. "I am sure you are afraid," said the Queen.
Barnum did not find admittance to Buckingham Palace difficult when he wished to present Tom Thumb, whom the Queen took by the hand and asked many questions, "the answers to which kept the party in an uninterrupted strain of merriment." After the dwarf had sung and danced, the conversation, with Prince Albert taking part, lasted for more than an hour. When running to the door in an unorthodox attempt to "back out," Tom Thumb was barked at by a poodle, which he attacked with his cane, while the fight "renewed and increased the merriment of the royal party." There was another visit to meet the King of the Belgians, when the Queen's interest was still unabated. On each occasion Barnum placed on the door of his room at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, "Closed this evening, General Tom Thumb being at Buckingham Palace by command of Her Majesty." And so it happened that in 1846, when Haydon, painter of huge Biblical and classical canvases (of the kind that are supposed to represent Victorian taste), was exhibiting a picture he became so desolate at being ignored by the crowds which Tom Thumb was drawing to another part of the hall, that he committed suicide.
At Astley's the royal family saw Mr. Widdicomb, "all uniform," in the centre of the ring. There were acrobats, performing horses, the celebrated elephants, and a grand tableau from The Rajah of Nagpore. And, while they watched, they were being watched by one spectator who had eluded the search-parties. James Lloyd, a son of the Lloyd who had been a clown at Astley's since 1830, had climbed a rope to the dome, where he lay looking through a hole in the match-boarding. When the Queen had gone he discovered that the rope had been removed; he jumped and caught another rope four feet away.
M. WILLSON DISHER.
Greatest Show on Earth,1937
I procured an engagement at the Lambeth Baths, Westminster Road, which in the winter months was turned into a circus, where some of the best talent in the equestrian profession has often been seen. It was then occupied by Clark's Circus. Who has not heard of, and does not remember, old John Clark, whose circus for years attended Bartholemew, Greenwich, Camberwell, and other noted fairs, long extinct? He was then a good-looking, white-headed old man, approaching seventy years. A volume could be filled with anecdotes and reminiscences of old John Clark alone; and the lives of few professional men would contain greater interest. We recognized him as the father of the equestrian business. Meeting with "ups" and "downs" - sometimes prosperous, and at times in a fix - he was continually pleading bad times, and asserting: I shall be ruined, my boys!" Greatly addicted to swearing, and using the words "my boys!" to everyone he spoke to, his sayings and doings became household words in the profession.
"Ah, my boy! I am glad to see you. What are you doing? Do you want an engagement? Don't open your mouth too wide, and I may do something for you!"
"Yes, Mr. Clark; I can join you," replied the performer he was talking to, asking what appeared to him only reasonable terms.
"Get out of my place, you d------d scamp!" cries Clark, in a rage. "Do you want to ruin me? Do you think you are coming to Drury Lane or Cremorne?"
Performers, knowing his eccentric ways, forgave and forgot his rash and hasty words, and could always arrange with him, as, to his credit be it said, he would never see a clever man out of employment. He promised to do the best he could for them, which he actually did. When he took money, he paid his people; and when he lost, he thought performers must bear their share of the loss. I was engaged here, and appeared under the name of the India-rubber Man, and pleased old Clark so well that I stayed all the winter. Many noted performers first made their appearance here in public; and although Astley's Theatre, close by, was open for equestrian performances, we had really good artistes with us, and gave nearly as good a performance for a penny as our renowned rival did at higher prices. Performing two or three times each night, we had some noisy audiences to contend with; but disturbances were soon checked by old Clark entering the ring and lecturing his noisy patrons, - often shaking his stick at them. At this time he walked with two sticks, being a little lame and very old. Whatever Clark said, the public delighted in giving him a cheer at the finish, with shouts of "Bravo, Clark!" I believe many made a disturbance on purpose to bring old Clark into the ring to laugh at and applaud his humorous remarks, as on the occasion of the least disturbance cries were raised for Clark.
As our patrons consisted chiefly of the denizens of the New Cut and surrounding neighbourhood, our audiences were more enthusiastic than fashionable. One evening some boys in the gallery were creating a disturbance. The audience called out order, and shouted for Clark. In rushed the old man, shaking his stick at them and exclaiming - "You're a nice lot of scamps, to disturb a lot of respectable people! Do you think you are in Smithfield? I'll mark you, my birds! Ladies and Gentlemen - "
"Bravo, Clark!" shouts one of the audience.
"I'll bravo you, if I get hold of you!" says Clark, who was disturbed in his speech. "Ladies and Gentlemen, for years I have always tried to please my friends and the public. I engage the best talent, and give you your money's worth."
"That you do, Clark," says another of the audience.
"I'd do for you," says Clark, "if you was only near my stick!" which made some boys laugh loud in the gallery. "My young shavers," says Clark, "I have my eye on you. I'll wait for you coming out. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I give you often too much for your money, and am a loser by it. I know respectable people come to see me - "
"You're right, Clark," says another interrupter.
"You're a big blackguard!" says Clark, "to interrupt an old man in his talking," knocking his stick with force on the ground. "I keep my circus respectable. I am a respectable man myself, and bring up a large family; and I won't be insulted in my own place by a parcel of d------d boys!"
"Bravo, Clark!" shout the public, as he leaves the ring triumphantly, feeling convinced he had overawed his disturbers.
Circus Life and Amusements, 1879
Dear, dear, what a place it looked, that Astley's! with all the paint, gilding, and looking-glass, the vague smell of horses suggestive of coming wonders, the curtain that hid such gorgeous mysteries, the clean white sawdust down in the circus, the company coming in and taking their places, the fiddlers looking carelessly up at them while they tuned their instruments, as if they didn't want the play to begin, and knew it all beforehand! What a glow was that which burst upon them all, when that long, clear, brilliant row of lights came slowly up; and what feverish excitement when the little bell rang and the music began in good earnest, with strong parts for the drums, and sweet effects for the triangles! Well might Barbara's mother say to Kit's mother that the gallery was the place to see from, and wonder it wasn't much dearer than the boxes; and well might Barbara feel doubtful whether to laugh or cry, in her flutter of delight. Then the play itself! the horses which little Jacob believed from the first to be alive, and the ladies and gentlemen of whose reality he could be by no means persuaded, having never seen or heard anything at all like them - the firing which made Barbara wink - the forlorn lady, who made her cry - the tyrant, who made her tremble - the men who sung the song with the lady's maid and danced the chorus, who made her laugh - the pony who reared up on his hind legs when he saw the murderer, and wouldn't hear of walking on all fours again until he was taken into custody - the clown who ventured on such familiarities with the military man in boots - the lady who jumped over nine-and-twenty ribbons and came down safe upon the horse's back - everything was delightful, splendid and surprising!
Master Humphrey's Clock
The tenting circuses are invariably "here today and gone tomorrow." Only the larger shows, such as Bertram Mills and Billy Smart, stay at one place for more than a day. At night, before the audience has left the tent, the work of taking down begins. When this is completed and the lorries loaded for the next day's "jump," the circus sleeps. Not for long. Early in the morning it is on the road for its next place of showing: a journey of anything from 20 to 30 miles. As it winds out of the gate it leaves behind a field dotted with innumerable bonfires: the burning rubbish left behind by the previous day's audiences. You will never see a field strewn with wind-blown newspapers after the visit of a circus. It leaves a field as tidy as it was when it arrived. In the old days a circus on the move was entirely horse drawn; then journeys were started before dawn and often lasted many hours, the drivers asleep on their boxes from fatigue, the horses blindly following the lead of those in front. Now motor-lorries are used: the Bertram Mills show travels by train. Only Bob Fossett still mainly relies on the horses which are his pride. Once there was a time when a circus passing through a village would bear a cry of: "Take in your washing, mum. The circus is coming." Times have changed. On arrival at the new pitch, the wagons are pulled into position, the tentmaster and the studgroom directing where they are to go. Then, nearly every man on the show, including the artistes, are called upon to assist in getting up the "big top." The only exceptions are the grooms and the property men: it is their job to erect the stabling and the dressing tents. The place where the tent is to stand has been marked out, now the stake-driving gang gets to work. These men, armed with heavy wooden mallets, swing their arms, one after the other, with a never varying rhythm, each with unerring precision lands his mallet on top of a stake.
On a tent of normal size there are 240 stakes to be driven home. On soft ground the work is easy, but sometimes a circus pitches on a fairground where the surface if of concrete or well-trodden cinders: then a way has to be made for the wooden stakes with an iron one. Tentmen have to be tough. During the stake-driving, the king poles have been unloaded and rigged with guy ropes. Now they are erected and the canvas spread and laced. Everything is ready for the pull-up. "All hands on the neck!" shouts the tentmaster, and with a "heigh-ho, heigh-ho, one, two," everybody hauls on the ropes and into position goes the neck of the tent. Side-poles up, quarter-poles in, guys secured, the big top is on its feet. If conditions have been favourable, this work has taken an hour. Now a break, a great moment, is made for breakfast. "Never was food so inviting to me as on those early mornings on the Sanger show! And it was plentiful," Frank Foster, the ringmaster once said to me. "I can still smell that appetising and succulent odour of bacon and eggs sizzling in the open air!" But animals first before humans. They have already been given water and food. Breakfast is a brief respite. A whistle shrills and everybody is back at work: tentmen unloading, building up the seating, property men making the ring, picking at the turf to give a foothold to the horses, covering it with sawdust, artistes fixing trapezes and high wires for their acts.
The Diesel engines and the electric equipment is in place, the show front is up with its gaudy painted figures of clowns and animals and myriads of small electric lights. Everything is ready. Inside the tent the light percolates through the canvas into the big top. It is empty: waiting for an audience and the performers.
The life of the circus artistes is the circus. When they are not in the ring their existence may be epitomised in the one word, practise; their lament, that life is not long enough to practise as one should. "What is the need of this?" I once asked a famous performer whom I came upon practising between show at Olympia. "You cannot attain any further perfection." "There is always something to be achieved," he replied.
Con Colleano performs on the tight wire. His act is the essence of concentration and of beautiful movements perfectly timed. He has to overcome difficulties of which an audience is unaware: those of conditions of light, of temperature, of air currents and sudden distractions of noise. He holds his sensitive body under almost superhuman control and accomplishes his somersaults, flips and pirouettes without the assistance of a balancing pole or umbrella. His forward somersault is unique involving as it does losing sight of the wire, and is a circus classic. Togare trains lions and tigers, his life has been one of thrills and accidents. Togare has been mauled, his tigers have escaped, and he has been involved in circus blow-downs and fires. His tour with the Great Carmo is an epic of circus history. Without a net, the Wallendas perform on a wire stretched 100 feet above the ring. The climax of their act is breath-taking and as dangerous as it looks. Two members of the troupe, one behind the other, ride bicycles on the wire, a third rider is balanced on a bridge stretching from their shoulders, and Helen is top mounted on his shoulders. Slight mistakes have resulted in serious accidents.
The Paulos derive from a family tenting show. They learnt their riding on the one horse their mother possessed. Now they are one of the most accomplished of English riding acts and have had the distinction of appearing at Olympia.
Until the early part of this century the arrival of a circus in town or village was a great day, "Circus Day," and celebrated by a holiday.
In the morning the streets would be thronged with people eager to see the glittering spectacle of the circus parade, that long cavalcade of gaudily dressed circus folk and horse drawn wagons. The "Lord" George Sanger parade was the most gorgeous of all, far surpassing their English and American rivals. There was a mirrored tableau, a wagon weighing ten tons with carved and gilded woodwork and many mirrors, drawn by 30 cream horses; the Brittania tableau, three tiers high, surmounted by Mrs. George Sanger sitting, like Brittania on a penny, a shield with a Union Jack painted on it in her left hand and a gilded trident in her right. A Greek helmet crowned her head, crouched at her feet were Nero the lion and a lamb. On market days, when the parade wended its way through the cattle pens, Nero became wildly excited at the sight of the cows and sheep but always ignored the lamb. The lamb scared him, sometimes it would playfully butt him and Nero would then run distractedly up and down the narrow platform as far as his chain would allow. When Ginnett's Circus went to America they persuaded Sanger to sell Nero and his companion for their parade. On their first procession, the lamb gave Nero a nudge, whereupon Nero felled him with his paw and made a meal of him.
Following Brittania was a string of camels, a herd of elephants, two or three hundred artistes and tent-men on horseback dressed up as historical characters and then the great chariot containing the band. Angels, sirens, Neptunes and mermaids disported on its sides among foamy seas and palm-fringed coral reefs; the gilt of the chariot glittered and dazzled in the sun and the bandsmen, blowing their brass instruments and beating drums, looked resplendent in uniforms of white and gold. This chariot was drawn by 40 horses, ten teams, four abreast. Finally came the wild beast cages, their shutters artfully closed so that the onlookers could only surmise what was inside. Many were empty. Between each wagon, grooms led the larger beasts, zebras, camels, llamas and an ostrich. Such were the circus parades. They ended with modern traffic conditions. Now the gilt has long since been scraped from the chariots and sold and the wagons left to rot in country hedges.
Sergeant Major Philip Astley, "the father of the circus," had invested £200 on mortgage on a piece of land, formerly a timber yard, near Westminster Bridge. Here it was he built his famous Amphitheatre, opened in 1780. He had two pieces of luck. Crossing Westminster Bridge, he found a diamond ring valued at 70 guineas. Never claimed, Astley was able to sell it and with the proceeds to buy deal boards for his ring. At the same time the mortgagor went abroad and was never heard of again. Besides his equestrian performances Astley now added to his bill Fortunelly the clown, Signor Colpi and his children in feats of strength and tumbling and the Egyptian Pyramids. This consisted of men standing on each other's shoulders. Astley now invented the circus parade. On those days on which a performance was given, Astley, in military uniform, mounted on his horse Gibralter, led a procession through the west-end streets, consisting of two trumpeters, two riders in costume, and in the rear a coach in which a clown and a "learned pony" sat and distributed handbills. His success was assured from the beginning, Astley's became the popular place of amusement for all classes.
Circus publicity, flambouyant as one would expect it to be and a forerunner of Hollywood in its wealth of adjectives, nevertheless has a charm. There is something delightful about the crude colouring of circus posters, their fierce and snarling lions and tigers, their thrilling depictions of hair-raising feats on the high wire and trapeze and their exquisite, pink-tighted girls being shot from the cannon's mouth. At one time when spectacles were a feature of every circus the poster artist had the chance to illustrate such exciting incidents as Mazeppa (outside Astley's was a flaming bill of Adah Isaacs Menken, scantily clad indeed, bound astride the Byronic horse), the Congress of Monarchs, the Crimean War and the Reliefs of Lucknow and Ladysmith. These gave way to Red Indians shooting rapids in canoes and the other stirring incidents which were a feature of the aquatic spectacles originating at Sadler's Wells, spreading to the circuses and emulated by Mr. Hengler. Subsequent to this, before colour had crept into posters, the bills had been heavily inked and surrounded with delightful wood blocks of equestrians, tight rope walkers and clowns. Besides the poster and the handbill the circus depended for publicity upon the parades and the efforts of the publicity agent. This last named gentleman was usually entirely unscrupulous and always sensational with his methods. Thus 'Lord' George Sanger staged the bogus escape of the wolves from Astley's and Barnum made capital out of his purchase of Jumbo from the London Zoo and English sentimentalism. Once a circus lost an elephant. You couldn't lose an elephant they said but we have lost one. Of course it was found when the desired publicity had been achieved. Most of the illustrations to this section depict the publicity artistes devise for themselves and their agents.
Barnum said that clowns and elephants were the pegs upon which the circus is hung. Even if we could do without the elephants, a circus without clowns would be unthinkable. The modern clown, the "august," was invented by Tom Belling. An accident. It is impossible to guess what a circus audience will laugh at. Queen Victoria cried with laughter when Sherwood - to Barnum's horror - went to the Royal Box and shook hands with her. At Cape Town a woman laughed so much at the Schwartz Brothers that she broke a blood vessel. Audiences could not contain themselves when Grock appeared and merely went round the ring with a trunk on his back. He wasn't trying to be funny, only looking for a place to put it. Tom Belling was 25 when he was engaged by Renz and created "august." On and off he was with Renz for many years, quarrelling with him, going away, but always coming back until he had his own circus. All Europe had seen and laughed itself helpless at his silly august which has now become a stock figure in every circus ring. Like most clowns, Belling only became one after trying everything else. Rarely does a performer start out with the definite intention of being a clown, but graduates through other stages of circus work, usually acrobatics, riding, the trapeze and vaulting. Whimsical Walker made his circus debut as a tight-rope walker, later he worked on the trapeze, then became an equestrian. Long before he clowned in the circus ring he trained animals, and it was with his performing donkey that he appeared before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. The great difference between the old-time circuses and those of today is the status of the clown. In other days he was the principal attraction; the success of the show often depending on his efforts. He improvised, told stories, argued with the ringmaster, commented on the acts and sang songs. Now the clown is usually one of a dozen who fill up the gap between one act and another, and whose chief stock-in-trade are bizarre costumes, knock-about business and acrobatics. The star clown only survives as one of a troupe: these are the entrée clowns, nearly always working in groups of three, with the august as the central figure. but the entrée clowns are the aristocracy of the circus. Unlike the other performers they do not rehearse in the ring in the grey light of the morning, the circus rarely sees them except at performers and when they call for their letters. Their jokes are hatched in private, over a coffee in a cafe, and rehearsed in secrecy. The entrée clowns of to-day draw larger salaries than anybody else in the circus: the fill-in clowns the least. In private life clowns are not very talkative and are inclined to be moody. You have to know them well before their shyness and reserve can be broken through. They are philosophers and will discuss for hours how to get a laugh. When they perform in the ring they draw upon the rich experience of their varied lives. The greatest clowns have invariably been those with the widest experiences. Such was Olschansky. Olschansky was a Dane who spoke twelve languages - most circus artistes are fluent linguists - and in his day was the highest paid clown in Europe and America. Once he travelled by sledge to Irkutsk accompanied by a 17-year-old wife, a 2-year-old child and 6 performing geese. On the way they were held up by robbers and fought starving wolves. From Irkutsk he went on to China where his child died. Then he returned to America. Odd and fortunate indeed was the experience of Viol who received a letter from a Russian who thanked him for the happiest hour of his life - at the circus laughing at Viol. Enclosed in the letter was a cheque for £10,000, surely the highest pay a clown has ever received for one performance. Wheal was perhaps the oldest clown who ever turned a somersault in the ring. Before becoming a circus artiste he had been a theologian and a great student of Homer and Virgil.
The small family tenting show is peculiarly English. As the name implies it refers to those shows where the talent relied on is mainly of one family. There are many such in England - the Fossetts, the Rosaires, the Bakers, the Paulos, Chipperfields, Ginnetts, even the Sangers may now be said to be a family show. Some of these circuses are no longer small, others have descended from prosperity. It is all a matter of luck and weather. From these family circuses have come some of the finest acts in the world. When Mills was establishing the reputation of Olympia he had only to go to one of these small shows to find almost invariably some act of outstanding merit. It is hardly surprising as the children of these families are born in the circus and grow up with the circus. At an early age they are practising, not so much because their parents insist on it, but from the childish desire to imitate what their elders do and a real joy at playing at circus. Almost before a child can walk it is being held on the back of a horse and ambling round a circus ring. Muscles are tautened on the rings, bodies quickly become lithesome with throwing somersaults and performing flip-flaps. The child's horizon is the circus, he knows no other life, has no other ambition. The same can be said of its parents. I know of no trade or calling in life which lives so whole-heartedly for its chosen profession as do circus folk. It has been said that many of them have gypsy blood, that indeed would explain their love of the open-air and their dislike of cities. Caravans are their homes, they dislike houses, thinking them prisons to snare their wild spirits. When the Paulos came to London to fulfil an engagement at the Agricultural Hall they lodged in rooms and were miserable. Mrs. Paulo complained that she felt the walls for ever pinning her in. When next they came to town they pitched their caravan in a stable yard in Russell Square. They said they lived thus to be near their horses but I knew differently. But few circus folk (if any) have gipsy blood or gipsy origins, despite the fact that amongst themselves they speak a strange jargon which seems to derive from Romany chal. They do not take readily to "gajos" as they call outsiders - those not of the circus - but once break through their very real reserve and they are found to be the most hospitable, kindly and generous of people. They travel the length and breadth of England and hardly ever remember the names of the places where they have pitched and only to be recalled by some incident that happened there. "Oh, yes," they say, "that must be the place where Johnny muffed his act and Clara made a bad jump-up." To travel with such a circus is a queer but highly enjoyable experience. After a few days the sense of time has been lost and is only measured by the sun in the heavens. No one knows the date of the calendar, all that is known is that the show will commence in half-an-hour's time. The show! That is what the family lives for and around which their day revolves.
W. S. MEADMORE.