THE CIRCUS ONE SELDOM SEES

by

Karl Greenlaw

April 1st,1994.

 

Good evening ladies and gentlemen

Some time ago in a conversation with several other members, it was suggested that a program dealing with the various Circuses that had visited Woodstock might be of some interest. But a simple recount of titles and or dates seemed a little dull, and that perhaps a talk on the infrastructure might be of some interest, so here we go.

From my first contact with both Circuses and Carnivals, it was never the performance or performers that really stirred my interest, but the people who made it all possible. Certainly the performers deserved all the applause they received and more; they work in conditions very few people would endure; blistering heat, especially during August when most of the shows were playing the central sections of North America, and the cold slashing rains of late spring and autumn, mud and dust were daily hazards. But when you love a business, it don't seem to matter.

So the Circus came and went and what name it bore does not really matter. It could have been AI G. Barnes 3 Ring Wild Animal Circus, Hagenbeck-Wallace, Sells-Floto, Robbins Bros., Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Combined Shows, Cole Bros.-Clyde Beatty, Dailey Bros. or any of the other big railroad shows, or it may have been a little motorized outfit with patchy canvas and one tired old elephant, names that come to mind in this class are Downie Bros., one of the better ones that played Houlton for many years, King Bros., usually one step ahead of the Sheriff, Martin & Downs, operated by Canada's own circus impresario, AI Stencel, of Toronto, and a score of others, some surviving for many years, some not making it through the season, leaving workmen and performers stranded God knows where.

It all started the previous winter, when the Show owners sat down with their General Agent to lay out a tentative route for the coming season

The General Agent was not really an executive, BUT one of the most important people on our list. It was his experience and savvy that could make a season a winner or loser. Almost always a man who had spent many years in the business, in many capacities and had gained valuable knowledge from each experience, a trait not common to most of us mortals (There is a very valuable lesson here that any youngster starting out would do well to learn, anyone can be taught to perform most any job but only a few learn the Hows and Whys that make them a valuable asset, not just another body).

A good General Agent knew both why a Circus would do well in a certain area at such a time. An example, Eastern Canada and New England were best played during July. Why? Because these are generally rural areas; crops were in; harvest several weeks away, and spare time available. Industrial areas could be played earlier or later. And the How, what towns had good available lots, friendly sheriffs, what rail connections, etc. Many shows made it big or were stranded on nothing more than the advice of their Agents.

Let's assume a satisfactory route was agreed on. The Agent then contacted each town on the route and arranged for sponsors, permits, license, show lot, etc. The wheels had begun to turn and would end with the Circus train highballing its way into the yards a few months later, where kids of all ages were waiting in droves since dawn to welcome another Circus day , truly the Event of the season .

About two weeks before show date at least one or more gaily painted railroad cars arrived, usually at nite or early morning, proudly decorated and lettered with the Circus title and proclaiming this was Advertising Car No. 1. This car carried the Advertising Brigade, as they were known, consisting of a rough, tough hard driving, hard drinking, tobacco chewing crew, but a crew that did the impossible every day. As soon as the car was spotted they unloaded two or three wagons, (in later years, of course, light trucks were used) loaded with everything from 14"x28" window cards to 24 sheet posters, hitched up the fast driving horses that shared one end of the car, usually a converted 72 foot express car, and by the time everything was reloaded for pickup by the night train, they had covered just about everything in a thirty mile radius that would stand still long enough. Every farmers barn with a good view from the highway was plastered with at least one 24 sheet poster designed by a Circus lithographer in a style reminiscent of a Currier and Ives print, and which filled every boy who passed that way with a wonder and amazement undreamed of. Many the decision was made then and there to run away and join this Magic Wonderland. The crew was divided into three sections, bill posters, with armfuls of folded posters, paste buckets and brushes, known as the paste crew; Window men whose job it was to cover all the stores and, if possible, fill their windows with lithos and date sheets. They were known as stick men as they used two specially made sticks, about the length of a yard stick, to hang paper anywhere in a show window without disturbing the most carefully set up display. The tackers who specialized in telephone or hydro poles, walls, wagon sides and any other available space. Around the turn of the century and up into the thirties, soap artists were very popular. They had two things going;, firstly, they were able, with ordinary soap, to decorate a window, or especially mirrors, and, or course, work in the name and date of the coming Circus. All barber shops and bars sported large mirrors, usually covering entire walls. Yhe barber shops were no problem; the saloons quite another thing. It is said all true artists have two vices: booze and broads. Saloons being more numerous than Barber shops, feel free to make your own deduction.

The publicity agent, who arrived shortly after the departure of the Advertising Brigade, was one of the more colourful of the many colourful characters of this strange Circus world. Dressed in the latest style, quite often topped off a white Stetson and walking cane, the offices of the local newspapers were his domain and he worked it to perfection. Circuses placed little stock in paid newspaper advertising and usually purchased the minimum, seldom more than a single column and a few inches deep. They reasoned that few people read the ads, but all people read the stories, especially something as interesting as the flamboyant stories of fearless animal trainers, perhaps the featured freak to be seen in the Circus Side-Show and the ever popular story of Circus families, such as the Flying Codonas or the wire walking Wallendas. So combining his exuberant style, flair for storytelling, liberal use of Annie Oakleys, as passes were known, and many many quaffs of brew at the local pubs, he managed to place stories that covered many, many columns. Beverly Kelly boasted that for every inch of space paid for, he aimed for, and sometimes exceeded, 100 free inches, and was able to ward off any bad publicity after the show left town. This too was important for some of the Grift shows carried, or allowed, pickpockets and short con artists to operate. Incidentally, this was not a strictly male preserve and one of the best female P. A. was Mae Hong who visited Woodstock several times with the King Reid Shows.

The day previous to show date, one or more fast stepping characters arrived, known as twenty four hour men, and fast stepping they had to be. It was their duty to gather up all the loose ends, check the lot, make sure it was cleaned and ready, arrange for supplies of hay and oats, meat for the animals, arrange for groceries to be be delivered on time, check the railway to make sure the train would be spotted on the proper siding, arranged with Fire Dep't. to fill the water wagon, a very important item. Each person was allowed to draw one bucket of water twice a day. Bosses and performers could draw two. Dirty hands, shirts and unshaven faces were a definite no-no. Water was also a must for the cookhouse, not only for cleanliness but steam kettles were a favorite cooking tool. Check that permits were in order and place direction arrows on poles and signposts to direct the wagon drivers to the show lot. Occasionally some smart kids would move or turn the markers and wagons would be going all over town, a snafu that happened all too often.

Finally, in early morning, the Show Train arrived, usually in two sections. Ringling Barnum moved on four. Under the direction of the Trainmaster, who rode the top of a stock car as they entered the yards, from where he advised the brakemen exactly where he wanted the cars spotted. It was important to have the first car loaded last nite to be the first unloaded. Most importantly, it contained the Cookhouse. The break made, runs were laid from the the end of the first flat, and now the most dangerous of all the operations of the Circus began. The casualty rate of the train crew was tar greater than any of the performers. Needless to say, they were a tough, hard-bitten crew, and while many other workers were called upon to double as parade drivers, property men, etc.. once unloaded, the train crew were allowed to rest until the first wagons arrived to begin the 'loading out process in the early evening. For some reason they were known as razorbacks, a name taken from the mean tempered razorback hogs that ran wild through much of the Ozark country and were said to be able to tree a bear. Perhaps being elitists made them a little mean as well

Platforms were placed between the flatcars and reinforced oak runs were placed from the end car to the road bed where platforms had been placed between the rails and made a temporary crossing, if one did not exist. From the stock cars at the head end, the teams were unloaded, one team hitched to the first wagon and pulled onto the runs. Now these wagons could weigh several tons, which meant they had to be let down the runs slowly without wrecking everything in their path, as well as killing men and horses alike.

Usually cables were attached to each side and around bollards on the ends of the flats as the wagon was pulled over the edge onto the run. The cable was slowly paid out by the chalker and eased down the run. On the heavier wagons drag shoes were used as well. Immediately the wagon hit the ground, the trainmaster blew his whistle, a waiting team was hitched up and headed for the lot. While this was going on, another wagon had been pulled up the train and now the job became more dangerous as the wagons were pulled forward. It was the job of the polers to keep the wagons moving straight, usually they worked one on each side of the pole, but it took very little to trig a wheel and swing the pole, along with the poler, against the side of the flat. Broken ribs were part of this job classification. Sometimes cables broke, drag shoes slipped too fast, especially on wet days. It was not a happy occupation. Why would anyone do it? Who knows? Perhaps the old story is true that while a roughie was having a a few ribs patched up, a friendly nurse asked why didn't he quit, the answer being, "What, and give up show business?" It was probably as good an answer as any. Anyhow, the train always seemed to get unloaded, the wagons made their way to the lot. Every move during the loading and unloading was keyed to the trainmaster's whistle. The trainmaster always worked from the back of a saddle horse from where he could oversee every aspect of the operation and able to direct streams of tobacco juice at any First-Of-Mays foolish enough to get within range (First-Of-Mays are newcomers or first season men).

As the train was being unloaded, back at the lot things were beginning to happen. The first wagons to arrive at the lot were the commissary, cookhouse or crumb castle; take your pick; they all meant the same.

While the wagons were en route to the lot, fires were being lighted under the boilers that fed the steam kettles, and if the layout man had done his job correctly, the wagons were quickly spotted in their proper locations, the dining tent canvas was spread out laced into a single section and raised. If the weather looked good, no sidewall was used. Tables were set up and covered with red and white tablecloths; stacks of folding chairs were placed at the entrance, and each diner was expected to take his or her own. As in all of the Circus family, a very strict caste system existed: workingmen on one side, performers on the opposite, bosses and operating staff at centre stage.

Kids and Grey Beards broke hundreds of eggs, peeled bags of potatoes and vegetables while the cooks turned bacon, ham, home fries, and even made porridge, mostly on field stoves set up just inside the tent. Baked beans were heated up in a steam kettle and in under two hours from coming down the runs, the waiters were serving a hearty breakfast, usually ham or bacon , eggs, baked beans and cereal, toast and gallons of coffee. The cooks performed miracles every day through wind storms, heat, dust, late grocery deliveries and a thousand more annoyances, managed to deliver two good meals a day to anywhere from a couple hundred people on a smaller show, to fifteen hundred on the Ringling show, and yet their names or pictures are displayed in no Circus Hall of Fames anywhere.

I mentioned Grey Beards. They were a part of every Circus I have ever known and were old timers, no longer able to cut it in the fast paced jobs, but who knew no other !ife than the circus, no relatives, no homes. But show folks do not turn their backs on show fo!k and will carry these people until sooner or later they make the final jump and a local undertaker guides them to the last lot. Yet they were never abused or neglected, always had a bunk in the sleeping cars and were made to feel needed. There well may be a lesson here for us all.

The Layout men.

The field, a few hours earlier containing nothing, now suddenly began to blossom with activity. First to arrive were the Layout men riding well bred cutting horses, always first off the train, saddlebags filled with steel rods topped with a ring and colored ribbon. They surveyed the lot and from many, many years of experience, soon derided just where the various tents should he located, choosing the most suitable area for the Big Top and where the show rings would be. Everything else aligned with this. The Menagerie that housed most of the animals, elephants, camels, cage wagons with lions and tigers that would appear in the main show later on, a great attraction, especially for kids that had never been lucky enough to visit a zoo, was included on a general admission ticket or pass. This top was about half the size of the Big Top and would feed directly into it.

Marking these spots with a couple of color coded rods, the Cookhouse, whose wagons were beginning to arrive, was laid out and marked. The color coding ribbons made it possible for illiterates to quickly identify as the wagon wheels were also color coded. What wagon went where was no problem at all; the ring at the end of the rod made it easy to pick up from horseback with a simple hook.

The dozen or so men assigned to the Cookhouse were pulling out the canvas, stakes and poles as the Canvas wagon was driven slowly across the tent area and parked. In minutes, canvas had been laced, stakes driven, guy ropes attached, side poles in place, and with the help of a friendly elephant, centre poles were pulled up, a final guying out done and off to the next. !n short order the various other smaller or Push pole tops were raised; Red wheels to Red ribbons, Yellow to Yellow. Blacksmith, Dressing, Wardrobe, and even latrines.

Locating the Front entrance, the Side Show top went up, usually on the right, while down the centre several kiosks were located for Novelties, Cotton Candy, etc. On the left side, smaller grind shows were located, usually featuring a single attraction, perhaps a Snake show, and at least one other, and the Grab joint selling Hot Dogs, Hamburgers and Pink Lemonade. In front of the Side Show a Banner line went up to either side showing an artists conception of the Freaks, Oddities and Curiosities to be found on the inside. The men who painted these banners were a special breed. Less than a dozen men in the country produced these pieces of art. They guarded their secret formula and today it is doubtful there is one man left that is capable of producing this work. Those that have stood the rigors of time are worth thousands of dollars, but try to find one.

A Bally platform was erected along with a couple of ticket boxes; the Talker began to beat the ever present drum, called out a snake charmer sporting a very live Boa Constrictor along with the fire-eater doing his thing. As a tip was gathered the Talker went into his or her spiel announcing the Circus Side Show was now open and the show was on. All the while the Side Show band gave out with Dixieland that only New Orleans blacks could play. The side show worked until the Main Show went in and again for the evening show. As soon as the last straggler headed for the Circus Main Entrance, the side wall was coming down, banners were struck. In another half hour everything was loaded and on its way to the train. following the Cookhouse that had struck its tents when the last man was fed, its wagons were even now being pulled up the runs chalked and chained in place by the razorbacks. As soon as the Ringmaster blew his whistle to open the evening performance and the band struck up "Entry of the Gladiators," the Spectacle started its parade around the hippodrome, as much as possible all performers took part, clowns, tableau wagons, horses, beautifully costumed cloud swing girls and the finale of elephants nose to tail ending with the traditional tableau when each elephant placed their front feet on the one ahead. As they broke this formation and headed for the backdoor at a fast clip, the ringmaster whistled in the opening act and the show was on.

As the last act, usually a Wild West turn, headed for the back door, side wall was coming down, unused seats were being loaded. As the spectators started to leave, several elephants were brought in from the rear and gently prodded the slow pokes out, to wonder where everything went, for all that remained was the now empty big top where ring curbing and seating were rapidly being loaded on wagons. Quarter and side poles would soon be pulled, as the last seat wagons were pulled out, the ropes holding up the bail rings were loosed and the giant spread of canvas came down with a giant "SMOOSH," slowly settling to the ground. While the canvas men began unlacing the sections, stakes were being pulled and loaded, the centre poles slowly and carefully let down onto the pole wagon, canvas rolled up and loaded, the lot checked for missed pieces, and by the time one had walked a few blocks to their car or home, the last wagons were on their way to the train and another town where even now kids from six to sixty were awaiting the arrival of THE CIRCUS.

This then is the Circus few of us ever see: the General Agent that booked the town; the Publicity Agent; the bill posters and window men that cover everything in sight with colourful lithographs; (should you have any, please don't throw them away; thev are very valuable today with collectors) the twenty four hour man that made sure everything would he in order on Circus day; the Train master and his crew of razorbacks that loaded and unloaded the wagons every day; the Hostlers who cared for and drove the teams and kept top quality horses in top quality shape under conditions few would care to cope with; the Layout men who could and did squeeze the Circus onto a lot that left much to be desired, sometimes entailed moving a few chicken coops, outhouses, and wrecking a few lawns, yet coming up with a workable setup and did it every day, using nothing more than a few stakes and and a tape, quite often without the tape; the Cooks that struggled daily to produce two good meals, as anyone that has ever eaten in a Circus cookhouse will concur in, and did it rain or shine, cold or heat, dust and wind; the Canvasrnen; the Punk Pushers, and a million kids that spread canvas, carried stakes and poles and were paid with a pass to the show, raised and lowered tons of canvas every day in all weather and seldom missed opening time or a train call; the wardrobe people that sewed, cleaned and kept the costumes in tip top shape; Hair dressers and barbers, even baby sitters and teachers; Riggers; Sailmakers; Talkers and Ticket sellers; Candy Butchers that brought you popcorn, peanuts, cold dnnks and cotton candy; Wagon builders, men who did their job so well many wagons are usable nearly a hundred years later; the skilled wood carvers that decorated the wagons and the Showpainters that applied a wealth of Gold leaf, as well as lettering every wagon, flatcar,stock car and Pullman with an art peculiar to the business; Parade workers that sold balloons and novelties along the parade route; the Calliope players, working in steam heat and sparks to send their piping music echoing for miles; Veterinarians; Blacksmiths; Butchers; Harness makers, and not forgetting the roustabouts that worked and slept under the worst of conditions, either under the wagons or in sleeping cars two in a berth and three high — not really the Waldorf by any means — mostly illiterate, mostly black or poor whites from the South who spent their winters working around winter quarters for beans and tobacco. Many stayed on for years, knowing no other life, having no other home.

You won't see their pictures in any Circus Museum, but without them no Circus went anywhere. I take my hat off to the Performers, but it was always the men behind the scenes I admired.

The Riding Hannefords, Flying Cordonas, wire walking Wallendas, were just fine and deserved any plaudits they received, but without the nameless ones would have been helpless. As for me, I'll take the Builders, Trawlers, Trainmen, Riggers, Butchers, Lot men, Canvas men, Painters, Talkers and the host of other workers that knew their trade and did it well, all season every season.

These are the people you need when a Hey Rube breaks out, They are the salt of the earth.

Many thanks for your kind indulgence. I truly hope it has not been too boring, but it's the best I have to offer. I would like to say, "See you at the Circus," but like Scarlett's Tara, it has gone with the winds of change. The elephants are coming in. That means it's time to go.

 

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