Thursday, December 11, 2014

Damoo Dhotre

Disclaimer: Wagon Tracks does not support the use of wild animals in any form of circus performance and entries here regarding animal performances are meant for their historical value and not to condone their use for entertainment purposes.

Born in Puna, India in 1902, Damodar Gangaram "Damoo" Dotre was one of the most famous and reportedly fearless cat trainers of the golden age of the circus. Joining his uncle Tukaram Ganpat Shelar's "Royal Circus" around the age of ten, working a number of jobs including as an acrobat and a clown. He discovered his true calling, however, after being apprenticed to the circus's cat trainer (which a somewhat apocryphal story from circus magazine Back Yard attributes to an experience sneaking into the cage at his uncle's circus one morning to play with a lioness whom he'd supposedly befriended).

Damoo was considered a veteran trainer by the age of 17, known for his fearlessness, a quality which lead to many near misses and narrow escapes in the ring, all of which Dhotre invariably attributed to his own failings as a trainer and a performer. Poorly educated, but a voracious reader and researcher, Dhotre relied on his extensive knowledge of animal psychology both to develop his training regimen and for his own safety while with the big cats, using each cat's known background and patterns of behavior to predict how they might behave. Often, Dhotre compared cats to children but freely admitted that while a cat may be trained, it could never be tamed and would always remain a wild animal and a possible danger to its handler.

Dhotre was additionally known for his stage persona and costume, appearing bare chested, turbaned and, unlike many trainers, wielding only a pair of bamboo sticks, on which the cats could chew if they felt the urge to bite something, and a whip used for signaling (never for beating an animal). Early in his career in one of his many scrapes, Dhotre had gone into the cage wearing more formal attire and nearly been mauled by one of his cats when it attempted to snare his jacket with its claws and pull him in, teaching him a valuable lesson about proper wardrobe (as well as animal behavior).

In 1933, Dhotre joined Izako's Russian Circus through which he met renowned animal trainer Alfred Court with whom he would go on to work as part of Ringling Brother's Barnum and Bailey in 1940 for whom he worked until being drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. There, he and his cats staged benefit performances to help the war effort. On his return, Dhotre rejoined Ringling Bros., performing with the circus as well as working as an animal trainer and stunt double in the film industry until 1950 when he briefly returned to Europe before going back to India where he retired, largely due to poor health in 1953. He died in 1973, just days after publishing his autobiography, Wild Animal Man.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Joseph Grimaldi

This week, we look at the father of modern whiteface clowns, Joseph Grimaldi (1778 - 1837). Born in London, Joseph was the son of a pantomime actor and entered into the theater at only three years of age, soon joining his father on stage. At the time, pantomime performances usually featured a commedia dell'arte inspired Harlequinade staring the traditional commedia characters of the comic hero, Harlequin, his love interest, Columbine, her father, Pantaloon, servant Pierrot, and the roguish buffoon, Clown. 

The young Grimaldi's talents were soon under high demand and he quickly became known as a star attraction, making up for sparse sets, low production values, and hastily assembled shows with his standout performances that elevated clown from the status of comic underling to main character in the harlequinade. During a return to the Sadler's Wells Theater in 1802 where Grimaldi first got his start before leaving for Drury Lane, he created his most lasting legacy, the clown "Joey," which used a makeup design featuring white base paint, red lips and cheek markings, exaggerated eyebrows, and a mohawk-like wig, the first traditional whiteface clown design. As Joey, Grimaldi was well known for his audience interaction, singing songs that that audience would finish the last, often risque lyrics to, prompting the audience to encourage his pranks and the like. Joey became a recurring character in many of Grimaldi's performances, entering the theatrical lexicon thereafter. Even today, clowns, both whiteface and not are often referred to as "Joeys" in his honor, just as their makeup designs pay homage to the father of modern clowns. 

Grimaldi retired from the stage in 1823, largely due to the toll that years of physical comedy had taken on his body. Over the next ten years, several benefit performances were staged, among them, his farewell performance in 1828 at Drury Lane during which he was too weak to stand and performed as Joey while seated. He finally passed away, poverty stricken, having outlived two wives and his estranged son in 1837. Shortly after his death, Grimaldi's two volume autobiography Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi was finally published after first being rejected, then edited and largely rewritten by Thomas Egerton Wilks and later, after Grimaldi's death, by Charles Dickens. Due to the fact that Dickens apparently never read the original manuscript written by Grimaldi himself, the accuracy of the final and (at least to Dickens) surprisingly successful published version is questionable at best.  

Today, Grimaldi's life and contribution to the arts is celebrated each year at the Holy Trinity Church in East London where, on the first Sunday in February, clowns from around the world attend a mass in his honor, staging a public performance after the service which is often filled to capacity. There, they also light candles for clowns who have passed away in the previous year. Though he never performed in an actual circus, his legacy lives on with every clown who has adopted the image he created and called himself a Joey. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Lalla Rookh

Lalla Rookh, has one of the more layered histories in the circus. Her real name has variously been reported as "Louise Montague," "Laura Keene Stuart," and "Polly Stewart." Before entering the circus ring, she was variously a stage actress and vaudeville performer in New York, managed by R.B. Caverly. Around 1876, M.B. Leavitt, a theater entrepreneur and manager credited with being the first to build a touring burlesque troupe met with Caverly regarding a beautiful young talent whom Caverly was sure Leavitt would want in his theater troupe. According to Leavitt he "was told to pick out the prettiest one I saw coming out of the theater. I did so, and it was the one the agent referred to." Despite his troupe already being filled, Leavitt hired the woman whom he met as Polly Stewart and renamed "Louise Montague" and she appeared in his shows for the next three years, during which she would marry her first husband, comedian Paul Allen.

After departing Leavitt's show, Montague signed on with Henry Minder's New Theater in New York's Bowery district, appearing as Josephine in HMS Pinnafore in 1879. Two years later, she found herself thrust into a different kind of limelight when she "won" circus owner Adam Forepaugh's $10,000 beauty contest" and was named "the most beautiful woman in the world." In reality, of course, the contest was more or less fixed. Rather than receive the advertised prize money, Montague had agreed to a salary of around $75 - $100 a week. Forepaugh renamed his star "Lalla Rookh" after a character in Thomas Moore's poem of the same name.

In Forepaugh's employ, Lalla Rookh became the main attraction of the circus's parade, one spectator even falling out of a second story window attempting to get a glimpse of the "ten thousand dollar beauty." During another reported incident, a crowd broke through the window of a Chicago Western Union office struggling to get a look at her. During her two year tenure with Forepaugh, the show averaged a quarter of a million dollars each season, enough to make her employer a rich man, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the performer herself. In 1882 she filed two suits against Forepaugh over the matter of her salary, one for 32 weeks backpay at $75 a week for which she was awarded $150 and the other for the advertised $10,000 in prize money. The prize money case was dismissed due to the failure of a material witness to appear but Stewart would return to sue Forepaugh (all while still in his employ) three more times, once for further owed back pay and again for damages ensuing from a fall from an elephant for which she would receive another $50. Her final breach of contract suit against Forepaugh stemmed from her refusal to tour with the circus as she had been promised a private state room and found upon arrival that this was not the case. That same year she left the circus and returned to the New York stage.

Montague had a successful stage career, touring the eastern U.S., notably performing in several Gilbert and Sullivan operettas including starting as Yum-Yum in The Mikado. Louise Montague died in 1910 at the age of 51 leaving behind a son, Henry Montague and little else, as she was, like many circus performers, nearly destitute in the end, which M.B. Leavitt who remained a close friend up until her death attributes to her "charitable inclinations." Her only death notice was written by her own hand, only days before her passing after a period of illness. "Louise M. Montague, died at her residence, Manhattan Ave." While her final years were spent in obscurity and near poverty, for two seasons, Lalla Rookh was one of the most famous women in the country.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

W.C. Coup

The era of train circuses truly begins with W.C. Coup. While several other attempts at moving shows by train had been made (Spaulding and Rogers of Floating Palace fame were among the first), Coup engineered a way to move wagons onto and off of railroad cars that made their usage easy and efficient enough to be practical. Up until the development of his "end loading method," cars were loaded from the side, wagon by wagon, a lengthy and work intensive process. Coup (who was also responsible for a new support pole design for the big top) invented a system of ropes and pulleys that would haul wagons onto the flat cars of a train and across a set of crossover plates between each car. Wagons could then be rotated sideways by roustabouts if necessary to pack a larger number of wagons per car. This loading method became the standard for rail shows and remained so until the decline of the rail circus.

Born in Mount Pleasant, Indiana in 1836, W.C. Coup was trained as a printer's apprentice. A lack of jobs in Terra Haute where he had moved in search of work lead him to sign on with Mabies' Grand Olympian Arena and U.S. Circus as a roustabout. He later went on to work with the well known Yankee Robinson Circus as a manager before retiring. That was, until Dan Castello, a former circus clown convinced him to partner with P.T. Barnum as general manager of P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, Hippodrome, and Circus in 1871. A year later, the show moved onto rails, shortening its name to P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Exposition and World's Fair and using for the first time the "Greatest Show on Earth" slogan.

In the winter of 1872, the show stationed itself in New York City's Hippotheatron for the off season and December of that year, the building and much of the circus burned to the ground when the Hippotheatron caught fire. Perhaps most tragic was the loss of almost all of the show's menagerie animals. The show was rebuilt for the 1873 season and at season's end, Coup leased a new winter quarters between Fourth and Madison Avenue in New York, a property that would later become known as the first Madison Square Garden. The opening of the venue was attended by the largest crowd ever to assemble in a New York structure at that time, roughly 10,000 people.

Barnum and Coup eventually had a falling out when Barnum leased his name to less scrupulous investors in the show, namely John V. "Pogey" O'Brien, a notorious grift show operator. Coup would go on to open the Great New York Aquarium as well as the Coney Island Aquarium (also known as the Seaside Aquarium) before starting his Equescurriculum and later his New Monster Shows. In 1882 after a disastrous tour of Texas, the show's two trains collided outside Cairo, Illinois when one of the trains stalled on the tracks. Five train workers were killed and 20 others injured and the show was delayed so badly that advertising and the circus parade had to be cut at the subsequent three stops.

By the time of the final engagement in Detroit, Coup was so far in debt that he found himself unable to pay his employees leading to several law suits. Eventually Coup agreed to sell off what remained of his show (the largest circus and menagerie on rails at the time) in a massive auction organized by the Wayne County Sheriff's Department. Much of the show was purchased by other circuses but the location of the auction near Michigan Ave. and Tenth Street in Detroit's Corktown Neighborhood lead to the popular myth that some of the animals were later exhibited in Detroit's first zoo which was later built at the same location. A full exploration of the origins of the myth can be found at Paul Szewczyk's Corktown History blog.

After several attempted comebacks with smaller shows, Coup died, nearly penniless in Jacksonville, Florida. His autobiography, Sawdust and Spangles remains one of the best first hand accounts of the rail age circus, refusing to shy away from much of the brutality employed in capturing many menagerie animals and how they were often exploited on the road.

At this point I'd like to note that Wagon Tracks does not in any way condone the exploitation or abuse of wild and exotic animals in any way. The purpose of this blog is solely historical in nature and there are many successful modern circuses who are animal free, some of whom are listed at Born Free USA and PETA's website. Often in looking at any historical figure or subject we find both incredible accomplishments and entirely ignoble acts committed by the same person and the circus is no exception.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Mud Shows

Not every circus could be a Ringling Brothers, a Barnum and Bailey, or a Dan Rice show. Even when the biggest shows were traveling by rail or steamboat, a large number of shows were still rolling along on wagons through towns large and small, often playing in towns that were too small for the big shows to notice or were too far away from rail lines for them to travel to. These were the mud shows. According to circus lore, the name derives from the dirt roads the shows would travel which would often turn muddy and difficult to pass, an issue the great rail bound shows didn't have to worry about. 

Similar to the mud show was the "dog and pony" show. Often used as a derogatory term for a smaller show, the title was, in fact, embraced by more than one circus and was often quite apt, especially for those shows just starting out that lacked exotic animals or large menageries and had to make due with domestic pets and livestock for their performances. Even today, many acts still include these kinds of performances, such as the "educated pig" act in their larger shows. 

Among the most famous of the mud shows was Mollie Bailey's "Bailey Concert and Circus Show" which traveled throughout the southern United States during the later half of the 19th century. A family show, Mollie and her husband Gus (neither of whom were related to the more famous Bailey circus family) played throughout the south as a musical and theater act until the beginning of the Civil War when they volunteered with the Confederate army, Gus as a soldier and musician and Mollie as a nurse and spy, sneaking across Union lines dressed as a young girl to secure provisions and intelligence. 

After the war, the couple, now with eight children returned to performing. The Texas based show traveled on seven wagons and boasted only one ring. As they got older, each of the children joined the performances, one daughter as an equestrienne and another with a bird act while their sons toured as musicians. When Gus Bailey could no longer travel with the show due to illness, Mollie took over running the circus and became the first woman to own and operate her own circus in the United States. 

Mollie was well known for her keen business sense. Often she would purchase parcels of land in towns the show frequented for performance space, allowing the locals to use them as baseball fields or parks the rest of the year. The show was also routed to follow the crops in order to arrive in towns during the year's highest period of prosperity each season. Eventually the circus managed to add more traditional fare including clowns, acrobats, and more exotic animals, finally moving on to rails. When Mollie died, the circus went with her, surviving for only two more seasons afterward. 

Today, a mud show is often used as a term for a truck or motorized show that still sets up outdoors rather than playing in arenas, though some historians consider this something of a bastardization of the term despite keeping with a bit of the spirit of the original meaning. Circus Smirkus, a summer circus camp in Vermont continues the mud show tradition, taking their classes on a 15 to 20 jump tour through Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Want a real look at life on a modern mud show? Check out Valerie Berta Torales' blog, The Mudshow Diaries.

That's it for this week's update!

Yours truly, 

Dr. Tobias H. Gentleman

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Floating Palace

From the beginning, the American circus industry was largely relegated to touring the East Coast and New England. This was largely due to the lack of any real infrastructure and the difficulty of transporting equipment, animals and personnel across the mountainous country of Appalachia. With the opening of the Eerie Canal in 1825, an entirely new market was presented to any circus owner able to get his hands on a boat large enough. 

Among the earliest to take his show to the water, as we saw earlier was Dan Rice who moved his show from town to town on the Allegheny Mail starting around 1848. Rice treated the steamboat more or less the same way as any other mode of transportation the circus used, loading, docking, unloading and performing on land, the boat simply acting as conveyance. This changed with Rice's frequent partner/employer/rival Gilbert R. "Doc" Spaulding. 

Prior to Rice's outings, steamboats had already been used as floating theaters. Starting in 1831, the Chapman family, English actors traveled via barge along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, performing at stops along the way. After reaching New Orleans, they sold the barge for firewood, traveled via steamboat back to Pittsburgh where they had started and repeated the trip again the next season with a new barge. They repeated this until 1836 when they were able to afford a much larger boat complete with steam engine and full stage which they named The Steamboat Theater. It is from this particular style of travel that the term showboat derives. 

The problem, of course, when translating the circus into showboat style traveling theater was one of scale. It took until 1852 when Spaulding and his partner Charles J. Rogers commissioned the massive Floating Palace to actually hold a circus performance on board a ship. Built in Cincinnati for around $42,000 (approximately $1,092,000 in today's currency) the Floating Palace had a shallow, barge like hull and unlike the Steamboat Theater required a tow boat to pull it along which also contained the show's menagerie. It was large enough to contain a standard 42' ring, seat 3,400 audience members (though shows were often standing room only and one could pay to stay outside on the deck and look in through the windows) and had a full accompaniment of 200 gas jets that lit the theater. Add to that the mirrors, tapestries and carvings that decorated the ship as well as the system of steam heating that allowed the show to go on in cold weather and you have some idea of what a marvel the thing was in its day. Spaulding and Rogers were also responsible for the addition of one of the most recognizable pieces of circus tradition, the calliope. Originally designed as a way to signal to those on shore that the Floating Palace was traveling near by, it is still inextricably associated with the sounds of the circus. 

Spaulding and Rogers toured the Floating Palace for only four years, 1852, 1853, 1857, and 1859. Like many circuses, they found themselves limited in their ability to travel as the Civil War approached. The ship was even confiscated in 1862 by the Confederate army after the troupe's yearly stay in New Orleans and used as a hospital ship. More often than not, it was leased to other shows and in this way, traveled the river circuit for 14 years before an accidental fire burned the ship to the water line while it was docked in New Albany, Indiana. 

The Floating Palace, while certainly the greatest of the circus riverboats was certainly not the last, among the post civil war riverboat revivalists were both Dan Rice and Eugene Robinson who's own Floating Palace boasted a menagerie, museum, and opera house (though not a circus) and the era of the showboat lasted well into the first decades of the 20th century. 

That's it for this week! As you've probably noticed, Wagon Tracks has moved to a bi-monthly update. We'll continue exploring every other Thursday and next time, we'll look at the smaller "mud show" circuses. Till then, thanks for reading!

Dr. Tobias H. Gentleman

Friday, August 22, 2014

Dan Rice: America's Clown

Dan Rice was, quite possibly, the most famous personality of his day next to Abraham Lincoln himself. Born in Manhattan in 1823, Rice got his start as a Jockey at the age of 10. After becoming too heavy to ride professionally he turned instead to equestrian performance, joining the Nichols Circus where he performed as a singer and dancer as well as a rider. Rice also went on to perform what became a staple of many clown acts, the "educated pig" when he joined a traveling puppet show in 1843 with his pig Lord Byron.

Rice's first big act, however, came when he joined Dr. Gilbert R. Spalding's North American Circus (Spalding having bought out the former Nichols Circus). Combining his educated pig act with his musical and dance performances and strong man act, Rice became for the first time an integral part of the show. His relationship with Spalding was, however, a tumultuous one, Rice being notoriously hard to get along with when it came to business and something of a egotist.

Leaving Spalding's show, Rice went on to perform with several other circuses before opening his own show in 1845, the Dan Rice Circus, which many historians suspect was financed in part by Spalding and which traveled periodically on Spalding's Allegheny Mail steam boat. Rice played the part of clown in his show, becoming well known for his Shakespearian comedy performances and interacting heavily with the ringmaster as his straight man which would, in time, become something of a circus tradition in itself.

By this point, Rice had also taken on what is probably his most recognizable modern legacy by costuming himself in a stars and stripes outfit and top hat. Along with his long grey chin beard, Rice was the perfect model for Thomas Nast's "Uncle Sam" character (though he may have been adapting an already existing clown style, Rice certainly gets credit for popularizing it and making it his own trademark look).

Like John Bill Ricketts before him, Rice often courted the famous political figures of the day. Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Roberty E. Lee were all fans and at one point while playing in Washington D.C. Congress had to adjourn for the day as so few members were going to show. These political ties, as well as Rice's tour routes which took him both to the South and the North would later cause him some amount of public grief during the civil war as many Northerers suspected him of Southern sympathies and vice versa. Even after the war, Rice's loyalties were hard to pin down as he helped to rebuild schools and churches in the South while at the same time charitably supporting the windows and children of Union troops who had died in the war and even having a Union monument errected in his second wife's home town of Girard, Pennsylvania (which, by the way, now hosts a yearly "Dan Rice Days" festival).

By 1852, Dan Rice had reached the financial peak of his success, becoming possibly the most highly paid person in the country making $1000 a week (a little over $13,000 by today's standards). As the civil war went on, however, his fortunes dwindled and by 1862 Rice was bankrupt. Enter Gilbert R. Spalding, Rice's former manager who offered Rice the opportunity to join his show as a partner at the same $1000 a week rate. Rice, perhaps remembering his previous time with Spalding, refused, opting instead to rebuild his fortunes on his own which he did successfully before entering into partnership with Adam Forepaugh and going more or less bankrupt once again.

Four years later, Rice made a short lived bid for congress and the presidency running at the behest of a Pennsylvania soldiers delegation. He would by no means be the last great circus star to enter the political arena as we'll see in later entries. Rice continued touring both with his own show, he could afford it and as a performer in other circuses. By now, however, age and alcoholism had left Rice a shadow of his former self and audiences failed to appear.

Eventually, Rice was able to overcome his addiction to alcohol and in his later years toured as a temperance speaker while continuing to perform in the ring in one form or another until his retirement in 1887. Just three years later, Dan Rice died. His name, however lived on, various circuses touring, though unauthorized, under the Rice name well into the mid 1950's. Additionally, his "Pete Jenkins from Mud Corners" comedic equestrian act was likely the basis for the circus act depicted in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, especially given that Twain and Rice traveled the same waters along the Mississippi at roughly the same time.

Since we touched a bit on steamship travel and the circus, we'll continue on that topic next time!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

J. Purdy Brown

The so called "tented circus" officially began with proprietor J. Purdy Brown in the early 1800's. A cousin of Hachaliah Bailey, Brown is credited both with being the first to tour under a big top and with being among the first to combine the circus and menagerie. Though the exact date of the first feat is unknown (likely some time in the mid-1820's when Brown was touring along the Mississippi River or just before when he became the first to tour Virginia), the combination show that gave us what is commonly considered the modern circus format started when his cousin, Benjamin Brown, a menagerie owner in his own right leased J. Purdy his show which was then added to J. Purdy's own and toured under "Brown's Circus and Menagerie." This practice of leasing animals, equipment and personnel to other shows also became commonplace, especially during the circus's golden age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with many proprietors even leasing their own names to smaller up and coming shows in order to help legitimize a new show with a familiar name.

Prior to Brown's combined show, circuses (then still the Astley style equestrian show with a few additions) and mengageries were, according to The Circus in America, "known to be mistrustful and jealous and even stole each other's livestock on more than one occasion." In his wake, the practice would come not only to be commonplace, but would be the standard for most successful shows in the U.S. and abroad, the size of a circus's menagerie and of it's big top both being gauges for the quality of the show itself. 

Sadly, Brown's contributions have been largely forgotten or mis-attributed to other, better known figures like Aaron Turner and Nathan Howe. In addition to his other firsts, he was also the first to advertise the circus ahead of it's arrival and, due to the tented nature of his show, to travel with a retinue of circus wagons though larger menageries were already doing this) which, in time, would become more and more elaborate and eventually morph into the well known circus parade signaling a show's arrival in town. 

Next week, we'll explore the life and times of "America's clown" Dan Rice!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

John Durang

Previously we talked about the first Astley style show in America, John Bill Ricketts. Among Ricketts' biggest acts was John Durang, a multi-talented performer who had already made a name for himself as a dancer, actor, director, puppeteer, and musician. Erroneously, or at least poorly cited in many texts as the first "Native American" clown (including by yours truly in a previously post, hence the delay on this one as I wanted to make sure I got it right), Durang was, in fact the first native born American clown.

The son of French immigrants, Durang was born in Lancaster Pennsylvania, growing up in smaller town of York where his family moved shortly after his birth. The family quickly made a name for themselves in the small town, largely due to John's father, Jacob's abilities as a barber-surgeon and businessman as well as his fluency in both French and German, the common language of the town. The Durangs would eventually resettle in Philadelphia after Jacob completed service in the continental army, some time in the late 1770's.

It was in Philadelphia that Durang first took to the stage after seeing a hornpipe playing dancer at a theatrical performance. Durang decided that he could "dance as well as anybody" and sought out professional instruction, eventually convincing the dancer who he'd first seen, one Mr. Russel, to board at his father's house with the intent of convincing Russel to become his teacher. Durang had his first professional performance after running away with a magic lantern show whose disappointing performance he'd previously seen in Philadelphia. Offering to improve the show with his music and dance routines, Durang signed on to join the troupe's tour as they traveled through New Jersey and on to Boston, eventually playing for a successful two months of engagements. 

Once the two month tour was up, Durang finally returned to Philadelphia where he reunited with his relieved family, having left without notice, but could not leave the desire to perform behind. Durang signed on with the Old American Company (this time with his fathers consent), and went on to tour with the group in Pennsylvania and New York, continuing to take instruction from a variety of teachers. It was in New York that Durang studied with a Mr. Hoffmaster, a dwarf who instructed him in the violin and eventually composed the tune "John Durang's Hornpipe." 

Returning to Philadelphia again in 1787, Durang next turned his theatrical talents towards opening his own show, this time with a self built puppet theater which he operated with his siblings and several friends. Durang also performed in and managed several summer theaters, particularly after the legalization of the theatrical performances in 1789, as well as working in several English "pleasure gardens", outdoor theater and dining venues designed to look like "fantasy lands of natural and exotic design." It was here that Durang added acrobatics and rope walking to his repertoire.   

The skills learned for the pleasure garden performances would eventually go on to serve Durang well when he signed on with John Bill Ricketts' circus in 1796. By then, he had added horsemanship to his skills and he quickly became a featured performer in Rickett's pantomime performances. Durang traveled with Ricketts' troupe throughout the Eastern seaboard and up into Canada leaving behind a thorough written account of what travel was like during the late 1700's as well as numerous paintings of the local landscape and performances. During this tour, Durang not only worked as a performer, but kept track of Ricketts' finances and worked as a theater technician and engineer for mechanical effects. In his travels through Canada, he also added an "Indian characteristic dance" to his more formal European style dances, dressed in an outfit he claimed to have "purchased from an Indian for rum." 

Durang continued managing much of Ricketts' finances for the circus well after their return to Philadelphia and the show's eventual move to Baltimore. It was Durang who arranged for a small tour after the fire in the Philadelphia amphitheater and Ricketts' urged him to stay on with the show when he left for his ill fated tour of the West Indies. Durang, who had since married and had several children turned down the offer and remained in America, opening his own, short lived circus. 

Durang would go on to have a long career in the traditional theater as well as joining touring shows during the summer. His sons, Charles and Richard (who performed under the name Ferdinand) also became prominent figures in the theater both as performers and behind the scenes. After decades of shaping the early American theater, Durang died in Philadelphia at the age of 54. Today, several monuments stand throughout Lancaster, Pennsylvania including one at the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theater which has a series of puppets based on Durang's life built by artist Robert Brock.

For a much more in depth history of John Durang, his life, and legacy, as well as images of Brock's Durang puppets and recordings of "John Durang's Hornpipe," please visit the York County Heritage Trust website. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

John Bill Ricketts

We return this week to the European equestrian style show popularized by Phillip Astley and the man who brought this style of performance to the U.S, John Bill Ricketts. Born in Scotland in 1760, Ricketts trained with Charles Hughes' riding school in London during the late 1700's before founding his own show which opened first in Edinburgh as the Circus Royal in 1791. The show traveled throughout Scotland and Ireland before relocating to Philadelphia where it performed in the equestrians's riding school at Twelfth and Market Street (then called High Street), roughly where the Gallery at Market East shopping mall stands today.

Among those present at Ricketts' earliest performances were George and Martha Washington whose attendance and the reports thereof all but assured Ricketts' American success. Ricketts soon took his show to New York where then president John Adams also attended. Like Astley, Ricketts often had custom amphitheaters built for the show, eventually owning some half dozen buildings in the U.S. and Canada. On his return to Philadelphia which served as the show's home base, Rickets had the show's original open air arena replaced with his Art Pantheon and Amphitheater, boasting artificial lighting, stage and arena spaces and seating for 1,200. The show eventually became so popular that Ricketts' was able to send his brother, Francis on the road with a second troupe.

Among Ricketts' major contributions to the modern circus was his addition, even more so than Astley's of variety acts to the equestrian show in which he starred. Ricketts' show boasted a series of clowns throughout, including the first Native American clown, John Durang, whose addition to the show was something of a coup for Ricketts as Durang was already an actor and dancer of note as well as being one of Washington's favorite performers. The show also included pantomimes and theatrical stage pieces as well as one of the first after show concerts which were regularly rotated in order to garner repeat business.

Ricketts also added what might be considered one of the first sideshows in circus history. After seeing his show during their first tour in Philadelphia, George Washington returned and offered to sell Ricketts the horse he rode during the Revolutionary War for a price of $150. The horse, who was by then too old to be of much use to Washington was exhibited around the country as part of Ricketts' show.

When both Ricketts' main amphitheater burned down in 1799, one in New York and the other in their home base of Philadelphia and the rent on the new Philadelphia location, a half collapsed building formerly owned by Philip Lailson became more than the circus could reasonably handle, Ricketts and a small portion of his cast left for a tour of the West Indies where he was able to recoup much of his money despite widespread illness among the cast. Selling the remainder of his horses, Ricketts attempted to sail back to England but was lost at sea along with the ship. In his wake, Ricketts left behind a new industry which would, in the coming century become one of the most widespread forms of American entertainment.  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Nathan A. Howes and the Zoological Institute

Last time we looked at Hachaliah Bailey and the beginnings of the menagerie business in America. This week, we follow up with a bit of Bailey's protege and sometime partner Nathan A. Howes. Born in Brewster, New York in 1796, Howes got his start in the menagerie business by securing the partial rights to tour Bailey's elephant, Old Bet. He was among the earliest owners to tour with a regular circus troupe (starting in the 1820's) and was also among the earliest to tour under a canvas tent rather than a permanent amphitheater the way Philip Astley and other proto-circus performers had done. By 1826, he also ran an equestrian show with Aaron Turner as one of it's main riding acts presaging the merger of menagerie and equestrian act into the modern circus. 

Perhaps Howes' biggest contribution to the history of the circus, however, was the creation of the Zoological Institute in 1835 with his partner, Aaron Turner and his younger brother Seth B. Howes who would go on to circus fame of his own, especially in Europe. These three along with several other major menagerie owners bet at the site of Hachaliah Bailey's Elephant Hotel in January of that year and agreed to "more generally diffuse and promote the knowledge of natural history and gratify rational curiosity," through touring their menageries, all, of course, while making a tidy profit. This meant buying up most of the exotic and wild animals imported into the United States through their menagerie and headquarters in New York City and leasing them to anyone who wanted to tour the animals for a tidy profit. 

In addition, the Zoological Institute turned its attention towards controlling the routes that menageries traveled, often through fear and intimidation. More than a few rival troupes who refused to buckle to the Institute's monopoly or were too small to pay the Institute's fees found their equipment mysteriously burned or otherwise destroyed. 

Many of the Zoological Institutes monopolistic aims were later adopted by the Flatfoots, often confused for being one and the same due to the Institutes use of the phrase "on that I put my foot down flat" after dictating their terms of business. While the Institute lasted only two years, formally disbanding in 1837, the Flatfoots, which included many of the same menagerie owners (thus making untangling the history of the two even more complicated) persisted until 1842 and were reformed from 1863 to 1878 as a coalition of circus owners.

 Next week, we'll return to the equestrian side of things with John Bill Ricketts, the first man to bring his Astley style show to the United States. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Hachaliah Bailey

Hachaliah (or Hackaliah as it is often seen) Bailey was born in New York in 1775. A farmer in Stephentown (later called Sommers), in upstate New York, he purchased his first and most notable menagerie animal from his brother, a sea captain, the second elephant ever to come to the United States which he named Old Bet due to the profits she immediately began making him. Hachaliah's original intention was to use the elephant as a work animal on his farm. Bailey quickly realized, however, that there was far more money in the curiosity of his neighbors than would ever be in farm work, he began exhibiting Old Bet in the surrounding community and eventually started to travel New England showing off his elephant. This became one of the first menagerie shows and inspired Bailey's neighbors to begin doing the same. Within a day's ride of Sommers, no less than seven new touring animal exhibits cropped up.

Bailey eventually licensed the touring of Old Bet, first to neighbors Andrew Brown and Benjamin Lent, then to Nathan Howes who would later go on to his own circus fame. In one famous incident, after Howes had withheld Bailey's portion of Old Bet's earnings, Hachaliah tracked Howes and the elephant to New Bedford Massachusetts. When Howes refused to pay Bailey what he was owed, Bailey threatened to shoot "his half" of Old Bet, forcing Howes to relent or lose his cash cow as well. This would, unfortunately, turn out to be an eerily prescient incident.

In 1816, Old Bet was indeed shot to death, not by either of her owners, but by a farmer in Berwick, Maine. Reports vary as to his reasons but the supposed cause was, according to Rev. William Bentley of Salem that "he took money from those who could not afford to spend it."

Old Bet was buried in Somers after being briefly exhibited in New York City in 1817. Many of the artifacts associated with Bailey and the elephant are on exhibit at the Elephant Hotel which Bailey built with the profits from his exhibition as well as the memorial pillar outside the hotel that Bailey had commissioned. In later years, Bailey's former partner, Howes and several other menagerie owners would use the Elephant Hotel as their meeting place for the formation of the Zoological Society in an attempt to build a monopoly on the menagerie business.

We'll hear more about Howes and the Zoological Society next week. Till then, check out the Sommers Historical Society website below.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Philip Astley, Father of the Modern Circus

The history of what we commonly think of as the modern American circus really starts out with two key figures, Philip Astley, a sergeant major in the British light dragoons who parleyed his natural talents as a rider and horse trainer into a touring equestrian show, and Hachaliah Bailey, a farmer in upstate New York who purchased and exhibited the second elephant to come to the United States. Bailey's successors, Nathan Howe and Aaron Turner would eventually turn his menagerie exhibitions into a union of animal exhibitors that monopolized the industry in the U.S. We'll get to Bailey, Turner, and Howe in the coming weeks. Today is all about Astley. 

The son of a cabinet maker from Newcastle-under-Lyme born in 1742, Astley, a natural born rider, discovered that by riding in a tight circle and maintaining a constant speed, he could more easily stand on the back of a horse due to the centrifugal force created. This practice lead Astley to design the first ring and setting the standard for the circus performance space even today. Astley's performance space, an open air amphitheater was known as Astley's Riding School, and later, after being enclosed as the Astley Royral Amphitheater of Arts. 

As his show grew, Astley began adding other, non-equestrian acts, introducing a strong man, rope walker, acrobats (though the trapeze and other aerial acts were still quite a way off), and a clown act, "The Tailor's Ride to Brentford" which would later be copied or adapted by numerous other circus performers, most notably John Bill Ricketts who would first bring an Astley style show to America. 

In addition to his London amphitheater shows, Astley also toured through France and eastern Europe, building nineteen permanent performance structures. While touring in Paris, Astley was confronted by another showman who used an antiquated French law prohibiting two permanent stage shows from performing at the same time in Paris. In response, Astley had a flat platform built and mounted on several of his horses, atop which his acrobats could perform. As it was now a mobile performance space instead of a permanent one, the show was allowed to go on. 

Astley inspired numerous equestrian shows during the years that followed and several riding schools opened in his stead, leading to the first equestrian showmen of the Astley model to make their way to the rest of Europe and eventually to the United States with the arrival of John Ricketts who we'll be coming back to in a later entry. 

Next week, Hachaliah Bailey, the father of the menagerie!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Welcome to the Big Top

I can remember the first time I encountered the mystique of the circus. It was because of my grandfather. When I was young, maybe 8 years old, he told me about a show that he had seen when he was my age, which would have put it squarely during the golden age of the circus in the 1920's or early '30's, and what he remembered wasn't the animal acts or the aerialists, the elephants or the clowns. It was a sideshow act, one that I've since learned comes from Barnum and Bailey's "Black Tent" attraction in 1903, later picked up by the Ringling Bros. when the two shows combined later in the decade. The black tent featured various stage illusions framed as human oddities and that one that had caught my grandfather's imagination was "the headless girl," a woman's torso with an array of fluid filled tubes sticking out from the neck, apparently keeping her alive.

Now, my grandfather and I both had early flirtations with stage magic. He taught me the first card trick I ever learned. So when, for a small added fee, he could go behind the scenes and see how the trick was done, he jumped at the chance. That's what has, in the years that followed, stayed with me. Not the spectacle, the grand performance of the thing, but what goes on behind the scenes, the seemingly impossible feat of mounting a show over night featuring hundreds or thousands of performers, animals, elaborate equipment and then packing it all up and appearing a new town the next day.

Join me each and every Thursday as I delve into the history and the mystery of the circus.

Dr. Tobias H. Gentleman.