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.