Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Hagenbeck-Wallace Train Wreck

In a small corner of Chicago's Woodlawn Cemetery, a group of five elephants mark the spot known as Snowman's Rest. Despite the story many locals will tell you, there are no actual elephants or any other circus animals buried there. The phantom trumpeting residents claim to hear at night come from the nearby zoo. The tragedy associated with Showman's Rest was very real however.

June 22nd, 1918 in the middle of the rail circus's golden age. The second train of the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus was making its way from its most recent stand in Indiana to its next stop Near Chicago. sometime in the night an axle box began to overheat forcing the train to pull onto the Michigan Central rail line to wait for the part to cool. The first train carrying Hagenbeck-Wallace's animals and the majority of its tents and equipment, the first parts of a show that needed to be set up and torn down had already left ahead of the performers and roustabouts. Four warning signals and a flare on the tracks were set by the engineer and his crew.

All of them were missed.

Alonzo K. Sargent, engineer of a Michigan Central military troop train fell asleep at the controls. Sargent, who was running on little to no sleep in the previous 24 hours and was taking several medications at the time drove the otherwise empty troop train into the caboose and four rearmost sleeping cars of the Hagenbeck-Wallace train at an estimated 35 mph. Many of the victims died instantly as the troop train tore through the cars. The remaining victims died when the gas lighting system ignited, engulfing the wreck in flames. Lack of water made the fire difficult to extinguish when the fire department arrived. Survivors had to be restrained to keep them from running back into the conflagration to rescue their loved ones. By the time it was over, the crash and subsequent fire had taken the lives of some 87 members of Hagenbeck-Wallace and injured another 127.

Hagenbeck-Wallace's main competitor, Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey quickly stepped in to help, offering performers and equipment to ensure that the circus was only forced to miss a single show. A mass burial in Showman's Rest, dedicated only days before the crash was conducted. Many of the dead remain unnamed, unable to be identified due both to the trauma of the fire and the itinerant nature of work on the circus where it was not uncommon to be hired as a roustabout in one city and leave the show in the next.

Sargent was tried for negligence but acquitted despite being found at fault by transit authorities. The case led to widespread reforms in safety and limits on the number of hours engineers could work however. Several other disasters later befell the Hagenbeck-Wallace show, including fires and the death of an elephant handler who was killed by another train while loading his animals. The show persisted however, surviving until 1938 and producing legendary performers including animal trainer Clyde Beatty and comedian and clown Red Skelton.

Other circus performers have been buried at Showman's Rest since the Hagenbeck-Wallace wreck. But never any elephants, no matter what the locals may tell you.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Carl Hagenbeck

Well, that was some intermission, hey folks? We're back from winter quarters (where yours truly bought a house and got engaged) so on with the show!

This week, we're talking about Carl (Karl) Hagenbeck. Born in 1844 to a fishmonger and sometime exotic animal dealer, Hagenbeck received his first exotic animals, several seals and a polar bear, at the age of 14. By 22 he was already running his father's ever growing animal trade, eventually expanding it to the point where it required several building to house his collection. Hagenbeck frequently joined the company's expeditions to the farthest reaches of the globe, bringing first animals and then natives of the countries he visited and exhibiting them at his Hamburg Thierpark and touring them through Europe. It's possible that Hagenbeck's exhibitions may have even inspired the notorious "Human Zoo" built by Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire at the Jardin Zoologique d'Acclimatation as well as numerous others that followed. 

When Hagenbeck toured with a group of Sami natives who were at the time being displayed alongside reindeer captured in Lapland, all eight of the Sami contracted smallpox with a few weeks and died. Shortly thereafter, five natives of Tiera Del  Fuego died of pneumonia. Afterwards, Hagenbeck vowed never again to exhibit human beings (though he did go on to hire natives as animal handlers on future tours). 
While his treatment of human beings may have been less than laudable, Hagenbeck's views on animal training and exhibition were another story. At the time, the prevailing line of thought was that animals had to be trained through fear, often through the use of whips or blacks fired nearby. Hagenbeck believed that animals respected not brute force, but kindness and responded better to positive reinforcement than negative, a view that most trainers after him eventually adopted.

In 1907, Hagenbeck opened his Tierpark Hagenbeck (not to be confused with his previous Hamburg Thierpark) in Stellings, Germany. It was here that he made one of his most lasting cultural contributions, not to the circus, but to zoo design. Hagenbeck's new Tierpark featured exhibits designed to mimic an animal's native habitat, rather than the concrete and iron bar design common at the time. In fact, many of the Tirepark's exhibits had no bars whatsoever, using instead moats that kept animals away from both the park's visitors and from one another, allowing the park to exhibit animals from the same regions together despite being predator and prey in the wild. Visit any major zoo in the western world and you'll likely see Hagenbeck's designs at work. Or, see the original Tierpark, still open in its original 1907 location. Of course, if you can't make it to Germany, there's always Hagenbeck's autobiographical "Beasts and Men, Being Carl Hagenbeck's Experiences for Half a Century Among Wild Animals"

Hagenbeck also lent his name, albeit unwillingly to the second largest circus of its time after Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey. Hagenbeck had toured Europe and the United States with his own circus starting in 1903, handing over ownership for the 1905 and 1906 seasons were run to John Havlin and and Frank Tate. The show was eventually surrendered by Havlin and Tate as payment for a debt to partners Ben Wallace and Jerry Mugivan who named their new show the Hagenbeck-Walace Circus, banking on Hagenbeck's name and reputation. Hagenbeck sued as he'd given over no rights to the name beyond the original sale to Havlin and Tate. As Hagenbeck was in Germany at the time finishing work on the Tierpark, he was unable to plead his own case in an American court and subsequently lost the suit. Hagenbeck-Wallace went on to a successful premier in the spring of 1907, Carl Hagenbeck himself died in 1913, the same year the show was again sold, this time to Edward Ballard.

Next week we'll talk about the railway disasters that plagued the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, including one of the worst in circus history. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Jules Léotard: The Original Man on the Flying Trapeze

The originator of the flying trapeze, Jules Léotard was born in Toulouse, France some time between 1838 and 1842 (accounts vary as do his memoirs). The son of a gymnasium owner and gymnastics teacher, he took to the air almost from birth, some accounts claiming that his parents suspended him from a bar as a baby, finding that it helped to calm the young Jules. Though he initially studied to become a lawyer Léotard's heart eventually led him back to the gymnasium where he began to practice on the trapeze.

His development of the flying trapeze likely stemmed from a feat he began to perform at the gymnasium using the ropes that opened the skylights above the gym's pool. Léotard would swing from rope to rope and later from one trapeze to another. He eventually staged a local performance of his new act and was subsequently hired by the Cirque de l’Imératrice whose director was in the audience during that first performance. It was here that the garment which bears his name was designed at his request after a costumer first outfitted him with a more theatrical costume which he refused to wear.

Léotard never performed with the Cirque de l’Imératrice due to an illness which forced him to cancel his debut. His first public show was instead with the Cirque Napoleon (now the Cirque d'Hiver, the oldest permanent circus in the world) in 1859. The act was an immediate success and spawned a number of imitators as well as a public sensation with his new, form fitting outfit. He went on to take his act to London's Alhambra in 1861 where he performed his 12 minute act over the heads of the audience as they ate dinner below him in the music hall. In 1868 he traveled to America but was waylaid by a fall in Boston that injured his ankle and prevented him from performing for months.

In 1870, Léotard traveled to Spain where he contracted an unknown disease, likely small pox, cholera, or typhoid and died on August 21st of that year. Ironically, he is primarily remembered today not for the act he developed and helped to popularize, but for the garment that was made for him to perform in, a garment which did not bear his name until more than a decade after his death.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Fred and Ella Bradna

In contrast to the fiery pairing of Lilian Leitzel and Alfredo Codona in our last post, Fred and Ella Bradna represent, perhaps the most ideal couple in circus history. Ella Bradna grew up in her father', Johan Bradna's circus in the late 1800's, training as an equestrienne and wire walker. Until the age of 11, she generally played second fiddle to her sister, Beata on the equestrian stage, but after a fall broke both of Beata's legs, Ella was allowed to replace her. She proved to be very much her sister's superior in grace and skill, due in part to her earlier additional training in ballet.

Fred Ferber grew up in a very different kind of family in provincial France. Ferber was serving as a cavalry officer in the German Army when he attended the Nouveau Cirque on the fortuitous night of Ella Bradna's debut as a bareback rider in 1901. Near the end of her act, Bradna was thrown from her horse, over the ring curb and into the box seats where Bradna was sitting (in some reports, directly into his lap, though in others, she was simply near Ferber who leaped to her aid until other members of the circus could help her). So taken was Ferber with the young circus performer that he arranged for an extended leave from the army in order to carry on an extended courtship with her, much to the displeasure of his parents who began a thorough investigation into the woman who had caught their son's eye.

Eventually, the Ferbers consented to their relationship and Fred resigned his army commission and joined the Nouveau Cirque  as an assistant equestrian director (presumably parlaying his experience as a cavalry officer into his new position). Shortly afterwards, the two were married and Fred took his wife's already famous name rather than asking her to adopt his own unknown one. Later that year, the two joined Barnum and Bailey's when they returned to the United States after a European tour.

In 1913, ten years into their marriage, Fred became Barnum and Bailey's 10th ringmaster. He would go on to hold the title, after Barnum and Bailey's merger with Ringling Bros. for 31 years, creating the visual archetype for ringmaster's to come, red tails, white pants, riding boots and top hat. The Bradnas were present in 1944 for what many consider among the greatest disasters in circus history, the Hartford circus fire, Fred playing a vital role in trying to rescue the audience present from the flames after being alerted to the danger by band leader Merle Evans who had instructed the band to play "Stars and Stripes Forever" a traditional signal within the circus to any form of emergency. Unfortunately, due to an untimely power failure, Fred's attempts to warn the audience to the danger went unheard. All told, an estimated 168 people were killed in the fire, most of them children who died of being trampled rather than from the flames.

The following year, Fred Bradma was injured during a blowdown of the show's big top and, after 42 years in the circus, was finally forced to retire. Ella joined him and the two moved to Sarasota Florida, a popular retirement destination for circus veterans. The two lived there until Fred's death in 1955 and Ella's in 1957. Their marriage lasted more than 50 years, proof that, contrary to many of the stories we've seen so far, some circus lives do end happily ever after.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Lillian Leitzel

Born Leopoldina Alitza Pelikan Eleanore in Breslau Germany in 1892, Lillian Leitzel's maternal family was steeped in circus history. Her grandmother was a trapeze artist, performing into her 80's, as were her mother and two of her aunts. Her uncle, Adolph Pelikan was also a well known clown. It came as no surprise then that by the time she was 14 she too had joined her family's trade, touring Europe and then the U.S. in 1910 with Barnum and Bailey. When her family returned to Europe, however, Lillian elected to stay in the United States in hopes of making a name for herself.

Her first solo appearances were not under the big top, but in vaudeville, and not long after her first performance she was, indeed catapaulted to stardom, but  not in the manner she'd expected. Early in her vaudeville career, Leitzel suffered a fall that injured both of her legs. What would have detered another performer instead galvanized Leitzel and she insisted on returning to work, walking around on crutches and being carried to the web where she ascended to the roman rings. This dedication soon garnered her the admiration of vaudeville audiences, earning her the title "the world's most daring aerial star."

Eventually her vaudeville success drew the attention of the Ringling Bros. Circus in 1915.  There she would go on to become one of Ringling's star performers during it's golden age after its merger with Barnum and Bailey's and she frequently made sure others knew just how big a star she was. Famous for her hot temper, she was well known for berating and even slapping roustabouts who did not adjust her rigging to her liking. She traveled in a private pullman car, the only circus star of the age who could make such a demand (as well as the only one who performed her act alone) and had a personal maid whom she reported fired and rehired often multiple times a day. Yet despite her reputation, she was also well known for her kindness towards children on the show and to many of her fellow performers, earning her the nickname "Auntie Leitzel" among the youngest members of the cast.

Leitzel's signature act in the circus was the one armed plange, a near vertical rotation from a swiveling loop attached to a rope which required her with each rotation to partially dislocate her shoulder and pop it back into place before doing it again on the upswing, the audience counting her rotations as she went. Her reported record was 249. Leitzel's performance was so popular, she often extended her act in spite of the other performers waiting to go on if she had an especially receptive audience.

Leitzel married three times in her brief life, first to an unknown stage hand and then to side show manager and ring announcer Clyde Ingalls. Both marriages ended in divorce, her second spectacularly so, the final straw for Ingalls, long jealous of the attention Leitzel received from other men coming when a prominent Chicago man threw a party for her that featured a mermaid swimming in champagne, a gold plated statue of Leitzel, and a gift of a diamond tiara.

Leitzel finally met her match in more ways than one in her third husband, fellow aerialist and trapeze artist Alfredo Codona. Though plagued with arguments, screaming matches, breakups and reconciliations, their marriage lasted until Leitzel's death in 1931. In February of that year, the couple were touring Europe, Leitzel in Denmark and Codona in Germany when the swivel ring on Leitzel's planges equipment snapped due to fatigue. Leitzel fell 20 feet, suffering a concussion and spinal damage. Codona rushed to her side from Germany but Leitzel managed to convince him that she would pull through and insisted that he return to Berlin to finish his tour. Two days later, she died from complications from the fall.

Codona, heartbroken had a massive 17 foot tall memorial entitled "Reunion" depicting the two aerialists, a winged Codona catching his wife, erected in Inglewood, California where he interred her ashes. Codona would go on to remarry, to Vera Bruce, another aerialist. When Bruce sued for divorce in 1937, Codona shot first her, and then himself in her lawyer's office, leaving behind a suicide note stating that he was "going back to Leitzel, the only woman who ever loved me." He was later buried next to Leitzel's ashes in Inglewood.
Fortunately, footage of Lillian Leitzel's act is still available to us. Today, aerial arts has enjoyed a thriving resurgence, especially with the modern prevalence of animal free shows like Cirque Du Soleil that often put greater focus on their human performers and many cities play host to aerial schools. Here in southern Michigan the Detroit Fly House and Ann Arbor Aviary (where I'm currently taking an introduction to static trapeze course) offer a number of aerial and circus arts classes for the taking. Purposely dislocating your shoulder as part of an act, however, his generally discouraged.