Memories of Circuses Past

By Hoagland, Edward | The Nation, March 9, 1985 | Go to article overview

Memories of Circuses Past


Hoagland, Edward, The Nation


Having worked in the circus thirty-five years ago, I went to the splendiferous auction of circus memorabilia held at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue in New York City in mid-February. There were exact replicas, in one-inch scale, of the cookhouse tents. I used to eat in and the supply wagons I slept under. Also about ninety horses with snake-pit manes and flaring nostrils, gaping mouths and outkicked hooves, that had been cannibalized or left over from dismantled carrousels. The gorilla Gargantua II, whom I knew in his childhood, sold for $20,350, stuffed, with a fine true-to-life benign expression and his tremendous fingers brought up to drum on his gigantic chest.

Carved dioramas re-created circus history from Barnum's Jumbo in 1882, and from the day when Albert Ringling set off from Baraboo, Wisconsin, with his four brothers, two years later, balancing a plow on his chin to show the world what he could do. An honest-to-goodness mud scene of the 1930s depicted twenty horses trying to budge a pole wagon that had got mired to the axles, with an elephant dutifully shoving it from behind as well. And in a miniature menagerie yaks stood shouldering water buffaloes and musk oxen, from an era when Americans still lived close to and were intensely intrigued by animals.

A bunch of Felix Adler's clown costumes were auctioned off--dummy heads and bizarrely broad feet, wild zany wigs and rubber noses, pneumatic suits, dog masks and a Siamese-twin monkey outfit. Adler (1897-1960) was a "grotesque white-face," in circus parlance, which means he painted his features to exaggerate them. He called himself the King of the Clowns, sometimes sporting a gold crown, which irritated several colleagues. He stuck beach balls into the seat of his capacious pants to make his rear end swell, and on the bulb of his nose he wore a red light which occasionally shorted out when he went backstage between acts and put on his wire-rimmed reading spectacles. His trademark was the succession of little pigs that he trained to follow him around the hippodrome track (and fed a secret diet of baking soda to keep them small for as long as he could). But he had many other ringwise wiles, and carrying his six-inch umbrella on a five-foot handle, he performed at the White House for Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt. A part-Sioux from Clinton, Iowa, he had first appeared under a big top at the age of 10 with a dog and pony show, and claimed that he preferred pigs because, "like clowns, they have sad, suspicious eyes but always look as if they're smiling." He didn't marry until he was 50, meeting his wife, Amelia, in a department store in Richmond, Virginia, where he was performing during the off-season. His pig got loose and ran under her desk in the credit office. He died in New York City in the February of another off-season, while waiting for spring, and his obituaries ought to have mentioned that he was regarded as probably the most generous-spirited clown to have graced a circus tent in living memory.

At the Armory I noticed too, and was touched by, an old scalloped; medallion-shaped, yellow-and-beige sign that was being auctioned:

AGNES

ALTHOUGH NATIVE TO AFRICA. …

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