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CHS Convention 2006, Sarasota, Florida

By Joe Parker

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      They came from far and wide for the 2006 Circus Historical Society convention. On Thursday afternoon, May 4, over 70 circus historians started gathering at the Sarasota Cay Club. The lobby was crowded as new arrivals greeted old friends, registered for the convention, and planned their weekend in the Florida sun. The conversation and socializing continued at the Tiki Bar with a poolside Happy Hour, overlooking the Hotel Marina and Sarasota Bay.

      The official events began Friday; everyone was up bright and early for the morning field trip to the Eingling-Barnum train recycling facility in nearby Palmetto. The group had an all-too-short tour of the facility where the Feld shows the three circuses and the ice shows-are designed, built, and assembled. Wardrobe, rail facilities, props and all the rest of the supporting equipment and shops are there. Mounting a show is a massive project, and we came away from Palmetto with a better understanding of what goes into each Ringling show we see in our hometown.

      We got back on the bus to go to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, particularly the new Tibbals Leaning Center. We started with the exhibits at the "old" circus museum, followed by a sandwich buffet at the Banyan Cafe.

Photo: Howard Tibbals, Ken Harck, Guy Fiorenza and David Carlyon. John Gilmore photo.

      After lunch, Howard Tibbals, Debbie Walk, and other museum staff explained how the Tibbals Learning Center was planned and built, showing us the process used to install, catalog, and document the Howard Bros. Circus model. We then toured the Tibbals building, and looked in awe at the Howard Bros. Circus: a complete, scale-model, three-ring tented circus loosely based on the Ringling-Barnum Circus of the late 1930s, complete down to the dishes and eating utensils in the cook house tent. It took 14 months to install thousands of scaled railroad ties and spikes; 6,000 individual folding chairs (in two colors); a big-top full of performers including identifiable figures of Unus, Lou Jacobs, and many others. It was too much to grasp in one visit. The day at the Ringling Museum ended with a social hour with snacks and drinks with Howard and Janice Tibbals and Ringling Museum curators.

      On Saturday, the formal sessions began in the conference room of the hotel. Douglas Harmon was the first presenter. He is a collector of mid-19th century advertising art who recently acquired 15 lithographs of the Great London Circus, circa 1875-1880. He showed slides of them, and provided details of the acts portrayed. Most of his posters are the only surviving example of its image. He gave a fascinating insight into early circus advertising from the perspective of an art collector, not a circus collector.

      While artists of color have played important parts in the history of the American circus, their participation has not been adequately documented or acknowledged. Manuel Ruffin (Prince Bogino), Saturday's second presenter, spoke of his life on the circus, and helped remedy that. He joined the circus at age 14 as a cage assistant to the great Clyde Beatty (who gave Ruffin his lifelong nickname of "Junior"), and spent his whole working life on the circus as a performer, backstage hand, canvas boss, trainmaster, and just about every job possible with a traveling circus. He made us laugh with funny stories about his life and the people he worked with on various shows. For example, when he had his big cat act in the 1960s and 1970s, he was billed as "Prince Bogino" because it was thought that white audiences would accept a black animal trainer if he were an "African Prince with an Italian name," but not if he was an African-American. The billing led to an embarrassing question about "Prince Bogino's" southern accent. Ruffin's wit and humor were equal to the occasion: Prince Bogino explained he acquired the accent while his tribe was in exile in Florida. Photo: Bob Houston and Junior Ruffin. Ray Gronso photo.

      An academic triple play on animal training and welfare followed. Nigel Rothfels from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was first up. He presented a paper on how the European and American conception of elephant behavior and temperament has changed over time. Enlightenment-era scholars (never having seen an elephant) projected their ideals of rationality and control into their descriptions of elephant behavior; the Victorians used their obsession with death and sentimentality to create the idea of the weeping, tender-hearted elephant; and today, society anthropomorphizes elephants, and treats them as though they were human.

      Narisara Murray then presented from her book-in-progress on the famous Jumbo, telling us about Jumbo's life before he "emigrated" to America, and casting light in some of the remarkable people Jumbo encountered, such as the three Sharif brothers, Arab hunters who probably sold Jumbo as a calf, or Colonel Samuel Baker, an English hunter whose diaries describe the Sharifs' capture and sale of the baby Jumbo, or Matthew Scott, the drunken keeper who apparently made a rich living selling rides on Jumbo in the London Zoo.

      Janet Davis, from the University of Texas at Austin, batted cleanup, presenting her views on the development of the American animal welfare movement. She said that the animal welfare movement grew up as a result of the urban Americans' separation from working animals (in the cities, working animals were increasingly replaced by machines), plus the religious fervor also seen at that time in evangelical Christianity, temperance, and, in an earlier generation, abolitionism. She is developing the idea further, and plans to expand her ideas in a book on this subject. All three papers had clear pertinence to the current animal-rights clamor to remove animals, especially elephants, from circuses and zoos.

      After lunch, Terry O'Brien, author of the book Close but No Cigar - A Street Urchin's Tale, talked to us about his life in and around circuses, and how events in his life, traveling in circuses as a juggler and wire-walker, inspired the adventures in his novel. O'Brien worked for a "gypsy" circus in Ireland, the National Security Agency, Disney World, and as an advance man for the L. E. Barnes Circus, a rather odd grouping of jobs to say the least.

      Ellsworth Brown, Director of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, reported on the condition of the Circus World Museum. The state historical society owns CWM, and has oversight responsibilities. Brown reported on the CWM's new organizational structure, its current budget and financial condition, and its short-term goals. The bottom line of his report is that Circus World Museum "is alive, if not yet well." He expressed confidence that CWM will remain open, and remain a National Treasure for generations to come.

Photo: Debbie Walk and Ellsworth Brown. Ray Gronso photo.

      Debbie Walk, curator of collections for the Ringling Museums, presented a paper on Mable Ringling, the wife of John Ringling and the driving force behind the Ca d'Zan mansion on the museum grounds. We learned of Mable's humble birth and upbringing in Moons (now Buena Vista), Fayette County, Ohio. Walk suspects Mable met John at the Chicago World's Fair, leading to their marriage in December 1903. Eventually Mable became the founding president of the Sarasota Garden Club, and a leading member of Sarasota society.

      Tom Dunwoody, Director of the Circus Hall of Fame in Peru, Indiana, spoke of the current status and future plans of that museum, which includes paving the road, reconstructing some of the buildings, a new educational program for Indiana 4th graders, and taking the Hall's circus performers to the Indiana State Fair.

      David Carlyon was the final presenter of the day, offering his unique perspective on Huckeberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Carlyon sees Tom Sawyer as the idealized recollections of Twain's childhood, while Huck Finn reflects his adult disillusionment. The circus sequence in chapter 22 of Huck Finn is, however, an idyllic description of the "dream circus." He explained his theory of why that dream circus is in the exact middle of Twain's attack on corrupt society. In addition, he describes how many of the characters and plotlines in Huck Finn are paralleled in events and legends associated with Dan Rice.

      Saturday night was devoted to the annual auction with lots of circus posters, memorabilia, books, and most importantly money changing hands. Everyone had a great time and it produced $3,240 that will be used for Bandwagon.

      Fred Dahlinger kicked off the Sunday morning session with "1907: The Season that Set the Course of Circus History for the Next Century" a bold title that he justified in his paper. At the beginning of 1907, there were two big circus companies, Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Brothers. At the end of the year, the Ringlings were in complete control of both shows. Dahlinger's paper explicated the tangle of factors involved: the void left by the death of James A. Bailey, personal antipathy among the leading circus men, and bad management decisions were only some of them. By the end, he had shown us how the Ringlings ended up in control of the American circus business.

      Robert Sabia then showed a series of slides of the 1941 through 1943 Ringling-Barnum shows. He suggested that these years, when John Ringling North first exerted full creative control, were a major change from the pre-war years, with new designers and new energy in the shows. He went so far as opining that the 1941 performance "may be the best show ever." The slides certainly showed bright, colorful, and creative costumes and specs, delightful to the eye and refreshing to the spirit.

Photo: John Zweifel and former Ringling performers. Ray Gronso photo.

      John Zweifel then presented a panel of former Ringling performers who Were involved in making the movie The Greatest Show on Earth. The performers, Jackie LeClaire, Jennie Sleeter, Dorita Estes, Jeanne Krause, Mary Jane Miller, Rosie Alexander, Norma Fox, and Lola Dobritch, explained how some of the acts and stunts were done, and gave their point of view on Cecil B. DeMille and some of the actors involved. It was very enlightening and entertaining to hear their "behind the scenes" take on the film, and on the Ringling show of the early 1950s. As a further celebration of the movie, Dom Yodice presented "Greatest Show on Earth" costume designs, photos, and props, including Dorothy Lamour's "Iron Jaw" mouthpiece. The members were so fascinated with the discussion that it ran long and threatened to continue through lunch.

      To kick off the afternoon session Richard Georgian presented the adventures of the "Luella Forepaugh-Fish Wild West Show of 1903," which focused on the troupe of Georgian Cossack riders on the show, and through their perspective, showed how the tour was a disaster because of lack of planning, poor management, and phenomenally bad luck with the weather. The paper was drawn from his forthcoming book on the Georgian Cossacks, Buffalo Bill's Deceit the Cossack's Curse.

      Peggy Williams in her paper "Selling the Circus in the 21st Century," demonstrated the ways in which Ringling Bros, marketed itself in the last few years, and explained the new strategy of recent years. The key to competing with all the other available entertainment, she said, is to be part of the audience's lives all year, not just for a few weeks leading up to the circus coming to town, Therefore, they use the Ringling website, the "Circus Fit" health program for kids, "Circus in Education" modules and material for school teachers, computer games and computer learning programs, to keep the Ringling brand in the minds of kids and parents all year long.

      John Herriott and Buckles Woodcock presented Sunday's final session. The two lifelong circus performers and animal trainers shared stories, usually humorous, of their friendship and careers in the circus, commented on the present state and future of the circus, explained how animal-training should be done, and where many trainers go wrong. It's clear that both men loved working in the circus with animals. We were privileged to hear them reminisce about their lives.

      The grand finale of the convention was the Sunday night banquet. First, Fred D. Pfening, Jr. was recognized with a standing ovation for his forty-five years of dedication to the Bandwagon. Then John Wetenhall, Executive Director of the Ringling Museum, spoke about the past and future of his institution. The circus collections, he noted, are important to that future. Cataloging and inventorying the collection, thus making it more accessible for research, is a key part of the plan. Another circus building, aimed at creating an even broader circus-education experience for visitors, is in the works as well. It is truly good news that circus is a prominent part of the future of the Ringing Museum and Sarasota.

      With that, the 2006 Sarasota convention came to a close, and President Bob Sabia and wife Susan could relax. Their work was well done, and the show was a hit! I'm confident they'll relax a few days before resuming their efforts to make next year's event as entertaining and informative as this year's.

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