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Members of the Circus Historical Society and guests met at Sam's Town in Las Vegas, Nevada for their annual convention. Things at this jam-packed meeting got underway on Sunday afternoon with registration and a C.H.S. sponsored social hour which gave attendees an opportunity to get acquainted or re-acquainted.
On Monday morning the opening presentation "Ringling Revisited on a Wafer" taken from his six-hour program "Life's a Circus" was made by Robert Sabia who traced the influence and growth of circus throughout world history to that of the American circus with its menageries, its impact on communities, and its evolvement into the Golden Age of Circus. Using film, mostly of Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey, Sabia showed scenes of the winter quarters in the 1950s shot by Jim Hoy, Bill Day and Bill Judd. Another segment covered billing with extensive train shots from the 1940s and 1950s with particular emphasis on the unloading of the show. The film also depicted the cookhouse and big top setup, spreading of the canvas, the side show and challenges to the circus in the form of mud, sandy lots, and rain plus the advent of the use of Caterpillar power.
Following a break Michaele Haynes, Curator of the Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas spoke on Harry Hertzberg and the Hertzberg Circus Collection now at the Witte Museum. She also related aspects of early day tented Mexican circuses in South Texas known as "Las Carpas" and their aerialists, trapeze and high wire artists, clowning, vaudeville type entertainment, dancing, and dogs and ponies.
Everyone gathered to hear Matt Wittmann, a Fulbright Scholar and Ph. D. candidate at the University of Michigan, discuss "Empire of Fun: American Circuses and the Pacific Circuit of the 19th Century" in which he covered the dynamics of American popular culture - for example Tom Thumb, minstrels, and magicians. He gave a general survey of American circuses during the entrepreneurial era (1850-1870), the transitory years (1870s), and the emergence of the Pacific circuit (1880-1900). He covered the activities of Joseph Andrew Rowe and the clown W. H. Foley and his travels from San Francisco to Hawaii, Tahiti, Australia, and New Zealand. Foley was in the theater and variety halls in Melbourne in 1854 and New Zealand in 1855; he fathered six children and toured extensively. The transitory years of the Pacific market in the 1870s saw the emergence of many circuses on tours of the Pacific by steamships, especially Cooper and Bailey, a large circus. He concluded with a discussion of the Pacific circuit.
Tom Dunwoody spoke on the fiftieth anniversary plans of Peru, Indiana's Circus City Festival in 2009 and the Circus Hall of Fame. He outlined Peru circus history from 1884 when Ben Wallace entered the circus business to 1944 when the American Circus Corporation farm was sold by Ringling. Today only five buildings are left.
"The Legacy of Alberto Zoppe" was the topic of Rick Purdue's video presentation which showed Alberto on the Greatest Show on Earth, his complete act as seen on Kellogg's Super Circus, and his induction into the Sarasota Ring of Fame in 2007 with biographical remarks. A promotional video showed a new generation of Zoppes and a new riding act, the Riding Zoppes. There was also a video of the backyard and bloopers plus one of a day in Chicago depicting a violent rainstorm. Finally, Giovanni Zoppe fielded questions from the audience.
In Monday's final session Steve Gossard spoke on the history, status, and future plans for the Illinois State University's circus collection at the Millner Library.
On Tuesday morning Al Stencell, Canadian circus owner well known for his keen wit, gave a presentation on sideshows. Stencell first discussed the money made by 10 in 1 operators. He related how lecturers had to sell or "pitch" things, and the importance of spiels was emphasized. He used the example of the "running mice" pitch and pitches by freaks. Further, packaged candy was cited as a lucrative pitch as were printed biographies of freaks. Other good sellers were photo cards, giant's rings, sex hygiene booklets, magic and ventriloquism manuals, and miniature Bibles. Then Stencell covered grift. Most circuses carried grift, not just small shows. All circuses carried "legal adjusters" who were often necessary because of kootch shows intended for "men only." Finally Stencell touched on the music of Dixieland bands, Hawaiian troupes, and minstrels.
Joe Parker of Dallas made a brief presentation entitled "Wilson's Great World Circus, August 1883-the Volcano, a Very Small Elephant, and the Cannonball King." Krakatoa was a volcano that erupted, the effect of which reached Batavia while Wilson's Circus was there. The show had a very small elephant, and Holtum was the cannonball king — hence the topic's title.
Ernest Albrecht spoke on creating the contemporary circus based on his book The Contemporary Circus which emphasized the circus as a legitimate art form with examples such as Imre Kiralfy, the 1942 Ringling-Barnum show's use of George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky, and the use of scripts, scores, scenic effects, elaborate costumes, and librettos. Albrecht noted that today Ringling-Barnum sets aside four weeks of rehearsal in Tampa, preceded by endless production meetings culminating in the white model meeting attended by all staff, management and marketing personnel in Palmetto, Florida. Cirque du Soleil, on the other hand, is in preparation for about nine months or more. Each Cirque show has a new cast, creates new acts and trains artists. Albrecht stated that Ringling briefly flirted with the concept of ensemble acts. Ringling's Bello and Bo performance was used as a case study in Albrecht's book. The Big Apple Circus, however, works for seven weeks in its Walden, New York quarters. All of these shows are created by collaborative teams. Kenneth Feld, of course, as Ringling producer and sole investor can "call the shots" and accept or reject the efforts of the director. The use of music was cited as another aspect of the contemporary American circus, and Albrecht further suggested that some current shows have a plot and characters. Still other aspects are the emergence of the clown as a prominent feature, growing use of market research, and the proliferation of circus schools. His conclusions were that the circus has become more humane, and that it will continue to be reinvented and will thus change.
Then Fred Pfening III took to the podium with a presentation on the "Internet Research Revolution" and the availability of research resources on the internet, focusing especially 19th century newspapers. A hundred million pages of such newspapers are on the internet! Using a Power Point presentation, he showed numerous examples of circus articles discovered on the web site Newspaperarchive.com. It was a fascinating and awesome presentation with mind boggling possibilities!
Tess Koncick of the Ringling Museum in Sarasota followed by noting the museum's 60th anniversary was in 2008. She gave additional historical background about the museum, including comments on the backyard exhibition that opened in 1966 and the Tibbals Learning Center that opened in January 2006. The library is in the process of digitizing posters, photographs, glass negatives, costumes, and heralds. She also explained the five year plan including the restoration of John Ringling's railroad car. Future plans also call for traveling exhibitions, the gathering of oral histories, the replacement of the original Circus Museum and the inclusion of a performance center.
John Polacsek gave an interesting and detailed account of the incorporation of a Connecticut circus. He sorted business records from 1894-1916 of the Goodrich, Hoffman & Southey Show Co.
Doyle Ott, who attended the Clown Conservatory in San Francisco and holds a Ph. D. in theater from Arizona State University, spoke about youth circuses in a social and historical context with special emphasis on "circus play" as a precursor to more structured educational activity.
Wednesday brought the final round of first rate presentations. Robert Unterreiner told the audience about when "It Was Circus Time in the Big Apple." Using slides he talked about his childhood memories of circus in New York City in the 1930s and 1940s, focusing mainly on Ringling-Barnum. Madison Square Garden was explained in depth, as were the logistics of getting the show train to New York City. He commented on the history of Ringling's New York City appearances and its under-canvas dates in Brooklyn from 1931 to 1938. His slides showed menageries, wild west, and clown alley scenes, and the New York Hippodrome where the musical Jumbo debuted and where Cole Bros. Circus appeared in 1937. Hagenbeck Wallace appeared in New York City in 1933, and other area entertainment included the Palisades Amusement Park Circus, Coney Island circuses, the WPA Circus, and the Moscow Circus which exhibited in Madison Square Garden in 1970.
Richard Georgian's paper "Black America — Gigantic Exhibition of Negro Life and Character" was an interesting and thorough analysis of this show. "Black America" was a two hour performance and a truly gigantic exhibition owned by Nate Salsbury in 1895. A huge grandstand was constructed at Ambrose Park in Brooklyn. The show also played Boston with an amazing cast of 600 and then became a traveling show with somewhat fewer performers. The program consisted of bands, singing by a chorus, a Cakewalk by twenty couples, acrobatics, boxers, wire walkers, jugglers, buck and wing dancing (the predecessor to tap dancing), and much more. The show closed November 30, never to appear again.
Ellsworth Brown of the Wisconsin Historical Society and Steve Freese, Director of Circus World Museum, gave a lengthy presentation on the status of Circus World Museum, an institution dear to the hearts of all circus historians. Freese told of his background and experience, especially in the field of fund raising which has translated into funds to spruce up the non-historical buildings and restore wagons. Freese pointed out that promotion, programming, and marketing were all receiving attention, especially in reaching out to children and groups such as veterans and their families.
In the afternoon Carolyn Bowers gave a detailed account of Agnes Lake's life and career based on her forthcoming book, co-authored with the late Linda A. Fisher, Agnes Lake: Queen of the Circus, Wife of a Legend. Agnes and William Lake owned Lake & Co.'s Hippo-Olympiad, and when Bill Lake was murdered in Missouri in 1869 Agnes, at age 43, found herself the proprietor of the show which she managed successfully. The show toured the South, and she performed in the ring as an equestrienne. Bowers noted the wide use of balloon ascensions in the 1870s. In 1871 Agnes ventured west, using the railroad for transportation. Lake can rightfully take her place as a premier female circus business woman.
Noted circus historian Fred Dahlinger documented the Ringling-Barnum Circus's relocation to Florida in "Snowballs to Baseballs: Ringling Moves from Wisconsin to Florida." Early on, showmen toured the South in the late fall and winter months, the first circus reaching Florida in 1833. Circus layovers in Florida commenced in the 1890s. Visits to Sarasota clinched John Ringling's decision to move the show there in 1927. The resulting impact on Sarasota was huge.
Noel Daniel in her "A View of the Expanded Golden Age of the Circus" spoke about her new book, a lush, illustrated history of circus from the 1860s to the 1950s containing nine chapters, each with an accompanying essay. Visual culture, photography, and design will certainly be strong points of the book as she gathered no less than 30,000 images — 1,000 of which appear in the book.
Robert Sabia concluded the day's session by continuing his opening presentation "Ringling Revisited on a Wafer." There were more backyard scenes from the 1940s and 1950s. An outdoor performance for St. Martha's Church in Sarasota in either 1939 or 1940 was shown, as were scenes taken in Madison Square Garden in 1950.
The evening banquet featured Archie Chan, formerly Corporate Director of Concessions for Feld Entertainment as speaker. Chan, who began his circus career as a musician, regaled the audience with his intimate account of his career. Among the highlights of his talk were comments on the changes in past decades of circus music and circuses in general. He related his childhood experiences, his friendship with Boom Boom Browning, the trials and tribulations of his first circus, his entry into the concession business, his season with Clyde Bros. Circus, his experiences on Ringling-Barnum's Blue unit, Holiday on Ice, Jim Nordmark's show, working the concession stand for Siegfried & Roy, and finally his promotion to Sales Manager with Feld Entertainment and his retirement in Las Vegas in 1994.