The first inkling of what was in store from Joe Bradbury came in the August 1949 issue of Hobby-Bandwagon, as CHS’s publication was then known. It announced that Joe was compiling a list of extant historic circus wagons and wanted input from the readership. The result of his work, “Directory of Circus Wagons - Location of Wagons Remaining in United States,” was published in the April 1950 issue of Hobby-Bandwagon. That same spring he wrote his first piece for The White Tops. Entitled “King Bros, and Biller Bros. Quarters,” it appeared in the March-April 1950 issue. His last offering “Video Review” may be found in Circus Report for August 5, 2002, fifty-two years later, two days after he was stricken, and three weeks before his death. During the intervening half century, his output was prodigious. No one has ever written more about the genre over such long period. . . .
The Georgia Bulldog football team was as much a passion for Joe as was the circus. In fact there are many similarities between the two, particularly when having in mind the circuses of a half-century ago. Think about it! There is anxious excitement over the buildup. Folks all over town talk about the coming event. While circuses plaster the city with posters, partisan football fans post “Go Bulldogs” (or whatever) signs. Newspapers are full of advance announcements. Both football games and circuses are field shows and both are held in arenas in which athletes demonstrate physical prowess to the tune of great bands and cheers from excited audiences. Both have pitchmen (hawkers of pennants, team paraphernalia, etc. for the football games and bug men, popcorn and cotton candy etc. at the circus). Both feature live animals, those at football games being team mascots like Louisiana State’s tiger, Colorado’s buffalo (bison), Baylor’s black bear, or Houston’s cougar. The referee controls the flow of the game and the ringmaster does so at the circus. Both use whistles. Both have clowns; those at college football games masquerade as team mascots pantomiming the audience with exaggerated gestures and body language, e.g. Notre Dame’s Leprechaun, Georgia Tech’s Yellow Jacket “Buzz,” and Ohio State’s Brutus Buckeye. And, for the past twenty-five years or so, there have been clowns aplenty in the football audiences - those with garish body paint and psychedelic hairpieces who gesticulate wildly before the television cameras. Not even the Kafkaesque pretensions of Cirque du Soleil can top them.
The circus-football linkage was imprinted upon Joe, made more so by the fact that the fall football season coincided with circus and fair time in Georgia. Early Saturday morning trips to Athens for football (or to small town fairs, carnivals, or circus locations) were made through a picturesque countryside bathed in soft morning sunlight highlighting the autumn leaves. Anticipation and excitement filled the air, and Joe was really fulfilled - as though Christmas had come early. He loved to tell the story of taking Frances, then his girl friend, to the 1947 Georgia-Alabama game in Athens on Saturday and early the next morning being with her at Henderson’s crossing in Atlanta to see the arrival of the Ringling-Barnum train. . . .
On May 16, 1942 Joe was graduated from the University’s Henry W. Grady School of Journalism. . . . In August 1946, Joe went into the construction business in Atlanta with Ferguson Construction Company, and in 1949 he joined Concrete Construction Company. He served first one and then the other in management and financial capacities until his retirement in 1988. . . .
Joe had no conscious recollection of the first circus he saw as a child but his mother assured him it was Christy Bros, in Texas, around 1923 or 1924. The first one he could remember was at Ennis on Wednesday November 11,1925 when he was four years old. He later learned that it was Sells-Floto. However, what really fired Joe’s passion for circuses were two shows that visited Athens in the fall of 1928. They were Sparks (with a street parade, no less) and John Robinson, particularly the latter, for he got to see both the evening performance and the magic of draft horses pulling the wagons through the darkened streets. The Robinson show was back in Athens the next year and provided more inspiration for Joe. Then, in 1930 came Sells-Floto featuring the kids’ matinee idol, cowboy star Tom Mix himself. For that one, Joe was at the Georgia Railroad depot at dawn on Saturday morning September 20th to meet the first section of the circus train. Chugging double-headed steam locomotives pulled it slowly out of the mist across the long, high curved trestles that brought the Georgia line into the yards. Joe would become downright transported when recounting that experience. He was nine years old at the time, and it was a rapture that never left him.
All the circuses that played Athens were now on Joe’s card. However, there was a notable change. The medium sized railroad shows were virtually gone, ground under by the Great Depression. The harsh times saw the proliferation of a new breed of circuses (which some considered much less glamorous and gratifying), namely, the motorized or truck show. Athens got a steady diet of them up through 1939. Joe saw them all: Gentry Bros. Famous Shows (a little dog and pony opera), Downie Bros., Russell Bros., Tom Mix, and Wallace Bros.
Highlight for Joe during the years of the Great Depression, however, were the two big railroad shows that came to his town, Hagenbeck Wallace in 1934 and the new Cole Bros. Circus in 1935. Both featured the then biggest star in circusdom, wild animal trainer Clyde Beatty. Both offered resurrected street parades, though much to Joe’s disappointment, Cole had to ax its Athens march.
It arrived too late and had a long haul from the train to the show grounds. But Joe did get to see the grand free street procession of the 1934 Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, probably the best ever staged after Ringling quit offering them in 1920. Joe said that his all-day stay on the 49-car Hagenbeck-Wallace show of 1934 was his greatest circus experience ever. Lots of today’s septuagenarian (and older) fans also put that one at the top of their list of all time great circus experiences.
On April 17, 1936, four days shy of his fifteenth birthday, Joe took his first circus photographs. The scene was the Downie Bros, lot in Athens. He would take thousands more, the last at Circus Hermanos Vazquez in Atlanta, the month before his death. His fondness for circus photographs is manifested in the profusion of pictures he used to illustrate his writings. . . .
Joe had a particular fondness for the winter quarters of circuses. When Biller Bros, laid over in Athens, Georgia after its first season (1949), Joe paid it a visit. He was a regular at the King Bros, quarters in Macon, Georgia (90-miles south of Atlanta) during its glory days in the first half of the 1950s. In June 1950 he and Frances made a long trek though the Midwest, one of the objects of which was to visit the remains of the Cole Bros, quarters in Rochester as well as the Peru farm once used by the American Circus Corp, both in Indiana. . . .
Of all his winter quarters wanderings, none touched Joe Bradbury quite like the famed home base of the Ringling show in Sarasota. He and Frances made four marvelous trips there while the big one was readying itself for its annual season - in late February or early March of 1949, 1951, 1952, and 1954. The best was 1951 when Cecil B. DeMille’s Academy award winning movie, The Greatest Show on Earth, was being filmed there. They got in on some of the Hollywood excitement with movie stars and wannabes everywhere. Naturally, on each of his Sarasota trips Joe took reams of still photos and reel upon reel of movies. The exacting notes he made in the old wagon graveyard are an invaluable research tool. . . .
By the time Joe reached college age, he was a circus aficionado non-pareil. Yet, he was late in formalizing his fandom through the circus interest organizations. He did not join the Circus Historical Society until the summer of 1949 when he was twenty-eight and working on his circus wagon survey for Bandwagon. He was thirty-six before he became member of the Circus Fans Association, despite having already written thirteen papers for its White Tops. He was a subscriber but not joiner. At least in part, this may be explained by the culture of his era.
Joe Bradbury grew up in a close knit community. Its social pact defined which hobby interests were acceptable and which were not. One did what everyone else did and was expected to enjoy it. This phenomenon was no doubt widespread but nowhere was it more powerful than in the Old South. Entertainments were a diversion. They could be enjoyed but only in passing. They were certainly not the stuff of lasting intellectual pursuit. That was reserved for serious and productive matters, mostly centered upon earning a living in an acceptable pursuit (very important that word “acceptable”), providing for one’s family, for the betterment of mankind. “Doing my thing and to heck with what others think,” was not a tenet the South’s social code when Joe grew up. Conformity ruled.
An adult passion for the circus was odd. Circuses were more for the enjoyment of children. Sure, there was an undeniable magic in them, regardless of age. Nevertheless, they were not held in very high esteem on the scale of refined interests. Circus folks were considered by many as a low-class lot around which one had to be wary, as with all gypsies. Let us be frank. There has been enough written about circus grift in the pages of his journal (much of it in a winking and affectionate tone) to justify the public’s distrust of the genre. Moreover, both circus folks and townspeople were mutually suspicious of one another. Much of that has changed, even in the South. What was once judged unacceptable is now applauded - or at the least there is a “who cares” attitude. But that is now, not when Joe came along.
In his native milieu, if an adult trumpeted circus enthusiasm, he risked teasing, abashment, or derision. Heaven forbid, he might be called eccentric. Some did not care, particularly those whose wealth or position insulated them. Joe was not one of those. So, around many of his friends, family members, and business associates, he more or less kept circus in the closet, as it were. . . . Bradbury was not alone in this. Lots of southern men shared his interest in the circus but only allowed themselves its enjoyment on a fleeting basis.
Some idea of the pervasiveness of us cultural constraint in the South may be gleaned from the rosters of both CHS and CFA of fifty and more years ago. Folks who grew up in the old South are notably missing. For example, the 1938 CFA roster reveals these totals for membership the Southeastern States: one each Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, and South Carolina, three each in Louisiana and Tennessee, four in North Carolina, and not a single one in Mississippi. Compare that to the likes of Illinois and Indiana with 37 and 31 members respectively. Fifteen years later the situation was little changed except for Florida where, by then, the influx of northern retirees and the influence of the circus folks based there boosted membership. But look at neighboring Georgia. It began 1954 with only three CFA members . . . Native Southerners who enjoyed the circus just did not join the organizations.
As noted above, Joe finally signed up with CHS and CFA. He became a leader to boot. In fact, no one else has been as high in the governance of both organizations. He was CHS’s President in 1964-1965, the first Southerner to hold that post. He was an emeritus member of its Board of Trustees for the last five years of his life. Most importantly, however, for forty-two years, from 1961 until his death, Joe was an associate editor of CHS’s Bandwagon. Only one person has held office in either organization for a greater length of time. He is Fred D. Pfening Jr. who has been Bandwagon editor longer than Joe was his associate only by the measure of the months that have elapsed since Joe’s death. As for the CFA, Joe Bradbury served as its Southern Vice-President in 1961 and 1962. He was Chairman of its Executive Committee in 1962. His most important CFA office, however, was that of its Official Historian. He held that post for thirty years, from 1966 to 1995. That makes him the longest tenured officer in CFA history.
His circus writing reflected his schooling in journalism. He believed in getting the first draft right. Consequently, he did little re-writing. He used an old typewriter and had absolutely no interest in the computer. There is something to be said for the discipline and attention required to do it his way. Joe considered footnotes or endnotes as anathema. So he cited sources in the main text itself. He also used the main text to rationalize different versions of events or conflicts in the evidence when other writers would do so via endnotes. The Billboard magazine was his circus Bible, and Joe considered its pages as revealing an almost divinely inspired truth. Joe often used the phrase “according to tradition” (or similar words) to support a proposition, the source of which was obscure or apocryphal. Often such things had come to him by world of mouth or in a writing he could not locate at the moment. Essentially, he did not get bogged down and plowed ahead with his story. The result was a mind-boggling volume of circus writing, all of it copiously illustrated.
There were three primary points of focus - the history of circus wagons, reviews of shows, both present and past, and stories of particular showmen. By the early 1950s, Joe had become a member of a rather select group of circus wagon buffs. In addition to Joe, they included Col. William Woodcock, Tom Parkinson, and Richard “Dick” Conover, all of them now deceased. Their collaborative work is the foundation of circus wagon historiography. Joe was the one who really carried the ball. His lists of the whereabouts of old wagons published in Bandwagon (1950) and updated in White Tops (1953-54) were a treasure map leading to their subsequent preservation.
Joe used a factual, predictable and formulaic approach. His reviews of contemporary shows mostly dealt with motorized field circuses he encountered in Georgia. After all, when he started such writing, the era of the railroad circus was almost over. These accounts were very much like what one might read in a Billboard review, except that Joe went into much more detail, particularly as to the show’s physical appearance and its equipment. His love for circus wagons prompted him to say a lot about the trucks and trailers. He did not write in the manner of a hard to please theater critic. He reported the program but did not tell us much about its artistic achievement vis-a-vis accepted standards of excellence. Essentially, all circuses were good to Joe, though in reality their quality varied greatly from one to another.
The season-by-season approach to the history of a given show was a Bradbury hallmark. He tried his best to see that such was accomplished for each of the railroad circuses of his youth, and for which he felt great affection, including the winter quarters they used. The shows associated with the American Circus Corporation were particular favorites, e.g. Al G. Barnes, Hagenbeck-Wallace, John Robinson, Sells-Floto, and Sparks. He wrote a lot of season studies himself and encouraged others to do likewise, notably Fred D. Pfening III, the late Charles D. “Chang” Reynolds, and the late Gordon Carver. Of all his projects, the greatest were his season by season histories of the Cole Bros. Circus from 1935 thorough its demise in 1950 and the Ringling-Barnum show from 1933 through its “big top” end in 1956. The Cole story was run in Bandwagon while that of Ringling appeared in White Tops. These are encyclopedic works, quite literally, all one wants to know is there.
The season studies were written according to a rigid formula. First came an account of the pre-season work in winter quarters, then the actual framing of the show with complete rosters of management, staff, and performers. Joe never used generalities in describing equipment and animals. Where possible he presented a complete inventory of all the tents (with dimensions), wagons, and animals, together with a loading order showing which wagon and which animal went onto which railroad car.
Then came the lead-in phrase, “The 19_ (fill in the blank) season had arrived,” or words almost identical. With that Joe would inform us about other shows hitting the road that spring, describing domestic and foreign economic and political events likely to have an impact on circuses. From there he went into an act-by-act description of the performance. Then came a day-by-day account of all the ups and downs-storm, pestilence, whatever. He tracked the route town by town. When available, he would give eyewitness impressions of the show, either his own or those of others.
Joe’s presentations had an innocent air about them. That is not surprising, for Joe was a very sentimental person at heart. He touched upon all that was good. The seamy and sordid sides of the circus were omitted or minimized. And there was an abundance of that - scandals, peccadilloes, villainy, corruption, and licentiousness, to name only a few. He would say, for example, “Old E. W. Adams (a 1920s trouper who lived in Atlanta) used to tell me about who was having an affair with whom on John Robinson, but such stories do not belong in a dignified journal.” He left the dark side to others.
As an historian, Joe is probably best described as a chronicler of the circus. He gave us the facts. The more academically oriented circus historian looks more to the why of its ways - its niche in, and refection of, an evolving culture. Joe did not care what elements in his psyche propelled him to the railroad yard on that dawn morning so long ago when the Sells-Floto circus train arrived. He just knew it thrilled him and inspired him to write about it fifty years later. . . . So, to you Joe, we bid fond farewell. We will not see your like again. Abstracted from: Reynolds, Richard, “The Life and Times of Joe Bradbury,” Bandwagon, Vol. 46, No. 6 (Nov-Dec), 2002, pp. 40-48.
Bob Brisendine died in Atlanta, Georgia on January 5, 2003 at age 80. He belonged to a select group whose original research expanded the body of circus history. . . . his contributions to circus history were significant and worthy of note. . . .
Robert Harold Brisendine was born on October 2, 1922 in Griffin, Georgia (forty miles south of Atlanta). Early on he developed a keen interest in the circus and was a regular on the lots of his hometown when show day rolled around. 1937 was a banner year for Bob. He caught Hagenbeck-Wallace in Griffin on October 14 (just after his 15th birthday) and a few weeks later went to Atlanta for Ringling-Barnum. . . . he went into radio broadcasting full time. Over the years he was an announcer and news manager for several stations in Atlanta. . . .
At the end of 1961 Bob joined the Circus Historical Society and the Circus Fans Association. He promoted local interest in the circus. On a snowy night in Atlanta (January 9, 1962) Bob emceed a circus talk show on his WQXI radio station. He assembled a seven-member panel to answer the call-in questions. They were - Esma and Arnold Maley - Esma had been a performer on Sells-Floto and later Cole Bros. Arnold was mainly a ticket and front office man. . . . Mr. and Mrs. Fred Bailey Thompson - “Uncle Fred,” as he was called, had been a press agent working with Gentry, Sparks, Rose Kilian, Barnum & Bailey, and Hagenbeck-Wallace. . . . Milton “Doc” Bartock and his son David - Doc had been in the medicine show business. Together they were preparing to launch the new Hoxie-Bardex Bros, in partnership with Leonard “Hoxie” Tucker. . . . Richard Reynolds was the seventh panelist and represented the circus historians and fans.
Bob was always locating folks with circus connections. In 1966 he found former Ringling-Barnum veterinarian Dr. William Y. Higgins working at the Atlanta Zoo. That led to the recording of Doc’s circus menagerie memoirs. In 1969 Bob was a prime mover in arranging meetings of Atlanta area fans. Several of them did not know one another until introduced by Bob. This eventuated in the 1970 formation and chartering of the Duggan Bros. Tent of the Circus Fans Association.
Bob even joined out for a time as an advance agent. That was with the Hoxie Bros. Circus in 1976 and 1977. However, it was the thrill of discovery through tedious research that was Bob’s real cup of tea. Circus routes and show dates particularly fascinated him. He poured through Georgia newspapers for some forty years until poor health finally stopped him. He compiled volumes of notes. They tell the story of circuses, carnivals, animal exhibits and miscellaneous field shows that played his native state of Georgia.
Among hundreds of discoveries, Bob found the dates when America’s first elephant was shown in 1799. He pinpointed the Savannah, Georgia appearances of the famous midget Gen. Tom Thumb [Charles S. Stratton]. He traced the march of elephant Empress to Atlanta in December 1885 (in sub-freezing temperatures) after she had been purchased at the auction of Col. Giles (Pullman’s) World’s Fair in Monroe, Georgia. He fleshed out the story of how the Atlanta Zoo was founded in 1889 with animals seized in an attachment of another distressed show, G. W. Hall’s Circus and Bingley’s English Menagerie. And, he tracked the footprints of Rose Kilian’s Circus through South Georgia in 1924. These are but a few examples of the treasures to be found in Bob’s volumes of circus notes.
Bob’s work was akin to that of the late Orin King of Topeka, Kansas who did the same sort of research on circuses in that state. Unlike Orin, however, Bob never published his findings. His only writing was a nice review of the 1965 King Bros. Circus for The White Tops. That notwithstanding, he willingly shared his research with others. Stuart Thayer relied on Bob’s work in his monumental Annals of the American Circus, 1793-1860 and McKennon published Bob’s list show dates for Columbus, Georgia his Pictorial History of the American Carnival.
His last contribution was to provide Greg Renoff with material for the latter’s doctoral dissertation at Brandeis University. It will be published under the title, A Riot Ecstasy: The Traveling Circus in Georgia, 1865-1930. The author has dedicated it to the memory of Bob Brisendine for his contributions circus history. Meanwhile, Bob left his entire collection, including all research notes, to the Robert W. Woodruff Library, Special Collections & Archives (Southern History) Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia (Naomi Nelson, Curator). The Brisendine collection is available study by circus historians. By Richard J. Reynolds, III (with assistance from Fred Dahlinger and Charles Hanson.) Abstracted from: Bandwagon, Vol. 47, No. 6 (Nov-Dec), 2003, pp. 52-53.
Circus historians mourned the passing of Richard E. Conover on 2 February, 1971. The most prominent circus historian in America; he was best known for the six books he published over a thirteen year period. In each of these works he presented a revisionist interpretation that greatly altered circus historiography.
In his first book The Telescoping Tableaus, published in 1956, he argued that the Five Graces Bandwagon was once a telescoper. His second book The Affairs of James A. Bailey, demonstrated that Bailey was a better stock manipulator and businessman than a circus impresario. His essay on The Great Forepaugh Show, revised the perspective of the circus in the 1880s, and showed that Forepaugh, not Barnum and London, was the best show-on-the-road during that period.
In 1965 he published his longest book Give ‘Em A John Robinson, which will stand as the definite history of that show while in Robinson Family hands. In that work, he also told the story of the famous Robinson cottage cage parade of the early 1900's.
Two years later he published a history of Wisconsin’s Unique Heritage. This book was significant because it completely debunked the myth of P. T. Barnum. While showing W. C. Coup to be the genius of the early Barnum circus, Conover portrayed Barnum as little more than a cantankerous eccentric. “Contrary to popular conception”, wrote the Author, “Phineas T. Barnum was not in any sense a circus man”.
His last book was The Fielding Bandchariots, which was his most scholarly and detailed volume. In it, he related the histories of the seven Fielding built circus band-chariots, the Five Graces, and the Barnum & Bailey tableau dens. His major conclusion was that the Five Graces was not the telescoper he believed it was in 1956, but rather a large tableau was a top-mount that had to be carried on a special railroad car. When a picture of the Graces in its original configuration was discovered soon after the book was published his thesis was verified.
Conover also published many significant monographs in the Bandwagon. The majority of these were the fruits of his research on parade wagons. Although parade wagons were his major interest, he was also fascinated by the “politics of the circus” as he called it. This was the “how and why” of transactions between showmen. In his later years he began to reach further back into the history of the circus, and began research for a projected study on the organizational structure and the animals of the menageries owned by the Flat-foots.
Although he will be best remembered for his scholarship, his contributions to the Circus Historical Society were many. When the society was in deep financial trouble ten years ago, it was Richard Conover who took over the impossible job of Treasurer. His astute bookkeeping was an important factor in the Society’s survival. He also served as a long-time director of Division One, election commissioner, and in 1968, after much persuasion, became Vice President. He steadfastly refused the honor of being President of the Society. At the time of his passing, he served the Bandwagon as Editorial Consultant, the checker of historical fact and the official reader of proof sheets from the typesetter.
Conover was a 1926 graduate of the College of Electrical Engineering at the Ohio State University, and reached success as Chief Engineer in the Flight Test Division of the Instrumentation Branch at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, until his retirement in 1965. He was a member of the Quarter Century Club at Wright-Patterson. He held patents on some inventions that he developed early in his professional career. Many years ago he invented an electrical circuit that transferred various sound waves to activate different colored lights. He applied this to a series of Christmas trees bedecked with multicolored lights in his home during the holiday season. He never patented this one, but he should have because “light shows” that respond to sound are a big thing with rock groups today. He enjoyed relating the time he nearly sold Sally Rand on the use of his musical lighting system for use as a background in her “artistic” endeavor. He also envisioned the lights on swinging ladders in an aerial routine above the hippodrome track, and discussed this idea with his friend, Henry North on the big show.
He was a craftsman. Together with his sons, he built his home in Xenia, Ohio, that provided warm atmosphere and hospitality to numerous circus historians and performers. He also built the camper that was always present at Baraboo and Milwaukee around the end of June each year.
In his avocation of the circus, he was also a craftsman, a master craftsman. His work was always characterized by its tightly argued thesis, and accuracy. Most of his essays were the result of at least a decade of research. For example, much of the material used in his book on the John Robinson Circus had been discovered as long as twenty years before he disclosed it in print. His paramount disclosure that the Five Graces was not a telescoper had been known to him for seven years before he published it. He always attempted to exhaust all sources before publishing; he was never one to rush into print.
Conover was also one of the few historians to use primary documents other than the Billboard and Clipper. He made many research trips to universities and libraries in the United States and Europe. Perhaps the finest tribute to his scholarship can be found in the innumerable acknowledgments he received in monographs and books by other historians.
He took special interest in encouraging young historians. He corresponded regularly with them, and they often visited him at his home to debate their specialities. His influence will live on not only in the scholarship of his disciples but also in that of all other historians.
A service of memory was held in Xenia on 5 February, and many of his admirers were there to hear Johnny Herriott’s “Old Showman’s Heaven” read like it never will be again. After the service they gathered at his home and talked circus history, specifically parade wagons, and “politics”. No higner compliment could have been paid to the man. When William H. Woodcock, the other giant among circus historians died in 1963, Conover wrote, “the boys will now have to learn to get alone without their encyclopedia”. He was wrong. Now, we boys will have to learn how to get along without our encyclopedia, which we won’t miss nearly as much as we will a warm and wonderful friend.
From: Pfening, Fred D. III, Bandwagon, Jan-Feb, 1971, p. 3.
Fox went to work in 1933 at the Prime Manufacturing Co. here he remained for twenty-six years. Later after marrying Sophie he moved to Oconomowoc renting a farm and land. It was here that he raised wild and domestic animals. Graduating to 4x5 Speed Graphic professional camera his photos appeared in the Milwaukee Journal, LIFE, Outdoor Life and the National Geographic. He began writing a number of children s books.
His first circus book in 1948 was titled Circus Parades . It was followed by A Ticket to the Circus in 1959. In 1969 he joined Tom Parkinson in writing The Circus in America. The Fox-Parkinson duo continued with The Circus Moves By Rail in 1978 and Billers, Bnners and Bombast in 1985. Fox and Parkinson then began writing and illustrating a definitive circus book titled Circus - Mighty Monarch of All Amusements. After working with various publishers the two volume effort was never published. In 1960 Fox wrote A Pictorial History of Performing Horses and Circus Baggage Stock in 1983. In 1978 he joined with F. Beverly Kelley to write Great Circus Parades.
Fox went to Baraboo in the early 1950s to research A Ticket to the Circus. It was there that he met John M. Kelly, long-time attorney for the Ringling family and their circuses. Kelly told Fox about his dream of establishing a circus museum in Baraboo. Fox was hooked; he became a Kelly booster on the museum. He was on the board in 1954 when the Circus World Museum was incorporated. The museum was opened on July 1, 1959. The lone building was one of the Ringling winter quarters old horse barns. By then the America steam calliope and the Barnum, Bailey & Hutchinson cage had been acquired through the efforts of Fox.
By late 1959 the State Historical Society determined it was time that a museum director be hired. Fox was available; his long-term employer in Milwaukee had closed. From his early days as director of the Circus World Museum he began to search out and bring many historic wagons to the Baraboo museum. Scrounging the country Fox kept adding wagons to the museum’s collection.
With so many historic parade wagons he was ready to take his second big step, to produce a horse drawn circus parade in Milwaukee. After meeting with a dozen Milwaukee companies with out success he went for the full montie and set his sights on the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company as a potential sponsor of a parade. Fox met with Ben Barkin a Milwaukee public relations man. Barkin liked the idea of staging a circus parade and said he liked the idea and would help him. Schiltz was a Barkin client and he arranged for Fox to meet Robert Uihlein, president of Schlitz. Uihlein went for it and Schiltz became the sponsor for a parade in 1963. With John M. Kelley riding in the lead car the first Milwaukee parade was staged on July 4, 1963. Schlitz continued to sponsor the parade for ten years. Fox and Barkin became the dynamic duo as they thought up new features for the next parade. Each year the parade became bigger.
In 1972 Fox was wooed away from his beloved museum. He resigned to become vice president and research director for the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey circus park being built near Orlando, Florida. Irvin Feld, his new boss, stated, “Chappie Fox is, without question, America’s most knowledgeable authority on circuses and circus lore.” Fox remained with the Ringling organization until 1977. He returned to Baraboo in 1983.
He was appointed to the Wisconsin State Historical Society board, which owned the Circus World Museum. Fox became a member of the board of the Historic Sites, which was actually the board of the Circus World Museum. He remained a member until his passing. Fox was honored by being named an honorary fellow of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, one of only seven to be so honored. In addition he received a Historic Preservation Achievement Award for his efforts to preserve the Ringling Bros. site in Baraboo.
In 1973 Fox was a founder of the International Crane Foundation and remained as a long time board member. Earlier he had been a part of the creation of the new Milwaukee zoo in the late 1950s.
Fox was known as the man from Oconomowoc. His persona was his felt hat, bow tie and two or three cigars in his shirt pocket. Charles Philip Fox died on September 12, 2003, at age 90. . . . the Ringling Bros. Lion tableau and the Bell Wagon were in front of the church. Drawn by Percheron draft horses they led the procession back to the funeral home before Chappie was taken to his plot in Madison where his son Peter is buried.
Abstracted from: Bandwagon, Vol. 47, No. 5 (Sep-Oct), 2003, p. 3.
Tom Parkinson couldn't remember when the circus became part of his identity, perhaps because it always was. As a child he combined the normal youthful attraction to the color and pageantry of shows with a very atypical fascination with the logistics of the circus — the why and the how of the thousands things that had to go right before the ringmaster blew his whistle to start the show. He couldn't pinpoint the first circus he attended, but he had distinct memories of his father carrying him across a muddy John Robinson lot in 1929 when he was eight years old.
Parkinson became an ardent circus fan in the early 1930s when he began collecting memorabilia. He and his younger brother Bob, who shared his obsession, became chronic lot lice whenever a circus played their home town of Decatur, Illinois. Friendships with showfolks developed, and Parkinson fondly recalled the kindness of such troupers as P. G. Lowery, Arthur Borella, and especially Bill Woodcock. An interest in the history of circuses soon developed, and he began recording data on show history on the first of what became thousands of note cards.
He and Bob also built model circuses. Tom's miniature troupe was called Al G. Roto. At one time he also owned the family rights to the John Robinson title, which through some long forgotten machinations, he either sold or traded to Bob who, like Jerry Mugivan, needed the name "John" to create his John Robbins model show.
He received his undergraduate degree in 1943 from the University of Illinois. His career as a journalist began during his college years when he worked on the Decatur Herald-Review part time and the Daily Illini as senior editor. In 1947 Parkinson, fresh with a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern, married, and the young couple trooped off to Shreveport, Louisiana where he became the city hall reporter for the Shreveport Times. In 1949 he made his first significant contribution to circus history, an article on the closing of the Older and Chandler Circus in Shreveport in 1873. Originally appearing as a feature story in the Times, it was revised for the July-August 1949 White Tops. He was rewarded for his effort with a fan letter from Col. C. G. Sturtevant, then the doyen of circus historians, which thrilled the twenty-eight year old author. Perhaps remembering Sturtevant's kind gesture, Parkinson was unfailingly generous in his praise of younger writers who plowed the fields of circus history.
In the spring of 1950 he joined the Billboard in Chicago as an associate editor reporting on circuses, amusement parks, ice shows, and other live show business. His years at the Billboard were a golden age of circus coverage as he combined his vast knowledge of the business and its history with elegant prose to produce some of the finest writing ever on the subject. Unlike so much current commentary on circuses, Parkinson's coverage was insightful, honest, and often contained a historical perspective. He always wrote with great affection. If a show carried grift, for example, he would note that "there was more action on the midway than under the big top," which tipped off the show-smart without exposing the troupe's sins to the general public. He was proud that the Littleford family, which owned the Billboard, supported him when John and Henry North complained about an article he wrote about Ringling-Barnum. His biographies of show greats and feature stories in Billboard should be required reading for all circus historians. Starting with a profile of William "Hopalong Cassady" Boyd in June 1950, he wrote dozens of profiles of the famous and the infamous in the business including Karl Wallenda, Ira Watts, Tom Packs, Orrin Davenport and Floyd King. His longer articles, often appearing in the venerable Spring Special, have stood the test of time. These included major pieces on Shrine circuses, bug men, side show banners, and big top chanteys. His 1952 elephant census became an important historical document, and his 1956 examination of the fall of Ringling-Barnum was a penetrating diagnosis. He also wrote numerous non-circus features which reflected his eclectic and often quirky interests in subjects such as organ grinders, steam tractors, and whale shows. Another piece speculated on the problems the managers of ancient Rome's Colosseum must have encountered.
Parkinson's legacy from his Billboard days is enormous. His week-to-week reporting on the circus business is an indispensable resource for historians; his biographies and features articles remain in most cases the best, and in many the only, information on their subjects. His performance reviews are models of first rate criticism, the likes of which have rarely been seen since. In later years he marvelled that his Billboard work was cited in historical books and articles as a primary source. Above all, he set a standard for lucid and insightful analysis of the circus which few have equalled.
His love of the circus and its history was a constant of his adult life. As he matured his study of show history became more sophisticated. In the beginning he was content to record the bare bones statistics of the circus, for example, the number of flatcars on the Ringling train. Later, he wanted to know what Ringling put on those flats, how they loaded and unloaded them, and why they did it. While his interests tended more toward the business than the artistic side of the circus, he was well versed in all facets of show history. On one of his last research trips, in fact, he investigated 19th century Presbyterian moral opposition to circuses.
Parkinson learned his history on Saturdays and at lunch in the 1950s. When he first started at the Billboard one of his jobs, by virtue of his lack of seniority, was to answer the office phone on Saturdays in case any late breaking news was called in. He used the time to study the bound volumes of back issues and take voluminous notes. Virtually every day he ate his noon meal at the famed Atwell Luncheon Club, the mid-day gathering place for showmen in Chicago, picking the brains of his contemporaries and the memories of the old timers. He had a wide correspondence with troupers, particularly Bill Woodcock, who was something of a mentor to him, and with whom he exchanged hundreds of letters. When he traveled extensively in his later years, he used his free time to do research in local archives and libraries. He was one of the first to tape record interviews with circus professionals. Besides his corpus of work in the Billboard, his towering reputation as a historian rests on the three books he wrote with Charles Philip Fox: The Circus in America (1969), The Circus Moves by Rail (1978), and Billers, Banners and Bombast: The Story of Circus Advertising (1985). The first remains the best overview of the American circus, and the latter two the definitive works on their subjects. All were grandly illustrated, often with photos unknown to other sawdust scholars. The volumes were all path breaking works, full of observations and information Parkinson had accumulated in decades of research. They also contained scores of insights he had gleamed from his contacts with showmen, little nuggets of data and telling anecdotes they shared with him at the Atwell club, on show lots and in bars. By circus book standards, all three were best sellers with the train book going into a second printing. The best is yet to come. For over thirty years he and Fox collaborated on a massive history of the American circus entitled The Circus — Mighty Monarch of All Amusements. They always called it "the big book." Except for updating new discoveries, the text was completed years ago; only a series of soap opera-like difficulties with publishers has prevented its appearance. Long term projects on the Mighty Haag Circus and Christy Bros. Circus were also uncompleted at the time of his death.
He disseminated circus history in many other ways. He composed thumb nail sketches of over a hundred shows as an appendix to John and Alice Durant's Pictorial History of the American Circus, and wrote the circus entry for the Encyclopedia Britannica. He taught an adult education course on circus history at the University of Illinois, and did television commentary on the Milwaukee circus parade ten times.
Parkinson joined the Circus Historical Society in 1941, being assigned membership number thirty-one. His first published article on show history — a short piece on the Yankee Robinson Circus — was published in the old mimeographed Bandwagon in February 1943. He wrote the season's review five times in the 1960s, and an important series on William P. Hall in 1973 and 1974. His last Bandwagon by-line was a review of Michael Burke's memoirs in 1985. He served the association in other ways. In the late 1950s he was one of the small group that revitalized Bandwagon. He was CHS vice-president in 1962 president from 1978 to 1981. Parkinson was on the founding board of the Circus World Museum from the middle 1950s until the museum was deeded to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin on opening day in 1959. He helped the museum acquire artifacts and collections, and was a sounding board — a one man kitchen cabinet as it were — to Chappie Fox when he was the museum's director. After Fox resigned in 1972, Parkinson turned down an offer to become his successor. His death on November 14  of heart failure was a great loss to the circus history community which will deeply miss his remarkable knowledge, beautiful prose, and most of all, his warm and steadying personality. When Bill Woodcock died in 1963, Parkinson wrote a friend: "He was a great guy, great historian, great trouper." So was Tom Parkinson. Abstracted from: Pfening, Fred D. III, "Thomas Paul Parkinson 1921 - 1993," Bandwagon, Vol. 37, No. 6 (Nov-Dec), 1993, pp. 45-47
Raymond Toole Stott, the distinguished compiler of Circus and Allied Arts: A World Bibliography, died at his London home on 10 January, the victim of a heart attack. He was seventy-eight years old.
Anyone engaged in circus research since 1958, the year in which the first volume of the bibliography appeared, stands in his debt — an obligation, it is hoped by his friends and relatives, that will soon be compounded through the publication of a fifth volume, completed shortly before his death. Since a good deal of the research for this final volume was done in the United States, one may be certain it will be of particular value to historians of the American circus, although, as is true of the earlier volumes, the international manifestations of the circus and its auxiliary entertainments have not been overlooked. The published work will run to around the same length as volume 4 and will include a comprehensive index to all five volumes.
When one considers that this truly herculean achievement, begun nearly fifty years ago, was the work of one man; that its compiler, who was also an honored civil servant in the Treasury Solicitor's office, spent most of his evenings, weekends, and vacations (with no "sabbaticals" or support from universities or grants agencies) laboring on it; that its magnificent, richly illustrated quarto volumes were published at his own expense; and that no comparable bibliography exists for any other form of entertainment — one can only marvel at the dedication and indefatigable industry that went into it. To which one might add that Mr. Toole Stott somehow also found time to become one of the foremost bibliographers of conjuring and Somerset Maugham, publishing some half dozen titles on those subjects; was the founder and original editor of the Sawdust Ring, the precursor of the British circus journal King Pole; and was a member of the select Union des Historiens du Cirque, to which he contributed several well researched articles. His fine collections on Maugham and the circus have both gone to the University of California at Santa Barbara, which has received the copyrights to his Circus and Allied Arts.
R. Toole Stott was not a circus fan in the usual sense, although for a while he worked as a press agent for the Bertram Mills Circus and even, during a few seasons in the 1930s, managed a circus of his own. His friends often urged him to write about his experiences in this last unfortunate venture, but without success. In private he expressed little enthusiasm for most present-day circuses, and even less for the slipshod work that often passes for circus "scholarship" (which he all the same dutifully chronicled in his bibliography). He was meticulous in his work and his dealings with others; possessed of a gentle, yet dignified manner that commanded respect; unstinting in his aid and advice to friends and colleagues; and an inspiration to those who were privileged to know him. He died, significantly, with a book in his hand. - A. H. Saxon. From: Bandwagon, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Mar-Apr), 1982, p. 10.
Stuart Thayer’s contribution to circus history cannot be overstated. The quality of his scholarship is unprecedented and unmatched. By the time of his death he had taken American circus history to a level of sophistication unimagined a generation earlier. His fascination with things sawdust began when an aunt took him to watch the big railroad shows unload in his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Soon he was building models of circus wagons. He even created his own extravaganza, Thayer’s Wild Animal Show with its winter quarters in his parents’ house. He organized a backyard circus about 1938. In one act, his sister Nan was a lion; he, of course, was the trainer. The eclectic roster included the children of a socialist professor, a Jewish plumber, a county sheriff, an astronomer, a tool and die maker, and the two Thayer kids. While he didn’t frequent circuses as an adult, he was an avid fan in his youth, attending shows throughout southern Michigan.
He was an early member of the Circus Historical Society, joining about 1943. He even got a by-line in a 1943 Bandwagon when he sent in an account of the 1895 Buffalo Bill program. In 1966 Thayer decided to build a model of the 1916 Ringling Bros. Circus parade. His search for photos of the wagons brought him into contact with Richard E. Conover, then the country’s leading field show historian. Conover immediately recognized Thayer’s analytical and research skills, writing a friend in October 1968: "I was visited Monday evening and most of yesterday by Stuart Thayer of Ann Arbor. He is now interested in building a model of the 1916 Ringling parade, but he also has the natural talents to be a hell of a researcher." Thayer credited Conover with reviving his interest in circus history and encouraging him to write. Starting in 1969, Thayer published approximately 100 articles in Bandwagon. His first effort was an overview of the Russell Bros. Circus. An article co-written with Conover on Ringling cages was next. It was the first of his many excursions into parade wagon history. His talent for discerning connections and patterns between wagons surfaced in the Ringling analysis where he observed that the carvings on Ringling’s 1893 tableau cages matched those on some the show’s less decorative dens. At the time, parade vehicle history was one of the most studied areas of show scholarship, and his discovery was considered a major achievement. No one teased more information out of old photographs than Thayer. He pioneered the technique of analyzing teamsters’ helmets and uniforms, and horses’ harness to identify and date photographs. Even Conover, who was rarely impressed with others’ work, thought Thayer was a coming star.
During the next two years he continued writing about twentieth century circuses and cages. In 1971 he wrote the history of the 1870 Dan Castello Circus, his first foray into the nineteenth century where he soon found his intellectual home. He also published pieces on the Egyptian and Oriental influences on parade wagons in which he related circus vehicle design to trends in mainstream culture. That year he published his first major work, an eighty page pamphlet entitled Mudshows and Railers: The American Circus in 1879. Contemporary newspapers were his main source. He read fifty dailies and weeklies from forty-three cities, a prodigious number at the time.
He became active in the CHS during this period. He rejoined the organization in 1967, and attended his first convention the following year. He served as Vice-President in 1972 and 1973, and President from 1974 to 1977. He also wrote a column called "One Sheet" for Bandwagon in which he discussed historical topics too small to justify as an article, but important enough to publish.
By the early 1970s his fascination with circus history had him by the throat. He purchased a microfilm reader and films of early newspapers so he could research his passion at home. He started going to work early, and leaving around 2:00 p. m. for his daily date with the past. By the time he retired he was spending a week a month in libraries and historical societies in every state east of the Mississippi River. Finally, in 1975 he sold his company. He was forty-nine years old when he decided to devote the remainder of his life to studying the American circus.
He loved it. Until age and health slowed him down, he spent six to eight hours most days “resolving the various questions,” he wrote, “a mountain of material presented.” He read and re-read the notes he assiduously gathered, studying the material to determine patterns, generalizations, exceptions, contrasts and similarities, often using statistical analysis to understand developments. Most importantly, he charted the changes and continuities that are the essence of historical investigation. Such techniques had been used by academic historians forever, but Thayer was the first to apply these methods to the study of field shows.
He concentrated on what he called "the rituals of man-agement," the business of circusing, and the interaction between shows and the society and culture at large. It was intellectual history to him, his way of understanding nineteenth century America. The circus was the telescope through which he observed the historical landscape.
In 1970 he began work on his monumental Annals of the American Circus. He took on the task of recording all American circuses prior to the Civil War. While no period of field show history had received much scholarly attention, the ante-bellum era was practically terra incognita as little research in primary sources had been done in it. One reason historians shied away from the early period was the dearth of primary source material. Only a few broadsides and handbills survived, and manuscripts and financial documents were very limited. He realized to do the job thoroughly he needed to read thousands and thousands of newspapers. That was a problem because scores of repositories needed to be visited. Few locations could justify a stay of more than a few days
Published in 1976, the first volume of Annals, covering the years 1793 to 1829, presented a completely original picture of the beginnings of the American circus. It instantly superseded virtually all prior scholarship on the era. It analyzed topics rarely studied for any epoch of show history, let alone the early period for which the raw data was limited. Previous writers had tried to put together the jigsaw puzzle of the circus’s start with only a few of the pieces. Thayer found almost all the missing pieces, and then put the puzzle together. It was as if a professional historian had not only discovered a couple of previously unknown Presidents, but also documented their beliefs and policies. Important as the new information was, the interpretive passages made the book even more remarkable. The best of these was his analysis of the impact of tents. He discovered that J. Purdy Brown was the originator of the circus big top in 1825. For the first time the circus wasn’t tethered to urban centers along the Atlantic seaboard, and was able to travel into the hinterlands, making it a national institution. Thayer was the first to recognize the revolutionary nature of the change.
In 1997 he distilled the wisdom and knowledge gathered from Annals into a beautifully written little masterpiece called Traveling Showmen. Organized topically, the book explored the origin and development of the business side of the traveling, tented circus. It also placed field shows in the context of Jacksonian America, exploring the impact of societal forces such as western population movement and improvements in transportation. Reading the book is a humbling experience. After only a few pages the reader becomes painfully aware how little he knew about the period. It is the smartest circus book ever written. Annals and Traveling Showmen brought a previously unknown level of research and analysis to the study of circus history. He examined the ante-bellum period with a thoroughness unequaled before or since for any period of show history. These two books are his legacy. No one ever said more about circus history in fewer words.
He published many significant pieces in Bandwagon. A history of Connecticut’s anti-circus laws was one of the first attempts to examine anti-circus prejudice in New England. A study of Vermont’s efforts to regulate circuses through taxation was another inquiry into the interface between field shows and governments. Articles on the origins of the side show, the cook house and concessions all broke new ground. One on minstrelsy’s circus beginnings shed new light on that important institution. Another explored the circus’s connection with the 1858 Lincoln-Douglass debates. He wrote short biographies of many nineteenth century showmen and performers. Jacob Driesbach, Chauncey Weeks, Joe Pentland, and Ben Brown, among others, were subjects of articles. He took a special interest in circus riders, sketching the careers of many equestrians such as James Hunter, Eaton Stone, Levi North and James Robinson. He considered Robinson the best ever.
He examined the histories of individual parade wagons in numerous pieces. He wrote a few season histories, including ones on the Barnum show in 1872 and 1873, and Rufus Welch’s disastrous 1853 tour. He even invaded the twentieth century twice. One was an affectionate biography of bandsman Carl Robinson who Thayer had met over twenty years earlier while working on an article on the Tom Mix Circus. The other was a fascinating study of the business transactions that occurred before the Ringling Circus appeared in Monroe, Michigan on 30 June 1916. His last essay in Bandwagon, written shortly before his death, was on full-size railroad circuses prior to the 1872 Barnum show. It was typical Thayer: short, to the point, well-documented, with enough new information to revise the prevailing interpretation of events.
While most of his Bandwagon submissions were narrow in scope and only a few pages in length, a few explored larger topics. A biographical census of all elephants in America before the Civil War appeared in 1987 and 1991. A history of menageries was another major project. Many of his Bandwagon articles are collected on the Circus Historical Society’s website (circushistory.org) under the title American Circus Anthology. In 1998 he and Fred Dahlinger, Jr. co-authored Badger State Showmen, a history of Wisconsin circuses. That same year he and William Slout wrote Grand Entree, a history of the Barnum Circus from 1871 to 1875. Both were strong narratives and solid contributions to circus scholarship.
The Performers: A History of Circus Acts, published in 2005, was his last. It examined the typical performance before the Civil War. He concluded that while some new acts were introduced and others modified, for the most part the in-ring presentation and the order in which it was given didn’t change very much over the sixty-seven years studied. The Performers is by far the best overview of American circus performances.
He was fascinated by the why, where, and when of routing, how showmen reached the all-important decisions that made or broke their seasons. He poured over routes for clues as an accountant would a spreadsheet. He developed different ways of analyzing routes statistically, hoping for a pattern that would disclose show managers’ thinking. It was a complex subject with many variables, and determining the significance of different factors was elusive.
The deeper he wandered into the nineteenth century circus, the more he concentrated on American economic and social history. He read virtually every issue of the Billboard before about 1920 and the New York Clipper before 1900. He was well versed in the memoir and secondary literature of the circus. — Excerpts from "Stuart Thayer," Fred D. Pfening III, Bandwagon, July-August, 2009, pp. 4-13.
CHS webmaster J. Griffin, last modified October 2010.