Project Description

Sparks Air Calliope

This Air Calliope is quite well known to most circus photo collectors and can readily be identified as the Sparks calliope used in the 20’s. The wagon was built by Moeller Brothers of Baraboo, Wisconsin along the lines of those previously built for Ringling Bros. and Gollmar Bros. circuses.  The instrument was manufactured by Joe Ori, calliope builders.

(1921 – Joseph Bradbury Album # 38 – photo # 33C – in front of Moeller Building, newly builtcages, air calliope and stringer wagon – C.P. Fox)

The calliope was used in the fine street parades the Sparks Circus, owned by Charles Sparks, put out on through the 1928 season. In the fall of 1928 after the show had returned to winter quarters in Macon, Georgia’s Central City Park, Sparks sold the circus to Henry B. Gentry, well known showman who with his brothers had operated the Gentry Bros. Famous Shows through the 1916 season, and following that had managed the Sells-Floto Circus for a few years for Tammen and Bonfils. It soon developed that Gentry was only acting as an agent for the American Circus Corporation, to whom Sparks had repeatedly refused to sell. For the 1929 season Gentry managed the show for the Corporation and the street parade was continued. The wagon was repainted from a dark color ( presumably red ) to the white body. It was the first regularly scheduled street parade for one of the Corporation circuses since 1925.

(1927 – Joseph Bradbury Album # 38 – photo # 2D – Truck with Air Calliope)

Ownership of the Sparks show as well as the other circuses the American Circus Corporation had passed to John Ringling in September of 1929. The show returned to Macon quarters following the season and Ringling sent Ira Watts to take over the management of the show for the coming 1930 season. The street parade was discontinued and Watts sent the show’s steam calliope to the Ringling-Barnum quarters in Sarasota, but the rest of the shows parade equipment, including the air calliope, was taken on the road in 1930. All of the tableau and bandwagons were of box type construction designed to carry a load anyway, so the show was not impeded. The air calliope took up very little train space and it was worth that for the ballyhoo benefit it provided.

(1929 – Joseph Bradbury Album # 38 – photo # 74B – No. 29 Air Calliope)

Following the 1930 season the Sparks show went into quarters with the Ringling-Barnum show in Sarasota. For 1931 the show was cut down from 20 cars to 15, and the bandwagons were stored with the excess equipment in Sarasota, however the air calliope remained on the show. It was used to house the recorded “canned” music apparatus the show used in 1931 in lieu of the traditional circus band. After the 1931 season the Sparks show was taken off the road and the equipment was all stored in the fields of the Ringling-Barnum quarters in Sarasota. In a few years of inactivity the Florida sun and rain had reduced the wagons to dry rot. About 1938 all of them, including the air calliope, steam calliope, bandwagons nothing was spared – were burned and the scrap iron salvaged. What disposition, if any, the Ringling management did with the air calliope instrument is not known.

(1935 – Bob Good photo)

(1) Excerpts from the Circus Wagon History File, Bandwagon, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Mar-Apr), 1960, pp. 20-21

By Joseph Bradbury