Old-Time Tent Circuses Not Yet Ready for Elephant Graveyard


Dawn was just breaking over the soft green hills of western Connecticut, and several hundred spectators, some in prams and strollers, a few on walkers, had turned up for an event as old as the nation.

Unfazed by the competing allure of TV, video games or the multiplex, and undaunted by the protests of animal-rights crusaders, the circus had come to town.

The Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus had arrived during the night at the site of the old Danbury fair, now a shopping mall, with 70 huge trailer trucks, 43 RVs and mobile homes, and an elongated pickup truck carrying what in classic circus hyperbole was billed as “the world’s largest cannon.”


Dozens of roustabouts set about unfolding the several acres of canvas that would rise as the big top. Four hours later came the climactic moment circus buffs of all ages journey many miles to witness and photograph.

Elephant superintendent Brad Jewell proudly led Petunia, Helen and Bessie, enormous Asian elephants, freshly self-showered and placidly plodding in trunk-to-tail lock step, to the task of tugging at stout ropes to lift the big top high, taut and wrinkle-free. Two Chinese acrobats, practicing their lion dance, and Yevgeni, a Russian juggler tossing up a dozen dinner plates, paused to watch. Enrique Macias, the tent master, joined the crowd in applauding.

“Elephants do this better than a tractor or forklift. They can go into forward or reverse gear a lot faster,” remarked Jewell, who is from Hugo, Okla., and “married into elephants.”

“My first wife,” he explained, “worked elephants, and her dad trained elephants for 45 years for Carson & Barnes,” a rival tent circus among a vanishing breed.

An International Family

Well, not quite vanished yet. Small fry still delight in the live spectacle of tightrope walkers edging out onto the high wire, clowns tumbling out of a miniature fire truck and fierce tigers obediently climbing onto stools.

But in these days of working parents, it’s likely to be grandma and grandpa buying the balloons and cotton candy and joining the kids in the howdah basket for the rolling ride on Petunia’s back.


While the roustabouts were setting up the three rings and bleachers to accommodate 3,140 spectators, Josip Marcan was at the nearby Stop & Shop loading three shopping carts with chickens, pork butts, chuck steak--whatever was on sale--to feed his 10 Bengal tigers.

The big cats, all bred on the tiger trainer’s ranch near Panama City, Fla., ranged from the rare snow-white tiger to the even rarer golden-furred tabby.

“They are very expensive to shop for,” Marcan, a Croatian, said as he doled out breakfast briskets to his greedily grinning menage. “Each tiger eats 15 pounds of raw meat a day. They love horse meat, but it’s hard to find.”

In a golf cart, circus owner John Pugh roamed the “backyard,” the enclave of parked house trailers where circus families live on the road, and “the pasture,” where the animals are caged or corralled.

He was making a morning call on his “extended international family.” Numbering over 120, they included Russian aerialists, acrobats from Beijing, a clown from Ecuador, a brother-and-sister high-wire motorcycle act from Bulgaria, Portuguese tightrope walkers and the human cannonball, a Bulgarian woman.

In the pasture, broadening the international flavor, were Peruvian llamas, Arabian horses, camels from the Sahara and a miniature Argentine stallion.

But Pugh also was purposely circling the wagons on the lookout for the biggest problem traveling circuses encounter these days. “They’ll be out there soon with their placards and leaflets. They usually are,” he grunted.

He meant the animal-rights campaigners, who are credited with the demise of many circuses--particularly in England, where Pugh began his career--and with the disappearance of animal acts from many surviving shows.

None showed up in Danbury, but a group from Friends of Animals was out picketing when the show moved down the road to Norwalk. Activists claim that captive wild animals suffer physical and psychological pain from confinement in trucks and cages and from cruel trainers forcing them with whips, sharp hooks and electric shock prods to perform tricks that don’t come naturally.

From news clippings they document a number of incidents in the past decade of “enraged, stressed out” zoo and circus animals breaking their bonds to stomp and claw their handlers and panic spectators, and rebellious elephants smashing cars and store windows.

Out front at zoos and circuses and on the Internet, various animal-rights groups urge the public to “boycott any form of entertainment using animals.”

To which Pugh angrily responds: “Any legitimate circus would be out of its mind to abuse their animals. We love our animals. Some have been with this show longer than I have. Each elephant is worth about $100,000. They’re irreplaceable.”

Abusing them “would be like me entering a brand-new Mercedes in a demolition derby,” he says.

“Sawdust in your veins” is how operations vice president Elvin Bale characterizes the dynastic nature of circus life. “I’m fourth generation.”

It is also dangerous. Bale has ridden a motorized wheelchair since suffering a trapeze accident 12 years ago.

“My father was a ringmaster and tiger trainer. Mother was a trapeze artist. Great-grandfather Bale was a trick cyclist more than a century and a half ago when the circus moved along dirt roads in painted horse-drawn wagons. When the roads ran out, they rolled their wagons onto steamboats and played landings along the Ohio and Mississippi.”

Circus fans, he notes, “came in all ages and from all backgrounds: lawyers, doctors, farmers, factory hands, even a pope.”

“I’m the only aerialist ever to perform inside the Vatican,” he says.

How did that come about?

As Bale tells it, John Paul II, who had his own childhood memories of the circus in his native Poland, heard that he was performing in Rome and invited him to hang his trapeze in the baroque Aula delle Benedizioni, the hall of blessings. Bale flew through the sanctified air for a select audience of cardinals, diplomats, monks and nuns.

Circuses, after all, were a Roman invention. Almost at the very site of Bale’s act, the Emperor Nero uncaged famished lions to gnaw on Christians in keeping with his imperial policy of placating the populace with “panem et circenses”--bread and circuses.

Christian tradition has since enshrined St. Jerome as the patron of lion tamers. The 4th century hermit translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into the Latin vulgate with a tamed lion at his feet. When he died in Bethlehem, the bereft beast pined away and expired on his grave.

A circus with a lion tamer toured colonial America as early as 1716. George Washington, as president, attended Billy Ricketts’ touring British show in Philadelphia and sold one of his horses to the equestrian act. Hachaliah Baily in 1815 introduced the first elephant, “Old Bet,” to American audiences. The show closed after a terrified farmer shot the beast.

William Cole, patriarch of the Cole clan, first hit the road with a tent show in 1872. By 1910, the peak year for circuses before radio and movies siphoned off much of the audience, there were more than 80 big-time touring shows. Their names glitter like spangles in the affections of circus buffs: P.T. Barnum and his elephant, Jumbo, whose name entered the dictionary as a synonym for outsize. Ringling Brothers, all seven of them, before the mergers with Barnum and Bailey. Sells-Floto. Spaulding & Rogers. Gollmar Bros. Hagenbeck & Wallace. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, featuring 100 Indians on 100 palominos and Annie Oakley in the center ring soloing on the Winchester repeating rifle.

The Depression, followed by TV, further thinned their ranks. Urban traffic jams did away with their best sales come-on: the arrival parade of bands, gilded wagons and cavorting clowns down Main Street.

“There’s maybe 10 to 15 big shows still around, playing in domes and arenas, but we and Carson & Barnes are the last of the big ones still under canvas,” Pugh said. “A few small, family-operated shows still roam about, and circus acts have always been big in Vegas. But this vast country can’t compare with tiny Holland or neighboring Mexico, which has 10 times as many. Sometimes two or three show in town at the same time.”

Like Bale, Pugh turned to administration after a tumbling accident ended his acrobatic career. Injuries on the job are still commonplace.

Half of the “Russian Air Force,” the eight-member troupe of ex-Soviet trapeze artists, are grounded with ailments ranging from torn ligaments and hernias to a damaged jaw suffered by “the main catcher.” His job is to catch his somersaulting partners in the air, but a few nights ago he also caught a flying bar in the mouth.

Kids don’t run away from home to join the circus like they used to. Nowadays they’d have trouble with the labor laws.

“We don’t hire anyone under 18,” said Pugh. “Everyone is under Social Security and pays income taxes. It’s not like the old days when you could hire anyone who wandered onto the lot.”

The most dramatic change in personnel came with the demise of Europe’s communist regimes. “All those performers from Communist-bloc countries traveling with state-supported circuses found themselves suddenly unemployed,” said Pugh. “We used to import acts from South America. Now we get a lot of Russians and Bulgarians. Very talented people.”

This circus travels about 10,000 miles through 20 states, starting out from its winter headquarters in Deland, Fla., in the second week in March and wending its way north to Maine. The season ends back in Florida in the last week in November. Most are two-night stands. “We survive because we made moving an art form,” concludes Pugh.

“We pretty much follow the weather,” said elephant boss Jewell. “Last year we ran away from two hurricanes in Louisiana. Storms scare the animals, and they scare us even more. Most of our hops are quite short--100 miles would be our longest haul. We don’t roll as a convoy. Each act packs up and takes off as soon as they finish the last show.”

Friendly farmers “quite frequently invite the elephants into their fields to graze and browse under the trees,” Jewell continued. “We turn ‘em loose, and the farmer runs for his camera and gathers the family. It’s not every day you get six elephants to mow and fertilize a couple of acres.”

The buzz around the lot, as the show packed up and headed into Massachusetts, was that the year 2000 would be very competitive. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey would be hitting the road with a new tent show after four decades of playing domes and arenas.

“Maybe tent circuses are not heading for the elephant graveyard after all,” Jewell remarked hopefully, as Petunia, Helen and Bessie pulled up stakes.