Friday, July 9, 2010

CIRCUS MEMORIES-not the normal go see the elephants

I got an email from a friend who told some tales of their life with the cIrcus leading me on a trip down Memory Lane.

When I was very young, I had a special love for the circus - that was in the day of the Big Top. One of my mother's high school friends had married the Train Master for Ringling’s and we would visit Mr. & Mrs. Milton every winter when we went to Flordia over Christmas school break. Most years they would have a party to which we were invited. I had the honor of meeting some of the nicest people and claim the 'Doll Family" as family acquaintances and have visited their home. As a 3 to 5 year old I LOVED going over there -- the whole house was MY size.

When the circus was in town we would always go and would visit the Sideshow to see the Dolls - I remember standing and watching their 'show' and, as the rest of the crowd moved on to the next show in the tent, we stayed as Mr. Earl called out to my mother by name - and then came down to the edge of the stage and as he and my parents had a conversation and they would send someone off to find Mrs. Milton to let her know we were there. One year Mrs. Milton took us backstage and between shows were invited to their quarters and then she decided I needed to see a real circus - that day was magical! We got seats front row, center ring, and Mrs. Milton sat with us and explained to me what was going on and pointed out when someone I had met was performing, some in many acts - she had preformed for many years, at least as an Elephant rider, Aerial Ballet, and Iron Jaw - I remember her saying, “no one gets a free ride with the circus - we all work”.

A couple years later was the last year that Ringling's came to town under the Big Top, and my parents took me down and I got to stay up all night (at least in my world) and got to watch them set up. And I was invited to eat with the crew in the food tent. I was able to meet the elephants and hug an elephant leg, tossed treats to the big cats, and pet a lion, fed carrots to the Liberty Horses and generally got a full tour of back stage, meeting people and animals. Met Emmett Kelly AND Weary Willie - and was able to wrap my head around person/persona - a concept which has served me well though my life.

That was the year the Michigan State Champion Woman's AAU Basketball Team (1929?) had a reunion organized by my mother - date chosen because 2 of the team members were in town with the circus - the other lady ran the cotton candy concession on the Circus Midway. I really regret that I was not able to attend, as the Champion Athlete was one facet of my Mother I never really got to know except in photos, newspaper articles and some stories, mostly retold by my father who was as proud of Mom's achievements as his or the teams he coached.

One evening at the Milton's home several of their friends (mostly performers but some of the support crew) were over, and somehow, they began reminiscing about the years on tour. . . I wish I could remember all of that evening - at that age I had NO idea how much history was sitting in one room - and how open they were with 'outsiders' present. Somehow, the conversation drifted into the sadness -- Mrs. Milton had ridden an elephant in the Grand Parade at the beginning of the show and she sat there with tears streaming down her face when she told how 'her' elephant had died during the menagerie fire (must have been the '42 fire because they were on tour).

The discussion turned to the '44 Hartford Big Top fire - it turned into a therapy session - each and every one telling their view and experiences of that disaster and retelling the acts of heroism they witnessed by other members in the Circus - never mentioning their own actions. Most of them told how the performance had been routine. Then they heard the band start playing the Stars and Stripes Forever - in the Circus world, called the Disaster March. (Recalling that memory, I now understand WHY every time I hear that song, which I love by the way, I cry - I relive the emotions in that livingroom in Sarasota on that night.)

All of them agreed that the real unsung heroes were the Big Cat trainers (Court and Tovars) - the Cats were in the ring when the fire started and though the cats were beginning to panic - the trainers kept them under control and got the cats out of the tent and safely secured in their cages before they could harm anyone.

The Wallendas were on the high wire doing their act (I had to check this on line to confirm my memory of the names) and first saw the fire, calling the alarm - but that was the only nice thing I ever heard about that family. From what I remember hearing, they came down their ropes (?) left the tent and hid in their trailer for the duration of the disaster.

My Friend - I thank you so much for your post which triggered these memories which laid dormant for so long - and again made me realize how blessed I was from childhood for parents who provided me with experiences far beyond that which most kids growing up in the late 40's and 50's in a very small town in rural Michigan could even dream of doing.

The greatest lesson for me was to judge people on WHO they are not what persona they project or what job they have or any of the other outward appearances -- it is what is inside the person that counts.

One of the more comprehensive sites on the ’44 fire. The reprint from WHITE TOPS MAGAZINE (linked at this site) is very interesting to Circus buffs: