Circus Day

Circus Day

When I was 7 or 8 years old, around 1934, my Daddy took my brother and me to watch the Ringling Brothers circus unload. We were awakened in the wee small hours and my teeth chattered in the cold while I stood on a chair for my mother to dress me, in a little pink-flowered cotton dress with matching bloomers, and white ankle socks with black patent leather "Roman sandals" , which were in fashion during the Depression.

In downtown Oklahoma City, the train had stopped at a siding and the animals were herded off, down wooden ramps. The giant elephants were among the first to exit the boxcars. Great gaudily-painted wheeled cages held the " big cats" (the lions and tigers). The animals were lined up, and each elephant grasped the tail of the one in front of him with his trunk. There were beautifully-groomed ponies, and sun-weathered handlers walked alongside them along the gutters. We watched as the entire menagerie paraded down the street as the sun was coming up.

(Years later the City government banned the circus parade, as the elephants' heavy tread caused damage to the tar pavement on hot summer days.)

When we arrived at the circus grounds the cook tent was already up. There the roustabouts and performers all got to eat a hot breakfast, seated a long wooden tables with benches on either side. Smells of frying sausage and bacon and hot biscuits permeated the area. Workers were putting up the Big Top, which was the main tent that held three "rings", made up of red-painted wooden curbs, which fit together to form a circle. Lots of rigging for the aerialist acts, nets to catch them, and a small bandstand for the musicians had to be erected.

Outside along the midway were other smaller tents and canvas curtains fashioned around trucks to hold folding chairs and small stages where "acts" were featured. At each one the circus-goers would purchase separate tickets to watch the "shows" inside. One that fascinated me as a small girl was the "Big-Lipped Nigger" (Back then the n-word was used frequently in the South, although it was a perjorative as it is today.) The featured act was a native of some African country who had bamboo inserted in his lips, making them as large as saucers. Another black "native" had rows of rings around her neck, making it seem much longer than a normal neck. There were midgets and dwarfs, and scantily-clad dancers who were overly-rouged, for whom men paid to go behind the curtain to watch them dance. The clowns did double-duty, helping put up the tents before they then donned their costumes.

Down the center of the midway there were booths to pitch pennies into saucers floating in tubs of water, booths to pitch softballs at pyramid-stacked glass milk bottles, and vendors who sold popcorn and cotton candy. All around were cheap prizes displayed, stuffed animals and balloons.

Daddy taught us some of the circus slang, including the phrase, "Hey, Rube!", which was a signal if one of the circus people sensed trouble and needed someone to come to his aid.

Approaching a "carney" who operated a game, if you said, "I'm with it", it meant you were one of them and they gave you a break, possibly letting you pitch a ball free.

Many years later I met my father's cousin, Morton Smith, who was editor of the Gainesville, TX Register. He founded a community circus there in 1930 and for years the citizens performed annually, even traveling to Scandinavian countries and being written up in Readers' Digest.

As a college student in the summer of 1946, when I was in Gainesville to attend a cadre party at a nearby Army base, I stopped by the newspaper office to say hello to "Uncle Mort". It was a very hot Texas day, the day of the Gainesville Circus parade, and he invited me to ride in it — on the calliope wagon! Like Miss America, I waved a queenly wave all the way down Main Street with the calliope thump-thumping its circus music! I was wearing my chartreuse cocktail dress for the dance that night (chartreuse and fuschia were very big in fashion that year) with a "gold" choker necklace. After I jumped down from the wagon and went into a nearby gas station restroom to repair my makeup, I discovered to my horror that perspiration had caused my "gold" choker to make a green line around my neck!

Some years later, in the early '50s,working for an NBC-TV affiliate in Fort Worth, because I knew "Uncle Mort" I was able to connect an NBC-TV unit with the Gainesville Community Circus. I went to Gainesville with the crew, helped interview the participants (there were three generations of locals who performed), scripted the show, and later viewed it on the Dave Garroway "Today" show.

In 1976, as a part of the Bicentennial remembrances, Arts and Humanities funded a replica of the old Harley Sadler Tent Show. We toured several Texas cities to bring back the nostalgia of the traveling tent shows. I auditioned for a role with the reperatory company that put the show together. We learned to pitch a tent, set up bleachers, pack salt water taffy in boxes to be sold at intermission with "a prize in every box", and performed on the stage in three different plays, each starring red-headed "Toby, the country boy" and the "city slicker". On July 4, 1976, former Harley Sadler performers gathered together for a reunion on the campus of Texas Tech University. The old timers were a jolly lot. After "retiring" from the show, one had become a high school band director; one was a teacher of gymnastics, and all of them led productive lives. I had had a pre-conceived notion that they would be a bunch of "carnies". Not at all! They were refined, dedicated senior citizens who were proud that they had contributed to "circus" history.

Later, a former Texas high school classmate became the public relations director for the Ringling Brothers Circus, and we re-met in California when he was seeking a PR person to office on the West Coast.

Looking back, I think it's serendipitous that I had so many circus connections. I think it's all because Daddy took us to see the circus unload those many years ago. But I believe that was really for Daddy's enjoyment, and he just took us along as his excuse to experience circus moments.

Lou Carter Keay
March 23, 2011

September, 1902 recording

"The Passing of the Circus Parade", from the Library of Congress National Jukebox,

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