Rides and Spangles: Circuses and Carnivals

Although rarely acknowledged, for well over a century Michigan has been home to many circus and carnival owners, performers, and operators. Some have been famous while others have exercised their craft with competence but in relative obscurity. Whether famous or obscure the people who perform in and operate circuses and carnivals have created an institution that is intimately weaved into the fabric of American life.

It is a rare person who has not, at one time or another, sat in an audience amazed by the feats of circus performers, laughed at the antics of circus clowns, or made their way to a carnival midway to ride the ferris wheel, purchase some cotton candy, and perhaps invest a few coins in the hopes of winning a prize through some game of chance or skill. The circus and carnival is part of all our lives, a fact that Rides and Spangles celebrates and illuminates.

Building upon the John C. Pollie papers, a unique collection of material found within the Clarke Library, Rides and Spangles also benefits from the knowledge of Marian Matyn, the Clarke Library’s archivist, who has invested much time and energy into investigating various aspects of Michigan circuses and carnivals, as well as the individuals and families who have spent a part of their career or their entire lives creating the entertainment and amusements so familiar to the public.

In the remainder of this catalog Assistant Professor Matyn generously shares in a preliminary form much of what she plans to eventually publish in a book-length work. Those interested in this topic will undoubtedly find much information of interest in the following pages. Individuals interested in learning more about Michigan circuses and carnivals, or who might have information they would like to share about Michigan circuses or carnivals, are encouraged to contact Assistant Professor Matyn by email at matyn1mj@cmich.edu or by telephone (989) 774-3990.

                                                                              Frank Boles


Marian Matyn PhotoIn 2006 in my job as Archivist of the Clarke Historical Library I took some papers out of a box of unprocessed papers and read them. I was instantly captivated by the voice of the writer of the letters, Grand Rapids concessionaire John Pollie. John Pollie has a very unique voice of all the manuscript collections I have worked with in 20 years and in 3 states. His voice comes across clearly in his writing. He had humor, kindness, a great sense of community and friendship. He was honest, hardworking, and loved his wife and children. And, he knew a lot of very interesting people in circus, carnival, Grand Rapids, Michigan and Indiana. After about three hours my legs went numb from sitting on the concrete floor of our stacks area reading John’s letters.  I knew then I would process (organize, refolder, rebox, research, create a guide or finding aid) to his papers next, and I did.  I also knew the collection was a gold mine and had great potential to become publications, presentations, and an exhibit, maybe even a PBS special.

I started reading about all the people John and his father, Henry Pollie, knew and worked with from the turn of the century until the 1960s.  John handled all of the arrangements for the circus and carnivals they owned, including Zeidman and Pollie.  John corresponded at length and in great detail with sometimes three generations of the same families in the business of entertainment and his relatives.  He knew or worked for all the major carnival people in Michigan. John kept a copy of all of his outgoing correspondence and every letter, postcard, and business-related paperwork that was mailed to him.  This began my interest in researching some of the amazing people John knew and as well as John himself.  My research led to my sabbatical, my national juried presentation, my exhibit in the Clarke called “Rides and spangles: Michigan circuses and carnivals” and a book, which is in process to be published by Michigan State University on the history of Michigan circuses.  After that, I plan on writing a book on Michigan carnival history.

John was a wonderful, kind hearted, good man.  In reading his letters I felt as if he was talking to me across a table while we sipped coffee (John) and chai tea (me). I sincerely wish I could have known him.  His collection is the only know collection of manuscript letters of a carnival man of the 20 century known to exist in a public institution.  As such it provides a unique look into the life, mind, and heart of a 20th century Michigan carnival man who once co-owned a circus with his Dad.  It documents the changes in carnival in the 20th century in Michigan, and in the U.S.  The collection totals 34 boxes (17.5 cubic feet), 1910-1969.  The finding aid for the collection is available at the Clarke.  John’s son, Curt Pollie, allowed me to scan the remnants of John’s extensive photograph collection.

This electronic catalog is representative of the exhibit in the Clarke Sept 2009-January 2010 and includes images from Curt Pollie and my collection. Certain museum items and images were loaned from other institutions and are not shown here.

I hope you enjoy the online catalog for this exhibit. If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me.  I would also like to thank my relatives, friends, neighbors, archival, library, and museum colleagues, fellow faculty, students, and friends in the carnival and circus world, who helped make the exhibit and my research an ongoing success.  Also, a very special thanks to Pat Thelen and Devon Bleibtrey who technically made this e-catalog happen.

Marian Matyn
Archivist and Assistant Professor, Clarke Historical Library


The WaltonsThe equestrian is one of the three basic components a circus needs to be defined as a circus, as in: “The ring, the horse, and the clown.” An equestrian is a circus artist who performs a set of complex athletic and acrobatic feats involving excellent timing, balance, elegance, showmanship and lots of practice, on the back of a moving horse or horses in a ring. Comedy may also be involved. The equestrian may perform alone or in conjunction with a troupe.  Equestrians may train their horses and/or “style” (show or display) horses trained by other people. There are different types of horse acts including high school, ménage and liberty. Philip Astley and John Bill Ricketts are the first two equestrians to perform in the U.S. Astley is also considered the Father of the American Circus. Ricketts and his trained performance horse, Cornplanter, awed crowds and brought the first circus to the U.S. in Philadelphia in 1793. Both men were accomplished riding masters; developing the art of equestrian riding in circus, and were instrumental the development of circus as we still know it today.

Dorothy Herbert

Dorothy HerbertDorothy Herbert (1910- 1994) lived in Detroit as a young teenager with her mother. They joined Duffield’s performance horse troupe in AZ in 1925. Dorothy performed a “January Act” in a clown suit with a mule. In the act she was required to fall down and then the mule sat on her. She hated it. From this humble beginning, Dorothy Herbert became a circus superstar.

In her career Dorothy worked with a wide variety of trainers, circuses; and trained and styled many different animals and birds.  Styling is how you display an animal and your routine before an audience.  She mastered ménage,  high-school riding, styling, and riding sidesaddle.  Dorothy loved jumping. She learned basic trick riding, but was forbidden to trick ride because it was considered to be “unladylike” behavior at the time. She also styled a three-horse liberty act in the John Robinson Circus.

Dorothy became a circus superstar when she worked for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey (RB-BB) Circus 1930-1937 and 1939. In 1931 she jumped with her then horse, Satan, without holding the reins over a hurdle of fire. This became a signature part of her act. In 1933 Dorothy learned to ride Roman style, with her right foot on one horse and her left on another horse. By 1939 she performed dangerous laybacks on rearing horses. She also rode in hippodrome races with ten-horse hitches; performed laybacks with one leg in the air, which became one of her signature acts; jumped “over a flaming five-foot-high barrier …while waving and smiling, …[stood] on a horse in the midst of a herd thundering around the track …drop down on the horse, go under and come up on another horse.”

On a local radio program with the RB-BB announcer, Danny De, Dorothy was a regular guest speaker. She was featured on eight circus posters, “the most ever issued on one performer,” and on circus program covers as well as ads for Camel cigarettes (1933) and Wheaties cereal (1935). In 1939 she was voted the publics' favorite outdoor performer. After RB-BB sent her to acting school, Dorothy had a supporting role in the 1940 movie “the Mysterious Dr. Satan,” in which she performed trick acts with her horse and her own stunts. She also starred in the west coast 1954 TV series “Dr. Satan.”

Dorothy performed in circus 1925-1955 except for 1926 when she worked at Dreamland amusement park in Newark, New Jersey, performing menage. Besides RB-RR, Dorothy worked for the Cole Bros. Circus, Lewis Bros. Circus, Clyde Beatty Circus and Shrine circuses.  Between circuses she worked at fairs, trained horses and riders, and made radio and television appearances.  Dorothy also performed in a disappearing act with a horse in Howard Thurston’s Magic Show in 1928.

In 1941 Dorothy created the first circus newspaper. She and other equestrian females compiled the Weekly News, which included headlines, ads and cartoons drawn by Emmett Kelly who was a cartoonist before he was a clown. The newspaper was a success with the circus, circus fans and Billboard.

Dorothy retired in 1972.  Two Circus Fans Association of America (CFA) Tents (or organizations) were established in her honor; the first in Freeport, IL, in 1937; and the second in Clinton, MI, in 1976.  In 1978 Dorothy was inducted into the International Circus Hall of Fame.

In her will Dorothy donated $25,000 to the Show folks of Sarasota. With the partnership of the Community Foundation, the Dorothy Herbert Fund provides “shelter assistance for deserving show folks in Sarasota and Manatee counties” [FL].  The purchase of her autobiography, Dorothy Herbert: Riding sensation of the age!, supports the fund. Her fund and dream led the “Migrant Ministries of the Catholic Church to establish the Circus and Traveling Shows Retirement Project Inc. (CATS).”

Esli K. Cocker

Esli K. Crocker (b. MI 1859-1928) grew up on his father’s farm in Reading Township, Hillsdale.  As a boy he had a gift with animals and broke colts with firmness and kindness. He was respected as a quality horse breaker.  His first horse trick was to drive without reins. His second trick was to teach a horse to pick up a handkerchief and drop it into Crocker’s hands.  

Crocker PortraitCrocker first performed to acclaim with twelve horses in Hillsdale. The horses played at being in school, and held a mock court scene which “brought down the house.”  “Professor Crocker” noted that it was “kindness … enabled him to do the things which he was able, and …patience and firmness was all that was necessary to make a horse obey.”  In 1885 Crocker’s troupe of 30 trained horses, ponies, donkeys, and mules were advertised as being able to “Do everything but talk.”  Crocker and his “Educated Horses and Mules” successfully toured major U.S. and Canadian cities. From 1887 until 1904 Crocker and 11 horses, the “Equirationals,” successfully toured England, Scotland, Wales, and Antwerp, Belgium. The troupe, expanded to 30 horses. They performed before royalty, including the then Prince of Wales, Edward, son of Queen Victoria.  The performances lasted two hours and included a court scene, clown acts, battle, carousel, and rope skipping, among other tricks.  

Crocker returned to Hillsdale in 1904. He lost a number of horses to fire and/or disease. In 1928 he again owned a small horse troupe as noted on a customs entry form dated May 17, 1928 for his horses arriving at Walkerville, Ontario, Canada, by ferry with show equipment. We do not know if he actually performed with these horses or not.

Crocker received two British patents, No. 13,958 in 1887 for his Crocker’s Patent Bit for riding and driving, and No. 23,307 in 1899 for “Improvements in and connected with bits for horses.  He also wrote a number of articles about the training of horses and a book, The Education of the horse, illustrated.

It is highly likely he also wrote the music for his horses and mules for various instruments including: cornet, trombone, e-flat alto saxophone, bass, and violin. The music notes the barrel act, the handkerchief act, acts by various horses, and entry by mules.


Clown: Roy BarrettClowning has ancient precedents in many cultures of the world.  On April 3, 1793,  Ricketts’ first circus in America, specifically Philadelphia, including a clown named Mr. McDonald. John Durang (1768-1822) was the first American born U.S. professional clown.

There are three major classifications of clowns: Whiteface, August, and Character, including tramp.  Whiteface clowns mime. Historically, Whiteface clowns acted as the butt of the Ringmaster’s jokes, performing a lot of physical stunts in a way that made the audience laugh.  Well known twentieth century Whiteface circus clowns include Felix Adler, Paul Jung, and Marcel Marceau. The Auguste talks, and acts as “the butt of the joke…slapping and stumbling, throwing pies, using seltzer bottles.. and tend[s] to be more physical in their performances.”  Lou Jacobs, Bozo and Ronald McDonald are examples of Auguste clowns. Character clowns portray various characters, the fireman, the policeman, the doctor, the college professor, and the tramp, among others.  They wear a wide variety of costumes, wigs, makeup, and false body and facial parts appropriate for their character. The most famous tramp clown is Emmett Kelly’s Weary Willie.

19th century Saginaw clowns of note:

George Bickel, Harry Watson, and Fred Jenks. They performed at Saginaw’s Boardwell Opera House.  In 1899 the three clowns and the Picard Brothers performed with the Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Circus in Saginaw.  Jenks and Wilson were a clown team in Hagenbeck & Wallace and Ringling Brothers-and- Barnum & Bailey circuses, among others. The duo supposedly originated the clown band concept, which later became a component of all circuses.  Jenks and his wife, Grace Burk, began an act called Jenks and Jenks, whose big hit was imitating a chicken with its head cut off.  When the Jenks retired from the circus world they operated rollerskating rinks in Saginaw. 

After the Jenks married, Watson teamed up with George Bickel portraying German comics. One of their gags was to pretend to play the violin while sharing a music stand. The one clown, intently playing, poked the other clown in the eyeball with his violin bow, oblivious to the discomfort he was causing a fellow musician.  Watson and Bickel performed in the Ziegfeld Follies and the Palace Theater in New York. Watson also worked solo, earning $2,000 a week in the 1920s. Eventually, Watson retired to Penetanguishene, Ontario, where he died in 1965.  Bickel retired to Hollywood, but was later buried in Saginaw.

Michigan TV Clowns:


Irv “Ricky the clown” Romig had his own television show for children on channel WXYZ-TV in Detroit from 1953 to 1964. 

Irving Hugh Romig was the son of circus performers Elizabeth Rooney and Carl Romig.  Irv (b. Detroit 1920-) became a clown at the age of 5 on the Frank McIntyre Circus. Two clowns, Ed Raymond and Marcus Hunkler, dressed Irv up in “a clown face, [in] a swallowtail coat, and [gave him] a huge frying pan and spoon.”  In their act the clowns played a funny version of the song “It’s Three O’Clock In The Morning.” When they began playing the chorus, Irv hit the frying pan with the spoon three times. Once he heard the laughter from the audience, Irv knew that he wanted to be a circus performer. 

Irv performed as “Irvie-the circus buffoon” by age 15. In his act he performed “trick riding, a comedy mule act, clown routines, and walk arounds.” Besides learning tricks and how to train animals from his family, Irv learned from other performers and invented many of his own gags. 

During WWII, Irv served in the army beginning in 1942.  As a corporal with the 81st Infantry Division, Irv played the bugle. He could not read music, so his sergeant would hum the taps or parade calls and Irv would then play. Irv served as “the camp’s bugler, horse and dog trainer, and as a member of the Section 8 Gang,… clowns who entertained servicemen.”  Irv trained dogs who searched for mines and the K-9 corps to take out machine gunners. 

After the Army, Irv returned to performing as a clown with small circuses. In 1946 he worked with the Jimmy Cole Circus. The circus was televised as a publicity stunt; it was the first time a circus was televised in the U.S. 

In 1950 Irv married Rose Dobo in Guardian Angel Church in Clawson.
Irv then signed on for what became a 22-year stint with the Shrine Circus. He converted a small tractor into a train, which stole the show from the other clowns.  He also trained animals; including horses, donkeys, llamas, a miniature buffalo, and other animals. Ringling Brothers invited Irv to join their circus. Irv, Rose and Fay (Irv’s sister), as Betty Hutton’s double, all performed in Cecil B. DeMille’s movie, The Greatest Show on Earth (1951).

About his television show Irv noted “you don’t know what I go through for a half-hour (TV) show. You lie awake at night. No one writes your material. Thousands of people watch you.”  But he thought having a job in one location was more conducive to raising a family.  Irv’s first show, called Tip-Top Fun, aired in October 1953. Irv performed as Ricky the Clown in a yellow and black derby, red plaid suit and big red nose. The show included Laurel and Hardy shorts, Bambino the donkey, and the songs and gags of Ricky the Clown in a circus format.  The show’s ratings were often better than those of Roy Rogers at WWJ.  The show was required to legally change its name.

Actress Lally Deene performed with Irv on the renamed show: The Robin and Ricky Show.  She played Robin, a waitress, and Irv played Ricky the clown in a busboy’s uniform. The show included the same donkey, “jokes, skits, music, magic tricks, stories, birthday wishes and Little Rascal shorts.”  The tight set consisted of a lunch counter, three stools, and Bambino’s pen. Advertisements were then filmed live. Ricky advertised “Mr. Big” enriched bread. Sometimes when the bread was eaten by the crew, Ricky would run in full makeup and costume to the local corner grocery store to buy some more bread while the Little Rascals shorts ran overtime. 

After Deene left the show in May of 1958, the show returned to its original format until 1965. Irv built most of the props and gags with his own money. Games, prizes, and a llama named Fonda, were added to the show.  Irv was always very proud that he had the only show for children sponsored by an automobile dealership; Hanley Dawson Chevrolet. 

Irv’s career at WXYZ as Ricky the Clown ended in 1965. He continued his Shrine Circus and numerous other appearances.  Ricky was waiting to go on as a Shire Circus clown when members of the Great Wallendas fell in Detroit on January 30, 1962.  In 2001 Irv was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame.  His wife, Rosie, died on September 7, 2002. Irv Romig died on May 24, 2010, at age 90. 


ClownsMilky the Twin Pines Magic Clown was a Detroit television clown from 1950 to 1964. In his white outfit and point cap with big smile and makeup highlighting his eyes and chin, Milky advertised Twin Pines Milk during the Twin Pines Movie Party. Twin Pines was Detroit’s only employee-owned, cooperative dairy in 1955.  Milky proclaimed “There’s Magic in Twin Pines Milk!” 

Clarence R. “Milky the Clown “ Cummings, Jr. was born  in Chicago in 1912. When Clarence was 5, his family moved to Birmingham, Michigan. When he was 12, he received a magic set for Christmas and was soon performing and mastering tricks. Clarence read many books on the topic and saw great magicians perform; including Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston.  Clarence debuted at Birmingham’s Baldwin Library in 1929 and performed locally at small events. In 1933 he worked on Chuck Stanley’s “Happy Hour Club,” a radio show, with Danny Thomas. To pay his bills, in 1941 Clare began selling automotive paint for E. I. DuPont during the week. This left his weekends free for magic performances. 

During WWII, Sergeant Clarence served in the U.S. Army’s Finance Division and entertained troops as part of the Army’s Special Services Division in Florida.  He married Peg Haldane, with whom he had a daughter, Peggy.  After the war, Clarence returned to his DuPont job and performed magic in the increasingly elite venues. He was billed as “Clare Cummings, Delineator of Deceptive Dexterity.”

Clare had wonderful magic skills, a friendly gap-tooth smile, and a gentle manner; all perfect for working with children.  His first show was named Peter, Clare and Oscar at WJBK. It resembled Kukla, Fran, and Ollie show and lasted 13 weeks in 1950.  His second show, sponsored by Twin Pines Dairy, Milky’s Movie Party, debuted on December 16, 1950 with Milky, the first Twin Pines Milkman, Ed Hayes, and a weekly winner of the “Sunshine Smile” photograph contest. Cummings created his own makeup and his wife the costume, patterned after that of a Pierrot, for the new show. There was no live audience.  In 1952 a marionette show called Willy Dooit was added to the show voiced by Detroit’s famous Sonny Eliot. Milky’s Movie Party moved to WXYZ in 1955, home of Soupy Sales, Ricky the Clown and Wixie’s Wonderland, and added Little Rascals shorts. In 1958 the show moved to WWJ with a new format, live audience, and new name of Milky’s Party Time.  It featured the serial The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, Bozo and Felix the Cat cartoons, as well as magic, games, prizes, and Stars of the Future contest, hosted by MaryLou. Pierre the Frenchman helped with games, usually boys versus girls. There was a two-year wait for tickets for the immensely popular Milky’s Party Time. The show tripled Twin Pines routes and milk orders.

Clare also performed at school assemblies, as many as 130 a year. December 16, 1960 was declared “Milky the Clown Day.” In 1964 Clare retired from the show to return to his paint job. His friend and magician, Karrell Fox, continued as Milky until the show ended in 1967. Clare retired from DuPont in 1971. His last performance as Milky was at the Oakland Mall in Troy in 1992. He died in 1994.  One of his costumes and many of his magic tricks are in the American Museum of Magic in Marshall.


Bozo was not one clown, but a series of people portraying a licensed character. Bozo began as the voice of Alan W. Livingston on a read-along record called Bozo at the Circus in 1946, created by Capitol Records.  In 1949 Capitol Records developed royalty arrangements with television stations. The first to air the Bozo show, called Bozo’s Circus, with Pinto Colvig as Bozo, was KTTV-TV.  In 1956 Capitol Records hired several actors to portray Bozo, one of which was Larry Harmon. Larry developed Bozo’s orange-tufted sidewise pointing wig, the big red nose, the wild red, white, and blue costume, the character and voice, and changed the name to “Bozo, the World’s Most Famous Clown.”  Larry bought the rights to Bozo and licensed the character to television stations. Those stations then recruited to get their own Bozos for local shows, particularly children’s shows. 

One of the most popular Bozos was Bob Bell of Chicago’s WGN-TV. The Bozo Show aired nationally from 1978 to 2001. Bozo the clown was a television star in 18 states, the District of Columbia, Brazil, Canada, Greece, Thailand, and Mexico. In Michigan there were several Bozos in three cities. Three men in Detroit portrayed Bozo: Jerry Booth in 1959 at WWJ-TV, Bob McNea, 1959-1967 at the same station, and Art Certvi, 1975-1980 at WJBK-TV.  Frank Cady portrayed Bozo at WJRT-TV, 1967-1979. Lastly, Dick Richards portrayed Bozo, 1968-1999 at WZZM-TV in Grand Rapids.

Rudy “Dynamite the Clown” Grahek (b. Cadillac, 1932-).

Rudy DynamiteRudy always wanted to be a clown. He created his clown makeup style and costume from a combination of his two favorite clowns; Emmett Kelly’s Weary Willie, and Red Skelton’s Freddie the Freeloader.  Rudy used the name of “Rudy the Clown” until some children said it looked as though his costume had “been blown up by dynamite.”  Rudy then became “Dynamite the Clown.”

Rudy’s career began with a few gigs as a “spot performer” or “come in clown” or “crowd pleaser” for the Clyde Beatty Circus in the early 1950s.  As a come in clown he entertained the audience as they entered the tent and waited for the show to begin. Rudy also entertained audiences during the intermissions.

From 1952 until 1954 Rudy served in the Army Infantry, 7th Division, 17th Regiment during the Korean War.  After the war, Rudy attended what is now Ferris State University in Big Rapids courtesy of the GI Bill.  He studied business topics, graduating in 1957. He credits his education with helping him greatly to promote himself via advertising and public relations. Rudy loves Ferris. He regularly performs at Ferris, working the crowd.

For about 9 years after college Rudy performed with a number of circuses when they visited MI.  He settled in Reed City in 1960 where he raised his family, which included three children, and sold cars. He also worked with carnivals; including Happyland Carnival was when he was still in high school in 1949, and Skerbecks.
From 1990 to 1993 Rudy hosted the “Fox Kids’ Club Show” at Cadillac-based TV 33 Fox network. The show was broadcast into the U.P. and across Lake Michigan into eastern WI. The show had a peanut gallery where the children sat. Rudy had various guests, such as a local sheriff who talked about bike safety; and games, some of them very similar to those Bozo used on television, including Crazy Old Bucket Ball, the Intertubable Breakables, and Blockonodo among others.  The show was filmed (cut) on Saturdays.  Rudy borrowed the format and many games from Dick Richards (Bozo) with Dick’s permission – as long as Rudy changed the name of the games. Periodically Rudy was a guest on the Bozo show.  Besides hosting the show, Rudy also worked in commission sales at the Fox station during the week.

Today, Rudy spends a lot of his time working in parades and entertaining children at various events. For the last 50 years his parade acts have included suitcases. He has 28 painted suitcases, each with a different routine. Rudy does all the bookings, driving, makeup and walking himself.  He is proud that there is a monument in the park in Manton in his honor and his portrait on the bandshell as well. In 2007 Dynamite the Clown served as the Grand Marshall of the 58th annual Lilac Festival parade on Mackinac Island, a parade he walked in for 25 years.  In 2007 he also served as the Grand Marshall of the Trout Festival Parade in Kalkaska.

Scottville Clown Band

The band formed in 1903 as Scottville Merchant’s Band, composed of local male merchants.  Initially there were no auditions; it was a family oriented group, which dressed as hillbillies and performed at local carnivals. From 1930 to 1932 the band was called the Ladies Band because the men dressed in women’s clothes.   The band ceased during WWII. It was reestablished in 1947 as the “class of ’47.” After 1947 the band decided on the “Scottville Clown Band” as its official name. 

Spouses began marching with the band in the 1990s. The first female director was Margaret “Maggie” Erickson.  Today the band consists of members from MI and out-of-state, with different backgrounds and occupations; but a love of music is common to them all. The band has a bus, the latest in a long series, to help transport them to their various engagements. Not every member attends every event.  The band has been invited to attend numerous events both in- and out-of-state.   One event they chose not to attend was the Rose Bowl in 1968. Student unrest, having to swear that they were not communists, and the request to change their costumes made the band decided to stay home. The band traditionally marches in the Ludington Fourth of July parade but they perform at many MI events. They also performed on the U.S.S. Silversides in Muskegon.

The band has a number of traditions. Since 1903 volunteering has been strongly encouraged among the band’s members.  Strippers within the band began with Clyde Nelson.  The band’s repertoire historically includes Glenn Miller’s arrangement of the St. Louis Blues, Sousa’s  Stars and Stripes Forever, Basin Street Blues, When the Saints Come Marching In, Mississippi Mud and Everything’s Coming up Roses. Newcomers are warmly welcomed and encouraged to memorize the music as quickly as possible.

Money earned by the band supports its scholarship program, established in 1964, to help young musicians study at Blue Lake Fine Arts Academy in Twin Lake.  The band’s board of directors represents its members and makes operational and policy making decisions. The Museum of Music at historic White Pine Village preserves the history of the band. The museum and the Scottville band shell, were built, funded and are maintained by the Scottville Clown Band. In 2003 the Scottville Clown Band celebrated its 100th birthday.

Lion Tamers

“You never can trust a cat.”  Clyde Beatty
“You never can trust a cat...and you are never careless…A trainer’s life depends on how well he knows his animals.”  This was Clyde Beatty’s philosophy as a circus lion tamer and animal trainer. Working with cats is always dangerous for those who break, train, show or “style,” feed and care for the cats. Nobody ever really tames or domesticates cats. Professionals can work with cats, show or style them, train them individually to perform various tricks, but can never tame them completely.

“Lion taming” and “lion tamer” are both misnomers. A more appropriate term is “animal trainer,” which is not the same as an “animal breaker.” A “breaker” does not break an animal’s spirit, but teaches it to tolerate proximity to a human (the breaker), recognize the breaker’s voice and act on commands.  Most breakers can and do train animals.  A breaker needs “exceptional concentration” to focus on the animal and block out extraneous information and sounds. “Trainers,” do not break animals, but work with animals which are already broken.  “Training” is defined here as “… bridging the gap between what you want the animal to do and getting him to do it. It is the language that you use to talk to animals if you want them to do something. An animal is not trained unless it will do basic behaviors regularly and repeatedly without trouble.” 

In the past, performance animals were sometimes cruelly treated.  Kinder treatment and training of animals began in circus history with Carl Hagenbeck. Today’s animal trainers use a system of rewards so the animals will enjoy performing in an act that shows mutual respect for trainer and cats. Among the modern experts advocating positive reward training is Patricia White. Today’s trainers also recognize that each animal is an individual. The types of cats used in circus and show business today usually include jaguars, leopards, tigers, cougars, and lions.

The first major American animal trainer to become an international celebrity was Isaac A. Van Amburgh (1811-1865). He performed with a cage of wild animals in Richmond Hill Theatre, NY, in 1833.  Van Amburgh “represented the complete dominance of man over untamed nature.” This type of demonstration of lion taming remained popular until Clyde Beatty died in 1965. Shortly afterwards, the social attitude of the 1970s changed the audiences’ desire into an expectation of more gentle, European style cat acts.

 Mabel Stark is often recognized as the first major women tiger tamer and trainer, but that honor actually belongs to Rose Flanders Bascom (1880-1915), the first American woman lion tamer who performed in the early 1900s. Rose died of an infection after being clawed by a lion.  However, Mabel Stark is considered the premier woman tiger trainer of the 1920s.

Patricia White-Clare:

Patricia “Pat” White grew up in Clare.  She is the only circus person in her family. In 1973, Pat graduated from Clare High School.  She attended Western Michigan University (WMU) in Kalamazoo. During the school year, Ringling Brothers Circus performed at Reid Fieldhouse at WMU. Pat had always enjoyed animals and performing in theater and had considered becoming a veterinarian, but was concerned about caring for sick and injured animals. As Pat watched Wolfgang Holtzmeir perform with 21 lions in the ring she realized “…there’s the ideal combination of both my interests; I could work with animals and perform.” 

Pat worked at Cedar Point in Sandusky, OH during the summer of 1974 to learn about working with animals.  When the show moved to FL for the winter, Pat did, too, and worked for Jungle Larry [Tetzlaff] at the African Safari. In 3.5 years, Pat learned how to work with and care for chimps, elephants and cats, as well as how to handle other exotic performance animals.

In the summer of 1977 Pat married trainer Roy Wells.  She worked later in1977 for John Cuneo’s Hawthorne Circus Corporation.  The next year, Pat and husband moved to Marineland and Game Farm in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where her husband worked the cat act. In eastern Canada in 1979, Pat worked a mixed act of three tigers, three leopards, a cougar and a jaguar. This was Pat’s first experience in the ring with cats.  Pat and her husband then went to work with Gee Gee Engesser on Cirque International in 1980. Here Roy worked the elephants and Pat the pony drill. Pat realized she loved cats and spent all her spare time with them.

From February 1981 until the beginning of 1992 Pat worked the cat act for Carson and Barnes Circus, a circus she still loves.

At one point Pat was attacked through a cage by a young cat. The incident lasted five seconds, but she needed help to escape and suffered back injuries, a tiger tooth in her arm, lacerations, scars on her stomach, her left nostril was ripped and the doctors thought her lung was punctured. Fortunately everything healed. Pat was “very, very angry” with herself that after thirteen years of working with cats she had let her guard down. She did not take that particular cat home with her.

Pat learned how to work cats as her career continued. She does not recommend this as the safe way to learn about circus cats. Today’s politically correct term for tricks is now “behaviors.”  Pat’s believes each cat is an individual. Some she bonded with quicker than others, some learned a behavior faster than others, some were smarter, some dumber than others; but each has its own personality.

One of Pat’s favorite lions was Rex, with whom she developed a very close bond. As Pat says “It’s a very difficult thing to explain; it goes way beyond a trainer-trainee, teacher-pupil sort of thing; it becomes very spiritual, it really does. Once that begins to happen, there’s no stopping it.” Josip Marcan trained Rex to allow Josip to put his head in Rex’s mouth in the ring. Pat and Rex performed this behavior for ten years, she estimates at least 5,000 times. While this particular behavior was a crowd favorite, it was not what Pat liked to perform.  She “wanted to show the grace and beauty and the agility of the cats.” 

For Pat, teaching a cat a specific behavior begins by an unspoken understanding that the trainer is in charge.  Each group of animals has established a pecking order and she is the top of it.  Pat does not break their spirit, believing that causes a poor working relationship and a defeated animal. Nor does she abuse or behave in a hostile manner towards the animals. There are many variables involved in the training of a cat to perform a behavior; including their temperament, willingness, how they interact with other animals and each particular situation.

Pat found lions easier to work with than tigers, but liked the look of a mixed act consisting of both lions and tigers.  In her career, Pat also worked with three elephants on Carson and Barnes (C&B) Circus.

In 1990, Pat and her son, Nick, moved to Cody, Wyoming, where she worked in an art foundry and sculpted.  In February 1993 she returned to circus work on the Tiger Show and Yano Circus in Japan.  After Japan, Pat joined the Boswell show in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, where she lives.

Clyde Beatty:

Clyde Beatty (1903-1965) is the man whose showmanship and pith helmet epitomized the classic American lion tamer fighting act for most of the twentieth century.   Beatty is also the lion tamer most associated in MI with the history of the Detroit Shrine Circus, with which he started performing in 1926. He performed in Detroit almost every year between his debut in1926 and his last Detroit performance in 1963, and was the major star of the Moslem Circus in Detroit.

Once, in Detroit, Beatty had to recapture an escaped tiger, Gracie.  Beatty started in the hotel basement where the cages were stored to verify how many cats were loose and then walked up to the fifth floor where he found her. He chased Gracie down a hall, into a stairwell, down another hall, and into a bedroom, where she attacked him, and they nearly destroyed the room. After hitting her a few times with padding from a table, Gracie surrendered, ran down the stairs, and into her cage. Beatty later admitted it was “the toughest tilt he’d ever had with any animal.”

Beatty began his circus career cleaning animal cages with the Howe’s Great London and Van Amburgh’s Wild Animal Circus at the age of 18 in 1921.  In 1922 he worked a polar bear act for the Gollmar Bros. Circus. In 1923 he had an act of 14 polar bears and was first listed in the route book.  Also in 1923, Beatty met Peter Taylor, a great cat trainer, to whom Beatty later credited his own showmanship. This was the beginning of 42 continuous seasons of Beatty working as a wild animal trainer.

From 1925 to 1935 Beatty worked for Hagenbeck-Wallace.  He performed with his polar bears and a mixed cat act in 1925.  A large mixed cat act became Beatty’s signature act.  He concentrated on the cat acts in 1926. In 1926 and 1927 he was featured as “America’s youngest and most fearless wild animal trainer.”  Beatty had the largest mixed cat act in history; 28 lions and tigers in 1927, 30 in 1929, and 40 in 1930.

Like Van Amburgh, Beatty demonstrated his dominance over the cats and courage in the ring. A consummate showman, his theatrical presentation made the audience fear for his life during every performance. He entered the steel arena wearing a pith helmet with a whip and pistol. His act was a “fighting act”, in which he constantly “fought” for control over the cats.  Lions, tigers, cougars, and hyenas, sometimes all in one steel cage at the same time, were his act. He was one of the first lion tamers to use a chair in his act, holding it between himself and the cats.  Beatty’s cats went to their positions, formed a pyramid, and sat up. He had a lion which walked on a barrel, a tiger who rolled over, cats who jumped hurdles, and then his “hypnosis act.”  In one favorite routine, Nero, his best large male lion, would knock the chair from his hand and drive him from the arena, from which Beatty would “escape” in the nick of time, slamming the cage door behind him. Pausing to review the situation and wipe his brow, Beatty would then reenter the cage to thunderous applause, and subdue Nero merely by a “hypnotic stare into his eyes.”   The movie “Ring of Fear” starring Beatty is highly recommended if you want to get an idea of what it is like to be in the steel arena with cats.

Beatty was hired by John Ringling North for the 1931 through 1934 seasons and billed as the “sensation of the century, greatest and most daring wild animal act ever presented.”  In 1932 Beatty was attacked by his lion, Nero, and nearly died from a resulting infection. The circus opening date was delayed until Beatty could join the show. 

In 1933, Beatty co-wrote his first book with Edward Anthony, The Big cage. Universal Pictures bought the rights to the book and produced the movie starring Beatty and a young Mickey Rooney.  Between 1933 and 1954 he appeared in ten films.  He appeared on television in the 1960s and co-authored  Facing the big cats; my world of lions and tigers (1965).  In 1937 he was on the cover of Time.

The Cole Bros. World Toured Shows featured Beatty as the star performer, 1934-1938. In 1939 he was the feature act at Hamid’s Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey and in 1940 with Hamid-Morton Circus. Beatty’s own circus, The Clyde Beatty Wild Animal Circus, performed 1941-1942.  Beatty and his first wife, Harriett Evans, operated The Clyde Beatty Jungle Zoo in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1939-1945. He purchased the Wallace Bros. Circus and renamed it the Clyde Beatty Circus in 1945. His circus was very successful initially.  Harriet died in 1950. A year later, Beatty married Jane Abel with whom he had a son, Clyde, Jr.  In 1956 he sold his circus.  Clyde Beatty died of cancer in Ventura, CA, on July 19, 1965.


“You only get to fly if you’re a trapeze artist.” Bill Thomas

A flying return act has at least 2 flyers and a catcher. One flyer is usually with the trapeze to make sure the timing of it moving is correct so the other flyer can properly perform the return.

A flying trapeze act has a at least 3 performers. The flyers perform by standing on a narrow board, usually reached by climbing a tall ladder, or pulling themselves up a long rope.  Each takeoff and trick must be correctly timed and synchronized with the catcher, or someone will get hurt. The catcher signals verbally to the flyer when s/he must leave the platform on a fly bar. After performing a trick, the catcher, on the catch bar, catches the flyer, swinging back to the fly bar, during which another trick may be performed by the flyer. As each flyer safely returns to the board, another takes his or her place to perform. The catch bar is padded and may have prongs or tape on it for the catcher to brace his or her feet. An artist balances on a trapeze that may or may not move in a solo trapeze act.

In a casting act the flyer is thrown by another member of the troupe, on or off a still or moving trapeze.  Casting acts often use a double barred trapeze so the caster can hook his/her feet under the bar in back and his/her knees over the bar in the front. The casting catchers stand face to face with the flier in space between them. At least 3 performers are required for this act.

Bars are a series of three horizontal bars, or Les Barres Fixes, of about the same height mounted on the ground. Bar work is, in some ways, more difficult than trapeze work because a trapeze artist uses the swing of the swinging trapeze to gain momentum which helps in the performance of certain tricks. A barrist “generate[s] his own momentum out of his own muscular strength.” A barrist’s speed must be faster than a trapeze artist to perform certain positions or moves. A barrist constantly hits, curls around, or beats (bounces off) of the bar, like today’s women’s gymnastics parallel bar routines.  

MI trapeze artists and aerialists:

William “Sport Zeno” Hulme:

Aerialist William HulmeA news paper clipping about the passing of circus performer WM. Hulme.The first major MI-native flying trapeze artist was William “Sport Zeno” Hulme (b. Saginaw 1858-Chicago 1933). At age 15 he ran away and joined Wickson’s wagon show (a circus).  He soon joined the “casting” act because he was light in weight, agile, and daring. Hulme, then known professionally as Zeno, formed his own troupe, which practiced in Saginaw.  They successfully toured the U.S. and Europe. Zeno then partnered with Dennis Turk, a famous acrobat, and developed an innovative act in which they leaped from one trapeze to the other and turned somersaults in the air. Hulme completed a full return, the first time performed to the catcher and then back to the trapeze. Zeno and Turk starred in the Barnum Circus for 13 years, and then the Phillis Circus. Their act was known as Sport Zeno’s “Flying through Space,” a horizontal bar and trapeze act.  Turk is credited with executing the first triple somersault in 1905. The first triple is considered a major accomplishment in aerial history. Turk was an outstanding barrist. After a number of giant swings, Turk performed a triple somersault towards and was caught by Sport Zeno.  Turk and Zeno starred in the Phillis Circus which toured Europe and South Africa. Zeno’s troupe was then called Zeno, Carl & Zeno.  Zeno returned to the U.S. and performed as the troupe’s catcher until at least 1920.  About 1920 Zeno borrowed Ray and Buster Thomas to help complete his engagement.   Zeno died in Chicago in 1933 and was buried in Saginaw.

Flying Picards or the Picard Brothers-Saginaw

The misnamed Flying Picards, really bar performers, included brothers Philip, Alex, and Joe Picard and their half-brother, Fred LaChapelle, of Saginaw. They performed at the end of the 19th century. In 1899, the Picard Brothers were featured in the Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Circus with 3 famous Saginaw clowns, Fred Jenks, George Bickel, and Harry Watson.  Another brother, Frank Picard (1889-1963), trained and performed for awhile as an aerialist, but later became a lawyer and judge. He served as a U.S. District Judge in Bay City and Detroit and presided over the Federal Court at Bay City.  Alex’s son, Vince Picard, later continued the barrist tradition.

Flying Harolds-Saginaw

One troupe that the Flying Melzoras trained was the Flying Harolds, composed of  Harold Voise, the leader of the troupe, and his brothers, Jack and George, Jr.  Voise. The Harolds were the Thomas’ next door neighbors in Saginaw.  In 1934 Jack Voise joined the Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Circus as a clown while the Flying Harolds performed in the circus.  In 1937 George debuted with the troupe on the Cole Bros. Circus in Saginaw.  The next year, the troupe performed with the Cole Bros.-Clyde Beatty Circus.  They trained in the Thomas’ barn during the 1920s and 1930s, before they moved to Illinois. 

Flying Wards-Saginaw

The Flying Wards were also trained by the Flying Melzoras. In 1929 the Flying Wards, including Frank Shepard, Wayne Larey and Harold “Toughy” Genders, performed on the Sells-Floto Show.  In the mid-1930s, Larey and Genders regularly performed triple somersaults. Larey was the first the star of  “the Flying Comets,” and by 1936 with Bob Porter as his catcher, regularly performed triple somersaults. Larey’s career ended when he dislocated a shoulder in 1939. 

The Gesmundos-Kalamazoo

The Gesmundos were headed by Serafino “Gus” Gesmundo (1917-1999) who met his love, “Midge” Marian Erway (1919/1920-) of Kalamazoo at Playland Amusement Park in NY.  He was part of a trapeze act from Los Angeles and she was part of Los Aeros, a novelty aerial act based in Allegan.  Midge’s boss hired Gus.  Midge and Gus married in late 1940 but they performed apart in separate troupes in different circuses to fulfill their contractual obligations with their troupes. During World War II Gus joined the army and served in the Philippines and with the Japanese occupation forces. 10 of their 13 children grew to adulthood and 9 live today near Kalamazoo: Joe, Jack, Gail, Gary, Judah, Maria, John Paul, James, Jay, Vicki, and Marymarie.  By 1973 Gus and Midge retired to North Fort Myers, FL.  Gus died in 1999.

Phil Shevette:

Phil Shevette or Chauvette (b. Quebec 1870-Saginaw 1952) A famous barrist who also performed on the flying trapeze,  Shevette was “ famous for…dazzling, whirlwind combinations of passes and spectacular break-aways (fly-aways) with never anything less than doubles.”  He holds two records in the Guinness Book of World Records, one for a triple backwards somersault off a seven foot bar and one for a double somersault from the first to the third bar, performed between 1892 and 1896.  The first to third bar pass was considered an “almost insuperable feat.”  In the late 1890s Shevette performed with Claude Newell, and Phil’s brother, Zenoble Shevette, as the “Orloff Brothers” in Europe and the U.S. in a combination aerial bar, casting act, and a flying return trapeze act. Newell, the catcher, was also a Saginawian.  Between 1892 and 1896 Shevette performed the difficult triple and the double-back passes from the 1st to the 3rd bar.  Newell & Shevette performed the 1st to 3rd bar routine in 1896 at the famous Paris Folies Berger and at Woods’ Gymnasium, NY City, during an 1892 barrist competition.  Shevette performed the triple “fly-away” from the end bar, which was a foot higher than convention standards, which increased his speed.  With Alfred Court, Shevette also performed amazing “combinations of passes and spectacular break-aways (fly-aways) with never anything less than doubles.”   Shevette’s was a star performer, 1900-1920. 

Shevette worked as a flier for the Flying Melzoras in 1916 on the Melzer-DeMott Circus.  Melzer Thomas, Sr. was a partner in the circus.  His son, Melzer “Buster” Thomas, Jr. remembered Shevette as being “graceful”… “like a ballet dancer” during performances, a man with European manners, who loved to play chess, and who befriended Russian nobility during his three years stay in their country.  In retirement, Shevette coached trapeze and bar artists in Saginaw.  Buster Thomas was strongly influenced by Shevette.  Phil Shevette died in 1952 in Saginaw and was buried there.

Flying Melzoras

Melzer Thomas

Melzer Thomas (1884-1951) was the father and founder of the Flying Melzoras. Melzer played baseball for Akron, OH, before he performed an act called the Tumbling Bell Hop on vaudeville, using suitcases, hat boxes, and things people traveled with at train stations. An all around athlete and performer who performed acrobatics, tumbling, flipflops, and hand bell routines, Melzer joined the DaComa troupe, a flying return act, in 1897. The troupe performed opposite the Flying Fishers in the Ringling Brothers Circus. 

By 1904 Melzer married Eliza Jane (1886-1974). He taught Jane all the basic trapeze tricks on a zip bar inside hung in a doorway. They also installed rigging in their yard.  Together, they performed a double trapeze act. All of their sons, Melzer, Junior, called Buster or Bus (1908-1994), Ray (1907-1966), and Bill (1916-), eventually joined the act.

Flying MelzorasThe Thomas family moved to Saginaw where Hulme and Shevette lived. Thomas Melzer formed a flying return act called the Flying Melzoras, and began training his sons and local boys in the flying return act. Ray was in the family act by the age of 7.  The Thomas family built a barn on Webber and Collingwood streets in Saginaw to train flyers.  By 1938 the Thomas family had trained at least 28 men and women for circus careers.

Training was rigorous, 2-11 p.m.  Both Melzer and Jane were demanding.  A mistake could hurt another troupe member so badly they would not be able to perform and endanger the performance, or indeed, the career of the troupe.  Mistakes could lower the overall performance quality, the types and numbers of tricks that could be performed, and audience satisfaction. Therefore both practice and performance was very serious events.

Like other troupes, the Thomas family experimented with various rigging until they found what they needed and then kept it for most of the professional life of the troupe.  Rigging is also adjusted for the height of the performers.  Bill grew to 6’2” and Bus to 6’1” and 230 pounds, the two tallest flyers in the U.S. Most flyers averaged a height of 5’5” inches and 145pounds.  Tricks done by tall trapeze artists look more graceful and difficult than those performed by shorter people. 

Jane and Melzer divorce after 1925. Melzer remarried and started another troupe, the Flying Columbians. He died in 1951 at age 67 and is buried in a Saginaw.

Jane and the boys continued as The Flying Melzoras. They worked at major entertainment sites and major state fairs. Jane became the troupe’s manager and catcher. She was the mom and the enforcer. Jane developed tremendous muscles and used prongs for her feet on the sides of the catchtrap to catch her sons.  The longest performing female catcher in the business, Jane Thomas was inducted into the Saginaw Hall of Fame October 24, 2006.

When Bill was with the act (he left at age 19 in 1935) there was no mandatory schooling or tutors for children in the entertainment business.  Most of his education came from another member of the troupe, Paul Garee.  Paul and his brother, Al, were catchers in the Flying Melzoras, as was their cousin, Roy Deisler.  Buster and Paul Garee worked together for at least 25 years, missing only 3 tricks during performances.

Boys and young men in trapeze troupes sometimes had to dress as girls. It was mandatory for trapeze acts to have two females in order to ensure maximum audience appeal.  Both Bus and Bill felt sorry for the “Jenny” of the day.

The Thomas brothers had no money of their own even though they performed  summers at fairs as a trapeze troupe and winters on vaudeville in a small casting act and a tumbling act.  The Coogan law had not yet gone into effect.  The [Jackie] Coogan Bill of 1939 required “the child’s employer set aside 15% of the child’s earnings in a trust, and codifies such issues as schooling, work hours and time-off.

Bill Thomas:

Bill Thomas (1916-) was considered by his brothers to be “good on the bar. He did a one-arm, double somersault as his specialty.”  At age 19 Bill returned to school, coached football at the UM and Saginaw High School, and became a very successful certified public accountant. He married Beverly B. Seaman in 1940, and has three daughters: Judith, Janet, and Jill. Bill thomas died on July 6, 2010 at age 94.

In 1966 the Flying Melzoras were inducted into the Circus Hall of Fame.

A ring of the Circus Model Builders was named in Jane’s honor.

Bus Thomas:

Bus was always the star flier of the troupe.  His skill was internationally recognized.  By the age of 16 Bus earned the “Flyer’s Crown,” meaning his fellow trapeze artists recognized him as the best of them. In 1934 he perfected the High Drive Backward Somersault Passing Leap. He performed a double somersault to a triple, sometimes up to 75 feet high in the air. Also, Bus performed a two-and-a-half-turn somersault while blindfolded.  Phil Shevette taught Bus the Hawk Double, a move in which the flyer leaps from the trapeze to the catcher’s hands and back doing a backward somersault with split-second timing.  Bus earned a Guinness Book of World Records record for his development and performance of the Majestic Leap, first performed at Latrobe, PA in 1935. The Majestic Leap cemented his place in trapeze history. 

The Majestic Leap was and is still considered a very dangerous, very advanced trick. It has never been performed by another flying trapeze troupe. The leap consisted of three people moving simultaneously, Ann underneath in a birds nest position flying from the catcher to the fly bar and Bus overhead performing a backwards somersault to be caught by the catcher.  The backwards somersault is very dangerous by itself because the performer cannot see exactly where he is going.  The combination of the three elements made the trick extremely difficult.

Bus retired at age 42 in 1950.   In 1962 at age 54 he left retirement with his Ma to help develop a new act and train new fliers. Bus married Carrie Reider in 1960. He died in 1994 and is buried in Saginaw with Jane, Ray, and Ann. 

Ray Thomas:

Circus ClownsRay always performed as the clown in the troupe. He and Ann decided to marry in 1932. Ray got a job at the Chevrolet Tool and Die Operation in Saginaw to earn his own money. His foot was injured, developed gangrene, and was amputated from the knee down. Ray had been an outstanding trapeze artist. This was devastating to the family act.  Herbie Bean of Bay City learned some of Ray’s tricks, wore his clown costume, and performed his gags for a year. Then, a prosthetic limb was purchased, and Ray returned to the air as the only one-legged flying clown trapeze artist in the world. Part of his routine was to spin his fake leg backwards to demonstrate that it really was fake.  In order to do this, a gear was developed for Ray’s fake leg.  He was featured in Ripley’s newspaper feature “Believe it or not” in 1937 as “the wooden legged man on the flying trapeze,” with his signature and a drawing of him in clown costume. Some people in the audience hit Ray’s leg with a cane and others kicked his leg, usually the wrong one. Besides performing, Ray demonstrated how he could run and dance with his prosthetic limb to many World War II war veterans who had lost a leg or two. 

Shortly before the tragic July 6, 1944 Hartford, CT, fire occurred, Ray was working as a clown in the ring with the great Emmett Kelly.  Emmett, dressed and made up as Weary Willie, took a nap in the ring. Then, a clown costumed and made up exactly like Emmett (Ray Thomas) snuck in and performed while Emmett was napping.  There was some debate among Ray and his friends about whether the famous image of Emmett in tramp makeup as Weary Willie with a bucket of water in front of the fire was Emmett or Ray.

From 1950 to 1955, Ray performed with Ann (whom he married in 1933), William Lake and Barry Miller of Saginaw. Ann was hurt in a fall in 1955.  After that Ray soloed with Ringling Brothers until he retired. He died in1966 in Saginaw.  Ann survived Ray for nearly 30 years. They are both buried in Saginaw.

Major Circus Families

Major circus families in Michigan history include: the Lewis Bros. of Jackson; Nelson Family of Mount Clemens; Silver Bros. of Acme and Greenville; Whitney Family of  Imlay City; Wixom Family of Argentine and Bancroft;  Stow(e) family in Berrien Springs; and Skerbeck family of  Escanaba. 

Lewis Bros. - Jackson

The Lewis Bros. Circus operated 1931-1942 and 1945 out of Jackson, MI. The circus was owned by Paul Lewis 1931-1942, and by Paul Lewis and Ray Marsh Brydon in 1945. 

Paul M. Lewis previously owned the Lewis Zimmerman Circus beginning in 1926. By 1931 Paul Lewis had bought out Zimmerman.   Paul Lewis owned the circus until his death in June 1953 and it operated in the eastern and midwestern states until 1945. Since Lewis lived in Jackson, the winter quarters were there.

In May 1931 the Lewis Bros. Circus needed 18 trucks and a railroad baggage car to transport the show’s personnel and equipment. “The big top was a 90-ft. round with two 40’s [40-foot tents]. Most of the equipment for the 1931 show came from the Lewis and Zimmerman Circus. 

In 1934 the three-ring circus had a wild cat act, an elephant act, high school and jumping horses, and a comedy act. The Circus offered a parade for several weeks after it opened, a calliope played by Tommy Comstock of Jackson, a side show and a band. Jim Swafford was the show’s agent.

Lewis Bros. Circus and Trained Animal Show opened on May 4, 1935 at Albion. It needed 24 Chevrolet trucks and 18 semi-trailers to transport the show. The big top sat 3,500.  It had a “big gorilla…[as] a pit show attraction.” and “Buck Owens, cowboy screen star, [had] the concert.”  The Funny Ford closed the show.  Whitey Ford, the Duke of Paducah, also performed with the circus.

In 1936 Lewis Bros. Circus opened in Jackson.  The show’s 27 acts included lions, clowns, acrobats, dogs, iron jaw, horses, perch, ladders, elephant, trapeze, goats, wire act, ponies, horses and the Funny Ford.

The show survived the Great Depression better than most. In 1938 the circus included a 90-foot round big top, three 40-foot tents, a side show-menagerie tent, 60 vehicles including trucks, cars, trailers and semi-trailers for heavy loads. A Hawaiian style opening spec began the show which consisted of 31 acts of lions, acrobats, trained animals and aerial acts, and closed, as usual, with the Funny Ford act.

In 1942 the shows elephant keeper, a dog and two elephants, Tony and Lou or Lew, were killed when a train struck their truck near Canton, OH.  Earlier in his career Lew twice attended Republican presidential inaugurations and welcomed Wendell Wilkie in Jackson when he campaigned for president.

After World War II, the Lewis Bros. Circus was considered a “strong member” of a small group of motorized circuses that existed then.

J. Adrian Rosenburg was Paul Lewis’ brother, treasurer of the company and a lawyer in Jackson, MI.  Rosenburg remembered circus life as tough. On one occasion he remembered it snowed 14 inches after the circus left Springport and before it reached Albion.

Paul Lewis’ wife, Mae, was an “excellent equestrian and animal trainer” of “ponies, horses, goats, sheep, dogs, seals and even pigeons.”  Paul and Mae had a daughter Evelyn Lewis Ross.  Paul Lewis died in Jackson in June 1953. Much of the circus equipment and animals was sold to the Mills Brothers of Jefferson, OH. 

Mat Wixom’s Great Show – Argentine and Bancroft

“the only thing worth…living for in that God forsaken country [Alcona County] [is] the annual return of the Wixom Show.”

Martin Van Buren “Mat” Wixom (b. 1843 in Farmington) was the son of Dr. Isaac Wixom, an early, eminent physician of Oakland and Genesee counties who lived and worked mostly in the Farmington, Argentine and Fenton area.  Mat was never listed as a showman or entertainer in the census. In 1870 Mat, age 27, was a merchant tailor in Holly, with his wife, Celia A. Wixom, age 25, and their children: Frank I. Wixom, age 6; Russell P., age 2; and daughter Almeria Wixom, age 1 month. All of Mat’s children were born in MI. In 1880 Mat, 37, was a lawyer. His family included Celia, and their children: Franklin, age 16; Russell age 12; Ernest age 8 (b. 1872); Martin V. B., Jr., “Mat”, age 3(b. 1877); and Celia’s mother. They lived in Argentine. Almeria had died. Mat also practiced law in Bancroft.

In the spring of 1874 Mat the tailor/lawyer organized a circus. Why? As a child, he had painted a white mare with black stripes and charged people to see the “zebra.” He never forgot the experience. Mat went broke by the end of his first circus season. Undeterred, he organized Mat Wixom’s Great Show the second season; which he operated through the 1897 season. The circus continued with Mat’s sons Ernie and Van managing the circus from 1898 through 1907, but “Mat Wixom was the main cog in the circus wheel, he continued to act as attorney, manager emeritus and all around Boss.”  

WixomIn 1900 Mat Wixom, age 57, was a lawyer in Bancroft with his wife Anna C.[elia] Wixom, age 55. Ernest, age 28; his wife, Katie, age 22; and Martin V. B. “Mat” Wixom, age 25, lived with them. Ernest and Mat were showmen.  “Mat”, the father of the family, died in 1907. Celia died between 1920 and 1925.

The family enterprise had various names, functions and modes of transportation over the years.  1874 it was called the Wixom Bros. Palace Show and Congress of Stars.  In 1881; Mat Wixom’s Augusta Mines Minstrels-minstrel show-wagons.  1882-1893 saw the tour of Mat Wixom’s Great Show-circus-wagons. In 1886; Mat Wixom’s Pavilion Show. In 1889; Wixom & Bentley. In 1893; Mat Wixom’s Great Railroad Show-circus with 3 railroad cars. 1894-1895 did not go on road. In 1895 they bought out Nelson Family Circus and put it on road in 1896. In 1896; Mat Wixom’s Great Show-circus-wagons. In 1897; The Mat Wixom Dog & Pony Show-dog & pony show-wagons. In 1898-1901; Wixom Brothers Great Show-circus-3 railroad cars. In 1902-1904; Wixom Brothers Great Show-circus-wagons. In 1905-1907; Wixom Brothers Great Shows-carnival-railroad. In 1908 the Wixom Brothers Dog & Pony Circus-played at Electric Park in Detroit all season.  Stock was sold to Otis L. Smith of Otis L. Smith Carnival Co. in the winter of 1908-1909.

In the spring of 1886 Mat Wixom’s Pavilion Show opened at Bancroft. The staff included: M.V. B. [Mat] as proprietor and manger; R.[probably Robert] P. Wixom, treasurer; F. I. [Frank I.] Wixom, Gen. Manager in advance; J.A. Bramble, agent; Allie Harrington, chief of the Past brigade; Uncle Peter, master of horses; Tom Deo, master of canvas. The performers were Fannie Moore, trapeze artist, and Eddie and Bert McArthur, called Eddie & Bert McCarthy. Eddie was a contortionist. The show had 16 horses and 12 mules. The mules also pulled the Band Chariot without reins. The show performed throughout MI. 

Otto Deming kept an interesting daily notebook of the Wixom Bros. Great Railroad Show for the 1900 season.  He ranked each day’s business as    “G.B.=good business, F.B.=fair business, P.B.=poor business.”  On May 20th he noted “Deckerville Saloon open on Sunday.” On May 25th he wrote, probably happily, “Pigeon. ...Germans. Free Beer, Date, Dance, Hot time. G.B.”  On May 26 he wrote, probably despairingly, “Fairgrove, P.B., Dry town.”  On August 2nd he noted “Constantine. F.B. Loaded in 35 min.” That must have been a record. On August 20th “Shepard.[sic Shepherd] Blowdown.”

An interesting event happened in 1905 in Kalkaska. The Wixom carnival employed that year “Professor Lee Demorest a high diver of considerable fame at that time.” The morning after the performance a dead man was found on the bottom of the water tank. It was believed he drank himself into a stupor at a local saloon but whether he dove or fell in nobody know.

Mat’s sons:

#1 Frank I. Wixom (1864-1943) received a magic set from his father; which Frank used to give shows from a wagon. He bought a couple of wagons into which he put some musicians and called it the Augusta Mines Minstrels. The show grew to nine cages of animals and 110 people, mostly athletes. In 1874 Frank’s father, Mat, bought a circus and called it the Wixom Bros. Palace Show and Congress of Stars.  Frank and Mat combined their shows. Frank served as canvas bossman for Matt’s circus.  Frank sold his property for $25,000 after the 1897 season ended. He then went into the cigar manufacturing business in Bancroft. In 1900 Frank, age 37, lived in Bancroft with his wife, Ida M. Wixom, and their son, Clyde D. Wixom, age 10.  In 1930 Frank, a widower, was president of the Wolverine Power Co., powered by the Tittabawassee River, on which he lived.  Clyde’s collection of Wixom Circus Papers and his meticulously researched family history notes are at the Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford.

#2 Russell P. Wixom (1868-after 1900) a physician lived in Bancroft.

#3 Ernest Wixom (1872-after 1925) played the alto or tenor saxhorn in the 1887 Mat Wixom Circus band. In 1920 Ernest and his wife, Kate, lived with both their mothers, and Ernest was a painter. By 1925 Ernie owned the family home and winter quarters in Bancroft, so his mother died between 1920 and 1925.

#4 Van B. Wixom (b.1876-after 1912).  Van loved to work the candy stand operated by “candy butchers,” who sold candy, peanuts, popcorn, lemonade, crackerjack and taffy candy. This leads to the Taffy in the Cemetery story.  At one time the circus was in Mecosta next to a cemetery. Van made candy and a marble slab he used to cool the taffy on was broken. He chose a tombstone, cleaned it well and used it. Unfortunately for Van, his father, Mat, walked by and both the tombstone and taffy had to go. Van was punished.  Later in life Van worked for as a candy salesman. Van, like his father and brothers, worked all the circus jobs: “ticket seller, ticket taker, hostler, canvasman, stake driver, property man, rigger, lay out man, chandelier man” (this is in the era of gas lamps or torches) “announcer, musician, end man in the black face concert minstrels, animal trainer (in which job he was exceptionally adept), fixer, ringmaster, arenic director, and co-owner with his father and brothers.” As an “end man” in blackface musical, Van delivered the punch line.  Van could “keep perfect sequence with… stake drivers.”  He played the snare drum and the glockenspiel in the Wixom’s bands.  From 1898 to 1907 he and Ernest operated the show. When the circus was sold, Van went with Otis’ show for three years to work the stock and acted as manager.  Van died of cancer. 

Whitney Family – Imlay City

Whitney circus was founded by George L. Whitney (1833-1889), who was born in NH. As a teen he toured with a minstrel, or musical, troupe. From 1852, when George married teacher Nellie E. Packard, until 1861 they toured with the troupe consisting of themselves, their son, Charles (1853-1934), and a few others on the east coast. Like many shows, they traveled as a wagon show in summer and in the winter they performed in theaters and halls.

Whitney CircusIn 1867 the troupe disbanded. In 1872 the Whitneys formed a new company including David S. Helmar, Dutch comedian, and Calvin M. Gillette.  E. B. Whitney died in 1872. They left Boston in the spring of 1877 for the Midwest, probably due to the economic depression and competition.  By fall 1877 they arrived in OH.  George Whitney leased a hotel with large barns near Imlay City, MI the next year.  He later bought the property. For the next 25 years this was both the home and winter quarters for the Whitneys.

The show developed from a minstrel, or musical, show – with everyone playing instruments, singing, and performing comedy, some in blackface – into a circus. Acrobats, animals and a side show were slowly added over time. The show rotated its route by performing one year in MI, and the next in MI, OH, and IN.  The show’s title changed over the years reflecting their change from minstrelsy, which was featured until 1887, and concerts, featured from 1878 to 1894, to circus.  In 1878 it was Whitney Family’s World Entertainment during the summer and Whitney’s Concert Company in the winter.  In 1882 it was The Original Whitney Family Combination.  1884 was The Original Whitney Family, Combined with Locke and Long’s Acrobatic Troupe.  Whitney Family Three in One.  1887 was Whitney’s Circus and Museum. “Museum” here means a sideshow.  In 1888 it was known as Whitney’s New Enterprise Circus and Museum. 1892 was Whitney’s New Imperial Shows.  1896 was called Whitney’s Concert Company.  In 1897-1898 they were called Whitney’s Acrobatic and Specialty Company. 1899-1903 was Whitney’s Big One-Ring Show.

In 1882 the show included 32 wagons and 64 horses. Every man helped put up and take down tents. No drinking or staying out was allowed. The wagons moved out at 8 a.m. 2-3,000 could be seated in the show’s big tent. The band was led by Otis “Floyd” Whitney.  The band was very good and played from memory, as there was no sheet music. The band played for an hour daily to attract attendees for the circus and for an hour before the two-hour long show began at 8pm. Wm. Fairweather and George L. Whitney both sang, sometimes in blackface made from burnt cork.  The stage was set up on a long wagon. Acrobatic, trapeze, and rope-walking acts performed in front of the stage on the ground. The show began with a band, some in black face playing and making funny responses to a man who asked questions. When the band started up, a boy pulled clothes out of a box and Fred Locke jumped out. That was considered good entertainment by an unsophisticated audience at the time. Songbooks were sold to supplement the circus’ income.

1889 George L. Whitney died. Following his death his wife, Nellie E. Whitney, and later his son, Charles, managed the circus.  Charles Whitney’s children were the first family members to perform actual circus acts. Prior to their performances other circus performers were hired to fill the ranks.  Charles’ daughter Josie Whitney (1874-) performed trapeze and acrobatics. In 1890 when the tent caught on fire, Josie cut the curtain ropes to contain the fire. The next night the performance was given outdoors until a new tent could be procured.  Charles’ son Leon Packard (1878-) performed a comedy acrobat aerial ladder act. Charles also had a daughter Lula “Lou” L. Whitney (1882-) who performed.  Trained dogs, ponies and mules were part of the Whitney show, but the show never had elephants or an equestrian act.

From 1887 to 1894 the Whitney show was at its peak, with both a menagerie and a street parade. The show employed about 100 people and had about 30 wagons. “The big top being a 110-foot round top with a 40-foot middle piece.”

With larger circuses cutting into their route, the Whitney closed at the end of the 1903 season.  In 1921 both Mrs. George L. (Nellie) and Mrs. Charles A. Whitney died.  Charles Whitney died in 1934, Josie, his daughter in 1896. In 1951, Leon lived in CA and Lou (Mrs. Lou Whitney Weber) in Wyandotte, MI. 

Silver Family – Grand Traverse County

Like the Whitneys, the Silvers began as more of a musical act than a circus.  Richard Silver (b. about 1830 in VT) and his brother, Jim, played violin and banjo with L. B. Lentz and his circus.

Richard Silver and his wife,  Eliza, had five sons: Charles E. “Bert” (b. 1861  NY), George L. (b. 1863 NY), James F. (b. 1867 WI), Harry (b. about 1874 MI), and Glen (b. 1876 MI). By 1880 they moved from WI to Whitewater, Grand Traverse County, MI. In 1880, Richard farmed. Charles, age 19, and Glen, age 4, were at home. George worked at a saw mill and James and Harry attended school.

Between 1880 and 1895, Richard Silver organized a musical group “Original Swiss Bell-Ringers” and the boys joined it. In 1895 Glenn Silver became the advance man for the family’s one-ring circus. It had “15 wagons, 45 people and 40 horses.”  They played many small MI and WI towns. The tent canvas was purchased in Traverse City by Bert Silver.  His mother, Eliza Silver, and Bert’s wife sewed the canvas into a tent. The first tent was a “60-foot round-top affair with 20-foot canopies, seating about 600.” The circus had various titles: the Silver Brothers Tent Show, the Silver Family Solo Band & Orchestra and G. Lote Silver’s New York Minstrel Show.  The family provided “clean, entertaining and meritorious performances.” The circus sold in 1905 for $2,500.  So, the circus only operated for about 10 years.  In 1900 Richard was listed on the census as a musician; Harry, Glen, and Charles as showmen. They all lived in Acme.

After the circus was sold, three members of the circus bought movie theaters which were very popular at the time.  “G. Lote…took over the Traverse City Dreamland in 1909. Harry bought the Cadillac Dreamland Theater…, and Bert began the Silver Theater in Greenville.”

In 1910 Harry F. Silver lived in Boyne City, MI and managed an opera house. His World War I Draft Registration Card in 1918 lists him as self-employed at his theater.

While the family circus toured MI and WI, Charles “Bert” Silver formed a band with his children which toured southern MI.  In the 1920s and 1930s Bert and his family lived in Greenville, MI and he owned a theater.  In 1920 his daughters, Laura and Ruby, were theater musicians; and his son, Richard, was a theater operator.  Burt was considered a prominent businessman in Greenville.

Glen Silver briefly owned the Merrill Theater about 1920. In 1925 he briefly owned the Linden Theater. Later, he leased the Mack Theater in Detroit. With the lease he operated a portable movie show; with which he traveled around MI. Between 1928 and 1930 he operated theaters in Elk Rapids and Kalkaska.  By 1954 he retired to Bellaire, MI.

George and James Silver left show business. In 1930 George S. Silver worked as a millwright in a NY (State) sawmill. James Silver and his wife lived in Jackson, MI in 1910, where he worked as a stock keeper for a carriage factory. By 1930 James was widowed and lived in Flint. 

Hannefords - Detroit Shrine Circus

The Hannefords were originally from England.  By 1807 the family toured as a troupe. By 1903 they had their own circus; The Hanneford Royal Canadian Circus. John Ringling saw the family perform in Spain in 1915 and bought their whole circus in order to get them to perform in the U.S.  The family then consisted of George, Sr. (1895-1972) and his wife, Catherine (1892-1985), Edwin who was nicknamed “Poodles” (1891-1967), George, Grace and Elizabeth “Lizzie”. Of these Hannefords, Poodles was enshrined in the International Circus Hall of Fame in 1968, George, Sr. in 1977 and Catherine in 1990.

Poodles (1891-1967) is considered to be the greatest trick horse rider of all time. Since Philip Astley, nobody else expanded the art form more than Poodles. Poodles developed an unduplicated “step off” from the side of the horse, and was the first performer to somersault from the back of one running horse to another running horse in the ring. He held a Guinness Book of World Records record for performing a running leap onto a horse at full gallop and then stepping off again; repeating this 26 times in a row.  Besides performing in circuses, and developing his art form, Poodles was featured in more than 40 short films. In 1954 he retired.

Poodles’ nephew, George, Sr.’s son, Tommy Hanneford (September 27, 1927-December 5, 2005)  was recognized as a circus performer in 1933 at the age of five when he performed as the “Riding Fool,” a clown, of the Hanneford Riding Act, George Sr.’s act. Tommy was later known as “The Funniest Man on Horseback” for his comic equestrian performance. He performed from the late 1930s through the 1960s except for a period during which he served in the U. S. Army beginning in 1946. Besides his circus performances he appeared on television shows, in motion pictures, and most major Shrine Circuses in the U.S.  Tommy began producing circuses in 1965, among them ‘The Royal Hanneford Circus’ which is considered an outstanding example of an American circus, and numerous Shrine circuses.  He also staged circuses, directed circus-type productions, and served as a technical adviser for TV productions.  Tommy said… “there is no life without the circus, circus is my life!” Tommy’s wife, Struppi, was an outstanding circus performer who mastered trapeze, high wire, and training tigers. Together Tommy and Struppi produced circuses. Struppi was inducted into the “Ring of Fame” on the famed St. Armand’s circle in Sarasota, Florida, on January 22, 2005. Tommy was inducted into the International Circus Hall of Fame on July 19, 2008. 

The Nelson Family – Mount Clemens

Robert Nelson, Sr. was born in London, England in 1840. He formed an acrobatic troupe, which performed in Great Britain and sailed to the U.S. in 1866.  He married Miss Emma Smart.  The troupe later toured Cuba and then disbanded.

Robert and his two young sons, Robert, Jr. and Arthur, then performed as a Risley Act. A Risley Act is where one person on their back, against a support, balances and rolls with their feet other people performing acrobatic stunts. Several people can be in the bottom position and several people flying from one set of feet to the other performing acrobatic maneuvers.  The troupe maintained an excellent reputation for their routine of “Risley, shoulder work, and ground tumbling.”  They toured Europe several times, as well as India, and performed with a number of major circuses including Dan Rice Circus, 1871-1875, and P.T. Barnum’s Circus, 1880-1882.    In India in 1884 Robert Nelson, Jr. married Miss Adele Burt, an equestrian and steeple-chase rider. In 1885 the Nelsons were a special feature with Thatcher, Primrose and West’s Minstrels. They “opened at the Detroit Opera House in 1885.”  They again toured Europe and performed with: Orrin Bros. 1885; Reilly and Wood’s Combination, 1886; Ringling Bros. 1895-1896; and the Great Wallace Shows, 1897-1901. In late 1896 Arthur Nelson married Miss Sarah Warren.  After forming a tightwire act they joined the Nelson Family acrobats.

The Nelson Family then consisted of: Robert Nelson, Sr. and Jr., Alice and Elizabeth Welch (cousins of Mrs. Robert Nelson, Jr.); Robert Jr.’s sons Arthur and Artie, and daughter Adele; Sid Buttons, an apprentice; and Bill “Willie” Welch (another cousin of Robert Jr.). “The act included all of the tricks known to high class acrobatics, including wonderful Risley work, ground and lofty tumbling, and perfected the four high lean (“the four high lean” means four people on top of each other balancing as the unit leans at or near a 45-degree angle) as well as the finest known feats of shoulder to shoulder work.”  Mrs. Sarah Nelson, Mrs. Adele Nelson, and Arthur Nelson also performed separate acts.

The Nelsons performed with: Ringling, 1902-1903; Walter L. Main Circus, 1904; Hagenbeck-Wallace, 1907; and Sells-Floto, 1909-1910.

Original family members in the troupe then began to retire, marry or die.  Mr. and Mrs. Robert Nelson, Sr. retired to Mount Clemens, MI, where they had owned a home since 1889.  Robert Nelson, Sr. owned a theater, the Nelson Opera House, and the family owned the Arlington Hotel in Mount Clemens.  Robert Nelson, Sr. died in 1916 and his wife in 1925. Robert Nelson, Jr. died in July 1914 and his wife, Adele, in 1912.  Robert Jr.’s son, Artie, later died of pneumonia. Robert Nelson, Jr.’s daughter, Adele Nelson, a multi-talented performer, married elephant trainer Lewis Reed. Alice and Elizabeth Welch both married and worked on vaudeville.

Arthur Nelson then became the head of the Nelson Family. With his wife, Sarah, he had six daughters and a son: Rosina, Oneida, Theol, Estrella, Hilda, Carmencita and Paul. All the children, except Rosina, were born in Mount Clemens and all of them were educated in Mount Clemens.  The Arthur Nelson family resided in Mount Clemens when not engaged in circus work.

The Nelson Family worked for: Hagenbeck-Wallace, 1911-1912; John Robinson’s Circus, 1914-1916, 1919-1920; and Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey (RB-BB), 1923-1926.  In 1923 RB-BB created five different special lithographs of the Nelsons; one featured Oneida, Rosina and Hilda on their wire act, another featured Theol.  They worked for Sparks Circus, 1929-1931; Sells-Floto Circus, 1932; and Cole Bros.-Clyde Beatty Circus, 1935.

Arthur and Sarah retired after 1935 to Mount Clemens. Arthur died in 1941in Mount Clemens at the age of 75. Sarah survived him into the 1950s.

Estrella married circus owner Zach Terrell in 1935. Carmencita died in 1934 and Oneida in 1937.  Paul Nelson held various positions in circus work related to horses, 1938-1949, with Cole Circus and with Mills Bros. from 1951 until he retired.  Hilda Nelson married Noyelles Burkhart, manager of the Cole Show, in 1944. Theol married Ray Marlowe and was on RB-BB for many seasons.  Rosina married Dr. G. A. Brown, a Detroit dentist, and after his death resided in Mount Clemens.

On January 6, 1969 the Nelson Family was elected to the Circus Hall of Fame.

Shrine Circus

The Shrine Circus began as a way for the Detroit’s Moslem to increase funds and membership with a “mid-winter carnival and circuses.” The Moslem Temple was the first temple to produce and present a circus. Dr. Russell G. Pearce was the Temple’s new fund raiser. He organized the Detroit Wheelman’s Club’s annual vaudeville shows. Pearce knew a lot of performers from his vaudeville connections. Most circus performers then wintered in the Midwest or Northeast and needed winter work.

On February 1906, a Monday night, the circus, called the Mystic Shriners’ Yankee Circus in Egypt, performed at the Light Guard Armory on the northwest corner of Larned and Brush in Detroit.  It was a one-ring circus with carnival games.

The Detroit Free Press described the circus as having everything “from peanuts to baby elephant, to side show to “Grand” concert, nothing was lacking to make the circus a complete success…horses, dogs, and a trained bear.” Exhibits included canary birds for sale, Clarke’s wireless telegraph system and an electrical exhibit. Games available were a miniature bowling alley, ball throws at a wooden or live man and wheels of fortune. There were “booths for the sale of refreshments.” Acts included clowns who were Shriners, the Hobson equestrian acts, the Five Flying Decomas, aerialists, acrobats and Professor Schepp’s Ponies. There was a concert with singers, dancing, costumes, magic and minstrels. 3,000 people attended. It was an overwhelming success: performers had off-season work, temple membership rose and money filled the coffers.

To accommodate the crowds the circus moved to the Coliseum at the Michigan state fairgrounds in 1925 and expanded to three rings. Carnival games were dropped.

The Shrine Circus in Detroit was very strong for many years. It drew more paying customers than Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey. “It was not uncommon to have an operating profit of $50,000.”  The Detroit temple “was also the first to develop a satellite program,” or a smaller group of circus performers traveling to local communities and performing as an off-shoot of the main circus. The Detroit Shrine Circus also had an outstanding reputation and people supported it and its hospitals for crippled children by attending the circus.  The idea of funding hospitals for crippled children was a 1920 decision by the Shrine Imperial Session after the Grand Master issued an edict that forbade Masons from participating in anything with gambling and games of chance.

Noting the success of the Moslem Temple, other temples soon began to produce their own Shrine circuses. The circuses provided a major means of support for top quality circus performers and great entertainment in an age with few options. Some of the top circus stars of their era, or up-and-coming stars, worked on the Shrine Circuses; including Clyde Beatty, Micky King, Ella Bradna, Lillian Leitzel, the Flying Codonas with the great Alfredo Codona, Terrell Jacobs and The Great Wallendas.

Traditionally, “the first Shrine Circus of each year opens in Flint, Michigan, in early January. From then through Thanksgiving, there is at least one Shrine Circus playing every week” somewhere in the U.S. Some of the circuses are indoors, others in tents. They may last 1-3 days and have 1-5 rings. In 1985 at least 200 Shrine circuses were held to raise money for Shrine programs. 

The Detroit Shrine circus was held from 1925 to 1978 the same two weeks of February annually.  It also had Shriners who had been involved for decades, working up to the leadership positions, who knew what they were doing. In 1978 the long standing Shrine Circus producer died. After this, each year there were different, new, inexperienced Shrine circus officers in charge of the circus. The lack of continuity, experience and historical knowledge led to decisions which hurt the Detroit Shrine Circus. While profitable in 2001, the circus took a $750,000 loss in 2002.  In 2008 and 2009 circus producer Tarzan Zerbini agreed to institute some changes in the circus’ format for the Moslem Temple, if he retained full control of the finances. In 2008 the show made money. 

Today, Shrine Circuses seem to be an endangered species of entertainment. The Shrine Circuses are fewer, shorter in length, and often smaller than in the past. Attendance is down to less than 50% of capacity. Costs have risen and membership and profits have declined. Audiences want faster, shorter events. Shrine Circuses may continue, and even be profitable, if they retain consistency in their officers and adapt themselves to the needs of the audience.


Circus History:

Skerbecks FamilyFrank Skerbeck, Sr. (1847-1921)’s father traded a linen factory for a small circus about 1857 in what is now Czechoslovakia. The Skerbeck Circus toured Europe 1871-1876.  Eventually the circus went broke.

Frank’s son, Frank, Jr., learned trapeze skills and how to swallow a sword. In 1880 Frank, Jr. sailed to America and bought a “grape farm” near Dorchester, WI.  It was really a forest. Grape farming was not going to work. Frank built a house and a large training barn there.

Frank Skerbeck (1847-1921) and Mary Dillie Skerbeck (1849-1931) had 16 children. Of these, 9 lived to adulthood and all were show people, Antonette (1870-1949); Anna (1871-1954); Joe (1871-1954), Antone (1875-1900), Gustav (1876-1957), Clara (1878-1958), Amanda “Mandy” (1882-1967), Pearl (1890-1967), and Frank (1891-1973).

A family tradition is that Frank Skerbeck “persuaded Al Ringling to start a canvas show.”  Another tradition is that “Frank sold Al his first circus tent.”

The first U.S. Skerbeck circus was in 1884.  Frank performed as an acrobat and sword swallower, Antonette as an acrobat and gymnast, and Joe and Gustave performed tumbling and trapeze acts. They performed in northern WI and the U.P., Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Chicago. Some of the family stayed on the farm.

The family joined Furgeson and Williams Circus of Appleton, WI, in 1885. A partnership between the Skerbecks and Ephraim Williams began then and lasted until 1893. Eph Williams (1860-early 1930s) was an African-American from Milwaukee, WI. He developed a “mathematical genius” horse and dogs act. In the history of circus, most owners were white.  In 1884 Eph and Del Fergus had the Ferguson & Williams Monster Shows.  Eph and the Skerbecks had the same territory.  The first show of Ferguson & Williams Skerbecks joined in 1885 went broke before July in Sioux City, IA.  Frank then organized his own circus later that month.

1884-1911 the family sometimes operated its own circus and sometimes performed with others.  Sometimes they performed an Uncle Tom’s Cabin Show, or as a Wild West. Sometimes they worked with carnivals. They were respected for their performance skills. Their usual route was WI and MI, which they sometimes traveled by ferry boat. They also traveled in the west, midwest, and south. Some interesting notes of their circus life are:

In 1889 in Tomahawk, WI, Joe accidentally shot himself in the hand. The bullet remained in his hand, hurting him, for the rest of his life. Surgery would have required him leaving the circus, so that was not an option. Family acts signed contracts with a specific number of members. If one disappeared or was unable to perform, the family did not get paid because they had failed to fulfill their contract.  After being shot, Joe continued with his acts that day. This included “carrying a balancing pole… slack wire…single trapeze, tumbling, and pyramid act,, [and]… clown acts.”  Joe never told his parents.

In 1892 Joe fell from the highwire at Grand Marais and was hurt for 9 weeks. This was tough on his brothers in the acts they performed with Joe, riding and tumbling.  

The Skerbecks worked at the 1893 World’s Fair on the Midway.

In 1897-1898 Frank Skerbeck, Jr. toured with a merry-go-round.  While some Skerbeck family members worked for other carnivals, the family did not become owners/operators of carnivals until about 1914.

In 1901 the Skerbeck’s Great One Ring Railroad Show had a tent blowdown.  Antone died in the ring performing his “knock-about clown act” of a heart attack at age 23. He was carried out as part of the act. They could not stop because the show was their main source of income. They also lost a trick pony and a member of the circus, Col. Phil. Coup, was shot.

In 1902 Mrs. Frank Skerbeck, 8 performers, and 5 band members were delayed by a boat at Green Bay and missed the opening at Manistee.

In 1903 a cyclone blew down their circus tent down injuring about 20 people, 2 were seriously injured.

In a rainy season forced the family to mortgage their home and sell the circus. 

Carnival History:

Joe Skerbeck switched to carnival in 1912. This carnival still operates today as Skerbeck Brothers Shows, Inc.  Mandy Skerbeck and her husband, A. Kaarup, also began a carnival. Her father, Frank, Jr., operated a merry-go-round on her carnival and died in 1921 on the midway. The Kaarup’s Shows were sold in 1947 to Dusty Rhoads.  Pearl Skerbeck and her husband, H. Weydt, started a carnival in the early 1920s. After her husband died, Pearl operated the show with Doyle “Doc” O’Kelly until she sold it in 1966. Her show became A & P Enterprise Show, owned by Art and Phillys Kedrowicz.

Joe Skerbeck (1871-1954) married a distant relative Miss Ida Skerbeck (her maiden name) in 1902. They had three children: Pauline (1906-), Violet (1912-1973), and Eugene (1918-1969). Joe and Ida operated a carnival in WI and the U.P., 1920s-1930s. Violet, Joe’s daughter, married G. Greaser, and they operated a ride with her folks’ show and later their own show in WI, 1950-1955.

In the 1930s, Art Kedrowicz’s parents, Emil and Tecla Kedrowicz, demonstrated their mechanical saw mill with the Skerbeck carnivals. Mechanical and inventive demonstrations were big hits on carnival lots. In 1945, their daughter, Arlene, married Joe’s son, Eugene. Emil and Tecla had 6 children in the business. Pauline and Eugene bought their parents, Joe and Ida’s, show in 1951. By 1956 the show’s route was all in MI.

Eugene and Arlene had 4 children: Joe (1947-), Catherine “Candy” (1949-), Mary (1954-), and William “Bill” (1956-). When Eugene died suddenly in 1969, his son, Joe left college to manage the carnival for his mother, Arlene, and Aunt Pauline. Arlene later married Robert Altenburg and they booked their 3-A Show rides with Joe Skerbeck’s Skerbeck Shows for several years. Joe and his brother, Bill, united as partners in1975 and renamed the show Skerbeck Brothers Shows, Inc. Two years later they added 3-A Shows stock to their shows. They still operate the very successful, classy, friendly carnival today. Bill operates one unit and Joe the other. Their children and grandchildren are learning the business.   Candy Skerbeck and her husband, T. Koleff, operated concessions in the 1960s. Mary Skerbeck owns and operates “Mary’s Munchies” on the Skerbeck Brothers Shows.

Wades and Carnivals

Circus versus carnival

Both circus and carnivals have a midway, food and drink, and they may have performers (human and animal), tents, and sideshows.

If you ask circus performers to describe themselves, they will say they are artists. At a circus you sit down and are entertained by performers to a paced, historically organized performance performed in a ring, set to music.  A circus must have “a clown, a horse, a ring.”

If you ask carnival owners to describe themselves they will say they are business owners. At a carnival you select what you want to do to have fun: ride a ride, win a game, eat and drink carnival food, or enjoy a sideshow. A carnival has rides, food and drink, games of chance, and a sideshow. When we think carnival, we see the ferris or Eli wheel against the skyline.

Carnivals in MI

Kiddie RideFrank Bostock brought the first carnival to the U.S in 1894. The first carnival in MI was the Pilbeam Amusement Co., owned by Frank E. Pilbeam, and his brother, Harry, 1903-1938. There have been many carnivals in MI over the years some of which lasted and others which existed for a year.

Past shows include: A. J. Carl Shows, Hastings; Carlson Shows, Manistee, Cavalcade of Amusements; Crown Amusements; Ingalls Amusements, Melville; Happyland Shows, Detroit; J. J. Frederick, Centerville; King’s United Shows; Lee United Shows; Midwest Attractions; Midwest Shows, Jackson; Motor City Shows, Detroit; Motor State Shows; Northwestern Shows; Zeidman & Pollie Shows and related shows, Grand Rapids; Seahl’s [Great] Northern Shows, Gaylord; Skerbeck Bros Shows, Inc. and related shows; [James E.] Strates Shows; Tri-State Shows, Detroit; Wade Shows and related shows; Whitey’s Amusements, Flint; Wilber’s Wolverine Shows; World of Pleasure Shows. 

Wade Shows spawned many of the 14 carnivals operating in MI today as many people worked for and/or with the Wade Shows. 

W. G. Wade Shows

Wade Carnival CorrespondenceDuring the last half of the 20th century Wade Shows was the major carnival in MI, and usually played the Michigan State Fair.

Lee Wade:

Leander Wade (1859-1946) was the son of John and Jane Wade, both Irish immigrants who came to the U.S. by 1850 and married about 1852. They had six children:  Alice, Mary E., Harriet, Leander “Lee”, Charles, and Nelly. Between 1870 and 1880 John died. By 1880 Jane married Issel Barber, a farmer, and they lived in Ogden.  Leander, then 21, farmed.

By 1900 Lee Wade married Hatti, and they lived in Madison Township, Lenawee County. They had five children, all of whom later were in the carnival business: Hazel B. (1884-); Lelia M. (1886-); Wallace G. (1889-); Roscoe T. (1892 or 1893?); and Ernest L., (1898-).  By 1910 Lee was a retired farmer living with his wife Adrian. With them lived their sons: [Wallace G.] Glenn, Roscoe, and Ernest.

In 1912 Lee and his sons formed the Imperial Shows. He remained with the show until 1938, when its title changed to Joyland Midway Attractions. In the 1920 census Lee, age 60, was listed as “partner, traveling carousel.”  In the Adrian directory of 1934 he was listed as a concessionaire.  In the 1936 and 1938 Adrian directories he was listed as a showman. Lee died at the age of 87 in 1946. 

Hazel B. Wade:

Lee’s eldest daughter, Hazel married Allen P. Crane and they lived in Adrian. Allen was a “manager, traveling carnival” and operated Crane Shows.  In 1946 Hazel was a corn game operator with the W. G. Wade Shows. 

Leila M. Wade:

Leila M. Wade (b. 1886) was Lee’s second daughter.  She married Edgar C. “Clay” May and they had a carnival called Wade and May Show by at least 1917.  In the 1920 census he was listed as a “Showman, Amusements.”  In 1923 and 1924 Wade and May Shows opened in Detroit, where they lived.  By 1930 they divorced.

Wallace G. Wade:

Wallace G. Wade (1889-1956) was the eldest son of Lee Wade.  With his brothers and father in 1912 W. G. formed a carnival, Imperial Shows.  In 1916 he formed the W. G. Wade Shows, which he operated until his death. 

W. G. Wade married Frances (Mitts) Wade.  In the 1920 census W. G. was listed as a “Manager, Amusements.” With their son, Wallace G. Wade [Jr.] (b.1919), the couple lived in Highland Park. By 1930 W.G. had a new wife, Rebecca, and a daughter, Constance.  W.G. was listed in the census as a “proprietor, carnival.”
 In 1938 W.G. and his son W. G. Wade, called Junior or “Glenn,” added a second unit to their carnival, Wade & Son Congress of Rides, and offered “a merry-go-round, a Ferris wheel and a chairplane” for amusement seekers.

In the 1940s the Wade Shows played Manton, the Gratiot County Fair, and the Alpena Fair, as well as many other towns and events. They “cracked” Highland Park in April 1946, a city which “had no carnival there for 15 years.”  “Cracking” means to win/get a contract to supply the carnival for a town/event.

W. G. Wade died in 1956 and his business assets went to his son, W. G. Wade, Jr., called Glenn.

Glenn Wade:

W. [Wallace] G. “Glenn” Wade (b. Adrian 1918-2008), the eldest son of Wallace G., Sr. and Frances (Mitts) Wade, “worked with his father in summers until 1938 when they started a second unit, Wade & Congress of Rides.”  During World War II Glenn served in the U.S. Navy.  He returned home to work with his father in 1945. 

In 1948, Glenn Wade formed Glenn Wade Amusement Rides with only a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel. This developed into a medium-sized midway (carnival) by 1956, when his father died. Glenn combined their assets. The W. G. Wade Shows played at the Michigan State Fair for the first time in 1952.  W. G. Wade Shows played 17 of the 20 seasons of the fair between 1952 and 1972.

Glenn also owned Down Rivers Shows, south of Detroit. Between the 1965 and 1966 season W.G. Wade Shows joined the International Amusement Corporation, later the Amusement Corporation of America, part of a large carnival syndicate. 

Glenn served as The Outdoor Amusement Business Association’s first president and was a member from 1965 until his death. Since its inception in 1964, OABA has “lobbied for an ethics code, ride safety, safety training programs and guidelines for carnival games.” 

In 1942 Glenn Wade married Helen Berry (d. 2003). They had three daughters: Linda,Debbie and Frances.  Debbie died in a car accident in 1974. Glenn Wade died in 2008.  For most of the company’s history, the W. G. Wade Shows was the premiere carnival in Michigan.  Since 1984, Frank Zaitshik has owned and operated Wade Shows, Inc. which is now based in Florida.  

Ernest Wade:

Ernest L. Wade (1898-), the youngest son of Lee Wade, married Nellie M. Wade. and they lived in Adrian.  Ernest was listed as a traveling agent [for the shows] in the 1928 Adrian Directory. In his father’s, Lee’s, 1946 obituary Ernest was listed as an “agent for the shows.” 

Roscoe T. Wade:

Roscoe Wade (b. 1892 or 1893-), the second son of Lee Wade, married Mayme.  They lived in Adrian and had two children:  Harriet  (1915-), and Douglas (1918-). In Adrian directories between 1921 and 1938, Roscoe was listed as a [carnival] concessionist, showman, or “Manager, Amusements.”   In 1926 “R.T. Wade had the Michigan Greater Shows.” 

Roscoe was willing to cut John Pollie a “small percentage of the rides and shows & cut concession money” for help booking extra shows. When John noted his many trips and calls to Hudsonville to get business had failed, Roscoe wrote “Don’t worry about Hudsonville as there will be other spots with business as good again. Myself, I don’t think the spot is big enough for so many rides…”  Roscoe also kept information to himself as needed. One December 27, probably in 1950, John wrote to Roscoe, “Unless you are keeping you[r] route a secret, Roscoe, it would be very helpful if you were able to divulge at least part of the intended route to me when you can.” 

Roscoe’s route over the years included Remus, Manton, White Cloud, Barryton, Marion, Rockford, Ovid, Howard City, Hart, Onekema, Hastings, Port Sanilac, Charlotte, Gladwin, Petoskey, and Hudsonville, among other cities and towns. In 1941 Roscoe offered a fun house, motor drome, and a flat ride for Hudsonville.  In 1951, Mayme noted “the entire state [IN] has been closed to all gambling, so no concessions...It surely is getting tough.” 

Douglas Wade:

Douglas Wade (1918-), the son of Roscoe Wade, worked for the shows as an agent. In 1948 letter of John Pollie to W. G. Wade John wrote, “I presume Doug is booking for your #1 and #2 and for Junior’s unit, too?” In Lee’s 1946 obituary, Doug was listed as Lee’s grandson and a representative of the Wade Shows. 

Walt O. King

Walt O. King owned King Amusement Co. in Mount Clemens. The company manufactured kiddie rides, such as merry-go-rounds with horses, boats, and cars, trains, boat rides, rollercoasters, bumper cars, as well as fun houses and related equipment including towers,  fences, music boxes, trailers for food, shooting galleries and other uses, timers, signs, and decorations.  Everything was shipped by railway freight or truck at 25 cents/mile, 1949-1957.



Pollies BrothersHenry and John Pollies owned circuses and carnivals from at least 1910-1930s. John Pollie worked as a concessionaire with games of chance in carnivals, 1930s-1960s. Their business and personal life is wonderfully documented in the Papers of John C. Pollie, 1910-1969, and undated in 17.5 cubic ft. (in 36 boxes) in the Clarke Historical Library. It is the only collection of a carnival man’s papers in existence in a public institution. It documents circus, carnival,  especially the 19-teens when there was a period of much change in carnivals, the Great Depression, the history of people in MI and Grand Rapids, personal relationships with friends and a loving family and business relationships with circus and carnival people. 

Henry Pollie

John kept every letter, postcard, invitation, or form he received and he kept a copy of everything he typed and mailed out. John also saved everything documenting personal and business expenses. He had very organized accounts of his concessions by day, town, worker, games won, and supplies.

John Pollie has a very unique voice in his letters and among archival collections. He was a very good, kind, caring person. His letters read as if he is talking directly to you over a cup of coffee. He typed like he talked, a mile a minute, covering many topics usually in each letter he typed.

Henry J. Pollie (1872-1937) was the son of John C. and Maude Pollie, who emigrated from the Netherlands to Grand Rapids in 1880. As a young man, Henry lived in TX.  Henry, often called Jorge, was a concessionaire and showman.  Shows Henry owned or co-owned, as documented in the collection, include:
Zeidman and Pollie Shows (Walter Zeidman and Henry J. Pollie) 1910-Nov. 1937
J. Harry Six Shows, 1931

Pollie’s Shows, 1932 (Henry and John C. Pollie)
Pollie & Scully, 1934 (Henry and Mr. Scully)
Pollie and Berger Exposition and Wild Animal Circus, 1935-1937? (Henry and  Louis J. Berger)
Pollie & Berger Shows, 1935-Jan. 1936 (This is probably the same show as above, minus the wild animals.)
Pollie and Latto Shows, [after Feb. 1936-Nov. 1937, Henry and Al Latto]
Pollie Brothers Circus (Henry and John C. Pollie)
Pollie’s Greater Shows, undated (Henry and John C. Pollie)
Polly & Kenosian Shows, 1937 (Henry and Robert M. “Bob” Kenosian)
Famous Pollie Shows, 1930s (Henry and John C. Pollie)

Pollies CircusIn November of 1927, Henry split with his partner, Walter Zeidman.  Henry and John thought of Zeidman with the phrase “trusted friends will knife you in the back.”   Henry owed $10,000 to a creditor who sued him. The creditor was likely in league with Zeidman to ruin Henry.  The creditor demanded the sale of major show equipment including 30 railroad cars, rides, and a Wurlitzer organ.

In 1927, Henry divorced his wife, Elvira.  He later married Ossie (nee Toothman) Littleman (1893-1936), a “show woman.”  Henry and John worked together until Henry in 1937.

John’s mother, Elvira “Vira” Henson (ca.1878-1944), was the daughter of Andrew and Milly-Ann Henson, farmers in Acton, IN, part of the large Evans clan. Vira also worked in shows, although exactly what she did is undocumented.  After 1927, Vira married a Mr. Mendiones, and later, a Mr. Miller.


John Pollie

John C. “Johnnie” Pollie (1905-1979), was the adopted son of Henry J. and Elvira Pollie.  He attended Central High School in Grand Rapids and probably graduated in 1926.

Like his Dad, John was a concessionaire and showman. He worked with his Dad until Henry died in 1937. While working, John befriended many of the adults who were employed by his father, and their children. He maintained correspondence with these friends and family members throughout his life.

By 1926 John concentrated on concessions.  In 1927 he moved to IN.  He was very close to his relatives and friends there. Despite his parents’ divorce, John maintained a good relationship with both parents. They wrote each other often, often weekly.

In the 1930s, John worked in and operated small traveling shows composed of various acts, rides, games of chance, wild animals, freak shows, and food (concessions). He operated bingo, poker, ball and corn games (bingo or beano), hired the various acts, booked their scheduled appearances, operated the concession stands, and kept meticulous accounts in a business where every cent mattered. John paid and fed people both during times when the show made money and when it did not, particularly during the Great Depression. If people were not fed, they would leave. Without acts and people to operate the rides and games, the show would collapse. With his Dad and other associates, John operated games after the 1930s, mostly in MI and IN. 

John was involved with all of his Dad’s shows. In 1937 he operated Carnival Concession in Acton, IN, while operating the Pollie & Kenosian Shows in Grand Rapids. He described his business in 1937 as operating the corn game, also known as bingo or beano, in MI carnivals and fairgrounds each summer.

After his Dad’s death in 1937, John operated the Zeigler & Pollie Shows, which was billed as “Michigan’s Modern Midway,” in 1939.  With the Great Depression, the show failed.

While most of his correspondents were people who had either worked with or for him, or were related to someone who did. John also maintained years of extensive correspondence with certain business associates, either suppliers of equipment and prizes, such as Ned Torti of Wisconsin Delux, or men who booked dates at fairs and other events. John Mulder, a concession-related dealer was married to Kate, who had been one of John’s bingo operator.  Mulder secured dates and contracts at various shows and events and then hired John to provide concessions, bingo and other games in various cities in MI. 

The Pollies lived in Grand Rapids. John worked year round at Kelvinator, 1942-1944, 1947-1954, and the American Seating Company, 1954-1961. He left work on Friday night and drove to wherever he needed to be for the weekend carnival and drove back to Grand Rapids on Sunday night. Before the carnival opened he would go somewhere, drink coffee and type.  On July 1, 1938, John married K. Bea Culver, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Culver. They met in Red Lyon when John was typing at a restaurant where Bea was a waitress. Together they had two children: Janice (1942-), and Curtis (1947-). Their family life was a happy one. They attended church regularly and John and Bea were active in PTA. John’s wife and children also worked games for John, sent him supplies, and Curt and his Dad cleaned, repaired, wired, and fixed all the equipment. John was a clever carpenter, creating games of chance and taffy sales booths that were his own design and items that folded up neatly, such as ladders, counters, etc. that took up minimum space for convenience while traveling.  Bea was a great help to John in the business in many ways. 

In 1957, Bea was cleaning windows when she fell five feet to the ground. She broke her leg about the ankle joint and developed tetanus. She died after several surgeries on November 20, 1957 in Grand Rapids. John stayed with her at the hospital. He wrote numerous detailed letters to long-time friends about her suffering and how devastated the family was when she died. John extolled Bea’s many virtues. Hundreds of people attended her funeral. John never looked at another woman again.

Janice was 15 and Curt 10 when their mother died. At the time, Janice attended Central High School and Curtis was in 5th grade at Coit School. It is another testament of John’s personality that two of his oldest business associates, Ned Torti and John Mulder were so shocked when they heard of Bea’s death that they sent Christmas care packages of gifts and food to him and his children along with heartfelt notes.

Janice graduated from Michigan State University in 1964 and taught. Curtis Pollie married and had two children, Brian and Marcia.  Curtis Pollie currently works in the recreational vehicle industry.

During his life, John was generous to his friends, family, and workers with pay and emotional support. He also donated regularly to a wide variety of charities.


Amazing, mind-blowing, death-defying facts about MI circuses and carnivals!

The Fearless Greggs, daredevils from at least 1905 to 1912 defied logic and gravity with their thrilling automobiles-passing-in-the-air stunt.  Fed and Joe Gregg, Howard Smith, Eddie Bouten, and Charlie Hall were from Grand Rapids and Ludington. Troupe members kept getting injured or killed when the car passing over landed on the car beneath. 


Yes, circus is responsible for the spread of fruitcake as a holiday gift in the U.S. The Collin Street Bakery of Corsicana, Texas, was established in 1896 by master baker, Gus Weidmann, and his partner, Tom McElwee. They also operated a fancy hotel where many famous guests stayed, including John Ringling.  Mr. McElwee gave the guests fruitcakes. The circus people liked them and requested some be shipped to their friends all over the country. This led to establishment of the bakery’s mail order business. Today the bakery is world famous and ships fruitcakes to 196 countries.

Typhoid in Detroit

Ringling Bros. arrived by train in late July 1934 to perform in Detroit. Some of the crew had typhoid.  77 performers and support staff were sickened between July 22 and August 7. Eventually 7 men died of typhoid. Extra medical staff was assigned to the show. Sick people were sent to Harper Hospital, Detroit, and a Lansing hospital, performers kept separate from support staff.  Health officials believed that if they closed the circus, the employees would leave for other work and typhoid would spread throughout the U.S.  The story was carried by the Detroit Free Press, the New York Times, and other papers. 

Circus Hippo runs amok in the Detroit River

The Detroit Daily Free Press of June 13, 1863 advertised Geo. F. Bailey & Co.’s  Grand Circus, Sands’ Nathan’s & Co.’s Circus with a gigantic hippo,  elite equestrians, lots of acts and horses. Performances were scheduled for Mon.-Tues. 2 and 7:30pm on June 27-28. Admission cost 25cents for children under 12, everyone else cost 50 cents. The grand procession (parade) was scheduled for 11am was to include a horse-drawn hippo in his cage.

The Detroit Daily Free Press on June 23, 1863 ran an article about the same hippo entitled “Chasing of a Hippopotamus in Detroit River.”  What follows is a summary.  As the Geo. F. Bailey & Co.’s Grand Circus, Sands’ Nathan’s & Co.’s Circus traveled from Buffalo to Detroit, it became necessary because of the weight, to send the elephants and hippo on board the S.S. Coldwell. On Monday near port, the hippo nearly escaped. It belongs to G. C. Quick, Esq. The hippo’s immense cage did not fit on board ship, so the cage was shipped by land. The hippo, called “His Behemothship,” with Ali the Egyptian, the hippo’s keeper, went by water to Detroit. During the voyage the hippo took to water. Three miles below the Fort, a splash was heard from the side of the bow toward the American shore. The hippo had jumped into the Detroit River. The owner “looked the picture of despair,” $40,000 [the cost of the hippo] and prospective profits gone.  Ali was frantic. A boat was lowered. The hippo plunged as boat approached. The hippo dodged the boat three times. Finally, a large black mastiff plunged in after the hippo. The dog barked and swam around the hippo, and then swam for the American shore. The hippo followed. Ali talked to the hippo, whacked the hippo’s butt, and drove the hippo to safety after “his frolic beneath the waves.”  

Examples of Circus Ads in Detroit

Ads for circuses, and everything else, in early newspapers, 1840s, were small and had no illustrations.  This soon changed. By the 1850s ads usually had beautiful art, long lists of exotic animals, performances acts (human and animal) and exciting jargon. Circuses had ad[vance] men who plastered towns with posters, sometimes over those of the competition. They made deals with local stores to sponsor the circus’ ads and sell tickets. Circuses usually advertised heavily about 2 weeks before their appearance in any given town and on performance days in newspapers with large, illustrated ads and small text ads such as “Small boys should save their coins to attend the circus!” In the exhbit there are ads from the Detroit Free Press 1843, 1856 and 1881.

Some town newspapers printed critiques of the circus performances. In the exhibit there are two critiques, a good review of Ringling Bros., August 17, 1895, and a bad review of the Great Eastern Circus, July 21, 1883, both from the Ishpeming Iron Agitator.

The beautiful drawing of the woman on the trapeze in the Clarke’s exhibit case in the library’s main hall is from a circus ad of 1888 in the Detroit Free Press. 

Durand Train Wreck

On August 7, 1903, 26 men died when the second of two trains of the Great Wallace Circus train was hit by a steam locomotive near the Durand train station. The first train with the performers, animal trainers, and executives had already left. 12 train cars, many wagons, animal cages, and other props were ruined. Many animals died including Maud the elephant, a trained Arabian horse, thee camels, and a Great Dane. 8 dead people were never identified because they had either recently signed on with the circus or because they were known by nicknames. The Hotel Richelieu functioned as a morgue. Townspeople helped the injured. Surgeons, undertakers, and coffins were summoned from surrounding communities. Other circuses sent equipment and staff afterwards so the circus could continue, which it did


On Tuesday, January 30, 1962, the Great Wallendas 7-person pyramid act fell 36 feet onto a cement floor at the State Fair Grounds Coliseum during a Shrine Circus performance in Detroit.  Dieter Schepp, 23, Richard Faughnan, 29, and Gunther Wallenda, 42, died. Mario Wallenda, 22, Karl Wallenda’s adopted son fell and was paralyzed from the waist down.  Dieter had apparently tossed his pole up to catch his balance. This caused him to fall and drag Faughnan, who was basically hooked to him via the shoulder harness, down from the wire with him. Karl and his brother, Herman, fell from the second to the first level and held onto the wire. Karl caught Jana Schepp, and held her until an improvised net was created.  When she fell, Jana bumped her head and suffered injuries.  Jana and Dieter were Karl and Herman’s niece and nephew. Gunther was Herman’s son. 

When the Wallendas fell, mass panic broke out among the audience of 7,000, which included men, women, and children. Mario was hospitalized for a long time at Highland Park General Hospital.  Although Karl had suffered significant injuries, he and Herman performed an abridged act the next evening. Karl told his wife, “I can handle the grief better from up there. The wire is my life. We owe it to those who died to keep going.”  

The 7-person pyramid remains the standard of excellence for high-wire pyramid performance.  The Wallendas regularly performed the 7-person pyramid between 1928 and 1947. After the 1962 fall it was performed once in 1963 to prove the family still had the nerves and ability to do it.  Karl’s grandchildren performed the act for the movie “The Great Wallendas” in 1977.  In 1998 the 7-person pyramid was successfully performed by a new generation of Wallendas.  The Wallendas continue to perform and have created an 8- and 10-person pyramid.

Carla Wallenda Guzman, the daughter of Karl and Helen Wallenda, is a grandmother but still performs regularly at the Ionia Free Fair in Ionia.  Carla’s act includes the high wire, trapeze, and a 70-foot-high sway pole that sways 25-feet in any direction.  The sway pole has been her act for 36 years. She began performing when she was three-years-old.

Carnival Safety Board

Did you know that MI was the first state to regulate amusement rides? It was the first state to create a safety board called the Michigan Carnival-Amusement Safety Board in the U.S. The board was created under Public Act 226 of 1966 to set state-wide standards for safety regulations and inspections of traveling shows which operate in MI, and amusement parks, and other fixed locations with rides. The Board includes one representative each from amusement park operators, carnival ride operators, retrial merchants association, registered professional engineer, the director the Dept. Of Labor and Economic Growth, and 2 members of the public.  The law is implemented by the Dept. of Labor and Economic Growth, Bureau of Commercial Service, Enforcement Division, Carnival/Amusement and Ski Area Safety.  It makes it easier for carnival owners if regulations and requirements are standardized. It makes the rides safer if they are regularly inspected and maintained. It makes everyone happier if nobody gets hurt. The division inspects 1,000 rides in MI a year. There are 1,200 inspections by State inspectors. Did you know that inflatables, climbing walls and bungee jumps are not yet regulated? 

Marvin "Slim" Girard

Did you know that MI author, western poet, juggler, yo-yo-expert, entertainer and rope spinning artist, Marvin “Slim” Girard, is known for his ability to make circles with a rope?  Slim, his wife, Hazel, and daughter, Giselle, all were part of the act in circuses, on stage, theater, and in nightclubs. Slim has written three other books. Two of his works are on permanent display in the 101 Ranch Room of the Ponca City, OK, Cultural Center.

Carnival Performers

Side Show CarMany of the performers John Pollie corresponded with over the decades were carnival performers.  Some also performed in circus. Many performed in vaudeville or theaters during the winter. Many were also part of family acts, such as aerialist ladder acts and dancers/rollerskaters. A few are famous in circus history such as King Baile, a circus band leader, who wrote promotional ads for the Pollies.

Traveling entertainers had similar problems, such as lack of funds, constantly moving, and being separated for long periods from their extended families and friends. They had to communicated with letters and postcards. This was before cell phones, Carnival Performers: Viviancomputers and email, and phone calls were luxuries. Sometimes this lack of communication led to problems, including the breakdown of families.

Carnival and circus life was tough. Cetlin & Wilson dumped their entire staff in the 1932-1933 season on the sidewalk in the deep south. The newly unemployed, such as Francis Francette, a half-and-half freak who pretended to be male on one side and female on the other, then had to find a temporary job in another show or somewhere in order to eat. There were no Social Security payments until 1940 and no medical insurance in the early 20th century. People who were hurt or ill were left in hospitals when the show left for another town or state. Most of the acts John booked were composed of two or three people. When one member of an act got hurt, ill, left town, was thrown in jail, or died, the act could not be performed. This resulted in act members being fired as a group.  Show people sent the few dollars they could afford to other show friends in need. At least among John’s friends, there was a strong network of people who genuinely cared for him and each other.

Carnival Performers: Billie RaeCarnival PerformersIn the collection there is documentation of two men who corresponded with John from Jackson State Penitentiary for breaking and entering.  Henry C. Hart served time in prison from December 1932 through February 1933. He was sad and repentant about his incarceration, particularly noting its impact on his loyal wife, Ruth. His entire correspondence with John spans 1926 through 1938. Alfred S. Wiser, whose extended family corresponded with John, was in prison from May 1931 through May 1933. He was unrepentant and more of a philosopher. His entire correspondence with John spans 1927 through 1934.


Carnival Performers: Eight Fingered ManSome of the people John and Henry Pollie and other circus and carnival owners employed were freaks. This is the historic term. There were two kinds of freaks: born freaks and made freaks.

Born freaks were people born with physical conditions not found in the majority of the population: very small or very tall people, joined twins, albinos, people with excessive facial hair, especially women and children, people with bone conditions, or with extra digits or limbs. Today, many of these conditions can be alleviated or cured with surgery or medicines.

Carnival Performers: Bearded Lady


Made freaks were people who worked at it, with fake limbs sewn to their clothes, extra fluffed or long hair, who breathed fire, swallowed swords, stuck pins through small holes in their skins (Pincushion man), contorted themselves (India Rubber man), tattooed themselves, or were snake “charmers.”  Some people with mental and physical conditions were advertised as “missing links.”  Some African-Americans born in the U.S. were advertised as members of lost tribes. In the case of psychic Madame Orva, she was really a he. Most people think of freaks with P.T. Barnum. He advertised them on a sensational scale and made them an important part of circus and carnival history.


Carnival PerformersUndoubtedly, some freaks were abused. Some were sold like furniture to their owners “managers” who put them on the sideshow circuit, including joined twins Millie-Christine. Other freaks, such as Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, willing exhibited themselves, earned money, and were glad that they had a job off the streets away from thugs. Freaks sold photographs, cards, and pamphlets of themselves to supplement their wages. There were no handicapped accessible laws or equal employment opportunities in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. For most freaks, there were no other employment options. Due to changing public sentiment in the late 1930s and because of the extermination of mentally and physically challenged people during WWII, the exhibition of freaks was largely outlawed. Today, FL is the only U.S. state which legally allows the exhibition of freaks and some people do exhibit themselves.

Pollie Circus BrothersCarnival performers, like all workers wanted to be paid. Included here is an account of carnival staff paid in Albion in 1935. In winter quarters staff ate, but weren’t paid. There are examples in the exhibit of the Pollies’ winter quarters account book for season 1926-1927, wintering in Savannah, Ga. Also, opened is Marie’s “Tab” Inn, for the Pollies’ winter quarters in Huntington, W.Va., 1932. Breakfast and dinner were each 15 cents, lunch 10 cents. It lists who ate which meals. There is also an account of cash paid for groceries and gas.

While there were many freaks over the years exhibited in MI, such as the Giant Girl in Detroit in 1843, two internationally known examples were Tom Thumb, who was exhibited in Detroit in 1852, and joined twins Millie-Christine, who were exhibited in Houghton in 1900.