Some years ago I saw a TV commercial where a mother is driving her car following her young son traveling on foot with a teddy bear in one hand and suitcase in the other trekking down the sidewalk to run away with the circus.
When you were a little boy or girl did thoughts of running away with the circus ever cross your mind?
Did you ever take out that little brown leather suitcase from the closet and fill it full of your small plastic army men, bag of marbles, matchbox cars, catcher’s mitt and anything else you thought you just could not live without; then took your peanut butter and jelly sandwich and hit the road looking for the nearest circus big top?
While I will say that the thought of working with Lions, and Tigers and Bears, ‘Oh My,’ did run through my head, it was the clowns that struck my fancy. I recall one trip to the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus; I even got a chance to take a crash course in elementary clown. Grease paint and all. I still have my certificate packed away in a trunk.
I have come to know a number of bonafide circus performers through the years.
I recently learned of the passing a few months ago of one young Texas girl who decided she would do just that in 1948. Geraldine “Gerry” Philippus Riley (1929-2013) left the little town of Cost, Texas where her father was postmaster and her mother was a music teacher to make her life as a circus performer at the age of 18.
“I think back now on just how mean I was to say to my parents ‘I am going to run away with the circus’,” she said by telephone August 22, 2005. “I mean it was just a total shock to them. My mother came to see the shows but my dad never did.”
She went to school with Norma Davenport, daughter of Dailey Brothers Circus owner Ben Davenport, who in 1948 moved his winter quarters from Yoakum, Texas to Gonzales after purchasing the fairgrounds. The show traveled on 26 railroad cars.
She learned to work with the elephants; perform an aerial acrobatic act on the trapeze bar; and performing with the Riding Martinis in a bareback horse act as well. She stayed with the show until 1955 performing in a different little town every day. She fell in love on the show, married and had her first two children while with the circus.
“I think we worked hard. We were the real circus people. We knew what working the mud lots were and we knew why they made saw dust and we waded through it to work,” she said. “For these people now its glamour and glitz. I remember how hard I worked to perform with those elephants.
“I always went in the ring and styled,” she said. “The elephants wore beautiful headgear with big brass studs on their heads. I’d get up on top and they’d dance and I’d ride their backs.”
She also remembered the day the elephants got spooked and stampeded through the fairgrounds and when around 30 baboons escaped their cage and made Gonzales, Texas their new home. A well to do lady found three lounging on her front porch when she went to get her morning paper. Many were never recovered.
The circus featured numerous star attractions, one season in 1949 she worked with Doug Autry, Gene Autry’s brother, the next season heavyweight champion of the world (1937-48) Joe Louis toured with the show and then two years with who she called the Gene Autry of the circus circuit the late Ramblin ‘ Tommy Scott.
“Joe Lewis was the nicest kind of guy you could ever want to meet,” she said.
She recalled the former boxing champion received $1,000 per day for appearing at the end of the show in a ring, sparing with a towner (attendee), and posing for photographs with the audience. He was low key and definitely not a braggart, she said.
Beginning in 1951, the circus changed its name to the Wallace Brothers Combined Circus reducing from five rings to three. They purchased 31 new trucks to transport the circus from town to town rather than the rail cars, she said.
When Ramblin’ Tommy Scott and his Hollywood Hillbillies arrived to join the circus in 1951, their arrival stays vividly in Gerry’s memory.
“When Tommy Scott and his crew came in that park gate in Gonzales, Texas,” she said. “My, honey we thought they were celebrities. They had the finest kind of trailers, finest kind of cars. We said they are not show people they are rich people. Tommy is a fantastic guy.”
Scott not only toured with the circus but co-owned circuses and employed numerous circus acts on his show.
“The circus was always a hotbed of excitement, probably because of the many different personalities who lived and worked in what was actually a community of animals and people,” he recalled.
Scott is still revered by many circus performers and workers as one of the legends in the business. He received the honor of being named one of the all time greatest Circus Showman.
His daughter Sandra even had the chance to spend some of her childhood years on the circus.
“Kids have been saying for generations they would like to run away and join the circus,” she said. “Well, I was in the circus without having to run away.”
Sandra learned to ride elephants; she danced, sang, and became very good in aerial acrobatics, performing with great precision except for one day when the apparatus malfunctioned. Despite the problem Sandra completed her performance with the main mishap being knocking her mother Frankie, who was assisting her, off the stage into a piano.
Boys who returned that evening for the second show asked why she did not repeat the same act as earlier, they wanted to she Frankie take the dive into the piano again, Scott said.
But the circus was not all fun and games. A reminder of this came when one of Sandra’s playmates, another child performer on the show lost her life at the hands of a presumed gentle young lion.
If you would like to read more about Riley or the Scotts, I suggest “Snake Oil, Superstars and Me” by Ramblin’ “Doc” Tommy Scott, Shirley Noe Swiesz and me, you can find it at randallfranks.com.
From my visits with these circus folks, I have learned that running away with the circus is hard work and is not all clowning around, I think I’ll just unpack my little green army men, and my catcher’s mitt and sit on the porch and finish my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Hey, has any body seen my marbles? I know I packed them, I don’t think I lost them.