Lives of the saints

I think of it as an anthropological exhibition,” Marise McDermott, president of the Witte Museum, says. “`Circus Folk` is less about the phenomenon of the circus from an audience’s vantage point, and more about the culture surrounding the circus, the people who actually made the circus happen, from performers to workers, and what their lives were like.”

Circus Folk: Secrets Behind the Big Top enlivens the Witte’s Kathleen and Curtis Gunn gallery till Valentine’s Day. And as McDermott points out, while beautifully put-together and highly interactive (a great kiddo date during holiday break, for sure) Circus Folk relies less on spectacle than on human interest; characters such as the giant Jack Earle (a native of El Paso!), General Tom Thumb and his family (you can see his tiny carriage, and a casting of his foot!), and highwire diva Bird Millman are interesting as people as well as performers. The modes of travel and feats of strength will fascinate youngsters.

“The Witte really has a responsibility, as `the home of` the Hertzberg Collection,” McDermott says. “To exhibit `the collection` in new ways and to make it as accessible as possible.” And if you were brought up in San Antonio, you’ll relish seeing some choice exhibits from the venerable and extensive Hertzberg Circus Collection; I gasped upon seeing the miniature-circus diorama all set up, just as alluring as it was when I was 5.

But say you aren’t 5. Say you’re 35. While Circus Folk is fun, charming, and family-friendly, it hints at the darker and more bizarre aspects of circus people and mythos, particularly through its witty repetition of a lifesize cutout of a partially curtained-off dancer captioned “I’ve Got a Secret.”

I wanted to know the secrets. Not the standard-issue, “you can only call a clown by his clown name when he’s in clown drag” secrets; I wanted access to the tragic, the bizarre, the darkly sexual and brilliantly ironic secrets of circus people. Luckily, Amy Fulkerson, the Witte’s incredibly knowledgeable and voraciously curious Collections Manager, and Bruce Shackelford, Witte Brown Foundation curator (and of PBS Antiques Roadshow fame), had some tales to spin. I sat in Shackelford’s office for more than two hours last week, listening to details and stories they’d uncovered that weren’t quite kid-ready.

Most of the tales covered the era around the turn of the 20th century. While circus performances are still hot — Cirque du Soleil packs ’em in, and Russia, China, and Mexico still boast vibrant (if dodgy, labor-wise) traveling circuses — the greats of the Big Top of 1890-1940 were at the top of the celebrity game (can you name one Cirque du Soleil performer?).

Are you ready for Circus Folk uncut? Thrill to the legends of mayhem and murder! See the desperation and valor in the lives of performers who risked it all! Know the dark fascination of tiger eroticism and suicide! From those who ran away to those who never escaped, the circus pantheon still draws us in.

Patron Saints of Sticking Together

Violet and Daisy, San Antonio’s Hilton Sisters

When she delivered conjoined baby girls in Brighton, UK, in February 1908, Daisy and Violet’s single mother believed them to be divine punishment for premarital sex. Abandoned to the midwife who delivered them, the little girls, who were fused together at the lower spine, were put on display in Brighton pubs. The children soon learned to play instruments, sing, and dance, and became celebrated Vaudevillians, both in Europe and the United States — a young Bob Hope was once their opening act, and the bright, talented twins reportedly hung out with Houdini.

Daisy and Violet’s unscrupulous minder, the dubiously named Myer Myers (a hot-air-balloon salesman that the midwife’s daughter picked up while touring the girls in Australia), used a chunk of the sisters’ earnings in the nineteen-teens to build an opulent manse right here in San Anto; Myers harbored fantasies of Texas ranching on the Hiltons’ earnings, while Daisy and Violet performed to capacity crowds in a specially built theater. As the ’20s wore on, Daisy and Violet tired of constant supervision, and took off on a U.S. tour with an advance man named Bill Oliver, who accompanied the twins as a chaperone. Bad idea: Oliver’s wife, who aparently intercepted some compromising letters between the two (three?) parties, divorced Oliver and sued the sisters for “alienation of affection.” A San Antonio lawyer named Martin J. Arnold took up Daisy and Violet’s cause, successfully defending the girls against the suit and eventually winning them emancipation from Myers and his wife in a public legal spectacle that filled the old courthouse and was front-page news in national media for weeks.

Following their legal issues (which sullied their virginal reputations), the newly free Hiltons headed for Hollywood. The bad news: They co-starred in Tod Browning’s cult favorite (and highly exploitative) B-movie Freaks (1932). Grand Hotel it ain’t; the sisters spoke only a handful of lines, and were reportedly aghast at the ogling, sensationalized tone of the finished film, which objectified their bodies rather than showcasing them as performers.

By the mid ’30s, the vast sums the Hilton sisters had earned was largely squandered by Myers and other shadies. The Great Depression was under way. Vaudeville and circuses were beginning to be eclipsed by radio and filmed entertainment. Also, freak shows were falling from fashion, their denizens medicalized by popular culture; “freaks” were seen increasingly as pitiable potential patients rather than titillating human oddities. Daisy and Violet endured a series of personal heartaches, too. There were numerous broken engagements; marriage licenses were denied them in 21 states due to society’s moral hangups about their marital-sex conundrum. There were affairs, including one which left Daisy pregnant. She gave birth to a boy whom she gave up for adoption (how poignant and transfixing to think there’s a man in his 70s somewhere with no clue that his mother was a world-famous celebrity — and conjoined to his aunt). Violet married James Walker Moore, a dancer and the girls’ gay best friend, as a publicity stunt. When it came to light that the sisters’ marriage was a sham, though, public sentiment began to turn against them.

Times got even tougher, but Daisy and Violet remained amazingly enterprising over the next few decades, appearing on second-, then third-rate stages, starring in another low-budget, go-nowhere movie called Chained for Life (1951), opening a snack bar in Miami Beach, and even attempting to sell cosmetics door-to-door. Eventually the Hilton twins wound up in Charlotte, North Carolina, where, after an appearance at a drive-in movie theater to promote the re-release of the (now-Midnite Movie-fare) Freaks, yet another shifty manager abandoned them, penniless. A local grocer gave them a job in the produce section of his supermarket, which they seemed to enjoy in a quiet way, after some confusion on their first day, on which they showed up for work in stage costume.

When Daisy died of the Hong Kong flu in January of 1969, Violet rang a friend, but made her promise not to alert authorites. Ironically, the spinal-cord separation surgery which would’ve endangered both twins’ lives earlier could have liberated Violet much more easily with Daisy already gone. But Violet stayed in their cold trailer — alone for the first time in her 60-odd years — beside her sister’s lifeless body, and waited to die. It took four days.

The story of the Hilton sisters was made into a Tony-nominated Broadway musical, Side Show, in 1997.

Patron Saint of Feline Orders

Mabel Stark

A natural beauty with a wild streak, Mabel Stark was born in the last decade of 19th-century Appalachia into a family of 11 children, and was orphaned by her teens. There’s some debate about what Mabel did next; she trained as a nurse in Louisville, Kentucky, but may have also spent time in a mental hospital. Crazy or not, she certainly had a reckless streak — she ran off to join the circus, and ascended inexorably through the ranks of “coochie dancer” to wild-cat trainer under the tutelage of famed big-cat wrangler Louis Roth, who was also Stark’s husband for a time (she was to have at least five). The striking and seemingly fearless Stark emerged as a circus sensation, and was acclaimed as the world’s first lady tiger tamer throughout the heady 1920s, performing with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to sold-out crowds in the U.S. and Europe.

Stark’s “real” husband was Rajah, a Bengal tiger whom she’d adopted and raised from a cub, and whose in-ring performance with Stark amounted to tiger-on-lady frottage. Stark later explained: “When I turned and called him, he would come up on his hind feet and put both feet round my neck. Pull me to the ground, grab me by the head; you know a male tiger grabs the female by the neck and holds her and growls till the critical moment is over. So, in this fashion, Rajah grabbed me and held me. We kept rolling over till he was through, and while the audience could not see what Rajah was doing, his growling made a hit.” According to the Witte’s Bruce Shackelford, the tiger’s “critical moment” necesitated Mabel Stark’s trademark white-leather performing outfit, rather than the usual black. Tiger-tussling wasn’t without more critical danger, either; Stark was mauled more than 18 times, resulting in numerous serious injuries over her career, and causing her to perform in bandages and wielding a crutch more than once.

But Stark fared better than husband Art Rooney, a flamboyant, cross-dressing fellow trainer who was reportedly the (platonic?) love of Stark’s life. He was purportedly done in by Rajah (though tiger senses are keen, their gaydar, apparently, is not).

After the deaths of Rooney and, eventually, Rajah, and a few desultory marriages and appearances on television, the mighty Mabel Stark wound up working at a dinky theme park called Jungleland in Southern California. She didn’t get along with the owner, who in 1968 fired septuagenarian Stark and shot one of her cats. Soon after, Stark committed suicide.

Kate Winslet and her husband, director Sam Mendes, have reportedly acquired the rights to Mabel Stark’s life story, and plan to go into production on a biopic next year.

Patron Saints of Star-Crossed Aerial Romance

Alfredo Codona and Lillian Leitzel

Both he and she were born into prominent circus families. Alfredo Codona’s father Eduardo owned a small circus in Mexico and headed the “Flying Codonas,” an internationally regarded dynasty of trapeze artists, of whom the outrageously talented and preternaturally graceful Alfredo was the most gifted. The Three Codonas — Alfredo, his sister Victoria, and their brother Lalo — starred in a 1931 short film, Swing High, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Alfredo went on to stunt double for Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan and His Mate (1934), adapting his trapeze showmanship to create the illusion of Tarzan swinging from jungle vines; the sequences still mesmerize, illustrating why Life magazine hailed him as “the Nijinsky of the circus.”

German-born Lillian Leitzel’s mother and aunts comprised the legendary aerial team the Leamy Ladies, and while Lillian herself was spectacularly formally educated — she was fluent in five languages and considered a career as a concert pianist — she was drawn to the addictive risk and exhibitionism of the circus.

By 1917, when Codona and Leitzel met while performing for the Ringling Bros. Circus (this was three years after Leitzel joined, in 1914, and before the company merged with Barnum & Bailey, in 1919), each star had already been married once, both were nearing 30, and each had achieved spectacular aerial feats — Codona mastering the triple somersault, and Leitzel completing a record 249 one-handed revolutions on the Roman rings. Leitzel was known for both her unstinting generosity toward her colleagues, taking a special interest in the circus children, for whom she’d throw birthday parties, and as a prima donna who fired her long-suffering lady’s maid several times a day. Codona, one year Leitzel’s junior, was no shrinking violet, either. Codona and Leitzel were wildly popular, temperamentally mercurial, understandably egotistical, and thrilled by risk. They fell hard for each other, and spent the next 10 or so years in a whirlwind of romance and high (very high) drama. They competed with each other, engaged in countless public screaming matches, reconciled repeatedly, and goaded each other toward ever greater feats of audacity, in the air and in their personal lives. Audiences and the press ate it up. In 1928, they finally married.

While traveling Europe during the winter off-season of 1931, the couple had a spate of performances in different cities, Leitzel in Copenhagen, Codona in Berlin — an unusual state of affairs, since their contract riders usually stipulated that the couple perform in the same venues. But since they were approaching 40, they’d decided to earn as much money as possible, and maybe buy a farm somewhere. Codona prided himself on checking Leitzel’s rigging and equipment for each of her performances, and sometimes even stood beneath the rings, intending to catch her should she fall. But Codona wasn’t there on the night of February 13; a brass swivel snapped, and Lillian plummeted 20 feet to the hard floor. Codona rushed from Berlin to her hospital bed, where Leitzel and her doctors assured him she’d recover. Leitzel urged him to return and finish his Berlin engagement. He did. She died two days later.

Codona continued to perform — in fact, he produced the brilliant Tarzan and His Mate stuntwork three years after Leitzel’s death — but by all accounts he was personally devastated. He took greater and greater risks in his aerial routines, seemingly numb to the potential danger, which eventually resulted in a catastrophic fall that ended his career. He married again, to another trapeze artist Vera Bruce, but the marriage was unhappy. When Bruce inevitably filed for divorce, Codona met her in the attorney’s office to discuss some property issues and asked the attorney to leave them alone for a minute. He fatally shot his wife, and then himself. Codona is buried next to Leitzel in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, under a massive marble statue depicting Alfredo as an angel, bearing Lillian heavenward. •

As far as we know, there is no screenplay or stage musical in the works about Alfredo Codona and Lillian Leitzel. We suggest you get on it.

1. I am thy circus; thou shalt have no circus before me.

This wasn’t followed much at all, really, except by the “center ring” headliner acts, who sometimes signed exclusive contracts with circus owners. But many circus workers, particularly on the lower rungs of the ladder (e.g. tent-erectors, construction workers, and manual laborers, collectively known as “roustabouts,” as well as cooks, animal caregivers, etc.) would decamp one traveling circus for better pay or more favorable conditions at another one — or would take off, in Bruce Shackelford’s words, “if they met with the right circumstances, or the right girl.” AWOL roustabouts became such a problem that some circus owners resorted to withholding some or all of a worker’s pay until the end of the season, to ensure somebody’d stick around to roll up the Big Top.

2. Thou shalt not cry “fire” in the tent in vain.

The circus version of crying “fire” in a crowded theater would be to sing Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The patriotic ditty was traditionally played by a circus band only in case of emergency, as a musical alarm immediately understood by all circus personnel. Merle Evans, bandleader of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus band, struck up “Stars and Stripes” on July 6, 1944, during a performance in Hartford, Connecticut, in order to signal that the enormous tent had caught fire. Unfortunately, the tent’s canvas had been waterproofed with paraffin, which rendered it extremely flammable. Flames engulfed the Big Top in fewer than 10 minutes, causing the poles to collapse, trapping hundreds of people inside. The official death count from the Hartford Circus Fire is generally listed as 168, but is believed to be much higher, and close to 700 people were treated for injuries in area hospitals. Most victims fell not to the fire itself, but due to the trampling crush of nearly 7,000 panicked audience members. No circus animals were killed, though. Interesting sidenote: Gear arrived in Hartford late the day before, leading the circus to cancel the first of two scheduled July 5 shows. According to circus folk superstition, missing a show is ba-a-d mojo.

3. Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy.

This is a toughie; when the hell else did crowds attend the circus except on the weekend? However, there were circus community rituals observed by everyone from trapeze queen to pooper scooper. One was “Christmas in July”; since many travelling circuses went into hiatus during the winter season, the circus staff would celebrate Christmas dinner together on the Fourth of July.

4. Honor thy circus family.

Very often, notable performers hailed from circus families whose tradition of performing, training animals, or even acting as support staff dated back for generations. Alfredo Codona (see above) was from such a family in Mexico.You may have heard of the Flying Wallendas — the German high-wire family troupe were performing, incidentally, as the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944 broke out. We bet you know of the Ringling Brothers, too (but did you know there were seven of them, distinguishable only — if old-timey photos are any indication — by slight variations in their mustaches?) The Ringling Bros. operated their circus as “the Sunday School” of the travelling tent shows, incidentally, and upheld family-friendly acts and a clean atmosphere, in contrast with the louche nomadic operations notorious for organized pick-pocketing, gambling, and prostitution. But have you heard of the Chipperfields, a British family of acrobats, animal trainers, and clowns dating back 300 years?

Perhaps more importantly, the circus community itself would come to function as a family of sorts; insular, self-governing, and self-protective. The revenge undertaken by the sideshow vigilantes in Tod Browning’s Freaks is exaggerated for nightmarish dramatic effect, but circus folk looked after their own. The term “rube,” meaning unsophisticated townie, originated, it’s said, when a circus employee hollered “Hey, Rube!” to a fellow roustabout (called Ruben, according to legend) to intervene on behalf of a circus employee being physically attacked by an audience member. The cry of “Hey, Rube!” became a codified, Us vs. Them circus-folk battle cry, and “rube” came to mean the unsophisticated and potentially threatening patron, the hick who might fall for a ruse (or try to kick your ass).

5. Thou shalt not kill.

Nice idea, but it applied neither to tigers (see Mabel Stark, page 26) or, sadly, to trapeze artists (see Alfredo Codona, above). Or, on another animal level, to geeks, sideshow attraction performers who bit the heads off live chickens.

6. Thou shalt not commit interspecies hanky-panky.

This wasn’t always strictly observed either (ahem, see Mabel Stark, again), but in general, circus peeps seriously frowned upon amorous fooling around with anybody on four legs.

7. Thou shalt not steal another circus company’s route.

In the high holy heyday of the American travelling circus (which the Witte’s Shackelford and Fulkerson estimate to be around 1870-1930, give or take), circuses travelled along carefully predetermined trade routes, hitting certain towns at certain times according to usual weather patterns, crop harvest (and the concomitant flowering of pocket money), and population (why waste a Fourth of July weekend on Abilene, when Dallas is just a hop, skip, and a jump away?) Circuses were frequently regional, and highly territorial. Predictably, competing circuses would attempt to hit a community first, to draw the biggest and most readily spending crowds. Circus owners would send advance men three or four days ahead of the Big Top, where they engaged in putting up posters, barking at public venues, and sometimes, warring with each other.

8. Thou shalt not bear witness against the he-shes.

Cross-dressing was part of circus culture; there were drag-wearing clowns, and male animals in queeny tiaras (we’re looking at you, elephants). Petite male aerialists also sometimes dressed as girls, in order to foster amazement in their audiences; a girl with freakish upper-body strength performing without a net was a much bigger draw than a regular ol’ dude. The actual genitalia of the circuses’ gender-ambiguous performers was kept rigorously clandestine, including the chromosomal makeup of the popular “half-and-halfs,” sideshow performers who were presumed to be hermaphrodites, but usually weren’t. One such performer, the World War II-era Bobby Kork (aka “Georgette, the Double-Bodied Venus”) dabbled in early breast augmentation; (s)he used not a modern-day funbag insert, but injections of either silicone, or hormones (yikes!), In true “half-and-half” form, Bobby only enhanced one of his assets.

9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, or whomever.

L-U-V drama could massively destabilize a well-run circus; the last thing you need is for the Human Cannonball to launch himself into his tightrope-walking ex-girlfriend. Straight-arrow operations such as Ringling Bros. even forbade male and female employees (on paper, anyway) from fraternizing. Lust was often managed via same-sex housing; circuses would maintain separate women’s and men’s bunkhouses, though they did sometimes — but not always — allow married couples to cohabitate. Same-sex couples were not unheard-of either, and homosexuality was largely more tolerated within the circus world than on the outside, though any kind of outward display that might arouse the ire of the outsider “rubes” was discouraged.

10. Thou shalt not covet
thy neighbor’s goods.

This one had to’ve been hard; the disparity between the high-end circus folk (owners, managers, celebrity-status performers) and the low (roustabouts, drivers, and security folk) could be enormous. High and low-end folk were segregated in their pay, lodgings, and even at the dining table, where the high could dine off bone china and were served by waiters while the low supped cafeteria-style over by the animal cages. The upper end of the spectrum could spend the off-season performing for the crowned heads of Europe and earning substantial sums of money, while the low spent off-season living frugally and often doing odd jobs in out of the way Southern climes — one such off-season community lived in an encampment in the Hot Wells area that is now part of San Antonio’s South Side. While some circus workers eventually became unionized, labor rights were hardly widespread. Treated worst of all were African-American circus workers, who were often subject to racial segregation even more draconian than the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South, and given the lowest jobs and the lowest pay.

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