World’s Strangest Circus PRODUCED BY AMATEURS (Nov, 1934)

This is pretty awesome. In the 30′s the citizens of Gainesville Texas decided to put on an all volunteer community circus. Hundreds of average citizens spent all year training for various very elaborate and skillful acts. It looks like it was amazing. According to this site, the circus had it’s ups and downs and but lasted in one form or another until 1958.

World’s Strangest Circus PRODUCED BY AMATEURS

By A. Morton Smith

LEARNING to turn somersaults from the back of a cantering horse, to hang by one’s teeth high in the air, or to run and dance on a tight wire after the manner of circus performers, is not necessarily limited to those who have spent their lives under the big tops, or those possessed of physical development and endurance particularly fitting them to excel in this field. That the many and varied arts of the circus may be mastered by any normal person who has the will to engage in extensive practice, has been conclusively demonstrated by a unique organization in the little city of Gainesville, Texas.

Francis Leach is considered an accurate and speedy telegraph operator in Gainesville, but he can also turn as neat a row of flip flaps and back somersaults as the most seasoned veteran of the sawdust ring. Mabel Cunningham spends most of her day cooking meals, sweeping floors, making beds, and catering to the whims of her four-year-old son, Tommy. When the day’s chores are done, however, she amuses herself by climbing a rope hand over hand some thirty feet and learning new and daring stunts on the Spanish web. While Bill Ritchie does not find mixing ice-cream sodas and cherry-nut sundaes such an exciting job, he does get a thrill out of diving from a trapeze and catching by his toes as he drops through space.

None of these people aspire to become famous stars of the arena, but they are members of the Gainesville Community Circus, the only show of its kind in the world since its personnel is composed entirely of citizens of the town, none of whom has had any professional experience. Yet, this community circus presents a program in three rings which runs the gamut of circus thrills, from loop-the-loop trapeze performers to the slide for life, from shoulder-to-shoulder somersaulting acrobats to head-balancing perch-pole artists.

WHY such an organization is perpetuated and expanded year after year, is difficult to explain, for the town, with a population of 10,000, has not given to the circus world one outstanding artist, no circus caravan has ever maintained its winter quarters there, and the city park does not even boast of a zoo.

Just as a diversion from its routine of dramatic fare, a little theater club in Gainesville produced a burlesque circus in the spring of 1930, and from this show has grown the community circus, now composed of 150 members, who pitch their tents each fall at county and district fairs in Texas and Oklahoma, to provide entertainment for the amusement-seeking crowds. When there are profits, they are invested in additional equipment, for no member receives any remuneration for his services and, in addition, provides his own costumes and rigging.

Anyone who displays enough interest to buy equipment and is willing to give the time required for rehearsals, can join the circus. Usually the performers learn acts that are assigned to them. During the winter months, a committee arranges a tentative program for the next season and selects members to learn new acts. Seldom are there failures in the ranks. The “iron jaw” girls, or the young women who hang by their teeth, furnish a striking example of training for the show.

Prior to the present season, the circus had no “teeth” acts and the program committee welcomed the opportunity to add such a number when a professional aerialist came to town and organized a class of girls for aerial acts. Seven were chosen to learn to hang by their teeth. Six of them were already members of the circus. They ranged from ten to twenty years of age, several of them school students, one a sandwich-shop waitress. When the girls went to a dentist to have plaster impressions of their mouths made, from which hard rubber casts are obtained for the manufacture of their mouthpieces, one was eliminated. The dentist said she did not have all of her permanent teeth.

THE other six girls began rehearsals, devoting an hour daily to the work, six days a week. These rehearsals tested their mettle, for there is no more painful, and exhausting act in the circus program. During the first month, the girls were able to hang by their teeth for only a few seconds at a time and great quantities of liniment were applied to sore necks. During the second month, they learned to swing pendulum fashion a few feet from the ground, and at the end of the fourth month, they were ready for the show, doing a standard “iron jaw” routine.

Billie Lu Purcell, a junior college student, became so proficient in the teeth act that her instructor devised a special endurance number for her. The young woman hangs by her knees from a high bar and with her mouthpiece supports a spinning girl.

Rehearsals are conducted the year round at frequent intervals and are intensified when a new season is near at hand. Group rehearsals are held at the homes of several members and each of the performers who do individual acts, has his own practice equipment. Practice rings for rehearsals of bareback riding and for training horses, are maintained at the homes of Virgil P. Keel, a grain dealer, and W. A. Murrell, an electrical engineer. These men are owners of several horses used in the circus performances. The Murrell home is the scene of rehearsals of the entire show for on the spacious grounds is laid out a complete arena with a sawdust ring, an iron frame supporting rigging for aerial acts, and an elevated stage for acrobatic turns. A gymnasium where performers learn tumbling, horizontal bar work and tight wire walking has been fitted up in a vacant room at the sporting goods store operated by S. G. Staniforth, who trains and participates in the acrobatic numbers. There is hardly an hour in the day when some individual is not working in this practice room.

REHEARSALS of the clowns are conducted principally on paper, that is, the devising of new gags, and their favorite gathering place is the office of the county tax collector in the courthouse, for Joe B. Pettit, postmaster of Gainesville, and Wayne Collins, deputy county tax collector, are the principal clowns, who conceive the acts and walkarounds for the score of funmakers. In a workshop at his home, Collins constructs the equipment.

Every precaution against injury during rehearsals is taken by instructors in charge of acts. The practice rings for the bareback acts are designed to save the performers from damaging falls. They are thirty-two feet in diameter, matching in size those used in the circus tent, but unlike the wooden ring curbs, eight inches high and six inches wide, which are used for performances, the practice rings are constructed of eight-inch shiplap staked out to form a circle, and then generously dirt-banked to provide a soft landing place for the inevitable falls.

In the practice of bareback acts, the performers are further aided by leaping boards, which are elevated about ten inches from the ground, with slanting surfaces.

The embryo performer is aided in leaping on the back of the galloping horse by this elevation which is discarded as soon as the rider becomes proficient in timing his leaps to insure an artistic performance.

A mechanic, or safety belt, has been found indispensable in the practice of several types of acts. A leather belt, which fastens around the performer’s waist, has large harness rings sewed on each side, to which are attached ropes that run through pulleys hung from the ceiling of the gymnasium or from the frame to which aerial rigging is attached. The ends of the ropes are held by the instructor or assistant, and when a performer makes a slip and a fall is inevitable, he is prevented from striking the ground by the assistant who takes up the slack in the rope and leaves the performer suspended in the air. The mechanic is used for practice tumbling which involves somersaults and flip flaps, tight-wire walking and certain aerial acts.

The safety belt is discarded only after the instructor and performer are confident that the act has been perfected.- As a result of these precautions, there has never been a serious accident during the sixty performances given by the circus in the past five years.

Performers have been injured but, curiously enough, they were hurt only in rehearsals and no one has been prevented from continuing his circus activities. Ray Whit-taker, telegraph messenger boy, sustained a broken arm making an improper landing after turning a somersault from a teeter-board. Mrs. Floyd Garret, who is instructor for the aerial ladder act, broke her left arm at the elbow while demonstrating for a class of girls. Dorothy Murphy had practiced daily for three months in a bare-back riding act, only to catch her toe in a hand grip on her horse’s rigging on the eve of the first performance of the season, and suffered a broken leg in the fall. County Judge B. F. Mitchell, 67, the oldest member of the circus, missed the net into which he was supposed to jump during the clowns’ fire-house act; and suffered a wrenched back. For several weeks he conducted court from his bedside.

From one year to another, the quality of the program has improved. The first two years, several of the acts were not strictly of a circus nature. In the beginning, only men and boys took part in strenuous acrobatic and aerial acts and to add a feminine touch to the performance, there were solo dances, ballet and human statue numbers. Typically amateur features were barrel walking and rope skipping, and from the popular sport of the southwest, the rodeo, were borrowed rope spinning and trick riding.

These fill-in numbers have been gradually eliminated and today the program is exclusively circus from the opening tournament to the high-school and dancing horses that close the show. Oddly enough, there are now more feminine performers in every type of act than men. Girls have learned trapeze, acrobatic, riding, tight wire, and balancing feats with even more enthusiasm and skill than the men and boys.

There has been a minimum of professional training of performers. Two years ago, a professional contortionist spent two months in Gainesville and trained several youngsters in contortion work and a group of girls to perform on aerial ladders. Last winter, two professional performers, James Parker, an English gymnast, and Ethel Livingston, one-time aerialist of Sells-Floto Circus, spent several months in town. They organized classes, Parker teaching acrobatic routines, while Miss Livingston gave instructions in trapeze, roman rings, and “iron jaw” acts. Otherwise the performers have been taught by volunteers from the amateur ranks of the circus, who have studied the work of professional artists seen by frequent visits to the circuses which tour that section of the country.

The program is presented in two rings, on an elevated stage and on a hippodrome track which surrounds the arena. This season, the performance consists of eighteen numbers with from two to eight acts presented simultaneously, opening with a pageant in which the performing personnel is attired in oriental costumes. Mrs. Pauline McArdle, a church choir soloist, is prima donna, and Camilla Williams, a dancing teacher, is premier dan-seuse. A fireworks display closes the spectacle.

Acts change at the direction of J. N. McArdle, a cotton merchant, who is ringmaster or equestrian director, his shrill whistle a mace of authority. The aerial acts include girls on swinging ladders, the “teeth” acts, single trapeze performers and others who work on the loop-the-loop trapeze, Spanish web, roman rings, aerial cradle, and double trapeze. The animal acts include juvenile and adult bareback riders, high-school and liberty horses, and a high-diving dog. The ground numbers include two tight-wire acts, juvenile and adult tumbling groups, and horizontal-bar artists. The clown numbers feature comedy acrobats, bucking mules, a synthetic giraffe, a funny Ford, and the clown firehouse act, as well as numerous clown walkarounds on the track which take up time between numbers as rigging is being changed by the property men.

IN THIS diversified program are several features which would do credit to any circus program. Little Jimmie Scruggs, an eleven-year-old school girl, performs on the loop-the-loop trapeze. Mrs. Geraldine Murrell, young society matron, supports the weight of a 200-pound man on a rope looped around her waist as she does a split on the roman rings. Margaret Talley, beauty shop operator, throws her body over a trapeze bar in a muscle-grind endurance test as many as 103 times at a single performance. Verne Brewer jumps a table held above his tight wire, and Camilla Williams does a split while performing on a tight wire. Virgil Keel’s troupe of bareback riders offers a unique feat, two girls mounting the shoulders of George Tyler, gasoline filling station operator and principal rider, to do a “three high” on the galloping horse. And the feature of the acrobatic act is a “basket” somersault by young Joe Pet-tit, Jr., twelve-year-old son of the postmaster-clown, who stands on a basket formed by the arms of two fellow acrobats and is tossed into a backward somersault to land standing on the shoulders of another youth twenty feet away.

Most of the equipment used in the circus is homemade under the direction of W. A. Murrell, who is general superintendent of the circus. In several instances, it has been necessary to invent equipment for certain acts. This is true in the case of the loop-the-loop trapeze. The amateur performers had seen such an act in a professional circus. An aerial bar was attached to steel uprights instead of ropes, and standing on the bar the performer revolves arouncd the crane bar. Using steel tubing and two discarded automobile bearings, a satisfactory loop trapeze was made in a Gainesville machine shop.

THE funny Ford used by the clowns, which apparently is operated without a driver, was a stock car donated to the circus by a Gainesville automobile dealer, and transformed into a trick machine by Lloyd Saunders, an automobile mechanic, who is the circus’s volunteer electrician. Saunders removed the back seat of the machine and arranged a covering of upholstery which gives the effect of a back seat, but allows a driver to sit on the floor of the machine with his back resting against the rear of the car, and hidden from view by the false seat cushion. The driver’s quarters are so small that the steering wheel is removable and is fitted onto a short vertical steering post between the driver’s legs only after he is seated. Pedals for clutch, brake, and gearshift are set in the floor of the machine under the front seat and made workable by iron rods connected with the regular pedals. The hidden driver operates a starter by hand, and in addition to driving the machine, fires a revolver for blow-out effects, operates an air compresser which squirts a stream of water from the radiator, blows a horn and rings a bell for a telephone attached to the side of the car.

The trampolene bed used by the clown acrobats is still another example of ingenuity called forth by lack of capital. The trampolene consists of an iron frame seven feet wide and fourteen feet long resting on legs two feet high. Stretched in the frame is a canvas bed on which the acrobats bound. Lacking the trampolene springs used by professional artists, the resourceful amateurs made a bed of fourteen-ounce canvas doubled and securely sewed, and attached it to the frame with strips of discarded automobile tire tubes, one inch wide and spaced two inches apart along the sides and ends of the canvas. While the strips of rubber must be frequently replaced, the bed has sufficient spring to allow for double somersaults and other straight and comedy effects.

DURING the performances the equipment is handled by fifteen property men who volunteer their services. These property men include among others, a civil engineer, an insurance salesman, a dry-cleaning plant operator, a city street department foreman, and several college football players.

When the circus goes on the road, the paraphernalia is moved from town to town on trucks. On show day, the performers go about their daily tasks as usual and leave Gainesville late in the afternoon, motoring to the scene of their night’s performance. They return home after the show and the procedure is repeated each night of the engagement. Thus they do not lose any time from their regular employment. Citizens of Gainesville volunteer the use of their automobiles to transport the performers.

The circus is governed by a board of directors. George J. Carroll, a mortician, is president; Dr. Jerry C. Price, a physician, is vice president; and D. E. O’Brien, a bank cashier, is secretary-treasurer.

The membership is democratic to the extreme, and no person of good character who wishes to belong, is refused admittance. There are no dues and no by-laws. In the ranks are society leaders and railroad brakemen; city officials and messenger boys; bankers and newspaper reporters, lawyers and ranchmen.

There are few circus “widows” for when one member of a family joins the circus, others follow. Mayor Frank Morris, Jr., is snare drummer in the circus band and his son, Fletcher, is an acrobat. Floyd Garrett is chief rigging man and his wife, Sarah, is an aerialist. Yancy Culp is an acrobat and his wife, Mildred, is wardrobe mistress. Portis Sims is the female impersonator of clown alley, and his daughter, Jane, is a trapeze performer.

ALTHOUGH the show has been in existence for five years, none of the members have graduated to the ranks of the profession. Salaries are notoriously low in the small traveling shows and while numerous offers have been made to members of the amateur circus, in every instance the opportunity has been declined.

“What if I did join a real circus?” says Ray Whittaker. “When I came back home they wouldn’t let me take part in the community circus, for then I would be a professional. No, sir, I’ll keep my amateur status.”

The various members of the circus give different reasons for the pleasure they find in it. Some like the spirit of cooperation and comradeship it fosters; others are thrilled by the sense of achievement in mastering difficult feats. Gainesville is justly proud of its circus as a wholesome community activity.

9 comments
  1. Warner DeFord says: October 20, 20076:48 pm

    I had a small business in Gainesville in the late 1980s. I found the people there to to be very community,and civic minded and always willing to organize for worthwhile causes. There was always something happening that brought people together and always a lot of fun. I’m surprised that some of the older citizens haven’t tried to bring back the old circus.

  2. Cad Wingert says: June 28, 20088:49 pm

    My father, William (Bill) Wingert was one of the original members of GCC. When the circus disbanded for WWII, he was one of six or seven original members still performing. originally he had a trapeze act with Ward Nott. He later became a clown. At the age of ten years, I became a clown in 1937. My father was killed in a railroad accident during the war. I participated for the first few seasons following the war.

  3. Gabriella McDow says: September 22, 20085:03 am

    My Dad, Paul Marion, Walked the high wire and flew on the trapeze. I was so excited to see this website. I always was excited to here every one talk about their experiences in the circus.

  4. Mike says: December 12, 20093:25 am

    I throughly enjoyed this well written article. The only problem I have with it is the original author must not have done much research to believe that the circus was unique. In the 1920s, 30s, and 40s there were a large number of community circuses all over the country. There were several that ran out of YMCAs. There were even more amateur circuses if you include the numerous collegiate circuses. None of this detracts from the Gainesville Texas circus, it is an incredible effort to keep an amateur running for any length of time and the citizens of Gainesville should be commended for keeping it going as long as they did.

  5. Jerry Harper says: February 22, 20105:44 pm

    A nice presentation which I enjoyed reading. I was a member of the circus during my high school years 1951 through 1954. I was a flyer in the trapeze act, rode bareback, did high parallel bars and trampoline. It was a great experience and now my grand children brag about the fact that I was in a real circus. It was unfortunate that a fire destroyed most of the equipment in the late 50s. It was on of the most enjoyable memories that I have. I have one of the original programs and a few pictures of the flying act displayed. I was able to take my wife and children to see the small museum that Morton set up in Gainesville sometime after the fire.

  6. Steph says: June 14, 20114:07 am

    I was fascinated by this article. I am based in the UK and am an aerial performer. I love th old fashioned type of circus acts and really want to learn how to do teeth acts. I’m having a mould of my mouth made in a few days time but even though I have loads of circus contacts and friends because it is a rare act no one is sure what the leather maouthpiece looks like. Is there anyone willing to help me? All I need is a drawing please?
    I would be eternally grateful.

  7. Sherry Young Pierce says: June 19, 20118:09 pm

    My uncle, John Young was a clown in this Circus , not sure of the year, but really enjoyed this article.
    My great grandfather was the first Mayor of Gainesville, George Y. Bird so any history of Gainesville I totally enjoy. Anyone willing to comment on those years of history would appreciate.

  8. Dave McKeown says: July 21, 201111:18 am

    Great article! I had been looking for information on the GCC and this was a tremendous find.
    My grandfather, Benjamin Saylors, was a clown with this circus in the 1950′s.

  9. janal123 says: June 1, 20129:02 am

    My family was a member of around 1953 to 54. My dad was the clown sitting in a duck pulled cart. So far I’ve only found one picture which is torn that was taken during a parade. I’d share and am wondering if there are others who might have pictures taken between 53 and 54.

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