Note: The following is a guest post by Tanya Finchum and Juliana Nykolaiszyn, creators of the Occupational Folklife Project collection The “Big Top” Show Goes On: An Oral History of Occupations Inside and Outside the Canvas Circus Tent. All photos in this post are part of collection, and can be found, often at higher resoultions, by visiting the associated interviews within the collection. Explore the collection at this link!
Whether we live in the big city or in a small town, when we hear “the circus is coming,” memories from childhood start rushing back. Elephants, cotton candy, acrobats flying high through the air, and the unmistakable smell of popcorn fill our minds and hearts with days gone by. For two researchers in Oklahoma, the circus has taken on even more meaning after visiting the small town of Hugo, Oklahoma, also known as “Circus City, USA” or “the Sarasota of the Southwest.”
The authors of this article, Tanya Finchum and Juliana Nykolaiszyn, are library faculty members at Oklahoma State University. We were awarded an Archie Green Fellowship through the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in 2011 to document circus workers in a project called The “Big Top” Show Goes On: An Oral History of Occupations Inside and Outside the Canvas Circus Tent. The collection has recently gone online on the Library of Congress website, and you can visit it at this link.
Our interest in Hugo started a few years prior to the fellowship. In 2009, we visited Mount Olivet Cemetery, seeking out Showmen’s Rest, just one of a handful of cemeteries dedicated to circus performers and workers in the United States. Surrounded by ornate headstones inscribed with phrases such as “May all your days be circus days,” we wanted to know the rest of the story. Soon, the idea for an oral history project focused on Hugo’s circus community started to take shape.
The Circus Comes to Town
Hugo, Oklahoma, with a population of approximately six thousand, has a long history of circus culture dating back over seventy years. Approximately twenty circuses through the years established winter quarters in Hugo, whose beginnings as a hub for tent shows can be attributed to the Pratt and Miller families. According to a 1969 article by Donald R. Carson (available by scrolling down the page at this link), Obert Miller and his two sons, Kelly and D.R., started Miller Brothers Circus in 1937. It consisted of a few donkeys and ponies and primarily played in the “high grass” area of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and South Dakota. In 1938 the name was changed and they opened the season as the Al G. Kelly and Miller Brothers Circus. The Millers relocated their circus operations from Kansas to Hugo, Oklahoma in 1941 after a prominent local businessman, Vernon Pratt, made an offer to attract the Millers to the area. In exchange for a free place to stay, electricity, and water, the Millers provided a public exhibition of their one-ring show every Sunday during those early years.The Al G. Kelly and Miller Brothers Circus helped establish Hugo as an attractive winter home for tent-based shows. The location of Hugo was more than optimal due to its overall climate, geographic location, and friendly townsfolk. Over the years a symbiotic relationship has been nurtured through which the town’s businesses have supported the circuses, and in turn circus owners and performers have been civic partners, contributing to such endeavors as the local hospital, schools and charity organizations.
Despite the boom in circuses wintering in Hugo, there also came a bust. Over time, shows changed hands, in some cases names, and even owners. Some were successful, some folded. Yet, the town of Hugo continues to hold strong to its circus heritage. Currently three active circuses call Hugo home; Carson and Barnes, Kelly Miller, and Culpepper & Merriweather. Traveling by road, these three tent circuses entertain in towns of various sizes, including small rural communities throughout the country. Their continued existence is evidence that the circus is still magical for people of all ages and is truly one of the last great family entertainments.
At the end of the day, showmen and women love what they do. In talking with members of the Hugo circus community through this oral history project, we learned that they love the smiles, the smells, the traveling, and the joy circuses bring to families across the United States. Whether they are currently employed in a traveling show, retired or even semi-retired, the circus is still very much part of who they are.
Workplace Culture and Communication
For twenty-five years David Rawls owned Kelly Miller Circus. Kelly Miller, just like the other Hugo-based shows, runs like a well-oiled machine. Looking back on show operations in his interview with us, Rawls helped shed light on the movement of the circus. “A lot of people think you jump all over the country with a circus, and that’s so far from the truth it’s not funny. In twenty-five years we averaged forty-eight miles a day and that’s playing two hundred and ten dates a year. It was well thought out, well planned, well plotted. Occasionally, we went farther, sometimes shorter, but we averaged, over the years, forty-eight miles a day. So you had an hour move, like an hour commute to go to work. You got up in the morning and you loaded and cleaned up. People left the grounds in an orderly fashion, early in the morning, and by 7:00, 7:30, you’re arriving in your new town when people are getting up and starting to move around.”
In addition to precision in moving, shows also boast a distinct organizational structure. Circus lots are usually divided into the front and back yards, with the front being the public side of the show and the back being the private areas of the circus including the living quarters (trailers or sleeper cars), animals, props, equipment, storage, cookhouse and more.
With such structure also comes a unique style of communication. Communication not only helps minimize accidents on the lot, but also provides a glimpse into the day-to-day culture which has evolved between employees. For example, if you are reading this story right now, you are probably a “towner,” or one who is not employed by the circus. Other examples include “flag’s up,” when it’s meal time in the cookhouse, “hey rube,” when there is a fight on the lot, and “floss,” which refers to cotton candy.
From movement to language, the close bonds workers form with each other is evident on the road. As show owner, you tend to become more than a boss, but sometimes an intermediary in solving problems not only in business operations but also with personal problems being faced by those in your employ, according to David Rawls. He commented, “Quite often, I was father confessor and people would come and tell me their troubles, and I would have to deal with issues that I really didn’t want to deal with, but it was part of my job, too. It’s important to them so it’s important to me. So you would try to resolve the issues if you could without inserting yourself into peoples’ personal lives.”
Traveling in such close quarters strengthens bonds and tends to develop lifelong friendships between those in the circus ranks. Even upon retirement, showmen and women continue to remain connected to the greater circus community.
Tricycles, Bicycles, and Life Cycles
Workers employed in the circus, from performers to animal trainers, typically come from two different worlds: generational circus families and outsiders with an in-demand skill-set. Generational circus families typically bring a wealth of talents to a show, with children learning techniques and roles in their early years mixed with the seasoned professionalism and attention to detail from older employees. Secondly, you have those workers who join the show later in life with key knowledge or skills. In both situations, workers come from varied backgrounds and experiences and usually face unique challenges on the road based on a variety of unknowns every given season. Despite being a descendant of a generational circus family or the son or daughter of a towner who joins the show for a better life, most learning begins with the children in the form of play for some, and reality for others.
Family life takes many shapes and forms within the circus just as it does outside of the circus. Childbirth, for example, is planned with the show schedule in mind. Tent shows typically open the season the end of March and close the end of October. In our interview with the Loter family, family member Moira Curiel remarked, “We knew if we did it right we could either have birth in January, February, or March and still be in shape…still be ready for March or April.” Most of the Loter family members were “winter babies” because the women contributed to the family income by performing in the show. The Loter family has been in show business for over eight generations. Siblings Faye, Terry, and Billie, born in the wintertime in the 1940s and 1950s, grew up in the circus, acquired various skills, and held numerous jobs in the circus, from working in the cookhouse to swallowing fire to working the sideshow.
Whether it’s the applause or the feeling of family, strong associations are made that seem to last a lifetime. As Alfredo Curiel, a retired trapeze artist said in the Loter family interview, “You miss the most sometimes at night…Sometimes at night, I wake up and I feel—when you go inside the big top and you smell the sawdust, when you hear the roar of the lions at night, it’s something…You smell it. You feel it. It’s something in you. Especially, sometimes I’m dreaming and I’m dreaming when, before I go to work, before I go all the way up in the trapeze, I dream I put my arm bands on and I’m prepared, and when I do any trick in the air, I do in the air. I do in the dream. I do it. Before I do, everything is, I hear the [imitates drum roll] of the drummer, and when I do the somersault in the air or something, I hear what I hear when I really did it, when I was young. You just, you hear the air, like a [imitates wind] but silence, and immediately, when your catch, you hear the people, the exclamation of the people. “Wow!” And then you come back to your trapeze and then you jump and you platform and oh my God! It’s so beautiful! And I miss it. I missed that for many years…Sometimes, I cry, yes, sometimes. I say, “Why did I leave the circus?” But I recognize later on, “I don’t leave the circus, the circus leaves me,” because here comes the age when you can’t move fast.” Curiel is in his sixties now and is training the next generation of aerialists and acrobats in Hugo.
Many members of the circus community are not only born into the business, they grow old in the business. Just as in other work, as the human body ages, abilities change. Repetitive jumps, vaults, and tumbles wear on back muscles and knees, among other things. As one ages in the circus, however, there are other jobs a person can do such as take tickets or work the concessions. The late B.K. Silverlake was born into a circus family in 1946 and married into another circus family. She worked about every job there is to do on the circus. At an early age she taught herself a trapeze act and had a mentor who introduced her to various aspects of circus work by having her actually do different jobs such as billposting, booking, selling tickets, running concessions and numerous other tasks. In her interview, Silverlake remarked, “Now, I’m here to tell you, because I was pretty young back then, I would sell a ticket, catch a floss off the machine, I could wait on somebody, or I could grind ice, or I could make a snow cone, go back, sell the next ticket, and catch the next floss that came off that machine.” These experiences laid the foundation for B.K. to own and operate a circus. When she could no longer perform a trapeze act there were many other jobs she could do and even in semi-retirement she continued to book shows, work in the cookhouse, and perform an occasional whip act with her son. She stated, “It’s the most wonderful life there ever can be. Every child, every person in this country should have to spend one season on a circus and they would respect, honor more about life than anywhere else will ever teach them.”
Choices Along the Way
More often than not, circus is a family business. Children who are born into a circus family soon learn a trade or an art to contribute to the show and to the family. Siblings do not always share similar feelings in regards to choosing the circus as a career path. An example of this is a pair of cousins whom we interviewed together: Zefta “Dolly” Pirtle and the late Luciana “Lucy” Loyal. Both of these women are members of the sixth generation of the Loyal Repensky family, renowned for their bareback riding acts, who came to America in 1932 to join the Ringling show. Repensky was the maiden name of Jules Loyal’s mother and only Loyals performed. Natives of France with a long history of performing in numerous circuses around Europe, this horseback riding act included various acrobatic formations and feats accomplished on horseback. Their act included a seven person pyramid based on five horses. At one time it was considered one of the highest class equestrian troupes in the United States.
With time, and as the members of the troupe married, members of the Loyal family developed specialties of their own. The Alfonso Loyal Repensky troupe quickly earned a reputation as an excellent bareback riding act and Lucy Loyal, the daughter of Alfonso, was one of the stars. Lucy was born in 1949 in Sarasota, Florida and in 1955 her family made their first trip to Hugo, Oklahoma where they joined the Al G. Kelly and Miller Brothers Circus. Lucy was already performing at this time. By 1965 her family had moved to Hugo and was performing for the Carson and Barnes Circus with whom Lucy continued to be associated until her death in 2012. While Lucy loved circus life and circus work, Dolly, on the other hand, did not. Dolly Pirtle is the daughter of Zefta Loyal Perez and Raymond Perez. Dolly, at a young age, learned aerial acts and performed on the trapeze until she graduated from high school. At that time, she married and left the circus life never to return.
Lucy and Dolly spent quite a bit of time honing their craft as youngsters under the guidance of their grandfather. Often, the duo would spend time in school and then go straight into practice sessions with their grandfather. In her joint interview with Lucy, Dolly recalled “…we practiced every day. It was like we went to school and then we went to school. He was very, very strict with us.” Despite the strict regimen of training, both women feel strongly about their circus days and ties to the circus community. It is still very much a part of their self-identity, despite their career paths as adults. In a separate interview with Lucy alone, we asked what the draw to the circus was now that she is not physically able to perform as a bareback rider. Her response was, “It’s just in my blood, I guess, because I’ve done it all my life. I don’t know. I just I miss it.”
While the Loyals came from a long line of circus performers, the Jack Moore family did not. After Jack Moore returned from serving in World War I he began a tent picture show with a partner that had a circuit in east Texas and west Louisiana. They started acquiring animals, and named their show the Jack and Kelley’s Bear Track Shows. They soon changed the name of the show to Tex Carson’s Jamboree and Wild Animal Show and in 1952 the family moved to Hugo, Oklahoma. Jack and his wife had four children: Wanda, Mike, Martha, and Madelyn. As time moved on, Jack struck a deal with D.R. Miller for use of canvas and an elephant by the name of Mabel, and in 1958 changed the name of the show to Carson and Barnes Circus. Jack’s children and wife worked with the show, doing whatever needed to be done, like it or not. While none of Jack’s children chose a circus career, they are proud of the circus their father built and the life lessons they learned in their youth traveling with the show.
Looking back on their childhood in their interview, Mike and Martha Moore were able to draw comparisons between circus work and farming or the movement of tribes. Mike Moore explained, “There’s a couple of analogies that help people understand what it’s like living on a circus, at least back in the ’50s and ’60s. Martha likes to use the analogy of it’s like a farm. You get up early, you do your chores, you take care of the animals, everybody’s got multiple jobs to do, everyone works very hard. And the parents, in particular, have a huge multitasking-type environment to go through. So there’s, I think, a lot of similarities between the circus life and farm. I’ve never been a farmer, but I can imagine what it’s like. The other analogy that’s particularly appropriate for Oklahoma is like an Indian tribe, a nomadic Indian tribe. You’re self-sufficient, you’re moving from location to location. You have a very tight-knit almost family-like feel, even though not everybody is a part of the same family. But it’s a one-for-all, all-for-one type of mentality, and so I think the combination of those two environments are pretty close to what it’s like growing up on a circus.”
Jack Moore died in 1969 at the age of fifty and is buried in Showmen’s Rest, part of the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Hugo. A few years after his passing, Carson and Barnes was sold to the Miller family and is still in operation today.
Not all circus employees are born into the circus with the opportunity to learn skills over a lifetime. For those that join the show as adults, the learning curve is typically different. Yes, you have to acclimate yourself to the travel, pace, and organizational aspects of the circus, but youngsters once again take center stage. Children of working circus parents, when not in school, are usually practicing. And for those kids who did not grow up in a generational circus family, practice is more like play. Donna Moos’ family came to the circus in 1975 when her father was hired to run the cookhouse for Carson and Barnes Circus. He had previous experience running a restaurant and working for the health department in Paris, Texas. Once immersed in the circus world, Donna quickly turned her sights to performing in the show, and started learning the tools of the trade by playing with other kids on the lot. Due to this normal activity, she developed her talent as an aerialist. In her interview, Donna recalled, “I was thinking about it a few months ago, eventually, my last turn with one of the circuses I had my own trapeze act. I had another act called the cloud swing, an aerial act, and I never would have had those if Lucy [Loyal] hadn’t let us play on her trapeze. She didn’t stand there and teach us, she would just lower it down so we wouldn’t kill ourselves. It was play, but we were learning when we played. Then when I was ten I actually started working in the show. I had to wear a Marilyn Monroe wig so I wouldn’t look ten, because I was working with the other show girls that were in their late teens, early twenties.”
Nurture Verses Nature
There are many, many jobs within the circus, and while everybody works, not everyone has the same ability or desire to do the same job. Circus families with multiple members have the added challenge of discovering each child’s talents and nurturing those or deciding each child’s potential aptitude to learn a particular art or skill that was needed to fill a void in the show. The Rawls family is an example. The late Mary Frazier Rawls was born in San Francisco, California in 1927. For a time her father, using the stage name of Jack Williams, was known as “The Human Fly” and would climb tall buildings for pay. He would also paint store and restaurant windows to support the family. As the Depression hit, he began moving around more and continued to paint signs but also began the transition to performing various acts in different venues. Mary recalled her father teaching her the carrying perch act when she was six years old. He also taught her mother how to juggle, and her two younger brothers would do a boxing match to add to the family’s act. As they moved from town to town the family would perform on the streets to help support themselves.
Mary was around the age of fifteen when the family joined their first organized show. Mary performed a high wire act for much of her circus career and transitioned to concessions after retiring from the wire. She married Harry Rawls, also in the show business, around 1947, and they worked for several circuses through the years including Cole and Walters, Carson and Barnes, King Brothers, and Kelly Miller. In a two-part interview Mary shared experiences of her circus career which spanned a lifetime noting that everyone knew everyone and that “it was just like you lived in a little town that picked up and moved every day.” She talked about learning to perform, the challenges and benefits of rearing children in the circus community, and her favorite part of being in show business. She remarked, “I loved the entertainment and getting down and taking my bow and hearing applause. I loved it, every minute of it! Then I’d go back in the backyard and wash the diapers out in the bathtub. No kidding. I washed them out in the bathtub.” She and husband, Harry, reared eight children as they traveled the country with various circuses and this collection includes oral history recordings with sons, David and Robert Rawls. [Find part 1 of Mary’s interview here, and part 2 of Mary’s interview here.]
David Rawls, the eldest son of Harry and Mary Rawls, was born in 1948, and moved with the family to Hugo, Oklahoma in 1955 where they joined the Famous Cole Circus owned by Herb Walters. During his youth, in addition to performing trampoline acts with his brother, David was interested in learning all aspects of the circus industry and sought out every opportunity to learn. He has worked in just about every occupation within the circus. In 1984 David took out his own show, Kelly Miller Circus, and completed twenty-five successful years as owner/manager before selling it in 2009. He has also served as City Manager and Mayor of Hugo, Oklahoma, further showing the relationship between the circus community and the town.
In his interview, David discussed the logistics of moving a circus over two hundred times a season along with some of the changes he has seen in the industry. He also explained the historical relationship between routes and economic factors such as agricultural seasons. He remarked, “We would open up in the spring of the year and go south into Texas, and you’d follow the wheat harvest. The wheat harvest would start down here and gravitate north all the way to the Canadian border. After that, it was time for the corn harvest, and so you would turn around and follow the corn harvest back. When you got down to this part of the country, you had the cotton crop or if you went to Louisiana, you had cane season, where they cut cane. The reason for the shows following the crops is because that’s when people had money in their pocket. That’s when they had the ability to go to a circus or have a good time.” As farming and agriculture has changed so have circus routes.
Robert “Bob” Rawls, another son of Harry and Mary Rawls, began performing at the early age of five, working in a rolling globe act with his father. Also at a very early age he and his brother, David, had a trampoline act and his mother trained him on the wire as well. As soon he could drive he was driving a truck over the road at night for the circus. After high school, he entered the army and served in Vietnam. After his discharge he returned to the circus and performed for a while and eventually became a boss canvasman. Over the years he worked with several different circuses and has done just about every job there is to do in a circus.
In part due to an accident at an early age while traveling with the circus, Bob became interested in drawing. As time moved on, he would draw posters for the circus and paint circus trucks. Around the age of thirty-five he stopped performing and moved into the management end of show business and began painting more. He has painted for various circuses and not just those that winter in Hugo. During his oral history Bob shared his childhood memories of being with the circus, performing with family, and branching out into various areas of the business. He also talked about his interest in drawing and how he came to draw circus posters and paint circus trucks.
Since 1960, showmen and women from around the country, not just Hugo, are memorialized at Showmen’s Rest at the Mount Olivet Cemetery. While Hugo circus legend D.R. Miller was responsible for purchasing a large section of plots for the purposes of developing Showmen’s Rest, a man by the name of John Carroll who worked for Carson and Barnes Circus his entire adult life, is also to thank for it. A drifter, he joined the circus as a teenager and remained with the Hugo-based show until his death in 1960. According to D.R. Miller’s daughter, Barbara Miller Byrd, Carroll left a sum of money to Miller, and Miller then developed the idea of Showmen’s Rest. Walking amongst the graves, you will often come across headstones that have been paid for by the Carroll fund. As Byrd noted in her interview, her father “had it fixed so that if somebody died in the circus business and wanted to be buried there, if they didn’t have the means or the family, that John Carroll’s fund would supply the plot and put a small marker.” Through the years, numerous circus workers have been laid to rest at Mount Olivet, and there is talk of future expansion.
Speaking of learning, Lucy Loyal said it best when it came to the circus. “It’s a learning trip, actually, through life, the circus is. Being on the circus, not having water, I can take a bath in a gallon of water, and wash my hair and everything, in a gallon of water. Not having lights, and if something should ever happen, I know how to survive without.”
You can meet more of the showmen and women, along with members of the local Hugo community, by exploring the online collection on the Library of Congress website. There is also a website at Oklahoma State University with additional materials including select video segments and grade school lessons.