Circus Dreams Fulfilled















Copyright Jack Prince 2017

All Rights Reserved

Published by Jack Prince Publications

Cheyenne, Wyoming

Printed in USA



Thanks to God, family and friends for their unfailing love and encouragement throughout life’s journey. For some very special help in writing and detailing the following memoirs, deep appreciation goes to associates, friends and mentors, Gayle and Sheryl Lain. Appreciation for the many hours of reviewing my writing goes to Margaret Shaw. Her expertise in evaluation and editing helped create this document.





To my beloved wife Jeannie Ellen,

daughter Paula, sons Mike, Grady,

and Chris, their spouses, and our nineteen grandkids.

Thank you for listening to my story.

























I was a confident 16-year-old the day I strode into the outdoor stadium in Fresno, California. I was a long way from home, but that didn’t deter me. I had the key to my future, I thought—a wrinkled letter in my pocket from Louie Stern, manager of the Polack Brothers’ Circus. The letter said that Stern would be expecting me.

I knew I was a fortunate teenager to have a summer job with the circus. When I arrived, the matinee had just ended, and competition among patrons to reach the parking lot was in full swing. I had to buck the crowd to reach the arena. In spite of my feelings of exhilaration, guilt poked at my conscience. To get them to allow me to join the circus for the summer, I’d lied to my parents about Mr. Stern and his “wife” being willing to watch out for me. Actually, there was no guardian agreement between the Sterns and me. As far as I knew, there was not even a Mrs. Stern. I knew it was wrong to lie, but, at the time, I would have said almost anything to be there. Apparently, I had done a good selling job. I wondered, however, how much my mother and stepfather really knew. They were bright, responsible, loving, and caring. Once again, knowing my intentions, they realized that I would have probably run away had they not granted me permission. Whatever their reasons, I was circus bound, with authorization.

Prior to the trip, I had picked up a second-hand suitcase from the Salvation Army in Denver. To give the rather ordinary container an authentic circus look, I sprayed it glossy black and, on each end, painted my name in red letters, PRINCE. Holding my “official” traveling case in front of me, ram fashion, I walked upstream against the flow of people exiting the circus grounds.

The outdoor facility dictated the show's layout. Unlike traditional shows with tents and wagons all neatly positioned around the Big Top, this outdoor circus conformed to its varied surroundings, making it seem different in many ways from its canvas-covered predecessor. Removing the tents, it seemed to me, had a sterilizing effect. Missing was the large banner line, with its giant, full-color posters highlighting the sideshow wonders of exotic creatures hidden on the inside -- Joe-Joe the Over-Sized Gorilla! Con Colossal, the Giant Albino Elephant (deceased and stuffed, of course), or whatever other intriguing sights the show happened to feature that season. The carnival-style concession stands that once lined the midway were gone, too. Fortunately for the crowds, the no-win games, known as flat-joints, were also gone. Their motto was, “If the mark (patron) is green, take the money and run!” Such games, run by grifters, always a thorn in the side of legitimate shows, were common among smaller circuses. There were no apparent grifters in Fresno. This modern circus had a different feel. At least the “front-yard” had changed.

But there were pitchmen, waving balloons, banners, and trinkets in the faces of the departing crowd, giving every man, woman and child one last opportunity to trade some coin for a circus memento. “Get your circus souvenir!” they barked. The pungent smell of animals -- elephants, lions, tigers, bears, horses and monkeys -- blended with the aroma of sawdust, cotton candy, and hot buttered popcorn. Tents or not, this was indeed “Circus!” Elated about being a part of it, I took in several deep breaths and began looking for familiar faces.

The long bus ride from Denver had left me exhausted. I discovered that the ride on seats inside the old Grey dog were not as swift as the sleek icon painted on the outside implied. By the time the bus rolled into Fresno, all my fellow travelers, including myself, seemed a little droopy. The men needed shaves and the women needed mirrors. We chose this bus travel as a matter of economics, else we may have ridden the rails or taken the wings of the morning, arriving refreshed. Both nights on the road had been chilly. With no blanket or way to stretch out, I had not slept well. Nevertheless, I was excited to be on my way to California to join the circus. I would not have rested very well anyway.

Upon reaching the arena, my concerns morphed into illusions of grandeur and the glorious adventure just ahead. I was thrilled to see palm trees for the first time, and I could not wait to wrap my fingers around that heavy, leaden trapeze bar and swing to my destiny. Shortly, Eddie Kohl, aerialist extraordinaire, appeared and welcomed me to the show. Immediately, I asked whether I could go up and take a swing on the trapeze. His response was, without hesitation, “Go ahead.” I set my suitcase down close to the rope ladder hanging from the pedestal board and began the climb skyward toward heaven. This had to be a dream!

My fixation faded as I glanced down. The net, ten feet wide, fifty feet long with thirty-foot aprons, extended upward and outward at each end, seemed to blend with the grass beneath. From this height, the two-inch squares in the net merged into the background, making it almost invisible. The net was in place all right, but every aerialist knew that even with a net, a bad landing could turn it into a big-black spider bite, metaphorically speaking.

I recalled an earlier practice session at the Denver Y when the net spreaders were not taut. I dropped into the net and smacked into the hard wood floor beneath. The impact had left an impression, and not on the floor, but on my backside. Since then, I have landed safely hundreds of times, but I always wondered what if I or the net failed and out came the spider.

Using the wire hook in my right hand, I grabbed the bar with my left and swung it upward, leaving the wire hook behind. At the same time, I gripped the bar with both hands and swung downward, away from the pedestal. Approaching the center of the arc, I sharply dropped my feet toward midpoint, thus allowing my legs to drift back and behind me. As my swing reached its apex, I pulled hard on the bar and kicked out with both legs in a full-body extension to accelerate the swing. This was living!

The back swing was smooth and swift, taking me back and above the pedestal board, without banging against it. I kept my back, head and shoulders straight, legs and feet slightly forward in a pike position, eyes looking just over the top of the fly bar, arms extended. Upon reaching the top of the swing, I reversed the grip with my right hand and swung downward. Exhilaration! At the end of the swing forward, I turned my body one-half-turn, and released my left hand and grasped the bar. Now facing the pedestal, I was ready to finish this adrenalin rush. Here, I was at last with the circus, on the trapeze, swinging high above the arena. It was indeed a dream come true. This was my destiny.

Convinced this routine was enough for the first day and again realizing genuine fatigue, I decided to reign in my euphoria and climb down. But as I returned to the pedestal, the idea occurred to me that rather than climb down the rope ladder, I could just step off the pedestal and land in the net on my back. Surely, that way down to the ground would be easier.

After taking a long look at the net below and calculating the rebound results, I indeed stepped off the board. That was the last thing I remembered.

Regaining consciousness, I realized I was on the ground, next to the net with excruciating face pain. Rudy Docky, a performer with the show, came running to my side. From his initial vantage point, he thought a steel stake had penetrated my torso. Fortunately, my careening body had missed that stake. Seconds later, a crowd of circus folk surrounded me. Everyone asked what had happened. According to Rudy, I had dropped into the net and rebounded directly into the fly bar, striking it face first. That blow had knocked me unconscious and I fell, uncontrolled, back into the net and then ejected out of the net and onto the floor.

Finally able to take questions, I explained to everyone what I was doing on the equipment in the first place. In this case, destruction came before pride. I could see my swollen lips in front of my nose. I had not lost any teeth at the time, but I had severely injured a right front tooth that I would soon lose. I was grounded. From glory to grounded! I spent the next few weeks earning my keep as a roustabout and stagehand, nursing the swollen face and suffering the nagging pain. The work involved moving heavy equipment and hustling setups and teardowns. It was hard and the hours were long. I was paid $2.50 a day. Following the night show, I crawled into the cab of one of the trucks, curled up on the seat, and remained motionless until morning. I slept wherever and whenever I could, including on passenger trains between towns. I sure was glad we were in sunny California where the nights were not too cold. I could not chew regular food, so I stuck to a diet of malted milks or anything that would go through a straw. Hamburgers would not. I was miserable.

I tried keeping in shape, tumbling and doing handstands between shows, but any head-down activities were painful. I tried swimming whenever the circus set up near a pool. Diving was out of the question. Finally, I got the message. They were not about to let me fly again. Besides, I needed medical attention.

I decided to leave the show. My dreams of flying as a circus star had turned into ground-level drudgery. I had muffed my chances. My last morning, Mr. Stern asked me to take a bundle of his white shirts, about a dozen of them, to the laundry. I completed that task, but despondent and unable to say goodbye for fear of crying, I slipped out early in the morning, boarded a bus in Bakersfield and returned home to Denver. The boy was fine, but the fall from Grace had pierced this fledgling’s heart. It was wrong to have lied to my parents. Was my misfortune retribution for my bad behavior?

A week later, back in Denver, a letter arrived postmarked Pasadena, California. The contents were short and to the point “Dear Jack: Where did you go, and what happened to my white shirts?” The letter was signed Louie Stern, manger, Polack Brothers Circus. In my fog of pain and defeat, I had forgotten all about the day the show landed in Bakersfield. I did not know what I did with the ticket, and I could not remember the name of the laundry. I apologized to him.

Louie evidently forgave me, because a year later, I was stranded in LA, and he wired me bus fare to get home.



I had a lot of time on the bus ride home from California to examine my circus dreams, now in ruins. In pain and humiliated, I wondered where I got this crazy dream to be a trapeze artist? How could my fortunes go so wrong so fast? How could I have failed so completely after all the hours of preparation to follow my heart? I looked back over the road that brought me to this point and I wondered if maybe I was not, after all, in sole charge of my life.

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My story began on September 12, 1931 when my mother, Frances (Hamilton) Moon, who at the ripe old age of fifteen, gave birth to me in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I think I can remember being an unwanted child, and who could blame her? My young father, Earnest North Moon, was in the Army, stationed at F.E. Warren Field in Cheyenne. He gave me my life and then, after a few months, marched away forever.

Mother, a single parent seeking a means of support, found employment in nearby Denver at the Mode-O-Day dress shop, downtown, next to the Denver Theater on Sixteenth Street. She worked six days a week. Being a very attractive young woman, she, and a new-found friend, Betty Welcho, a Samoan beauty, began modeling. Betty was a single parent, also, with a daughter Icel, who was my age. Icel and I became best friends.

While Mother worked, I lived with her sister, Aunt Thelma (Hamilton) Petersen, a practicing nurse, and her husband, Clark Petersen. Mother often commuted the 100 miles back and forth from Denver to Cheyenne. Clark learned his trade in the U.S. Navy and now worked at the Weather Bureau, next to the Cheyenne Airport. I remember their upstairs apartment downtown, just off Carey Avenue. The furnished place included a living room with a wall-towall carpet that proved to be a perfect playground for small cars and toy airplanes. Clark contributed to the array of toys by bringing home used radio tubes that replicated Buck Rogers’s rocket ships. The transparent vacuum tubes facilitated my imagination; I pretended crew members inside at work.

Even before I started school in Cheyenne, I wanted to be a cowpoke. So did everyone else in Cheyenne. The town’s department stores reflected the cowboy mystique—the Wrangler, the Plains Hotel, and Western Ranchman Outfitter. The whole town promoted the cowboy image. Vehicle license plates carried the Bucking Bronco symbol. They still do.

In 1934-5, it was common to see a horse on the streets. Milk was delivered each morning from a horse-drawn wagon, and the milk was packaged in a Plains Dairy container. To my delight, the bottle label carried a picture of a cowboy. The brown paper wrapping around the bottleneck came off easily and made a perfect cowboy wristband that lasted at least twenty-four hours, until the next milk run. My imagination was alive and well.

When I was young, I wanted to be a cowboy, a real cowboy just like my granddad, Wild Bill Fitzgerald. He rode, roped and herded critters year-round in Old Wyoming. He also participated annually in the Frontier Days rodeo, known as "The Daddy of ‘Them All." I remember standing before the long-mirror on the back of my aunt's bedroom door dressed in my full cowboy regalia -- boots, spurs, white hat, neckerchief, rodeo chaps, wristbands, holster and six-gun. I would quick-draw against the make-believe culprit in the mirror. Was he fast! But I was faster, and I never missed. Oh, I may have been wounded a time or two, but the hombre in the mirror always went down, while I stayed on my feet. I developed quite a reputation for myself.

On Friday night, I was off to the Princess Theater to see cowboys on the screen replicate my mirror shoot-outs. When my aunt and uncle could not take me to the movies, I went with neighbors, Frank and Margaret Pillie. Frank was a lithographer for the Cheyenne Eagle newspaper, and he was always available to go to the movies on Friday evening.

To be a real cowboy, I felt I needed a horse. More than anything in the world I wanted a horse or a pony. I would have settled for a dog, but I really wanted a pony. Instead, I was given a little glass dog, which I was allowed to hold every day as soon as I cleaned up, dressed and got my hair combed. Auntie held my chin as she combed my hair, and I sure hated that. Once the chores were out of the way, I could sit back in the big soft brown chair in the living room and hold my little black and white dog, Spot. It was not a pony or even a real dog. Hard as he was, I sure loved that little fella. I swear, the longer I held him, the softer he got.

One morning, a photographer showed up in front of the apartment. He said he had a live pony, with a saddle and all the rest, and wanted to take my picture sitting on his pony. Auntie stepped outside with the man and closed the door. I think the answer she gave him was no, because he left and not another word was mentioned. I sat with my little dog for a long time that day.

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Scar tissue forms from disappointments. Pain hurts less in time. My occasional twinges of disappointment passed. Most people mask their hurts, and so do I, but these injustices gave me the structure upon which I built my life. I understand this now, but as a little boy, I just made my way from one experience to another.

I did not realize it at the time, but the people who entered my life shaped me. They brought me an understanding of God and His relationship to me. Tough as that day was for me, I now know that God intervenes to lead me, whether I knew it at the time or not. Now, I see that the time with my aunt and uncle, and all the others who come into my story, planted seeds of imagination, determination and adventure that gave direction to the rest of my life.


That’s Life Children run in it.

Teens run into it.

Smart people run it.

Dumb folks run up against it.

Elders run out of it.

—Jack Prince




Travelling was always a part of my life. I was shuttled between Cheyenne and Denver from the time I was four years old. My jaunts back and forth made me feel closer to my mother and grandparents and, provided relief to Aunt Thelma and Uncle Clark. Before placing me on the train bound for Denver, Aunt Thelma pinned a note to my shirt, providing the essential details of who I was, where I was going, and who was to meet me at the Union Station. The railroad conductor on that route happened to be a Cheyenne neighbor. He assured Auntie he would keep an eye on me throughout the trip until I was picked up.

When I reached my fifth birthday, I moved to Denver with my grandparents. They enrolled me in kindergarten, first at Swansee Elementary School in East Denver, and later, following our move to the middle of town, Franklin Elementary School at Speer Boulevard and Colfax Avenue next to what was then the Denver City Jail. (There is a limerick in there somewhere.)

Some go to Harvard

Some go to Yale.

I got my education

… Guess where?

Following kindergarten, it was back to Cheyenne, where I began first grade at Central Elementary School, a block south of the State Capitol. The school playground was the paved street running east and west in front of the building. Upon finishing second grade, I returned to Denver. However, there was problem!

Third grade students in Denver were already writing in cursive, while I had only learned to print. The teacher began class with a spelling test and instructions to write, not print, the answers. I hit the panic button. As the teacher recited the words, I knew each of them, having recently spelled those same words correctly on a test in Cheyenne. Now, all I needed was to link my printed letters. This seemed like a creative endeavor that, while not exactly right, would get me by. When the teacher reached my desk, she exclaimed loudly, “What is this?” She took that teachable moment and in one fell swoop taught me to hate school. I had had loved school in Cheyenne, but now I was embarrassed and degraded. That afternoon on the playground the other kids mocked me. My first day at Evans was a lousy day. It set the stage for another emerging theme, that the classroom was not the place for me, leading me to a life in the circus.

Mother remarried when I was eight years old. This was a true Divine Intervention. This gift got me a new dad and a new name. Chet Prince could not have been more encouraging and interested in me than if he had been my natural father. He was interested in everything from boxing to opera and shared his delight in life with me. Until he came along, my adventure and bravado were exercised only in my imagination, but he took me places and introduced me to new things, all the while encouraging my own explorations.

We moved to an apartment at 1315 Bannock Street, a block south of the Court House in Denver, and across the street from Grace Community Church. The church provided free lunch to children attending Evans School, and I took advantage of their ministry.

Denver’s population was around 500,000 souls in those days, and it was a child’s dream world. We moved around a lot in Denver, but regardless of where we lived, we were only a dozen blocks or so from downtown and close to the world’s greatest playground, the Civic Center, surrounded by a child’s dream of playgrounds: the State Capitol Building, Court House, public library, state museum, and amphitheater. Working water fountains and sculptures were everywhere. A reflecting pool with opposing seal fountains arched water streams at each other in front of the library. In addition, throughout the park were yards and yards of rich, plush grass. This was my cultural paradise. I spent most of my time at the Civic Center playing until dark, arriving back at the apartment, exhausted, starved, and unimaginably content with the life and freedom the area provided.

To add to what I considered an ideal childhood, the evenings were spent listening to the radio and exercising my imagination with an array of programs and stories. For the kids, it was The Lone Ranger, I love a mystery, Captain Midnight, Quiz Kids, and Charley McCarthy . For the adults there was Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Grand Old Opera, Truth or Consequences, and on and on. Radio provided something for everyone – local and world news, drama, music, mysteries, comedy -- on just about every subject.

When we were not listening to the radio, we took off for the movies. Denver offered more than a dozen movie theaters downtown. To keep customers coming during the Depression Era, Wednesday nights became “Bank Nite,” and the lucky patron whose ticket stub was plucked from the squirrel cage during intermission could walk home with twenty-five dollars cash in his pocket, big money in the Thirties.

Combining a cash give-away with feature films, the houses drew large crowds, mostly families, who sat together through an entire picture and were never embarrassed by romantic scenes or off-color dialogue. Until Gone with the Wind came out in 1939, swearing was not heard in motion pictures and intimate relations were alluded to but never shown.

I was a movie buff, even as a kid. Saturday mornings were journeys to the Magic City to enter bigger-than-life adventures. I took in Theater Row downtown, between Fifteenth and Eighteenth Streets on Curtis. Clear lights flashed around big bold black letters on no less than nine theater marquees that blazed intriguing film titles. Still in my cowboy phase, the question was, “Which western shall I see today?”

I suppose my acute interest in westerns stemmed from my step granddad, Wild Bill. During the times I spent with my grandparents, we attended hundreds of rodeos. Even as I grew older, I thought seriously of becoming a cowboy. Annually, I would dress up in cowboy attire and march in the Denver Post Western Costume Contest. While receiving recognition for my efforts, I never won the event, like my close friend, Bob Manhart. Bob was well-read. He spent hours in the library, and his research on cowboys paid off. Years later, he became the editor for the Denver-based, Gates Company. He successfully encouraged me to spend more time in the library.

Most theaters on Curtis Street ran westerns. The Victory Theater was one of my favorites, because it was newer than the others and played newer releases. I was especially fond of Gene Autry, but any cowboy picture would do. The only setback was that kids’ tickets sold for fifteen cents at the Victory. Next door was the Palace Theater. Tickets there cost ten cents. Next to the Palace, the Colorado charged a mere five cents. Together the Palace and Colorado offered four, and sometimes five, feature films. While they did not match up to the Victory in style or décor, the offering of real action always won out. The Palace and Colorado were shopping mall type mini-theaters, by today’s standards, in long, narrow buildings turned movie houses. I liked the plainness of the smaller theaters with their round-cornered screens, sort of like viewing through a plastic toy movie-viewer with its dark sides and stark-white screen. Curtis Street also ran other features along with the westerns. Horror films and comedies were among them. I had no trouble tolerating Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges. The westerns starred real cowboys like Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, Johnny Mac Brown, and Hop-a-long Cassidy. Roy Rogers was a late comer, but I eventually accepted him as one of the boys. The theaters opened their doors at 10:00 a.m., and ran films back to-back until 11:30 p.m.

Across the street, and not to be ignored, was the State Theater. Because of its huge size and mouth-like shape, people today would probably refer to it as “Jaws.” The door featured an impressive, half-round, fifty-foot concave facade, lined with millions of lights, all of them working. Frankenstein and The Vampire were among some of the more memorable films I saw there.

A block east of the State Theater on the north side of the street stood the Plaza Theater, a huge older building. The theater was always very dark inside, including the lobby and hallways. It sported no fancy motifs or new carpets. The theater was frequented by a rougher crowd than one might encounter up the street at, say, the Victory. I chanced going to the Plaza because of its big screen and large balcony. The space was not crowded, so I could sit wherever I wanted.

Directly across the street from the Plaza stood the Isis (nothing to do with Middle Eastern terrorists). East of it near Eighteenth Street was the Gem Theater. Somehow, I never was able to make the connection between the theater and its name. Perhaps it was a diamond in the rough. It had an unusual fragrance unlike any of the other theaters, something between spicy foods and rat poison. I went there twice, once to see Lil’ Abner.

West of the Gem, the Isis specialized in movies and stage shows. I liked stage shows, which often included acrobats. Only a block farther west was the famous Tabor Theater, on Sixteenth, just across the street and around the corner from the Victory. It ran stage shows, too. An elaborate rococo-filled opera house in its prime and a carryover from vaudeville, it was a complete theater with a three-tiered balcony and box seats on every level. The full-length rich blue curtains bordered an honest-to-goodness stage, able to handle every sort of theatrical extravaganza.

Across from the Tabor’s stage entrance on Curtis Street, was the Rialto Theater. It too, had been a prominent vaudeville house with a near vertical balcony, orchestra pit and real stage. A large, Phantom-of-the-Opera chandelier hung from the red and gold ceiling. To accommodate movie goers, the box seats were remodeled. Nevertheless, the stage with its trap doors and dressing rooms beneath remained untouched. I discovered these features in my teens when I worked there after school as an usher.

My interest in becoming a cowboy waned the moment I saw the movie As Thousands Cheer, starring Gene Kelly. He played a trapeze artist drafted into the army and assigned to the Infantry. Of course, he preferred the Air Force. I watched the film and the wonderful trapeze act and was sold on the sheer beauty of trapeze flying. My focus suddenly and emphatically became airborne. The idea of somersaulting in mid-air was compelling that it burned its images into my mind. From that very moment, I dreamed of becoming a trapeze flyer and somersaulting into the arms of a catcher, as Kelly’s double (Gus Bell) had done in the film as a member of the Flying Corbinos.

The influences in my life were beginning to gather momentum.



Throughout my teens, dreams of flying on a circus trapeze drove my pursuit of a career. However, it did not take me long to see that my tall, skinny frame was not ideally suited for acrobatics. Undaunted, I decided that desire came first before natural-born physical traits. I would just have to work harder to realize my dreams. I was aware that acrobats were usually relatively short, muscular people. Their low center-of-gravity would give them an advantage over taller persons in turning somersaults. If I were to become an acrobat, I would simply have to overcome any physical disadvantages and learn how to somersault. Physique was relevant, but perseverance was more important.

Acrobats turned flips and so would I. Unfortunately, I did not know how to turn flips, nor did my junior high school physical education teachers. In order to learn, I would have to assume some responsibility on my own.

Subsequently, one afternoon after school at Byers Junior High, I hid in the gym locker room and waited until I was sure most people had left the building. The custodian always cleaned the gym floor first and finished by 3:45 p.m.

In one corner of the gymnasium, a stack of mats stood approximately three feet high. I could run the length of the gym, jump on top of the mat pile and attempt to execute a front flip, with the intention of landing on my feet. I spent the next hour repeating the sequence, consistently failing to rotate completely to my feet. For the next two weeks, day after day, I flipped and flopped most of the time.

I kept an eye on the gym clock as it approached 5:00 p.m., my witching hour. Though exhausted from exercising, I felt some accomplishment at having occasionally landed feet first! Finished for the day, I snuck out of the building and headed for home. Both my parents worked, so we all arrived at about the same time.

Determined to master the front somersault, I followed the same routine after school -- hiding in the locker room, running the length of gym, jumping on top of the pile of mats, and somersaulting. I gradually realized progress and was indeed becoming more consistent. By the end of the third week, I managed to land feet-first ninety percent of the time. I also discovered that by lowering the pile, I could conserve energy and complete the stunt much more easily. Forward momentum from jumping upon the higher pile was essentially unproductive. This newer approach resulted in a fraction of a second more time to become airborne and complete full rotations every time. Eventually, I reduced the mats to just two for a consistent success rate.

Delighted with my newly-acquired skill, I began demonstrating the flip to friends in gym class. Our gym teacher, Mr. Dolly McGlone, liked what he saw and permitted me to substitute my own tumbling workouts for the routine calisthenics. Mr. McGlone, who always wore sweat pants, sweatshirt, and gym shoes, fulfilled my perfect image of a gym teacher. Two friends joined me in what had begun as a clandestine adventure. Within a few weeks, my school had a cadre of would-be tumblers. I was greatly encouraged.

During that time, only a couple of the Denver schools had swimming pools. The school district offered recreational swimming one afternoon each week to students from schools who had no pool. My parents agreed to pay the small fee required to participate. Therefore, I was off to Morey Junior High on Friday after school. I already knew how to swim and viewed this as a great opportunity to learn how to dive, using the springboard for somersaulting. The skills acquired in water sports were directly applicable to the skills in tumbling. Since water landings were softer than the gym floor, I could experiment with twists and somersaults from the diving board without fear of injury. Later, in 1949-50 while attending North Denver High School, I became city and state champion in swimming, diving, and gymnastics.

After I finished seventh grade at Byers Junior High, our family moved to 2147 Lowell Boulevard, in Northwest Denver, where I enrolled in Lake Junior High School. To my amazement the gym teacher, Mr. Jack Moulton, was dressed in slacks, dress shirt, and street shoes. Not my vision of a gym teacher. However, during class a few days later, I discovered with great joy that Mr. Moulton was a full-fledged gymnast. A graduate of Iowa State University, Mr. Moulton was not only a great tumbler, but also a horizontal bar specialist and all-around gymnast. If this newfound blessing was not enough, the boys’ advisor, Mr. Lindsey D. Keeler, was also an accomplished tumbler. Both men became my immediate idols and tutors. As soon as the school day ended, I headed downtown to the YMCA, where gym and swim facilitates were readily accessible.

My classmate Don Robinson, who later became an all-American gymnast while attending the University of Northern Colorado, became my close friend. I helped Don learn his first somersault when we spent hours in my backyard jumping on my homemade trampoline. After finishing college, Don became gymnastic coach at Aurora High School, then Eastern New Mexico University and finally, coach of the NCAA champion gymnastic team at Arizona State University. When Don left New Mexico, I replaced him as gymnastic coach.

While I was still, in junior high there was another young man, Sterling Crane. I do not recall the circumstances under which we met, but we hooked up somehow, somewhere, because of our common interest in the circus. Sterling’s uncle had been a famous high-wire walker, the Great Dryden.

Unfortunately, Dryden was killed earlier in a fall from the high wire in Washington State Hells Canyon. Nevertheless, Sterling practiced his natural talent for wire walking. I remember watching him walk across the tops of schoolyard fences. When he reached an open section, he simply jumped across the opening and continued walking atop the fence. These fences were six-feet high! Each Denver school had a fenced playground, and we visited them all to check out their equipment, which included high bars, rings, swings, and ladders.

Sterling and I lived only a few short blocks apart. His home was a large, elegant three-story mansion, in the 700 block on Pearl Street, where he resided with his mother, three beautiful blond sisters, and an older brother. My interest in his sisters first drew us together, but once I learned of his interest in the circus, my focus on the Crane family members sharpened. Sterling had hundreds of pictures of his uncle, The Great Dryden High Wire Daredevil, and Dryden’s best friend, Hubert Castle, King of the Bounding Wire, doing all sorts of acrobatics. We studied them in detail.

We could see that to become circus performers, we needed to have skills and equipment. Sterling needed a bounding wire rigging, spring-loaded 3/8” wire, and I needed a real trampoline. Neither of us had money, but we were resourceful. We became collectors, traversing the streets and back alleys. Daily we walked the back alleys of downtown Denver, and found steel pipe, bed frames, steel springs, wires, mattresses, and other throwaway items. We even found a public accountant’s official stamp-press, with which we could have validated our inventory. An old steel bed frame and mattress served as our makeshift trampoline. We collected enough material to assemble Sterling’s wire rigging. Our equipment eventually took over my back yard.

Sterling’s bounding wire fit between two cherry trees. My trampoline took the center of the yard. We tumbled on the grass and did handstands on wooden boxes.

Sometime later, while walking a pipe railing, Sterling fell onto sharp steel spikes welded to the pipe. After straddling those spikes, which raised his voice an octave, he gave up the notion of wire walking.



Just prior to turning fourteen years old and enrolling at Lake Junior High School in West Denver, I appeared as a clown with the Polack Brothers Circus. In fact, Sterling and I both appeared as clowns with the show.

The circus, sponsored by the Shriners, was an annual affair. When the show played in Denver at the old city auditorium, I skipped school to join up. I am sure Mom and Dad felt that having me absent from classes for ten days was preferable to my running away with the circus full time. In deference to my interest in the circus, my stepfather wrote an advance request for my absence from school. It went something like this: “Because of Jack’s deep interest in the circus, Mrs. Prince and I are asking that he please be excused for ten school days. If you have questions, please call me.”

Then I did something very foolish. Imagining that school officials would not accept such an unusual excuse, I wrote a counter excuse to be presented when I returned to school after the circus left town. I put down something like, “Jack was ill,” and I signed my grandmother’s name. It was near the beginning of the school year, and I was aware that the office saved the first excuse of the year to use as a reference for the entire semester. The counterfeit worked so well, I unwittingly trapped myself into writing all my subsequent excuses for absences to be consistent with the first false one, even some that were legitimate.

Acquiring the temporary clown job in the first place was the product of what I figured was Providential Circumstance. My close friend, Sterling and I had gone to the city auditorium to meet Uncle Dryden’s childhood friend, Hubert Castle, King of the Bounding Wire.

Sterling and I shared a common objective. We wanted to join the circus. Our quest was a little more serious than that of most youngsters. We were taking steps to make our dreams come true. Sterling was learning to walk the wire, and I was learning acrobatics. We had gotten together, shared our dreams, and began pooling resources. We met Mr. Castle as planned and, were approached by Jack Keppel, a lead clown with the Polack show.

“Are you boys going to be around for the next ten days?” Keppel inquired.

In unison, we chimed, “Yes! You bet we are!”

Keppel then came with the unimaginable offer: “How would you two like jobs as clowns?” He did not have to ask twice. We spent the next ten glorious days doing two shows daily. All we had to do was don large papier-mache costumes, which the show provided, and participate in the Clown Walk-Around while the trapeze net was readied for the flying act.

One of the local papers carried a story with our picture, “Denver Youth Clown with Polack Brothers Circus.” Sterling and I posed arm-in-arm with the circus stars, including Hubert Castle on his unicycle, and Ruth Antelek, the beautiful aerialist and member of the Great Anteleks’ balancing pole act. Sterling was asked his reasons for being in the circus, and, of course, he related his connection with the Great Dryden, his uncle.

Seeing the reporter’s interest when Sterling mentioned his uncle, I interjected a false claim about my own genealogy. Mine was a flat lie. I said, “I also have an uncle who was a trapeze artist.” I embellished my claim, saying that someone in my family had traveled with a carnival as a flying act headed by Roy Valentine of The Flying Valentines.

Mr. Valentine’s name had merely been mentioned a few times in my presence, and I did certainly not know the man. My lie that day hung heavily on my heart for longer than I care to confess.

Years later, I visited Roy Valentine at his home in Houston, Texas. We worked together on his trapeze, and I shared my story with him. We laughed because he already knew the story long before this. We were now birds of a feather and, in some Divine way, family of a sort.

During those exciting days with the Polack show, Sterling and I met as many circus people as possible. We ate, slept, and breathed circus. We hung around the auditorium day and night, arriving early in the morning and leaving late at night. We talked to anyone who would listen and stood close to anyone who remained stationary long enough to for us to brush up against them.

I sat in dressing rooms, chatted with performers as they applied their makeup, helped aerialists check their rigging, and worked out with performers as they practiced between shows. I introduced myself to the circus manger, Mr. Louie Stern, a short little round man, who was all business, and his eloquent ring master, Mr. Jack Cline. Mr. Cline wore a top hat, red tails, white riding britches, shiny black boots, and commanding whistle, which he used to signal the end of one act and the beginning of another. He continually fondled the whistle hanging around his neck, asserting that symbol of authority.

By week’s end, I knew most of the performers by their first names and acquired their pictures and autographs. I tried to get to everyone one way or another, including property crew, performers, front office people, and pitchmen. The handsome Eddie Kohl, blond and athletic, became one of my immediate heroes. A member of the show’s Joe Sechrist Flying Act, Eddie had been in the military along with a local mentor and professional acrobat, George Moreno. Eddie was a shining star, but the glare had not blinded him. I had no way of knowing it at the time but Eddie would later distinguish himself in other ways – as dear friend.

Movie buffs may remember the Cecil B. DeMille film, The Greatest Show on Earth , starring Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, and Cornel Wilde. It is a story of life with the circus. Until the Fifties, nearly all circuses traveled by rail, and in this film the circus train is central to the story. The film is also a documentary signaling the end of an era -- the death of the Big Top canvas, as we knew it. While a few smaller tent circuses remain to this day, none compares to the Ringling version of the Big Top. As the traditional circus under canvas disappeared, and following the early lead of Polack Brothers Circus, most shows began playing in stadiums and auditoriums. Another change was also taking place as the majority of smaller circuses transitioned from railways to highways. With the exception of the Ringling Show, trucks replaced the railroad cars entirely.

In the film, and what buffs may not remember particularly, is a small part played by Eddie Kohl. Of course, I thought the part was major, since I knew the guy! In the film, there is a catastrophic train wreck. The circus is in shambles. Fearing no one would turn out to see the devastated circus, the show people rallied to create a performance out of the rubble, hoping someone – anyone in the communities nearby – would show up. The word got out, the townsfolk responded, and they all marched out arm-in-arm to see the circus. It is my friend Eddie Kohl, as Whitey, sitting atop the main tent pole, who shouts, “Here they come. Here comes the whole darn town!”

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Experience and Grace taught me that my goals were achievable, but dreams alone were not enough. I had to be actively involved in realizing my objectives. The objectives had to be reasonable and systematized. I needed to plan and to engage in activities designed to achieve my objectives. I needed to evaluate the effects of my efforts, and to make changes where necessary. I had to have some talent – not much perhaps. Most of all, I needed a desire to succeed. Some would add luck. I was not aware of the degree to which I was being led though various episodes. I had assumed I was actually the lone manager of my life. Looking back, however, and finally putting the story of my life together, I saw an almost preordained line of circumstances had led to the circus. Multiple blessings were occurring one after the other. As I whiled away that pivotal summer, practicing my skills when I could, I a kaleidoscope of factors brought me to my current condition, a beautiful kaleidoscope set in motion by Divine Intervention.



By the end of that pivotal summer when I was sixteen, my body recovered, and I was ready to redeem myself. The 1948-49 school year was to begin in two weeks, and the Clyde Beatty Circus had just arrived in Denver for a three-day stand. In those days, Billboard Magazine listed circus routes, so I knew ahead of time the circus was coming to town, and I planned to watch the setup and see the show. The circus lot was near the railroad tracks in Northeast Denver, approximately a mile north of City Park on York Street. Between cross-town excursions on gasoline driven-buses and tramway cars, I could get just about any place I wanted to go in Denver on eight cents. An automobile was not required.

Incidentally, gasoline sold for around seventeen cents a gallon in those days.

Early in the morning on circus day, I grabbed the Lakeshore bus at 23rd and Lowell Boulevard, a block away from my home in Northwest Denver. I rode downtown, transferred to the Number 14 streetcar and rode to East Colfax Avenue and York Street. From there, I walked north a mile or so to the circus lot, following a large crowd of other eager circus fans.

Circuses move early and quickly. When I arrived on the scene, men were unloading animals and equipment from the train cars. On the lot, elephants pulled huge center poles into place for the Big Top, which was ready to be unrolled from the canvas wagon. The Big Top’s location had been roughly plotted out by the boss canvasman. Around it stood large men in dirty overalls. The men, some black, some white, arranged themselves in groups of six. Each held a ten-pound sledgehammer poised to strike one of the many steel stakes that provided tie-downs for the billowing, giant canvas stadium.

At the crew chief’s command, each man swung his hammer hard in rhythmic sequence against a stake’s head, causing the shaft to sink methodically and emphatically into the ground. PING!-PING!-PING PING! PING! Only four to five cycles of strikes drove each stake to its proper depth. Better not miss, I surmised, or a crew member might be struck. When hammer strikes were not quite dead center, bits of metal sparked into the air. Watch your eyes, I thought. Nearby, a machine-driven stake driver pumped noisily up and down, unable to match the men’s faster pace of driving stakes the proper depth into the ground.

I joined a hundred or more boys who were volunteering to help unroll the Big Top as it came off the canvas wagon. The reward for the service was a ticket to the show starring the great animal trainer, Clyde Beatty, and his mixed array of African wild lions and tigers. Teams of men, boys and elephants worked in unison for an hour or so in the heat of the August morning to raise the mighty canvas edifice.

By noon, the Big Top was up, and most of the boys collected their reward and headed home for lunch. I stuck the precious ticket deep down in my pants pocket and hung around to watch the performers set up their special equipment. I approached a member of one group and asked if I could help him. As it turned out, it was Mr. Phillip Escalante, manager and performer of the famous Escalante Troup. He was most gracious in allowing me to assist him, along with his brother Lalo and their friend, solo trapeze artist, Mr. Frank Doyle.

Excited to have such an opportunity to be back working in the circus, I enthusiastically did everything I could. I helped carry poles and bags of equipment into the arena, ran and fetched whatever items I could. Some were just too heavy for my slim, maturing teen body. Once the equipment was in place, I asked if I could try out the trampoline. With a reluctant okay from Phillip, I mounted the trampoline and did a low-bounce routine of twists, somersaults, and maneuvers that I had practiced over the summer. The Escalante’s liked what I did and enlisted me on the spot. That very afternoon I performed as a member of the Escalante Troupe on the Clyde Beatty Circus. It was as if I had bounced into heaven. The fledgling had returned to the nest!

For the next three glorious days, I performed in the Clyde Beatty Circus six times. The Escalantes had taken me in and made me feel as if I really belonged. They introduced me to virtually everyone on the show, provided me with costumes and makeup, told me what and whom to watch out for, and generally took very good care of me. How could all of this be happening?

Circumstances were changing, as if by precise order. Doors closed and doors opened. Was this providential circumstance?

During one of the performances, a close tumbling friend, Dave Owens, caught the show and was quite surprised to see me in it. He and I had worked out at times on his homemade trampoline. Dave came up afterward to inquire of my good fortune. I remember the excitement of sharing my tale of triumph and joy with him.

The summer of my sixteenth year started out badly, but the ending was a dream come true. I had, in fact, joined the circus. Interestingly, during summer vacations Dave, too, took a break from teaching, to perform as a clown and acrobat in playing county fairs and rodeos.

The glorious three days on the Clyde Beatty Show drew to a close. It was late August and school would begin in a few days. I wanted to forget school and join the circus full time. The Escalantes offered me an opportunity of a lifetime as a member of one of America’s great circus families. I was sure that as soon as the railcars were loaded and the circus left town, my dreams and the gracious opportunity would vanish. This open door was about to slam shut!

I begged my parents to let me leave town with the Escalantes. Despite my threats to run away with the circus, they gently, but emphatically, said, “No.” I had reached only the half way mark in high school. They were adamant in their refusal. Their position was that I must finish school. My position was, what about my chances to realize a dream? How could I even think of going back to school and sitting in a classroom when I could be performing with the circus?

My parents didn’t budge. My rationale was not working and, deep down, I knew my parents were right. I had to honor them and their position. I stayed in school that year.

Interestingly, the story did not end here. I kept in touch with Phil Escalante. The door of opportunity remained open a crack. The Escalante troupe invited me to join them during the summer. During the following summer vacation, I joined their family in California and trained in aerial acrobatics and the flying trapeze. They taught me many things about circus life and performing.

I again realized circus life was not easy. Days on the road were long and always busy. Constant traveling was hard work, and performing twice daily took its toll. Circus life was not the way it was in the movies. We lived on dirt surfaces. Getting by with water warmed only by the sun and delivered daily in buckets, presented a bathing problem. If the weather was bad, the lots became muddy and the water remained cold. The bathroom “doniker,” a portable facility used by those who did not live in a mobile home, was unpleasant. Keeping costumes and clothing clean was a challenge. There was no laundry on the lot. Anything to be washed demanded at least a bucket of water. Moreover, where would a person hang garments to dry? There was also the upkeep of equipment and props. Packing, unpacking, setting up, tearing down, and working day in, and day out meant life on the road required commitment and endurance, and, as I came to see, education.



Hanging around the circus that summer, I finally realized that my parents were right. Most circus folks believed schooling was extremely important. I saw that most performers were well educated. Some shows even employed a traveling teacher. Pinned to my bedroom wall were pictures of circus performers. One photo stood out in this regard, always reminding me of the importance of learning. The inscription on this picture said, “Jack, I hope you accomplish all your ambitions.” It was signed “Dwena Zaccini, The Flying Zaccini’s.” She, and her brother Eddie and their trapeze catcher, George, were well educated.

It was their relative, Hugo, who brought home the importance of education. Hugo invented the human cannonball act, along with the technology that shot a person from a cannon for a flight of several hundred feet skyward before landing alive and well in a safety net downrange, a feat that has thrilled audiences for nearly a century. I witnessed Hugo at a fair in Denver in 1950 being shot from one of his cannons over the top of two Ferris Wheels, half a block or so downwind. That shot, like all his successful shots, was well calculated using science and engineering know-how. Today’s cannon act, like its predecessors, requires precise computations. The contemporary version is a double-barreled cannon that launches two performers simultaneously. Clearly, the circus required people who knew and applied mathematics, science, engineering, and communication skills, all subjects a person learns in school.

My initial perception was that school posed a barrier to my joining the circus. The months spent at a school desk seemed intrusive at the time. However, when I began to grasp the relationship between education and its application, I realized I could do both, go to school for nine months and work with the circus during summer vacations. This dispelled my fears of missing an opportunity to “Get with it!”

Schooling fit in. I had merely to realize where. A trapeze rigging, for example, includes angles of incidence, vectors, and exacting calculations required to build and perform daring stunts using a scientific structure. Imagine being shot from cannon by someone who merely guessed at the trajectory, or executing a double somersault from a flying trapeze to a catcher swinging inches out of reach because of a miscalculation.

There was also the side of the circus that involved the arts -- music, dance, composition, and design. Knowledge, information, correlation, and application were circus-relevant issues. The need to know and understand more about the world of academe loomed larger at every turn. Once a body is in motion, it tends to remain in motion. I began to see that schooling was essential even to a circus-minded kid. I weighed the cost of postponing my circus dreams against what I could learn in school now, missing subjects that would move me closer to realizing my ambitions for the future. The circus world called for skills I yet lacked -- verbal, physical, emotional, social, vocational, and academic.

Eddie Zucchini put this in perspective when he drafted a set of plans for me to build a trampoline just like the one he used on the Polack show. From the quality of his drawings and explanation, it was obvious he had formal training in mechanical drawing and composition. My dad commented on these skills as we discussed the need to continue in school. There would be contracts to read, correspondence to write, and people with whom careful communication was essential. My uncle Clark, in a letter written from Panama in 1947, where he worked for the U.S. government, encouraged me to pursue the circus career after completing high school. An abundance of good advice came to me from all directions.

The fact was that I had joined two different circuses that summer, and the probability of continuing in the pursuit of a circus career was indeed within reach. My short-term goals became clear: finish school first and then join the circus. I had to admit it was sound advice all the way.

While the Fresno accident was a setback, it proved to be only temporary. In spite of my missing molar, the Clyde Beatty Show and the Escalate family gave me plenty of encouragement. Joining up with the Escalante’s was a tremendous experience. Answers to prayers are sometimes delayed. There was so much to learn and so much to be discovered.



New opportunities emerged as I attended high school. I teamed up with schoolmates Andy Arellano, and Jean Claire Renick, to form the Prince Trio Comedy Trampoline Act. We performed free of charge in and around the Denver area, and regularly at half-time shows for the Denver Phillips 66 basketball team at the city auditorium. I recall one performance especially when the Harlem Globetrotters came to town. After laughing at those performers repeatedly, it was quite a thrill to see them laugh at some of my antics on the trampoline. We also performed at USO shows at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital and benefit programs, such as the Boy Scout Circus, the public schools Fall Festival at the city auditorium, and at various social and private clubs in the area. During this time I met my wife-to-be, Jean Claire.

Jean Claire and I came to know each other in high school during our junior year. We were assigned to a study hall where our desks sat side by side. We also shared some classes and teachers, but at different periods of the day. During study hall, we began moving our desks closer, so that we could study and share information. This led to extended conversations and greater personal interests. Jean Claire was an attractive brown-haired girl who was active in sports. She was quite intelligent and mature. I assumed she would easily adapt to learning acrobatics, and I was right. We began dating and working out together on the trampoline. She quickly acquired the fundamentals of trampoline tumbling and began learning advanced exercises, shoulder mounts and somersaults to my shoulders. Along with individual routines, we performed synchronized exercises with alternating double bounces. My best friend, Andy Arellano, joined with us in putting together a fair act. We exhibited all over town and under all sorts of conditions. We enjoyed performing. On Labor Day in 1950, Jean Claire, Andy, and I performed at the Salute to America show at Lakeside Park Speedway.

My understanding parents allowed me to tie down my bolted together angle irons and pipes on top of their 1935 Desoto. They carted the equipment and me back and forth between performances. I recall turning down virtually no opportunities to perform, and my parents honored them all. What a blessing! Later, on a visit to relatives in Colby, Kansas, I acquired a Kansas driver’s license available to kids as young as fourteen, and I was finally able to cart myself around using my parents’ vehicle.

As WWII ended, GI’s began returning home from the military. In Denver, this included professional acrobats, George Moreno, Vern Cureno, the Nimble Brothers, Don King, and many others. They picked up where they had left off, returning to the Denver YMCA for Friday night circus practice. Prior to the war, the Y had sponsored an annual circus, a carryover from the Sells Photo Show that earlier had winter-quartered in Denver. Under the tutelage of these professional acrobats, aerialist, and clowns, I received valuable instructions in tumbling and flying trapeze. In addition to the basics I acquired on my own their expert training in technique gave me performing skills.

Besides being a master teacher, George Moreno was a creative trampoline builder. His first folding trampoline was a model unit. Mr. Moreno awarded me my first pair of trampoline slippers. Upon receipt, I was so excited I ran to the telephone booth in the Y lobby to inform my parents. I called them with the news, hung up the phone, and walked off without the slippers. When I returned, of course, the slippers were gone. During the next few days of remorse, I discovered similar slippers at a local department store, and immediately replaced the lost treasure. I never informed Mr. Moreno of my carelessness.

Manufactured trampolines were a rarity in the Forties, so Andy Arellano and I built our own trampolines. At that time, two Denver theaters, the Tabor and the Isis, ran vaudeville shows. I attended virtually every show that came along and, of course, most of them included acrobat and novelty acts. George Moreno and his brother Bob worked the Tabor with their trampoline act, and I hung closely with them as an observer during each performance. George was a precision athlete. Whether on the trampoline or the flying trapeze, he executed every move with perfect form and grace.

Similarly, another schoolmate, Jimmy Stovell, filled in for Andy when we performed at the Isis Theater. We were summarily dismissed after the first show. The stage area was so small we were forced to assemble the trampoline on its side, back stage, and then rotate it vertically to move it onto the stage. Getting it on and off stage took too much time. Additionally, the stage was not level, and because of that, we blew several key stunts in our routine. The defining moment came when Jimmy lost his balance, flew off the trampoline and into the stage curtain, at a height of around twenty feet. Then, hanging on to the curtain, he slid down to the stage floor, Douglas Fairbanks style. The theater manager was not pleased. Once we moved the equipment backstage, we gladly disassembled it and fled the scene.

In those days, East Denver High School was the only school in town with a gymnastics program, so in my junior year I helped organize a similar program at my North Denver High School. Andy, Jim and I helped our sponsor, Mr. Chet O’Hanlon, coach the team. It was a good year. Andy and I were named co-captains. I won the state title on the trampoline, and placed third in tumbling. I also won the city and state championships in diving that year and swam on the first-place free style relay team. Winning the diving events was both a sweet and a sour experience. Twice I outscored my best friend, Andy. Yet, in my opinion, Andy was the better diver and athlete. I simply scored more points during the meets because a couple of my dives were rated a higher degree of difficulty.

Andy and his brother Lee had many talents to showcase. Both became professional musicians and after a successful career in Denver, found themselves playing music regularly in Las Vegas.

We had plenty of opportunities to practice performance skills in and around Denver. We did one show in Wyoming, where a distant relative of mine, Kate Richards, managed the original Little Bear Inn, a dance hall and night spot north of Cheyenne. We arrived there one Saturday night around 10 p.m. to set up the trampoline for a midnight gig. I had intended to perform a straight routine, but Kate insisted I do the comedy act. I objected because I had not brought my clown costume along. She took charge, providing me with a long dress and bloomers of my grandmother’s, left there after one of her visits. She also rounded up a pair of high-top, red hose, and a grey mop-wig. I was ready to do comedy, and we did the show. I remember getting plenty of laughs just for appearing in the alternate costume. I worked hard trying to keep the dress down and the wig on, and I laughed as hard as the audience did.

Afterward, the Inn closed for the night. With the trampoline still in the middle of the dance floor, we were given bedding, and we spent the rest of the night, in costume, sleeping on the trampoline. Next morning we packed up and drove back to big “D.”

Other opportunities emerged in Denver. One of the participants in the Friday night circus practice was Mr. Otto Pribble. Otto occasionally filled in as catcher for the would-be flyers at the Y. In his back yard in North Denver, just a few blocks from Jean Claire’s residence, was a genuine, double trapeze rigging where he and his son Richard worked out.

I accepted Otto’s invitation to stop by. After school and after walking Jean Claire home, I stopped by Otto’s place to swing on the trapeze for an hour. A couple of my friends from the YMCA, Benny Coleman and Will Howard, later acquired Otto’s rigging and developed their own double trapeze act, performing forty-feet above the turf without a net.

Otto had not ceased working out or performing. He purchased an antique Model T Ford and, along with son Richard, created a wonderful comedy automobile routine designed to exhibit at rodeos fairs and outdoor events. The unique characteristics of that automobile was that it appeared to be driverless, had fenders that would fall off, and snakelike objects that sprang out of the radiator when the cap was removed. As soon as the occupants disembarked, the car moved forward and backward apparently by itself. For the finale, the car chased the pair of clowns around the arena, shooting rockets and fireworks in their direction.

The driverless illusion was created by installing dual controls. In the back seat, behind the driver position, sat a large, humpback trunk, the bottom of which had been removed to allow access to the dual controls. In addition, switches, wires and controls to trigger events and fireworks were conveniently arranged. The act required a third person to work the hidden controls. I volunteered as often as possible. We did fairs and rodeos in Colorado and Wyoming. Richard later became a prominent dentist with offices in West Denver.

The North Denver High School graduating class of 1950 held its ceremonies in the city auditorium where Jean Claire, Andy, Jim, and I received our diplomas. A week later, Jean Claire and I were joined in marriage. Andy served as best man, and Louise Garcia, Jean Claire’s friend, served as bridesmaid. School was out, and married life began.



Throughout high school, I had kept in touch with my old friends from the Clyde Beatty Circus. When the Escalantes were not on the road, they were busy working in motion pictures for Twentieth Century Fox, which sometimes postponed their signing a circus contract until the movies were finished. Phil Escalante called to say their picture work was nearing completion and it was time to start putting the flying act together. Jean and I should come to LA as soon as possible.

Anticipating the offer, Jean Claire and I had been saving up for travel money to move to LA and join the troupe. I took a job with Schaefer Tent and Awning Company, where I had worked part time in high school. We moved into an apartment managed by my grandmother at 1928 Grant Street in East Denver. Shortly before Christmas, On January 10, 1951, with just enough money to purchase two one-way tickets, we boarded the City of Angeles Special out of Denver’s Union Station and headed west in pursuit of circus dreams.

Arriving in LA the next morning, we checked into the Los Angeles Hotel downtown. I called Phil. He insisted we check out of our rooms because he had a place for us. He picked us up and drove us to a beautiful little home he owned at 956 Hyperion Avenue in the center of Hollywood. The place was vacant, and we could stay there, rent free, until we went on the road. This was too good to be true.

Across town, at 206 South Hicks Avenue in East LA, stood the Escalante family dwelling, a tiny house with a large heart. The Escalantes were a model family. It was apparent that the children were well behaved and deeply loved. Size of get-togethers, though large, did not interfere with activities or comradery. Many family members connected with the circus lived there. Over time, we learned the history of the family, which was also the history of the circus in its early days.

Everyone who lived in East LA knew the Escalante place. It was the, “You can’t miss it,” little white house in the middle of the block, the one with the tailor shop in front, nets and poles and trampolines in the back yard, and circus equipment everywhere. Jean Claire and I did not mind the daily trips getting to their home on the Red Car Rails from Hollywood. After a hard day’s work-out and a wonderful family-style Mexican dinner, we slipped back to our quieter little abode across town.

With screen acting as their avocation, Philemeno (Phil), Edwardo (Lalo), and Henry (Blackie) benefitted from the motion picture jobs and income during the offseason. They had plenty of work falling off buildings, swinging on ropes, jumping from cliffs, and boarding pirate ships, all, of course, on the studio back lot.

Henry, a tall, handsome athletic figure, took his acting career a step further, playing bit parts in several pictures. In some infamous roles, he played Chico in Creature of the Black Lagoon. Early in the film, Chico is killed by a, man-eating monster. Perhaps his favorite role was that of the Strongest Man in Italy, in Captain Carey USA” starring Alan Ladd, a natural role to demonstrate his athletic prowess. I remember seeing him as a police officer in Little Egypt with Mark Stevens. He told me of some of his other movies, including Frenchman’s Creek and Phantom of the Opera. The family also appeared in the feature film, Peck—Bad Boy of the Circus. I wondered if my association with the family would lead me to a part in a movie. It did not. The closest I came to the big screen was much later, acting in a few Seven Up commercials at Alexander Studios in Colorado Springs.

Movie actor, Eddie Albert was featured on This Is Your Life hosted by Ralph Edwards. Blackie was called on stage to tell the story of Albert’s circus past as a member of the Escalante troupe. I believe it was during the filming of The Marx Brothers at the Circus that Eddie Albert got his movie start.

Everyone in the Escalante home, relatives and friends, paid Grandfather Escalante great respect. Senior Escalante, circus entrepreneur and former trapeze flyer, was born and raised in rural Mexico. He was a contemporary of the greatest aerialist of all time, Alfredo Codona, the first man to perform the triple somersault to a catcher. Back in the 1920’s, Senior Escalante brought the first Mexican circus to the U.S. to tour the western states. Still a master artisan, Grandfather Escalante ran a small tailor shop in the front of the house where he fashioned extraordinary costumes for show people.

I learned from Blackie that in the early days of the circus, Denver was a hub for aerialists. The Sells Photo Show had winter-quartered in Denver. Only a few remnants of their equipment remained, most of which was found in the circus store room at the YMCA. This treasure room contained all sorts of circus equipment, including aerial and ground materials ready to be installed. This may explain why so many professional acrobats lived in Denver and worked out at the Y. I was able to acquire most of the equipment for the Y’s Friday night circus practice, an activity renewed after WWII.

Meanwhile in the Escalante’s backyard, our morning practice began around 10 a.m., as soon as the fog lifted. We jumped onto the trampoline to warm up and swung up on the trapeze until noon. After lunch, we practiced until 2:30 p.m. or so. Lalo operated the overhead safety mechanic, while I strapped on the belt, which was like shouting “Shazam!” Suddenly I was transformed from an ordinary human into a fearless flying Captain Marvel. The nine-lives belt permitted its occupant to soar through the air to be caught by the able hands of the catcher, Blackie, without fear of falling. When we missed a catch, Lalo, who stood ready on the ground holding on to the ropes that supported the belt, went skyrocketing as counterbalance as I dropped ever so-very-gently into the net. Then Lalo descended in full control to the ground. Just like the car seatbelt, the trapeze belt saved many lives, mine included.

The workouts left my hands raw, sometimes even bleeding. When I boarded the Red Car, my hands were often too sore to grasp the safety poles. Part of the old trapeze lore was that old-time aerialists recommended a urine wash to toughen the hands, but I was reluctant to apply the solution to open wounds. Nor could I wait patiently for the couple of hours following this application to assure the process was taking effect. My hands hurt no matter what I put on them. However, I once checked the formula with a pharmacist, and he thought the trapeze boys might have been onto something!

Betty Escalante was a redheaded Australian beauty whom Lalo married when the boys toured down under with the E. K. Fernandez Show. She worked closely with Jean Claire on the rings and web-rope, preparing her for the aerial ballet, the credential required of all circus women. The girls had to climb the web-ropes, swing on ladders, hang from one ankle and perform various poses while swinging upside down high above ground without a net. Jean Claire learned all required skills quickly. The expert coaching by the Escalantes and the intensive training sessions paid-off; we were close to being ready.

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The Escalantes were a tremendous influence on my perception of the circus, life in general and, a commitment to excellence. They were professional athletes that did not drink, smoke, or chew (and do not run with girls that do)! They were highly skilled, genuine performers and masters of the art of circus. They were truly great, wonderful people. I believe that it was no accident that they came into my life, or that I was swept into theirs.



Returning to Hollywood one afternoon after practice, I stopped in downtown LA. It was raining. I pulled up the collar of my gold, four-striped letter sweater and walked, head down, close to the storefronts along Broadway to avoid most of the rain. People were huddled under fast-moving waves of umbrellas bobbing up and down along the sidewalk. I would not have dreamed of carrying an umbrella back in Colorado, but in California, almost everyone carried one. The downpour got heavier as I reached the corner, so I stepped into a storefront and waited for the rain to let up. Turning my back to rain, I noticed I was standing in the entrance of a photographer’s studio. I scanned the display of interesting portraits in the window. One photo caught my eye, and I did a double take. I know that girl! I had known her since childhood. No mistake about it -- the full-color picture was Icel Welcho. Her mother and my mother had worked together as models in Denver when we were children. Betty Welcho and my mother had both been divorced from early marriages. Betty finally moved to Hollywood to continue her modeling career. I had seen Icel occasionally during high school, but we never dated. She had moved to West Denver with her father, whom I had never met.

I stepped into the photo shop and asked for the manager. I told him my story. Finally, convinced I really knew the girl posing in his picture, he asked, “Do you know what she’s doing now?” Of course, I did not. “Well,” he said, “she’s working at the Palace Theater on Third and Main. She’s a stripper over there.”

Could she really be a stripper? I thought, this man must be nuts. The Icel I knew was no stripper. No way!

I thanked the man, and walked out. The rain had stopped. The Palace was only a couple of blocks away, so I walked over there to check it out, if for no other reason than to confirm my doubts. As I rounded the corner on Main Street, the large backlit marquee came into full view. There was her name in big bold letters -- ICEL. No doubt about it. The star attraction at the Palace Burlesque Theater in downtown LA was indeed my Icel. On both sides of the cashier’s booth were large, full-length pictures of the barely clad, black-haired, black-eyed beauty from Colorado. The lightly-tanned, oval face was the same, but the long, smooth-curved body in the picture was not the skinny little girl I had known back home.

I approached the cashier’s window and made inquiry about how to reach the show’s number one star. It was undoubtedly my blue jeans, white tee shirt, and knitted high school letter sweater that caused the over-rouged cashier’s chubby little face to move from side-to-side. She told me to step aside, and I heard her mutter something as I walked away, “You must be kidding, little boy!”

With my chances of contacting Icel looking rather hopeless, I decided that I had the confirmation I was looking for anyway, and it was time to move on.

Just as I turned away from the theater, I saw next door an orange juice stand, the sit-down, franchise type. They were everywhere in LA. I also noticed a girl in a long fur coat sitting at the counter. The hairdo, false eyelashes and heavy makeup strongly suggested she was a showgirl. I approached her just as she downed the last of her chili dog. I sat on the round stool next to her and asked without preliminaries, “Are you with the show next door?”

She rose, threw some change on the counter, turned and, with a dainty swipe of her paper napkin at the edges of her crimson lips, so as not to smear the paint, she ignored me. The negative expression was unmistakable. My line was not working.

“Please listen!” I pleaded.

“Why?” she asked.

I explained my relationship with Icel and asked if she would relay a message when she got back stage.

“What’s the message?”

“Just give her my name. Jack Prince.”

“That’s all?” she asked.

“Yes. She’ll understand.”

The girl turned and walked, hips swaying, toward the theater.

I spun the stool around and, with my back to the counter, my elbows on the counter top, I waited. Moments later, Icel emerged from the mist and came straight toward me, her arms wrapped tightly around the long dark coat she wore. It looked like the same coat the messenger had worn. As she moved closer, I could see Icel’s wide, full lips blossom into a broad smile, revealing her straight white teeth. I slipped off the stool, caught my balance with one foot, and clumsily arose to greet her. She reached toward me with open arms. She was in costume. Her radiant body stood in sharp contrast to the dark fur that now dropped from one shoulder. We embraced. Both of us tried to keep the remainder of the coat from slipping completely off. Our heads tilted as our lips touched, soft at first, then full-pressed, in a close-cousin’s kiss. Right there! Smack-dab in front of the Orange Juice sign and theater marquee at Third and Main in downtown LA, my gold letter sweater, blue jeans and all. Several heads turned our way, but Icel did not appear concerned. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “It’s so good to see you! I would know that sweater anywhere! You got that at North High.”

She continued. “There’s so much I want to tell you,” she said. “You remember the girls’ parochial school I went to in Pueblo, before moving to West Denver?”

I remembered that all right. It had prevented our dating relationship before it ever got started.

“It was quite a change from Wheat Ridge High School,” she said.

I inquired how she got into burlesque.

“Well, on vacation I came out here to see mom, and she was constantly trying to get me to date older men. I did not like that. Rebelling, I got together with a bunch of girls my age and went out for a night of fun. We did some drinking. I met a young man who worked as a master of ceremonies around town. We started going together, got married, and he talked me into becoming a stripper. I have done pretty well at it, knocking down around $500 a week. Come on backstage with me!”

She took me by the hand. A few doors from the theater entrance we entered through a steel door. A movie was playing. The sound from the movie grew louder as we walked down the dark hallway toward the back of the theater.

“I’m so glad to see you,” she said. “I’ve missed you.” She gently squeezed my arm. We reached the stage and walked down a circular staircase to the basement. Girls dressed in little more than strings, pasties, and high heels meandered about, unnoticed by two male comedians dressed in baggie, plaid pants and broad-striped, red and white tee shirts. They were so busy arguing over something about their routine, they seemed oblivious to the girls. I wondered how anyone in this environment could ignore the surroundings.

With numerous painted sets of eyes focused on me in my youthful uniform, I felt, shall we say, really out of place. I was clown-meat and way out of my league. The young, healthy and unembarrassed girls stood smiling as Icel and I passed by. Oh, how I wished I had not worn my letter sweater! Icel opened the door to her dressing room.

Once inside, I relaxed, no longer on display. She sat at her dressing table, I plopped down on a worn, paisley couch, and we held hands and talked.

She told me of marital problems. I told her about Jean Claire and me. I thought about how much I had loved Icel and wanted to marry her when we were ten. I had thought about her hundreds of times. Somehow, we simply lost track of each other. She was certainly beautiful. We talked about careers, hers and mine. We were both interested in performing, but at different ends of the entertainment spectrum. She showed me hundreds of pictures of herself, many of the Playboy variety.

Finally, she asked, “Which of them would you like to keep?” Thinking of the future and the well-being of my marriage, I chose a single, eight by ten glossy black and white print in which she posed fully clothed in a bridal gown.

She giggled. “That’s safe enough!” She signed the picture,

“To Jack, with all my love forever, Icel!”

“I have to go on in ten minutes,” she said. “The movie’s almost over.” Until she called attention to that, I had not realized how much time elapsed. I told her I, too, had to get going. “Will you come back?”

I said, “I cannot.” We are both married! There’s no way I can return.”

We walked up the stairs and across the stage behind the large, perforated screen. The picture image spilled through the tiny holes in the screen and shined against the flat-black wall behind us. It also shed some light on our path as we crossed the flickering passageway. We reached mid-stage.

Icel turned and kissed me on the cheek.

I felt my knees buckle and glanced at the flickering wall behind us. This was like falling from the trapeze! Magically, the silhouette of our embrace overshadowed the images of the two actors embracing in the film. It was uncanny that our images coordinated with the picture. “I love you, Jack.”

“This cannot be,” I countered. This was a screenplay and we were merely actors performing our craft. The silhouette was nothing more than a shadow of reality, a story of people, fact and fiction rolled into one brief moment of time. “Icel, I’ve got to get going!”

“Through that door,” she pointed.

I moved quickly. Outside, in the fresh air, it was raining again. Feeling wrung out emotionally, I boarded the Red Car headed for Hollywood. It was hot in the theater. Now I was ringing wet and chilled.

As I entered the house on Hyperion Avenue, I could see Jean Claire standing, arms folded, next to the kitchen table.

“I was worried,” she said.

I told her what had happened and apologized for not phoning. As soon as I finished the story, I handed her the picture from inside my sweater. She took a quick look at Icel, read the inscription, and shredded the photo.

I never thought of returning to the Palace. I was committed to Jean Claire, and that was it.

I wrote my parents that I had seen Icel and told them about her new occupation. A couple of years, later my mom and dad caught Icel’s show in Denver. When I inquired about the act, my mom said, “It was different. She started undressed and got dressed!” My dad said he did not remember a thing.



The circus season was about to begin and contract deadlines were fast approaching. While involved in negotiations to take the flying act to Puerto Rico, the Escalantes received an immediate offer to join the Wallace and Clark Circus about to open south of LA. Wallace and Clark was a small tent show transported by trucks owned and managed by Norman Anderson of Emporia, Kansas. Norman’s father, the original owner, had been killed in a circus related highway accident a year earlier. Norman had taken command of the show out of respect for his father.

Unfortunately, Norman could not use the trapeze act because the show’s Big Top ceiling was only twenty-eight feet high. The flying rigging required a minimum of thirty-two feet. Phil, Lalo, and Blackie agreed to provide a trampoline and the bars for an aerial act, which did not include the majesty of flight. However, the acrobatics were dynamic and arresting in their own right.

Walter and Ethel Jannier, hailing from Peru, Indiana, were stars in the Wallace and Clark entourage. Walter, who was a middle-aged, seasoned performer, presented a great act with his talented performing seals. The seals were family pets, treated with great care and dearly loved. In the act, they balanced and caught balls, played musical instruments, danced and responded to a wide variety of commands.

The biggest star of the show was his wife Ethel. She was a petite, beautiful person who had appeared with the Ringling Show and other major circuses, performing a breath-taking, dangerous heel-and-toe trapeze act, hanging bare-footed without the safety of a net. Although she did not appear to be muscular, she was extremely strong. Not only was she attractive and well-proportioned, but she was capable of climbing hand-over-hand via the web-rope to her high trapeze. Through a series of body rolls, she pivoted herself horizontally across the rope each time, until finally reaching the trapeze bar. She literally rolled herself all the way up, using only her body and arms, an extraordinary exercise for any athlete. Her finale, the most dangerous stunt in the entire routine, came at the apex of the high swing backward. Standing up in the trapeze and reaching the end of the swing, she dropped backward and caught the bar by her ankles, feet turned-outward against the supporting cables. After riding through a complete swing forward, she released her hold on the trapeze. At that moment in mid-air, she grasped the web-rope on which she had climbed earlier and descended into the waiting arms of her husband, Walter. A spectacular ending to a superb routine.

Jean Claire and I joined the show, April 3, 1951, in Perris, California, a tiny community southeast of LA and ten miles south of March Air Force Base near Riverside. The girls worked as aerialists, while I assisted with the aerial acts and worked the trampoline and clowning acts. Ironically, three years later I would return to Perris to live, while stationed at March AFB from September 1954 through December 1955.

Jean Claire adapted readily to circus life. She quickly learned the performing skills of a wide range of circus activities, including aerial acts and sideshow exhibits. Under the Big Top, she participated all around, including the opening spectacular, where the circus people and animals marched around the area in the opening ceremony. She performed in the aerial ballet on web-ropes and swinging ladders, as well as in bareback stunts on Petros Liberty Horses, and clowning with Griggs Clowns. In the sideshow, she became Electra the Electronic Lady, appearing to receive electrical charges to her body, transmitting them to various contact points arranged around her. The act was impressive and entertaining.

Given the commotion that goes along with moving every day and the heavy work involved at both ends, the circus was surprisingly well organized. Much like Anytown, USA, the mobile enterprise contained a commerce-management side, a family/social side, a sideshow, a zoo side, and an entertainment side. Everything on the premises was adjacent to the Big Top. Compass direction did not matter. A person found his way around the circus lot in relation to the Big Top, the first item staked out by the head canvasman.

Circus people are creatures of habit just like everyone else, and the back yard provided a reasonably stable environment. Families lived close together with their children. The children were home schooled. Family values were traditional. The first few weeks on the road, everyone in the back yard staked out a respective spot. Friends and families parked next to each other. If I visited the Griggs family, I knew the Janniers were right next door. Predictably, everything was right where it was supposed to be, including the light wagon, which provided electrical power to the entire circus. Everything was in place -- animal cages, supply wagon, water truck, property wagons, cook tent, the doniker, and sideshow tent. Performers stuck close to each other and helped one another set up and tear down. They spent most of their free time at the card table, playing hearts. Most were married. Most had children. Church services, common among larger shows, were missing on the Wallace and Clark Show. Besides, Sundays were like all the other days: pull out, drive, unload, set up, eat, perform, rest or play, eat, perform, tear down, load up and sleep.

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Traveling shows seem to attract certain people who, for whatever reason, want to be on the move. Some perhaps wished to escape from someone or something. Others were merely running from themselves. For most, the circus was simply a mobile, 24-7 job. Some of the roustabouts, laboring men, were alcoholics. The little money they earned, $2.50 a day, often went for a bottle of port. Morals among the roustabouts were generally relaxed. Drinking, swearing, and joking were common.

One of the unwritten codes of the circus was that folks in the back yard did not mingle with folks in the front yard. Performers generally did not fraternize with concession folks, roustabouts or grifters. Unfortunately, I learned about this the hard way. I suppose my feelings of frustration prompted me to explore beyond the reaches of the back yard. In addition, like Anytown, USA, the circus had its good, bad, and ugly side. People are people, regardless. However, the differences were more apparent in the concentrated, more personal environment of the circus community.



We were settling in when Bernie Griggs, the show's lead clown, approached Jean Claire and me about joining him in some clowning routines. He and his wife Maxine performed with Ringling as acrobat and bareback rider. In addition she played the calliope, and their daughters, Hermalene and Bernice, both accomplished aerialists, were a big part of the Wallace and Clark Show. Older performers, like Bernie, often took up clowning simply to continue performing. He wanted us to join him in doing what can best be described as filler gags -- routines designed to keep the audience entertained while property crews set up equipment for various acts. Bernie created an act he labeled Jargo the Talking Giraffe. This was a take-off of the old vaudeville routine in which two people dressed in a horse-like costume, danced on stage and carried on a dialog with the show’s master of ceremonies. Jean Claire and I enthusiastically volunteered to be the giraffe, and we both found the experience to be quite fun and engaging.

With Jean Claire up front under the giraffe’s long neck, head, and front legs, and me bent over in the back to make up the body, backside, and back legs, Jargo became a highly animated, rather intelligent creature, dancing and cavorting around center ring, while conversing with Bernie and generally following his verbal commands.

Jargo, however, had a mind of his own, and Bernie had the task of making Jargo follow instructions. Whatever Bernie asked Jargo to do, the animal ad-libbed and did the exact opposite. Literally, the tail end of Jargo took a beating, because the routine called for Jargo’s rear-end (me), to get whacked repeatedly with a clapboard. At one point in the script, I came out from under the camouflage suit, rubbing my bottom and shouting, “Do not hit me so hard!” While that got plenty of laughs, my plea was genuine, because after a while the whacks began to hurt. The dialog between the witty giraffe and his able trainer kept the audience entertained. The kids loved Jargo, and so did Jean Claire and I. With the exception of the clapboard. More whacks were to come later in another routine.

Besides acting as Jargo’s latter half, I became a clown. Makeup is the professional clown’s trademark. The design, uniquely synchronized with the performer’s facial characteristics, is something sacred, a special work of art, indeed a trademark. Its individuality is something to be honored and it is not to be duplicated. If you hear a famous clown’s name, you picture a familiar face. Lou Jacobs, for instance. His trademark was a high, nearly pointed forehead. Others were the Hobos, Otto Gribbling, Emmett Kelly, and Chester Bobo Barnett. On the Polack show, it was Jack Kippel in whiteface. On the Wallace and Clark Show, Bernie Griggs, was also in whiteface. Around the world, there are hundreds of professional clowns, all similar, but just like all faces, rarely are two exactly alike. Each face is a creative product that made adults laugh and, up close, frighten children.

As fledgling performers, Jean Claire did her aerial routines, clowning and sideshow acts, while I worked on clowning with Bernie and acrobatics with the Escalante Brothers. We kept busy during the two-hour show, matinée and evening.

Bernie, the lead clown, had once been an acrobat and bareback rider with the Ringling Show. Now, an aging performer, he wore the traditional whiteface embellished with a myriad of color and costume. On the other hand, I put on a partial whiteface with a touch of red around the edges and white around the eyes and mouth. Bernie’s makeup fitted his aging, natural features, and like most great clowns, he applied his own makeup once a day, early in the morning, and kept it on until bedtime.

I loved watching him touch up his grease paint between shows, like watching a master artist apply oils to canvas, the product of which was a classic disguise. Adding to his humorous composition was long, red hair blossomed in twin arcs outward from the sides of his white, rubberized, baldhead cap. This huge forehead and made-up face rose above his lanky, six-foot-two frame bringing him to nearly seven feet. His stature was further enhanced by his costume, a loosely worn, broad-striped red and white shirt, topped with a scalloped collar and a tuxedo coat with tailored tails, long red pants, and enormous shoes that seemed to give his towering image proper balance. Makeup was integral with Bernie’s personality, as it was with all clowns. He was hardly recognizable out of costume. I believed he loved being the incognito alien character.

To be a respectable associate of Bernie Griggs, I was obligated to create a face of my own. In addition to the grease paint, I donned a dark-brown, short-haired, idiot-style wig supplied by Phil Escalante. I learned from Bernie how to blend zinc-oxide powder and Crisco to make clown-white. Around my eyes, I painted large, Mickey Mouse-style ovals that extended upward, well above the eyebrows. I added a wide, heart shape that spanned my mouth, just touching my cheekbones, and covering my chin. Red lips with nickel-sized circles at the corners highlighted the appearance of a permanent smile. A larger blotch of red embellished the end of my nose. On my forehead, where the white met the red, I drew black borders that ran upward and outward from the middle of my forehead, around and down near my eyes and on to my cheekbones. To enhance my facial expression, I drew red triangles above and below my eyes. A touch of talcum softened the colors and kept the paint from running when I perspired.

My costume was simple: a full-length, red-and-white striped swimsuit, patterned after the modest beach models of the late 1800’s. It covered my whole body, half my arms, and half my legs just below the knees. Shoes were dictated by the type of routine -- soft slippers for the aerial acts and heavier soles for groundwork. Either way, it was a perfect outfit for a bumper clown exercising an array of pratfalls.

Bernie and I did our version of a baseball pantomime. The gag involved throwing, catching and batting an imaginary ball, running bases, getting called out at home plate and arguing calls. We wore real baseball mitts, and whenever the “ball” was caught, we would slap the mitt with our free hand. If the timing was right, the illusion of playing catch was very effective. I stepped up to bat, and Bernie threw a couple of “strikes.” On the third pitch, I hit a home run, which Bernie tracked using Coke-bottle binoculars. I ran the bases and somersaulted onto home plate. That is when the “You're out!” -- “I’m safe!” argument began. The exchange turned to upset, and we picked up buckets filled with water and threw the water at each other. Finally, after a good soaking, we picked up a third bucket filled with confetti and ran towards the audience. The confetti, which looked like water, caused everyone in the audience to duck for cover. Regardless of how many times the audience witnessed the routine, they always flinched.

Good thing it was paper we threw, because the real water Bernie and I threw at each other was usually very cold. Sometimes we actually got drenched trying to make the gag look good. I did not mind getting wet during the matinee when it was hot, but at night, with no costume change, a wet suit became miserably uncomfortable.

It was that special clown falsetto dialog between Bernie and me, the kind in movie cartoons that made the routine so much fun. I was always amazed that the two of us could hold the attention of an audience for so many minutes, just talking about an imaginary baseball. As it turned out, I threw in a number of bumper gags, pratfalls, and somersaults along the way.



Snake enthusiasts may not like this story, but I do not like snakes. Oh, I love watching them -- from a distance, but I am genuinely afraid of them. The story of Adam and Eve and the Biblical account of the reptilian creature’s evil deception and how Satan is referred to as the serpent have undoubtedly influenced my attitude about reptiles. Admittedly, these slithering creatures have always held a strange, mystic, almost hypnotic fascination for me. I have observed them in the wild and watched handlers work with them up close, but I have never had the slightest desire to handle one myself. I am happy watching them through protective glass. For that, TV works fine.

However, I once helped the crew handle a wild python fresh from the jungle. It was between shows one afternoon. A half dozen of us milled around the Grease Joint, having coffee and conversation, when a large wooden crate, four foot long, two foot wide and eighteen inches high arrived: Special Delivery from Africa. The three-quarter-inch holes drilled into the top of the box were a clear sign that something inside required air. The nailed-on label was addressed to Ward Hall, Sideshow, Wallace and Clark Circus, USA. It read “Danger Live Reptile!” Coiled inside the wire-wrapped storage space was indeed a nervous, twelve-foot long, hissing green python.

Often, it took the mail some time to catch up with the traveling circus, and it had been several weeks since Ward Hall had placed his order for the serpent. As soon as he got word, the snake man arrived to claim his package, carrying a new, bright green, steel-framed cage. It was similar in size to the shipping container, but it was screened on all four sides. Instantly, Ward enlisted the coffee crew to help him move the long, mottled monster from its temporary compartment to its new den. Applying hammer and crowbar to the nailed slats on top of the crate, Ward methodically removed each section. As he did, the disturbed snake hissed louder and longer.

With the top of the crate open and the snake fully exposed, Ward took a position directly above the now-stirring python and carefully draped the head of the creature with a gunnysack. That done, he reached down, grasped the serpent’s head and pulled the beginning of the snake from its container. Following the able snake handler’s lead, each of the volunteer handlers stepped up in turn, to reach into the crate and lift out as much of the twisting reptile as he could get his hands around.

Apprehensively, I waited at the end of the line, hoping that by the time my turn came there would be nothing left to grab. It was not to be. The dreaded moment arrived. Timidly, I stepped up, straining to see what remained and contemplating my chances of survival should the irate monster suddenly break free and strike. Admittedly, the creature had not jumped out of the box as I had expected, nor had it hurt anyone so far. I was not at all sure just how much a snake could be trusted. I was not about to take any chances. Encased in a skin sheath, four to six inches in diameter at the widest point, at least two feet of slithering vertebrae hung from the man’s hands in front of me. I could clearly see that there was ample snake to go around. Why had I picked this afternoon to drink coffee?

Uncertain of the outcome, I reached down, wrapped both hands firmly around the serpent’s tapering body close to the tail, and prayed that the men ahead of me were in absolute control. As I lifted out the non-hissing end of the creature’s twisting, rubbery body, I thought to myself, this is the only line I have ever been in where being last was best. I could not believe the creature’s incredible strength as its ribs maneuvered muscularly in all directions, in spite of our efforts to hold the thing still. Slowly the oscillating line of men edged its way sideward toward the green cage Ward had furnished. The snake’s grinding rhythm did not stop. Then the lucky moment came.

“Jack, place the tail in first, Ward instructed.” Quickly I obeyed, released the thing and stepped gingerly backward out of the way. Whew! Such an awesome, powerful creature.

During the transfer, Ward determined his snake was a she and wasted no time naming his strange new pet Bertha. Days later, I saw Ward walking between his trailer and the sideshow tent with Bertha wrapped neatly around his neck and torso. Both seemed quite comfortable. I kept my distance as we exchanged greetings. A year later, I saw Ward Hall, featured on a TV special about circus sideshows. Apparently, Bertha had not gotten him, yet.

A few weeks after the python incident, I passed by the Grease Joint as usual. There was a large, partially opened cardboard box in my way. A sign said, “Caution--Baby Rattlers.” Emboldened by my previous encounter, I approached the box, picked up a nearby stick and gingerly lifted the box lid. Anticipating a peek at a bevy of baby rattlesnakes, I leaned cautiously over the box -- ready to jump back to safety. Straining to see what lay inside, I was quite surprised to discover, in lieu of young snakes, there were rattles all right, a half-a-dozen or so of the noisy plastic variety used to entertain babies. The sign was truthful but misleading. At that moment I turned in the direction of the laughter now coming from the gang who had been in hiding and watching Jungle-Jack of the Circus! I had a good laugh with them at my own expense, before I joined the gang to entice other unsuspecting fearless explorers whose curiosity also got the best of them.



Weekly route cards listed the dates and places where the fast-moving circus was scheduled to play. The information helped alleviate some of the trauma and confusion of constant traveling. I remember often awakening and wondering where in the world we were. The cards helped everyone keep track. In those days, Billboard Magazine carried articles on the circus world and published their circus routes, which was how friends, relatives and anyone else could find circus personnel if need be. However, the route cards were only good when used.

Some aspects of circus life were unforgettable. No two days were alike, and none was easy. The grueling schedule of the road was beginning to take its toll.

Somewhere in Arizona -- It was 4:30 a.m. early in the season, when I rolled out of our cozy little 8 by 5 state room in the front end of the supply trailer. That particular day I was to drive the hippo wagon. The crew congregated around the large bonfire started by Joe, the boss canvasman. Hot coffee and fresh sweet rolls were on tap. Joe and his rider Happy, the property manager, departed ahead of everyone else, so they could tack up the red arrow signs on telephone poles that pointed the route for the rest of us. Normally, Jean Claire rode with Hermolene and Bernice in the Griggs' car.

At 5:45 a.m. I gave the truck a pre-flight check and confirmed the passenger manifesto. Goliath the hippo, Leo the lion, and Charley the bear were on board and secure. I climbed into the Chevy tractor, fired it up and pulled out of the lot and onto the highway. Wimpy, my main man on the sideshow, rode shotgun. In his fifties, he had been with the circus most of this life. The full-length scar he carried across the left side of his face bore evidence of the tragic accident the year prior, when he was injured in the same wreck that took the life of the owner of the circus. Wimpy spent a lot of the time clueing me in while riding shotgun between towns. Word around the show was that I was the only driver with whom Wimpy would ride.

The driving job was rewarding. Day in and day out, I enjoyed the scenery and felt I had a vital role in moving the show along. Keeping my eyes open early in the morning was sometimes difficult, especially as the vibration of the old tractor and the sway of the road quickly lulled Wimpy to sleep. The mobile zoo lumbered into the early dawn toward who-knows-what at the destination? “Watch for those red arrows,” I cautioned myself.

We topped a hill. A mile or so down the road, I saw a long black object laying crossways of the highway. The object was an overturned, flatbed circus trailer. Wimpy awakened as I began tapping the air brakes. “Got an accident up ahead,” I informed him.

“Look at them!” exclaimed Wimpy wide-eyed. “All the animals got loose!” Out the side window I saw a bear and a lion running casually across the field off to our left. Further, down the road, a group of frightened monkeys sat huddled together. Broken cages were scattered everywhere. I pulled off the road and onto the shoulder of the highway. Luckily, the driver of the overturned rig was uninjured. He approached Wimpey’s side of the truck and told us that he had fallen asleep, come to, and over-corrected, causing the semi to flip.

Several of the circus trucks were now pulling in behind us. We all pitched in to round up the animals, including the bear and the lion. All of the animals were recovered, placed in makeshift cages, and loaded onto awaiting vehicles. During the next few days, however, some of the animals managed to escape their temporary dwellings. Until newer cages were on-hand, animal watch was a full-time job.

Somewhere in Nevada -- On another memorable morning, I was to drive the seat wagon, the all-important load of seats for the audience. It was the last wagon to be unloaded at the new site. Most trips between towns took two to three hours, somewhere between fifty and a hundred miles a day. Wimpy and I were not in any hurry. I was sleepy that morning and knew my condition would not help us track our route. I had looked at the route card earlier and was sure I knew where we were going.

Two hours down the road, however, the fuel gage was bouncing on empty, and no town was in sight. I reached into the glove compartment and removed a faded road map. If my calculations were correct, we should reach the destination at any moment. Funny, though, I had not seen any arrows. I wished I had kept the card handy. I awakened Wimpy and asked if he knew where we were. He did not. As we rounded the next curve, I spotted a town and a small gas station. I looked at my watch: 11:00 a.m. Right on time, I mused! As we pulled into the station and stopped, the attendant carefully examined the big white trailer with the red lettering, Wallace & Clark Circus. Before I could ask where the circus grounds were, he said, “I thought you folks were not coming ‘til tomorrow!” The truth hit me. I had missed the red arrows. We had to backtrack. Moreover, we were late

An hour and fifteen minutes later, Wimpy and I pulled onto the lot in the town we'd missed by seventy miles. I was glad to see the cook tent flag flying, so most of the circus folk would be inside having lunch instead of watching us drive in late. The Big Top and all the other tents were up, including the sideshow. The circus was ready to go -- that is, except for the seats. The sidewalls on the Big Top were up, revealing everything inside, except there were no seats.

As I slowly drove into the tent, I spotted Big Joe, the boss canvasman, standing very tall, smack in the middle of center ring. The brim of his hat was raised, exposing a boiling red face. His legs were widespread, his hands on his hips. A thin line of tobacco juice marked the down-turned corners of his mouth. He chewed on his unlit cigar stub that rolled nervously side to side. His steely gray eyes penetrated the truck windshield and met mine head on. “Where have you been with my seats?”

I brought the truck to an abrupt halt, turned off the ignition key and eased out of the cab. Wimpy stayed crouched down in the truck. I really did not want to discuss the matter. I offered the only explanation I could! “I missed the arrows!” Joe kept mumbling about his seats as he commanded his men to unload our cargo. I found an escape route and headed for the cook tent.

Wendover, Utah -- The show set up northeast of town, on the edge of the salt flats. With high winds forecast for late afternoon, we moved the trucks and wagons to the north side of the lot and tied the tent ropes to them. Good thing we did!

The winds came as predicted, but hit so hard they picked up the Big Top and the sideshow tent, stood both of them straight out, knocked down riggings, and sent debris sailing across the salt flats. Some of it blew all the way to US Highway 80. While no one was injured, there was much sewing and reconstruction required before the evening show could get underway. We were lucky the entire circus had not blown away.

We also worked on repairs throughout that night. That was when I wished I had stayed in the back yard. I also regretted ever mentioning that I had worked for an awning company back in Denver and knew how to sew canvas. Fortunately, I had kept my leather palm and curved needles. I sure needed them that night.

Clifton, Arizona -- The highway runs through Clifton these days, but in 1951, the remote mining village near the eastern border of Arizona was accessible only from the northwest. There was one way in and one way out.

It seemed as if everyone in the area had come to the circus that day. How they all fitted in remains a mystery to me. They just showed up, and it was standing room only as we played to the largest single audience we had played that entire season. The Big Top was filled to capacity for both performances. The front row seats were the ring curb. During our performance, we engaged in conversation with kids and parents. After the show, I handed out some snapshots and signed autographs upon request. I was unusually cozy with patrons that day. The next day we packed up, backed out, and headed northwest.

Jerome, Arizona -- The road from Cottonwood to Jerome proved too steep for the old bull wagon. The elephants had to get out of the wagon and walk up the last mile into town. I remember passing the empty trailer in which they normally rode. The tractor’s radiator was steaming. Up ahead the giant pachyderms lumbered up the mountainside, heads bobbing and trunks half-raised, pointing the way. Before long the giant animals along with their trainer, China, reached the town of Jerome, where he entered the local restaurant with his elephant “Babe” right behind, trying to keep up. With Babe’s head filling the double doors of the establishment and her long, gray trunk probing inside the cafe, the frightened proprietor went ballistic, shouting in his native language and broken English, as if the end of the world had come.

The proprietor yelled, “Monster! Monster! Run for your lives!” There probably had not been an animal of Babe’s proportion near Jerome since the Dinosaur Age. China took charge and assured the proprietor the animal was under control. Finally, the empty truck made it up the mountain. The elephants climbed aboard, and we all rolled merrily on downhill.

Cedar City, Utah -- Most of the time, circus life was exciting and promised a pinch of glamour. Hot or cold, wet, or dry, the job held a certain romantic charm. However, constant traveling was tiring and the environment was not always ideal. There were some dark sides.

The first week in May, we hit southern Utah and spring snow. After plodding along rain-swept highways in the wee hours of the morning, barely able to see the telephone poles and markers, we arrived in Cedar City to a very chilly, wet, mud-filled lot. The other trucks and wagons that had arrived earlier had driven directly onto the lot and were bogged in mud up to their axles. I stopped the truck on the pavement adjacent to the lot. The elephants, outfitted in leather harnesses and chains, dragged the stranded vehicles out of the muck, one by one. The matinee was cancelled, but by late afternoon, most of the equipment was in place and the show was ready to go.

The weather grew colder. Much colder! One of the show’s leading work-crew bosses, a large, square man named Shrevie from Shreveport, Louisiana, built a large bonfire near the Big Top back door, and everyone gratefully gathered around it as the snow began to fall.

A new roustabout, Sam, was a tall, handsome young black man who had just joined the show a few days earlier in Las Vegas. In the gloom, he made a casual remark about the adverse weather. Without warning, Shrevie walked over to Sam and struck him in the face as hard as he could. Shrevie continued to beat Sam to the ground, shouting obscenities with each blow. Sam lay bleeding but conscious. Shrevie picked up a large stick, lifted Sam to his feet and, prodding him as if he were herding an animal, shouted “ScrewRun Sam offered no resistance as he turned, staggered, and disappeared into the cold gray night.

I stood shaking, half-frozen from the cold, and stunned, having witnessed such sudden wrath in horror and disbelief. I had heard about prejudice, of course, but I had never seen such unprovoked hatred. How horrible that one person could treat another living being that way. I felt ashamed for doing nothing to help Sam.

The next morning I found Sam in the City Park, his face swollen. However, his spirits were high. I handed him the few dollars I carried and we said goodbye.



One section of the sideshow tent contained a small menagerie, featuring Goliath the blood-sweating hippo, Leo the movie star lion from Tarzana, California, who had appeared in a number of Hollywood films, Charley the brown bear, and finally Little Kong, a playful, fun-to-watch, albino spider monkey and his family. With the exception of Virgil, a monkey that once stole my popcorn, these animals were so docile they could have been included in a petting zoo. The only real problem was Leo. Normally quiet, this king of the jungle, successfully removed the hand of a drunken property man one evening when the man jerked, rather than petted, the king’s coarse chin whiskers. After that incident, I refrained from my usual practice of petting Leo’s chin.

Goliath, the blood-sweating hippopotamus, was the exotic one among the group and was one of the show’s main attractions. He really did sweat blood. Tiny drops of it covered his entire body. Goliath, a strict vegetarian, thoroughly enjoyed having his round, rod-like teeth cleaned and dressed regularly. The trainer performed this task using a steel rasp. Goliath spent the heat of the day half-submerged in his private pool, munching greens. Nearly everyone who came to the circus paid to see the gentle giant with the green teeth and bloody sweat. The animals brought in viewers, who themselves were equally interesting.

Ward Hall managed the sideshow. Highly talented, this happy-go-lucky twenty-five-year-old found the circus the ideal environment in which to apply his skills. He sang mellow tenor, danced a mean tap and played tolerable twang on his worn banjo. He also managed a favorable guitar and easy trumpet, swallowed swords, ate fire, charmed snakes and was a master ventriloquist, all part of his masterful sideshow routine. When he sang, there was not a hint of a southern accent. He chirped paraphrased versions of “I’m Looking Over a Four-leaf Clover,” and “I’m Just Wild about Harry,” which were included in his rendition of a Punch and Judy show. Ward narrated the script and manipulated the puppets by himself. He aptly carried the show. Like most barkers on the midway, Ward’s convincing grind about freakish animals and wonders to behold “alive and on the inside” was more spectacular than the real, mostly normal, creatures themselves. While the six large canvas posters comprising the banner line did not portray anything that was a pure lie, the colorful renderings blew the sights inside out of proportion.

“Distortions make them more interesting.” Ward winked. One had only to look at the pictures on the posters to see what he meant -- the sharp teeth of Joe Foy the Dog Face Boy from Bolivia, implied that “He bites people.” Standing next to a yardstick was Tiny Tony Tooley, the World’s Smallest Man. Next to him, Monstro the Monstrous Elephant looked twenty-five feet tall. Inside was a stuffed version of the beast. Coco Willey, swinging from tree limbs, proved to be none other than The Wild Man from Coco Bamba with his curly body hair and apelike stance.

Patrons seemed willing to pay extra to see the sideshow exhibits, but not as much as the human animals tricked them out of. Unfortunately, on some shows , patrons that stepped away from the six-foot high ticket stand without counting their change, unknowingly left tips to the ticket seller, who placed half the customer’s change on the edge of the stand where it could conveniently be collected, and half the refund a few inches back out of the purchaser’s view. If the customer stepped away, caught the mistake and returned to the stand, the ticket seller would simply push the remaining change to the edge of the counter. If the patron did not return to gather all of the change, the unclaimed money was considered a tip. Case closed. Many customers did not realize how generous they were.

Ward Hall had nothing to do with ticket sales. On the inside, he created an illusion he called the Electric Human. In a spectacular Frankenstein setting with exposed wires, transformers, and huge switches mounted on plywood, the act involved two performers, one strapped to the “electric chair” and one to throw the giant power switches that sent, theoretically, thousands of volts of electricity into the chair and into the helpless, strapped-in victim. The moment Ward spotted Jean Claire, with a premature streak of gray running through her long, dark hair, he knew she was just what the Electric Women Act needed. He offered her the job on the spot. We needed the money, and Jean Claire was able to do the sideshow routine before and after the main show, so it never got in the way of her performances under the Big Top.

Jean Claire looked good on stage, and her pleasing, feminine figure and appealing facial features were stage material. She played her roles like a seasoned trouper. Dressed in a flowing golden cape and matching one-piece costume that she designed herself, Jean Claire grabbed the crowd’s attention the moment she stepped on stage. Ward presented her as Electra! the Electrifying Electric Woman. For the opening, Ward blindfolded Jean Claire and led her to the “electric chair,” situated between two metal spheres. Strapped to the chair, she then withstood a metal cap placed on her head. The spheres on each side of the chair were wired to a generator. When “high voltage” was presumably applied to one of the spheres, a harmless static charge jumped from the sphere to her hand, appeared to travel through her body and then jumped from her other hand across to the second sphere.

The moment the switch was thrown, the lights dimmed and an electric buzz was generated through loud speakers. Lights behind the chair blinked, and a small measure of gunpowder was ignited, sending up a grayish-white flash. Spectacular! Combined with the smell of burning powder, smoke filled the air and the patron’s nostrils. The audiovisual-aromatic effects made the gag work very well. The chair and Jean Claire appeared to be sizzling, and the little twitches she made with her body as the switches were activated created an impressive illusion that she was being electrocuted. What the illusion did not produce, viewers filled in for themselves. Of course, the gag was rigged and had no physical effect on Jean Claire. To complete the routine, Jean Claire dropped her head and remained motionless until Ward snapped his fingers and magically revived her. On cue, Jean Claire rose. Ward removed the blindfold, and Jean Claire spun around a couple of times and smiled to show that she was unaffected by the experience. However, none of the skeptics in the audience ever accepted Ward’s invitation to try out the chair for themselves.



Providing two shows a day seven days a week in seven different towns, getting up at 4:30 a.m. and going to bed at 11:30 p.m. took its toll, even on the young. When moving at such a pace, the only constant was the circus itself. Faces and places change. The circus accommodated itself to the local environment. The participants adapted readily.

Between shows, I practiced under the Big Top, where temperatures could run over a hundred degrees. Lalo and Betty, like most seasoned performers, had no interest in practicing in the heat of the day. I often worked out alone. As my skills on the trampoline improved, I added those to the act. For this effort, I began sensing resentment from my partners, and halfway through the season, they replaced me, regrettably, in the trampoline act by another, less experienced performer on the show.

Since the trampoline and flying trapeze were really my primary interests, I was now out of a job. Heartbroken about giving up the trapeze act and, never having worked the aerial bars, I felt let down. It seemed as if the time and preparation over the last three months were wasted. Of course, I enjoyed doing the trampoline act with Lalo and Betty, but it was nowhere near the thrill of the flying act. Frankly, I thought of finding a flying act to join, but I was committed to the Escalante’s for their investment in training and accommodations.

Jean Claire was comfortable, and we stayed on. As time passed, we both expanded our participation in the show. With only the opening parade, aerial ballet, swinging ladders, and trampoline act to worry about, I felt I needed more to do. I tried selling confectionery, but soon backed out. While the candy pitch was a big money-maker for the show, selling was not my forte. That’s the reason I had volunteered to drive one of the semis carrying animals and equipment between towns.

There was a high turnover among members of the property crew. When a person left the show, another person came on board. In mid-season, the boss canvasman on the sideshow disappeared without a word. That is when I volunteered for the job.

I remember playing somewhere in northwest Oregon, and learning that one of the candy pitchmen, John Scott, had left the show the previous night. I liked old John. John drank his breakfast, and rumor had it that when he walked off the lot, he was hit by a car and killed. A few years later, however, my family ran into John at another circus. While we sat in the stands watching the show, none other than John Scott stepped in front of us. He was still pitching “Canda’ Ditty!” He nearly fell over backwards when I said, “Hello John!” We both enjoyed the reunion. Indeed, John had not yet died!

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I began noticing a change in our marriage relationship as Jean Claire became increasingly independent, meeting people and establishing friendships that did not include me. Most disconcerting was that she seemed drawn to the grifters on the show and liked their life style. They lived in nice trailers, dressed well, and drove fine cars. When she began spending more and more time in their company, I suggested she limit the relationships, because of the negative image and perception of their controversial life style. She ignored my suggestion and resented my interference, citing that I had previously been in close contact with these same people myself. She said I was being hypocritical. Our relationship cooled, and the drop in temperature remained.

The added responsibility I had taken on with the sideshow assignment kept me busy supervising the work crew during setup and teardown, and monitoring the animals and facilities during the day. Jean Claire and I were either in the Big Top or the sideshow, but not always together at the same time. Our relationship had not only become cool, but distant as well.

After tear-down one evening, I passed Whitey Owen’s trailer just as he and Jean Claire emerged. Thinking the worst, I asked what was going on. Whitey immediately jumped in front of me and, without saying a word, pushed my left shoulder. I struck him with a hard right jab on the chin. Streetwise, he reeled to his right, spun back around to his left, dropped to his knees, grabbed my legs and took me down. As we descended, I placed both my hands on his shoulders, drew my knees up, and as we hit the ground, I rolled backward, simultaneously launching him up, over, and behind me, sending him crashing into the ground. For all practical purposes, the fight was finished.

Then a very strange thing happened. Seeing a sledgehammer next to the trailer, similar to the one I wielded day in and day out, the thought occurred to me that I could kill Whitey with one blow of that hammer if I wanted to. I reached for the weapon. Then good sense kicked in. Could I kill a man? The answer was that I could not. I turned and ran. Behind me, I heard Whitey shout, “There goes your man!” He did not know that I had just saved his life.

I thanked God I did not kill him. Whatever Divine Providence caused me to leave the scene, I was sure Jean Claire and, perhaps Whitey, got the wrong message. I certainly was not afraid of Whitey. Whether my notions about their relationship had any real basis remains unknown. The truth of that evening, however, was that Jean Claire had received a telegram saying that her grandmother had died. She had gone to Owen, not me, to ask for his assistance in getting to the airport so that she could attend her grandmother’s funeral.

Volunteering to take over as boss canvasman of the sideshow was a grave mistake on my part. The venture meant frequent departure from the back yard. The job entailed supervising the work crew, organizing setup and teardown, handling security and overseeing any maintenance projects. This included sewing tears in the canvas and keeping the tie-downs taut at all times. In reality, I felt too young and inexperienced to supervise older circus hands. They knew more about the circus than I did. I merely followed their lead.

While I got along well with the crew, one night during teardown I got in to a conflict with China, the elephant trainer. China and his pachyderm, Babe, helped us twice daily, dragging the main poles and raising the sideshow tent. A quiet, usually soft-spoken man from LA, China became upset -- and rightly so -- when I over-stepped my bounds and ordered his elephant, “Move!” Babe, like China, was gentle. She always responded immediately to the trainer’s commands without prodding. As canvasman, I had usurped the trainer’s authority by speaking directly to the animal. That was a no-no! Animal trainers are controllers, and for obvious reasons, the only person who can be in control of such an animal is the trainer. If he is not in control, no one is in control. With the sharp-end of the trainer’s elephant-hook waving in my face and his strong admonition to "Back-off," I retreated. China had a free hand after that, and my sideshow tent always got first priority from his Babe. I had a great respect for China, and I loved Babe.

One of my primary duties as new boss canvasman was to assure the integrity of the tent material. If there were tears or holes in the canvas, they required repair. The only time available to accomplish this task was in the afternoon or evening following the Big Top performances. Repair of the sidewalls entailed working on the perimeter of the tent outside. Whatever was going on inside could be overheard.

Gloria -- I do not remember her last name -- was a thirty-five-year-old blond, blue-eyed, calendar-girl type whose cootchy dance enticed men to send family members on ahead while they stuck around after the main show for a little special entertainment.

I saw Gloria and her husband Gus daily either on the lot or at meals. From a distance, Gloria looked better than she really was. Up close, the lines in the woman’s face revealed that this wasn’t her first circus. With a straw hat and bamboo cane, Gus, along with Gloria on display behind him, did his sideshow story out front, encouraging male adults to linger after the show. His exotic, grass-skirted woman moved hula-fashion across the stage, promising them “more” once they stepped inside.

The spiel appealed to the men’s worldly senses. “See the little Hootchy-Cootchy Bathing Beauty from Boston who has secrets to share. Step right up, men, and gaze on Gloria, the shapely little jewel of the sideshow. She winds. She grinds. She shimmies and shakes. She wiggles and giggles. Step right up, men, and see this little beauty in the flesh. She unlocks her secret treasures before your very eyes on the inside. The cost is one dollar!”

When the assembly reached a dozen or so, Gloria and Gus acted as Pied Pipers, leading the audience into the tent. There were no chairs, just a small, ten by ten wooden stage stationed at eye level so everybody standing could see Gloria, now artistically costumed.

The spectators wore a blend of overalls, white shirts, and dress pants. Typically, there were a couple of antique ties and a saggy sports coat. What caused the coat to sag was a near empty bottle of Old Granddad that waited temptingly in a side pocket. After a quick look around, the bottle owner withdrew the wrinkled, sack-covered container, hastily twisted off the plastic top, took a swig and passed the flask on to his friend, the person sporting the other lousy tie. After the show, there were usually one or two empty bottles left on the ground, mixed in with the dirt and sawdust.

The average age of the eager men was probably thirty, with the Bell curve resting somewhere under twenty and one notch spiked above fifty. There were not many gray heads among the local bunch. Farmers in new blue overalls were easiest to spot with their sun-darkened, outdoor faces and the lily-white of their foreheads created by their hats left in the pickup. Half the group, the younger ones in crew cuts, wore tee-shirts and faded blue jeans with white socks and brown penny loafers.

The person in the sloppy coat was whiskey-loud and played the one-in-every-crowd big shot. Undoubtedly, he was community important, because no one ever challenged him or told him to shut up. One thing the watchers had in common was their focus on Gloria. When she began her routine, the men became very quiet and then someone giggled. Others stood silent momentarily, as if embarrassed. On the drums, Gus banged out an almost-version of New Orleans TA-DA DA! Some of the men began shouting, “Take it off!”

Methodically, Gloria complied, removing tiny portions of her diminishing attire, while managing to stay essentially covered. Experience had taught her how to read an audience. Between oscillations, she picked out one particularly young man, likely in the front row, looked him in the eye and, in a deep, provocative voice asked, “How’d you like to see a real sweet secret, big boy?” Gus chimed in with, “If you want to see honey, you have to show her your money!” She smiled and waited for a sign, prompting the youth to dig deeply into his pockets and come up with some “real” cash. You could hear coins clanking onto the stage as Gloria continued her gyrating, and the men began clapping. On that signal, Gus switched on a fixed, blue spotlight and cut the main house lights, leaving Gloria bathed in subdued light for the finale. As soon as the sound of money ran out, the stage went dark, bespangled Gloria disappeared, and all promised secrets remained veiled in the dark.

Once the sheep were fleeced, the show was over. Before the audience could recover, Gus scooped up the loot and fled, leaving the tent near pitch-black. Meanwhile, Gloria, now wrapped securely in her robe, slipped out the back of the tent and disappeared among the trailers with Gus and the money. The moment they were clear, the crew and I moved in and began teardown. As the sidewalls dropped, the noise and half-light from outside poured in on the stunned audience. Caught flat-footed in the middle of the darkened arena with no legitimate reason for remaining there, the men scattered to get out of the way of the incoming workers.

All that remained was the hum of gasoline generators, clanging boards, and the silhouettes of hustling workers. The cootchy event could not delay tear down. By 11:45 p.m., everything was loaded onto trucks and trailers and the show was ready to move on. Four thirty a.m. would come early.

The extra duty of handling the sideshow job was taking its toll. I literally had the canvas on my back. It was windy. We were in Central Utah, setting up the show when a sudden gust of wind lifted the tent. Recognizing the eminent danger, the crew fled in all directions. I stood frozen as the center poles collapsed around me. The entire canvas crashed down, knocking me face first to the ground, burying me in a volume of stifling, accumulated dust and dirt loosened from the canvas. Not only was I suffocating, I was unable to move. I never imagined canvas could be so heavy. I thought that I would die any second. I remembered reading about those people killed under the Big Top in Hartford during the Ringling fire. The reason they died was that they could not move and eventually suffocated.

However, within minutes, my own crew, having avoided the tent collapse in the first place, lifted the edges of the tent, crawled in and around me, and freed me from the canvas trap.

After that, whenever the crew ran, I ran with them. I think for the first time in my life I sensed death’s danger and realized my own mortality. Even the fall from the trapeze in Fresno had not left any sort of life-threatening concern. However, this was different. Being trapped beneath the heavy canvas had absolutely frightened me.



Not unlike other forms of entertainment, the circus attracts a strange variety of people. I am not referring just to sideshow performers, but to the grifters or drifters who worked in and around the circus. Drifters were simply individuals that would show up one day, go to work, be paid and, at the end of the day, disappear. Grifters, however, followed the circus and worked hard at not working at all. If they worked as hard at legitimate jobs as they did at conning people, they would have been highly successful. I imagine one of the reasons grifters lived the way they did was for the thrill of being on the edge, a sort of dare-devil aptitude for life, not so unlike the drive of acrobats and trapeze performers. The motivation and result, however, were obviously worlds apart. Grifters intentionally appeared unassociated with the circus. In fact, they were unofficially a part of the attraction.

I first learned of this small segment of men when roaming the midway before and after shows. I began noticing familiar faces that cropped up in every town we played. While these individuals could not be readily matched up with any particular circus function, they were part of the throng in every town we played. I began to notice these men were on the lot early in the morning, setting up the banner line in front of the sideshow entrance. This indeed was all they did officially, requiring an hour or less each day, a job for which they were not paid. What this volunteer activity did provide was a reason for being around the circus the day it came to town.

What grifters actually did in addition to setting up the banner line was to operate illicit gambling operations in booths stationed alongside the midway, just outside circus territory. These were individuals involved in schemes to beat people out of their money. Their names would not appear on the circus payroll. They operated booths along the midway, and a couple of members of the group would set up a crap game or a shell game in a corner of the sideshow tent, in the parking lot, or some other nearby location. Most of the men in the group were ex-cons, a rough-and-tough looking bunch with matching vocabulary, who were constantly bickering among themselves and threatening to kill one another. Although none made good on such threats, while I observed them, the potential for violence always seemed present. Each of them carried hand guns and knives. The games they ran -- shell games, roulette wheel, craps, cards -- were all flat joints, or no-win games.

Working in teams, the grifters planted a “stick,” one or more individuals who circulated among the crowd and appeared as local folk among the “marks,” or potential game players. Whenever a game was played, the stick would emerge from the crowd, slip in alongside the mark looking over the game, and encourage the local to bet a few dollars on this easy-win game right there in front of him. After allowing the mark to win a few dollars, the stick would urge, “Bet again!” When the mark had won a few times, the stick would say, “Bet it all!” Which the mark did. But this time, he lost everything. If the mark complained, the grifters and stick would split, vanish, slip out the back Jack! Of course, no one with the circus admitted to knowing anything about what was going on.

The show carried its own fix, or legal counselor who, with his expensive brown derby, pin-striped suit, pear-shaped tummy, and big cigar, looked like a model for a comedy TV series. The fix traveled ahead of the show under the title of advance man, driving in his new Cadillac. He made arrangements with city officials for the show and its activities to operate without interference. The kick back was a percentage of the gate. The advance man also placed advertisements, posters, and free tickets with local businesses. The advertising banners strung inside the Big Top were also a product of the advance man.

The circus front yard is the circus downtown, the commerce side, where all the lights are bright. The good, bad and the ugly exist here. When I moved into the front yard, I crossed the boundaries and came shoulder to shoulder with the grifters. Three of them I recall in particular, Whitey, Billy, and Stan the Weasel. I learned to know the trio very well. Together they operated a classic flat joint. Their machinery consisted of a crudely-constructed gaming wheel that they could manipulate under the table. Built into a trailer-type concession stand, the unit could be driven alongside the midway and opened up to the passing crowd.

Their stand was always just outside the circus territory.

Canvas skirts hid the trailer’s wheels and gave the unit a stationary appearance. Whitey and Billy worked inside the stand, controlling the wheel, while Stan acted as the stick.

Their pitch was, “Spin the wheel. Win a buck!” The makeshift roulette table looked simple enough. It consisted of an unpainted wooden two-by-four pointed at one end with a pivot in the middle, and surrounded by two dozen sixteen-penny nails stuck in the table and numbered. What the unsuspecting mark could not know was that Whitey and Billy controlled the wheel. They could stop its spin on any number they chose. After allowing the mark to win a few bucks, the stick would step up, plop down a “half-a-yard” (fifty dollars) and win a hundred. Following the stick’s lead, the mark, convinced this was his lucky day, was suckered in until his wallet was empty. In seconds, the lamb was fleeced. Broke and dazed the mark staggered off, scratching his head and wondering how in the world he could have lost all his money so quickly.

If the mark protested, Whitey engaged him in conversation, while Billy, with the money in hand, slipped down behind the counter, dropped through a trapdoor in the floor, rolled out behind the trailer and fled. If the mark started to come over the counter, Whitey jerked out the support that held up the heavy folding panel so that it came crashing down on the mark’s head. The mark’s reaction was to pull out from underneath the panel. When he did, Whitey would secure the panel closed, drop through the trapdoor, and follow Billy to a pre-determined rendezvous, usually Billy’s mobile home which was parked inconspicuously among the circus vehicles.

Left with nothing but empty pockets and an empty booth, the embarrassed and disillusioned mark finally wondered off. As soon as the heat was off, the grifters hooked up their booth to make their getaway. If the mark returned, there would be no evidence of the grifters or their equipment.

The grifters presented a good case for their way of life. They drove fine cars, lived in big trailers, wore expensive clothes and flashed big rolls of money. One day when it was learned that Stan had disappeared without saying goodbye, Whitey asked me to step in and take Stan’s place. I refused at first, but boredom set in and I toyed with the idea, even though I knew better. At best, I would have been a sick-stick!

At that point, I backed away from the front yard.

When the show reached Crescent City, near the northern California border, my parents drove out from Denver to see us and check on our well-being with the traveling circus. The timing could not have been worse. Following the night show, we were tearing down the Big Top when a mob of fifteen men from town showed up carrying sticks and clubs and wanting revenge because the grifters had taken someone’s money and departed.

The first person the townsmen encountered was Big Joe, the Big Top boss canvasman. Their mistake was that they followed Joe inside the Big Top. As soon as the group reached center ring, Joe turned and yelled, “Hey, Rube!” As the call echoed across the lot, Joe picked up an A-frame used to hold the bleacher seats. With his hands holding the wide end of the frame, he aimed the pointed end toward the angry men. Joe smashed the frame across the back of the bewildered mob leader, knocking him to the ground. In seconds, everyone on the show moved into the Big Top and surrounded the mob. A few blows were thrown, but realizing they were outnumbered and cornered, the townsmen summarily dropped their weapons and fled.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to convince my parents this was the first time such a thing had happened.



Phil Escalante, who had performed for many years, became ill and had to drop out of the act. He asked me to fill in for him. He spent the afternoon preparing me to perform his comedy routine. I went on that evening in his place with Blackie and Lalo. Flying between the three horizontal bars was a completely new challenge. Good thing my part was comedy, because I struggled for a week or so, just getting through the routine. People did laugh, however. Part of it was learning the timing and technique. Too much swing or too little swing could cause a miss. Near misses and a rough execution nearly jerked my arms out of their sockets and placed terrible stress on my shoulders. Unlike the flying trapeze that provides momentum and airtime, the rigid, steel-centered hickory bars did not have much give. After the first couple of days on the bars, I knew from experience why monkeys had such long arms. I felt as if this monkey had been stretched on the rack.

I also discovered that taking butt hits from a slapstick in the Jargo routine, was only part of the abuse I was destined for on the bars. One of the gags entailed my getting pounded on the backside with an exploding hammer, triggered by a blank .22 cartridge. The hammer used by Lalo had a faulty firing pin, which frequently failed. When it failed, Lalo kept hammering until it fired. The repeated blows took their toll, causing a large bruise and muscle spasm that left me limping. Finally, I taped a hard rubber pad on my backside for protection. The rubber pad worked so well that the recoil from the exploding hammer nearly knocked Lalo off his perch. The next day the hammer’s firing pin was fixed. Interestingly, the comedy bar routine was the very thing I remembered as a four-year-old back in Cheyenne, when Aunt Thelma had taken me to see the Ringling show. Those clowns on the bars had triggered my imagination.

Blackie played straight man. His skilled maneuvers through the air were nothing less than avian, a perfect ten every time. As far as we knew, illness was about the only thing that adversely affected performance. However, we were half-way through the season in the middle of the matinee when Blackie commented about not feeling well. In the middle of his routine, he missed the cutaway somersault between bars and injured his back in a fall. Unable to continue, he sat out for three weeks and returned home to recuperate. During this time, I discovered brother Lalo was also an outstanding athlete, as he filled in for Blackie and did all the big tricks, flyovers and twisting somersaults between bars. The comedy routine we did was great fun. The honor of performing with the Escalantes was a wonderful blessing.

[[_{color:#000;} * * * _]]

How was I to know I was on the verge of a new chapter of my life? In order to expand my repertoire in the circus, I decided to contact the Nissen Trampoline Company to inquire about purchasing a trampoline. With it, I could offer the Wallace and Clark an additional trampoline act at no cost. Before the transaction was completed, however, another door opened. The Nissen Company offered me a job as manager/performer of The Prince and Windsor Trampoline Stars scheduled to tour New York State, to perform for school assembly programs. Co-sponsored by Nissen and the Antrim Bureau of Pennsylvania, we were to demonstrate the trampoline, beginning in mid-September 1951 until just before Christmas. Now, with the possibility of representing the Nissen Company and working for the inventor of the American Trampoline, Mr. George P. Nissen, I felt another door open that I could not refuse to enter. I accepted the offer.

Hearing of the offer and my commitment, Jean Claire announced that she would not accompany me. She would not leave the circus. She vowed she wanted to finish the season. It was the end of my season with the circus and the end of our marriage. Devastated, I left the circus in Mountain Home, New Mexico, boarded the train for Albuquerque, caught the bus to Denver, and subsequently boarded the Denver Zephyr bound for Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a new way to showcase my skills.

While the circus dream faded away, another was developing. I was somehow being guided along a path I did not understand.


The Big Bounce

In Cedar Rapids, I was greeted by a representative of the Nissen Company and was handed the keys to a new Dodge sedan equipped with a top rack. On it blazed a brand new Flash-Fold Nissen Trampoline. The car was for me. The trampoline was the property of my new partner, whom I had not yet met, Mr. Dick Windsor, of Minneapolis. Dick and I were to meet the following day in Detroit, Michigan, with George Nissen and his partner Bob Fenner, who were performing their trampoline act at the Michigan State Fair. At that meeting, Dick and I auditioned for Nissen and Fenner. I was handed a script to accompany our routine. We got the job to perform a series of one hundred school assembly programs throughout the state of New York. That day we jumped in the car for Binghamton, New York, where we were to open in three days.

Dick Windsor proved to be a wonderful partner. We worked well together and thoroughly enjoyed the relationship. However, that too changed. Dick’s fiancé Sally joined us on the tour, and she and Dick got married. Sally was a bright, attractive young woman, easy-going, and enjoyable company as we traveled between performances.

Meanwhile, the Wallace and Clark Show finished the season in Little Rock, Arkansas. Jean Claire returned to her parents’ home in Denver. To my absolute surprise she wrote, saying she wanted to join me in New York. With only a few weeks remaining in the tour, and looking forward to our reconciliation, I sent her travel money. In mid-November, she boarded a flight in Denver, and we met at the airport in Buffalo, New York. I was excited and determined to rebuild our marriage.

Immediately, life on the road became chaotic. Jean Claire was obviously unhappy. She found fault in everything. Her demeanor was unfriendly, and she expressed her feelings of dissatisfaction at every opportunity. Our original twosome had doubled in personnel -- two couples, one of them an angry bear, one car, two motel rooms, six meals, two performers, two non-performers, one automobile with expenses and maintenance. Limited finances plagued us. The communication gap between Dick and me widened. The situation deteriorated to the point where we rarely spoke to one another. We endured silently together. What had begun as a wonderful partnership simply evaporated the minute Jean Claire joined us.

The New York tour ended a couple of days before Christmas, and we headed west. Jean Claire insisted that Dick and Sally book passage from Cleveland to Minneapolis where they lived, and that they ship their trampoline home. They gladly departed the moment we reached Cleveland. Jean Claire and I drove on to Cedar Rapids and then on to Denver. Our boss, Bob Fenner, accompanied us on the trip home for the holidays and on the return to Cedar Rapids to begin the New Year.

After a joyful week at home for the holidays, we picked up Bob Fenner at his mother’s house in east Denver and headed back to Cedar Rapids, the headquarters of the Nissen manufacturing plant. Jean Claire and I prepared to perform the next tour just as Dick Windsor and I had. In the meantime we had the option of working at the factory until we received a new contract for a trampoline tour or for as long as might be necessary. Our job was to weave the new, high performance trampoline web beds and to physically test each for its integrity, which helped us pass the time and keep fit.

We rented an upstairs apartment on Cedar Rapids’ south side, and spent the next very cold weeks in the middle of a bitter, icy winter. We worked out daily. Friday evenings we drove to Iowa City with Bob to workout with the gymnasts, Frank LaDue and Jim Norman.

At the same time, the intimate communication that once existed between Jean Claire and me no longer existed. The bonding that had brought us together had disappeared. The fires of love had iced over in the cold Iowa winter.

Soon, news of our new tour arrived. This was the good news. The bad news came the same day: I received my draft notice. The Korean War was in full swing, and I was labeled A-1 draft status. I was to report to the induction center in Denver, February 1, 1952, a month away

“Jean Claire, we have to turn down the tour. I just received my draft notice.”

I was not surprised to receive her response! “I’m not leaving Cedar Rapids. And I want a divorce,” she declared.

“Is that all?” I asked.

Her answer was precisely the quick, cold unemotional proclamation I’d come to expect. “I’ve arranged to see a lawyer!”

Two days later a lawyer called me and confirmed that my wife had indeed filed for divorce. He then asked if I would meet him for lunch. He was buying. “I need to talk to you,” he said. As we sat across the table in one of Cedar Rapids’ better restaurants, the well-dressed counselor leaned forward, folded his hands on the table, and began.

“Jack!” His voice was serious, “I’ve handled many divorce cases, and I do not normally invite the other party to lunch, but I have to tell you that this case is different.”

I asked, “How do you mean?”

He said, “I’ve never encountered a person who showed as little emotion over a divorce decision as your wife. I thought you should know this!”

We talked for an hour about many things. I told him that the situation had developed over a period of several months and that I saw no chance for reconciliation. Jean Claire wanted out of the relationship.

I thanked him for the elegant lunch and for sharing his consoling observations. I assured him I did not intend to contest the case.

“One last thing,” he said. “No children are involved. You have no property or assets. This thing will soon be over!” Iowa law in 1952 allowed non-resident divorces to become final in fourteen days.

After joining the Air Force, I was sent to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas for training. I was kept so busy, I had no time to dwell on the past. Interestingly, Bruce Sidlinger, who was from Cedar Rapids representing a Nissen competitor, performed a trampoline act for the troops at the base. I learned from him that Jean Claire and Bob Fenner had married soon after I left Cedar Rapids. I was not surprised.

The transition out of married life, gradual as it was, still hurt. But I had learned as a child about being unwanted, about making the best of it. I learned o early in life that I cannot make a person want me. Where love is concerned, who wants to be stuck with someone who does not return love? I began to realize I was free, and as the feelings of affection dimmed and the pain lessened, I felt relief. In my case, the bleeding completely stopped at the Cross. On February 23, 1954, in Japan, while serving as a B-29 gunner with the Air Force, I accepted the unconditional, unwavering love of Jesus.



The circus had indeed run away with the boy. But as a young man, I learned that God had other plans besides a circus life for me. Experience is a grand teacher, and patience is a hard-nosed custodian. Time moved on and I with it. By the time I reached the third anniversary of my twentieth birthday, I had performed on stage, in circuses and in nightclubs, served in the military on a bomber crew, made commercial films, gone to college, taught high school and college, and worked for two states’ departments of education. As the years unfolded, I was employed as an account executive in five states for a major broadcasting company, traveled half-way around the world, flown airplanes, driven taxis, coached high school and college gymnastics and diving, remarried, helped raise a family, gone to church, and taught Sunday School. During those years following my time in the circus, I got Jean Claire out of my system, but a little bit of that early circus dream remained with me. Long after I had left the circus, that part of my dream came true.

As a young lad I had dreamed of becoming a circus star and, in particular, becoming a flying trapeze artist with the Ringling Brothers Circus. Being in the audience of the Ringling show is always a thrill, even for the mildest enthusiast, and with so many fantastic acts and super spectacles to see, many of them from around the world, it is difficult to take them all in at one sitting.

One day in the 1950s, I found myself in center ring of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus as part of the trapeze act. It was not the way I had dreamed. Oh, I was there physically all right, but not, as I had imagined, in the role of a flyer. I was there merely as a guest, visiting Eddie Kohl, who had arranged for me to assist the act by disguising me as a property worker and instructing me to hold the climbing ladder for the flyers as they mounted the rigging. Eddie insisted I remain on stage during the act. In addition, he personally had me sit on the ring curb, under a corner of the net to watch my heroes perform their amazing feats of daring. The Escalantes had trained me as a trapeze flyer. They were superb teachers, and I had already realized a significant portion of my ambition in the Wallace and Clark Circus.

Eddie was a gracious soul. Now with the Ringling show, he had reached the top of his profession. Yet he remained the friend I had always known. The day I visited him, he invited me to hang around through the afternoon. Earlier we had talked as he prepared for the show, wrapping the long, white gauze around his wrists, and struggling into his white tights and soft slippers. He reminded me about his role as Whitey in the movie, The Greatest Show on Earth, and how he worked with another famous flyer in the film, Fay Alexander, who doubled for Cornel Wilde in the film.

After stepping into his wooden clogs, Eddie motioned for me to follow him to the back door next to the bandstand where the musicians, under the direction of the Ringling bandleader, blazed away at the William Tell Overture. Other performers milled about the on-deck circle, just outside the tent, anticipating their turn at bat.

As we reached the stage entrance, Eddie picked up two bright blue property uniforms worn by circus crew and actors. “Put this on,” he said. I slipped into the uniform and fastened the cloth belt as we walked into the arena. The preceding act ran off the stage. The clowns began their brass band walk-around while the trapeze net was erected. The roustabouts unrolled the net as I followed Eddie between the tie-downs, checking the tension on each cable supporting the lofty rigging. The clowns had gone nearly full circle as the safety aprons at each end of the fifty-foot net were drawn skyward and tied off. The net was stretched full measure.

Eddie ordered me to sit down on the ring curb next to the rope ladder hanging from the pedestal board. “Stay here until the act is over.” Before I could acknowledge, he hurried offstage, leaving me stranded in the center ring of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, surrounded by hundreds of people. The band blasted away as the clowns finished their walk and marched out of the Big Top. There I sat, dumbfounded at my unbelievable situation, and wondering why no one came to usher me out of the ring.

The Ring Master’s whistle sounded the interim, and the band stopped abruptly. The deep voice of the announcer blared. “Ladies and Gentlemen, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus is proud to present the world’s greatest artists of the high flying trapeze, the renowned, the stupendous, the incomparable, Ward-Bell Flyers.”

A waltz began and the flyers marched into the center ring, three of the world’s greatest flyers, Eddie Ward, Gus Bell, and Eddie Kohl. These aerial acrobats were my heroes, and I was sitting among them. Drums rolled, the actors bowed, removed their capes and clogs and walked tippy-toed toward the rope ladder near me. Mustering all my acting talent, I proudly and graciously steadied the ladder as Gus Bell, his wife, and Eddie Kohl climbed to their aerial loft. For that one brief moment, I was living my dream of being part of the Ringling Brothers Circus.

Meanwhile, Eddie Ward, the trapeze catcher, mounted the net with a pullover, stood up, and moved in large, spider steps, across the web, checking its tautness as he went. Then he climbed a rope, hand-over-hand into his position on the catch bar at the far end of the rigging.

Looking down from the pedestal, Eddie Kohl motioned, “Stay right there!” I nodded okay. There was not time to question the order. Still, I wondered how soon the cops or the boys in white coats would come to remove me. I looked up, just as Eddie grabbed the fly bar, dropped from the rise board, and swung through the air “with the greatest of ease, the daring young man on the flying trapeze!”

There I was down below, with my feet on the ground and my spirit soaring in mid-air, up there, with the flyers.

Yes! In a very strange way, then and there, I realized my dreams of joining the circus. Here I was, in center ring of the Ringling Brothers Circus watching my friends in their flying act. I had the best seat in the house.

Sitting curbside below the high trapeze that night was my defining moment. I realized how much I'd learned from my life in the circus. I ran away to join the circus, and I learned that wherever I was -- in the circus as a clown or a truck driver, in a traveling trampoline act, or being a clown, in a failed marriage or in enduring friendships with good people like the Escalantes -- I was always right where I was supposed to be. Life is like a circus. I need to let this life run away with me.

God answered my prayers and helped me realize my dreams. And in the end, I know that beneath me is the only safety net I really need, the everlasting arms of the Lord.



JACK PRINCE is a retired educator with a wide variety of experience, both professionally and avocationally. He was awarded a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Arts and Physical Education and a Master of Arts in Educational Psychology. He taught, coached, and administered at all levels of education. His employment includes a local school district in Colorado, six institutions of higher learning, and two state departments of education. He also served three years as an account executive in five states for a major broadcasting firm and two years as director of the Wyoming School for the Deaf. He retired from the Wyoming Department of Education in 1995. He and his wife reside in Cheyenne, Wyoming.


Circus Dreams Fulfilled

Circus Dreams Fulfilled is a true coming of age story about a boy and his dreams. Most kids have dreams, but Jack's were unusual--he wanted to fly the high trapeze in the circus. Jack himself was unusual too. Even as a youngster, he had an indomitable spirit and a relentless work ethic. His resilience meant that, in spite of being shuffled from one family to another and from one town to another, his spirit remained positive. He trained himself to be a tumbler, he was a record-setting diver, and he learned to do heart-stopping tricks on the trampoline. Finally, he met characters, heroic and villainous, along the way.

  • ISBN: 9781370714063
  • Author: Jack Prince
  • Published: 2017-06-13 10:26:32
  • Words: 28407
Circus Dreams Fulfilled Circus Dreams Fulfilled