From the world's foremost female trapeze artist to the world's foremost circus wardrobe mistress - that's the story of probably the most popular individual in circusdom, Mayme Ward.
And it's a story none will dispute, for she is as beloved as she is accomplished. Aurora, Ill., circus-goers had the opportunity to see for themselves on Friday, July 13, when Mayme come to the Aurora Downs show lot with the Mills Bros. Three Ring Circus. The circus, world's largest motorized one, gave two performances under its own big top on behalf of the Navy Club, Ship 50.
And, for an extra dash of flavor, Mayme's appearances in this section of Illinois marks a return to familiar ground. For this section of the state has always been well known in circus channels, and it was right in Bloomington, where Mills Bros. appears the day before it visits Aurora, that Mayme and the famous Ward Flyers originated many of their famed aerial feats. Bloomington long has been the notion's trapeze training capital.
The Ward Flyers, originated by Mayme and her late husband, Eddie, in a Cedar Rapids training barn in the winter of 1913-14, moved to Bloomington as their winter training site a few seasons later. There they erected a still larger barn, especially designed for trapeze troupe training, and for many years they spent the winter months perfecting new routines at Bloomington.
Mayme's husband Eddie, and his sister Jennie, in fact were Bloomington natives, and as youngsters developed a brother-sister trapeze turn. So it was natural that, when the big six-person Ward flying return act was formed that it would eventually turn to Bloomington as its training site.
Mayme, graceful and daring as a flyer, became even more sensational as a female catcher in the Ward act-trapeze performers being divided into flyers, who swing out on their trapeze and leap through the air, and catchers, who are waiting to grasp their wrists or ankles and then see that the flyer returns safely to his original trapeze. Mayme became one of the few women ever able to do the rigorous catching work.
Husband Eddie died when their first son, Eddie Jr., was 14, and did not live to see their other son, Harold, and daughter, Genevieve, carry on the flying traditions with their mother. Mayme continued in trapeze work until 1942. Genevieve is now with her mother, assisting in the Mills Bros. wardrobe department which, under Mayme's direction, has become known as the finest in circusdom. Genevieve also appears in the big show in major aerial ensembles and also rides horseback in the glittering 1951 Equine Revue.
Mayme joined Mills Bros. a year ago and immediately began establishing the circus as America's best dressed circus. Through the winters now, she labors over the spangles, sequins and richly-colored wardrobe which makes circus performers so dazzling.
Before coming to Mills Bros. she did wardrobe designing for a number of stage shows and spectacles, including having direct charge of the elaborate costumery for the famous Sally Rand show at Son Francisco's Golden Gate Exposition and working with a number of other outstanding show world personalities.
Looking through a lot of old printed matter of circuses and minstrels, I come across a page from a New York Clipper of July, 1909, listing these circuses that were touring the country that year. Many of the titles are familiar I am sure to all circus fans. Some are overland wagon shows. The list follows:
Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth; Ringling Bros' World's Greatest Shows; Great Sells-Floto Shows; John Robinson 10 Big Shows; Hagenbeck-Wallace Shows; Campbell Bros. Great Consolidated Shows; Gollmar Bros. Great American Shows; Cole Bros. World Toured Shows (Martin Downs, Propr.); Norris & Rowe Greater Shows; John H. Sparks Shows; Mighty Haag Shows; Sun Bros. World's Progressive Shows; Howe's Great London Shows; Yankee Robinson Show; Frank A. Robbins Show; Welsh Bros. Show; Gentry Bros. Shows No. 1; Gentry Bros. Shows No. 2; Mackay's European Shows; Coulter & Coulter Shows; Howard Damon Shows; Howard Starrett's Shows; King & Tucker Shows (2 cars); Andrew Downie Show (2 cars); Colorado Grant Show (2 cars); Buffalo Bill & Pawnee Bill's Wild West; Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Wild West.
Wagon Shows: LaMont Bros.; Ric Bros.; Al. F. Wheeler New Model Show; M. L. Clark & Son.; Chas. Bartine Show; Silver Family Show; Great Lugar Show; Great Reed Show; Lorenzo & Maurer; Adam Fetzer Show; Heber Bros. Show; Woodford & Elzor Show; Dickey's Circle D Ranch Wild West; Snyder Bros. Wild West.
The following shows played parks or fairs: Tanner Bros. Dog & Pony Show; California Frank's Wild West; Texas Bud's Wild West; Buckskin Ben's Wild West; Bud Holmes Wild West, and Lone Star May's Wild West.
The only circus titles still before the public, listed above, are Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey (used in the combined form since 1919). Quite a contrast to 42 years ago, the writers first year with the white tops.
Circus notes from a Billboard of October, 1906:
Major Caillouette, in his twenty-third week with the Al. F. Wheeler Model Show is successfully presenting his unicycle, wire and baton acts.
Washburn & DeAlma Show has closed its season and gone into winter quarters at Corona, N. Y.
Orton Bros. Circus will shortly go into winter quarters at Des Moines, Iowa. Next year a small menagerie will be carried.
John G. Robinson writes that there is plenty of money down in North Carolina, that the show played to turn away business at Charlotte, despite a steady rain. The Robinson name draws the crowds throughout the Southern territory.
Alberto, the flexible marvel, enroute with Beach & Bowers Minstrels has signed with Forepaugh-Sells Circus for 1907. The show turned them away October 6, in El Paso, Texas.
Jones Railroad Show was offered for sale, J. Augustus Jones, Owner. Route, Birmingham, Ala., Oct. 26; Andalusia, Ala., 27; Union Springs, Ala., 28.
Miles Orton Show advertised for performers, musicians, side show people and billposters. To be out all winter. Address, Norman Orton, Beaufort, S. C., October 18.
Great Van Amburg Show, Jerry Mugivan, owner, advertised for performers, riders, boss canvasman, working men, trainer to work elephants, 10 candy butchers, and good musicians. Brazil Ind., Aug. 15. Clinton, Ind., 16th; Newport, Ind., 17th.
The Great Norris & Rowe Circus wanted for side show, sister team, lady bag punchers, and other act or curiosity. Show to run 20 weeks longer. Address Walter Shannon, Manager sideshow, care Billboard.
Note This circus came to an end early in May, 1910, at Newport, Ky., when attached by the Donaldson Lithographing Co., for debts. The writer closed with some a few days before the end and joined Gentry Bros. Famous Shows, the same day in Indiana.
Old Sam Dock, is fairly well known in the east by the old timers, although its doubtful if fans elsewhere ever heard of him. He is one of the oldest active showman.
I am quite familiar with his many years of trouping starting in 1883 on Frenches Oriental Circus. About 1893 he started his own wagon show and it operated profitably under his management until the start of World War II. The outfit continued on wagons until the late twenties when it was motorized. The last to go were the cage wagons which traveled overland until 1929.
In 1946 his daughter and grandson rebuilt a small unit featuring old Sam with his dogs, ponies and goats. With money flowing in from all directions, his son-in-law, and other grandson helped to build the show larger and it really mopped up. In 1949 it went out with a new four pole '60' and for a small show it really looked classy.
It's still out although I don't know just who is with it this season. I imagine it's quite a bit smaller as I believe the family are not all on the show. As with most family shows, together they can operate one, but fight like cats and dogs constantly. This was not true when Sam operated the show himself. I've never seen any publicity on Sam and it seems a shame he doesn't rate a few lines while he is still alive.
The reason I am so familiar with his life is that I spent many an hour with him gathering data for a book on the old wagon show days - Rolling Sunburst Wheels.
I recently purchased a small paper covered book entitled SOME EARLIER PUBLIC AMUSEMENTS OF ROCHESTER (N.Y.) by George M. Elwood, and in its pages are some interesting notes about the circus in Rochester - here's one.
"So late as 1849 the editorial staff of the Advertiser was prohibited from even mentioning theater or circus. In his Sketches of Rochester, published in 1838, good old Henry O'Reilly gives a devout expression of thankfulness that 'neither theater or circus can now be found in Rochester. The buildings formerly erected for such purposes were years ago turned to other objects-the theater is converted into a livery stable and the circus into a chandler's shop.'"
On another page we are told of early traveling circuses:
"The history of the early amusements would not be complete without some account of the travelling circus. The BROADWAY CIRCUS was the first to pitch its tents within our gates, in the summer of 1840. Its announcement was characterized by that modest verbiage that has since become typical of the class, in testimony whereof 'Mr. Cadwallader, a Philadelphian by birth, and styled by the equestrian artists the Collossal Rider. This gentleman's feats is truly wonderful, the apparent ease and grace maintained by Mr. Cadwallader while his fiery steeds are darting around the arena, have created the greatest sensation before the most fashionable audiences of N. Y. Master Jno. Glenroy, the Pride of the American Arena, and pupil of the Great Cadwallder, whose extraordinary feats on the back of his rampant steed leaves the audience in wonder and amazement, who justly term him the Equestrian Roscius of America.' Then followed the well remembered names of HOWE'S CIRCUS with Dan Rice as clown, ROCKWELL AND STONE'S with Levi J. North the equestrian, and Herr Cline the rope walker ; - SPALDING'S VAN AMBURGH'S, RICE AND LENT'S, and ROBINSON'S; sometimes four or five coming in a single season. Barnum come first in 1848. Some of the earlier circuses are advertised to appear 'near Brown's Square on the gross plot between Kent and Frank Streets,' and one I on the open space near North Fitzugh Street.' "
Joseph Dobas, Former Mills Bros. Performer Dies
Joseph Dobas 59, aerial acrobat died at his home in Ventnor, N. J., on August 16th, after a long illness. He toured Europe and South America before coming to the United States in 1923 to join Sells-Floto Circus. With his wife, Anna, and his two daughters, Auegenia and Hildegarde, billed as the Four Dobas, he played the Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City during 1932-33. He was with Mills Bros. Circus for several years before his illness. Bandwagon, Vol. 6, No. 7-8 (Autumn), 1951
Frank Gentry, The Last of the Four Gentry Brothers Dies
Frank Gentry died Saturday, October 6, at the Elks National Home, Bedford, Va. Burial was in Bloomington, Indiana. He was born in Bloomington, Indiana, March 23, 1874. After the death of his three brothers, Frank disposed of the Dog and Pony Show and he and another man, purchased the Sells-Floto circus. He entered the Elks Home on January 1, 1949, and had been in the hospital there since January 11, 1950. Bandwagon, Vol. 6, No. 7-8 (Autumn), 1951
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Last modified November 2005.
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Last modified November 2005.