Frost’s Circus Life and Circus Celebrities
Thomas Frost, Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, London: Chatto and Windus, 1881.
Cremorne Gardens - The Female Blondin - Fatal Accident at Aston Park - Reproduction of the Eglinton Tournament -Newsome and Wallett - Pablo Fanque's Circus - Equestrianism at Drury Lane - Spence Stokes - Talliott's Circus - The Gymnasts of the Music-halls - Fatal Accident at the Canterbury - Gymnastic Brotherhoods - Sensational Feats - Sergeant Bates and the Berringtons - The Rope-trick - How to do it.
THOUGH the history of circus performances would be scarcely complete without an occasional passing glance at the music-halls, it would be impracticable to give a consecutive record of the performances at places now so numerous without producing a, work that would rival in voluminousness, and, I may add, in tedium, the dramatic history of Geneste. I shall, therefore, give only a general view of them, including in the survey places which, during the summer, divide with them the patronage of the pleasure-seeking public.
While the graceful performance of Leotard was attracting nightly crowds to the Alhambra, the public were invited by the lessee of Cremorne Gardens to witness the crossing of the Thames on a rope by a lady who assumed the name of the Female Blondin, and whose performance was probably suggested by the more adventurous feat of her masculine prototype over the cataract of Niagara. The performance was decidedly sensational, and attracted a great crowd; besides having the advantage of being attended with much less risk to the performer than any exhibition ever given by the cool-headed and intrepid Frenchman whose name she borrowed. Had Blondin fell at Niagara, he would have been carried over the cataract, and been dashed to pieces; if he should fall from his lofty elevation at the Crystal Palace, be would be killed instantaneously.
Miss Young incurred no such risk; if she had fallen into the river, she would have found it soft, and so many boats were on its surface that the risk of drowning could not enter into the calculation. Leotard practised his aerial somersault over water before he performed in public; and it would have been well for Miss Young if she had confined her rope-walking feats to localities in which she had the water beneath her. The experiment at Cremorne served its purpose in recommending her to the attention of managers as a rival of Blondin on the high rope; but it was not long before she met with an accident which rendered her a cripple for life, while another young woman, whom her success led to emulate her lofty feats, fell from a rope at Aston Park, in the environs of Birmingham, and was killed on the spot.
The great attraction of the Cremorne season of 1863 was a tournament, got up on the model of the one which attracted so large a proportion of the upper ten thousand to Eglinton Castle in the summer of 1844. There was a grand procession to the lists, and an imposing display of banners, and all the pomp and pageantry of bygone times; and then the encounters of the armoured knights, for which the lists at Cremorne afforded much more scope than the stage at Astley's, or even at Drury Lane. Doubtless there were some dummies, as I have seen in the tournament scene in Mazeppa; but the living knights acquitted themselves very creditably, and the spectacle proved a powerful source of attraction.
The Queen of Beauty was a lady whose ordinary business was to ride in entrees, and who was known professionally as Madame Caroline. If she did not, like Thackeray's Miss Montmorency, live in the New Cut, she had her abode in the vicinage of that thoroughfare, in the somewhat more westerly region which receives, after midnight, so large a proportion of those who, in various ways, contribute to the amusement of the public. Yet there may have been some of the critical spectators of the Cremorne tournament who, looking upon Madame Caroline, may have felt the force of the remark made by Willis as to the comparative suitability of Lady Seymour and Fanny Kemble to have occupied the throne of the Queen of Beauty at Eglinton Castle.
'The eyes,' said Willis, ‘to flash over a crowd at a tournament, to be admired from a distance, to beam down upon a knight kneeling for a public award of honour, should be full of command; dark, lustrous, and fiery. Hers are of the sweetest and most tranquil blue that ever reflected the serene heaven of a happy hearth - eyes to love, not wonder at - to adore and rely upon, not admire and tremble for. At the distance at which most of the spectators of the tournament saw Lady Seymour, Fanny Kemble's stormy orbs would have shown much finer; and the forced and imperative action of a stage-taught head and figure would have been more applauded than the quiet, nameless, and indescribable grace, lost to all but those immediately around her.'
Wallett, the clown, on his return from his second American tour, having acquired some money, was taken into partnership by Newsome, whose circus was, in the words of the former, 'one of the most complete concerns ever seen.' They opened at Birmingham, where good business was done for a few months, after which they started on a tenting tour, with a stud of forty horses. They returned to Birmingham for the winter, and showed their thousands of patrons one of the finest amphitheatres ever opened in this country. The ring, instead of having saw-dust or tan laid down, was covered with pile matting of cocoa-nut fibre for the horses to run on, while the central portion, where the ring-master cracks his whip and the clown his 'wheeze,' boasted a circular carpet. The decorations of the interior were rich and tasteful, and it was illuminated by a chandelier by Defries, which had cost a thousand guineas.
The association of Wallett with Newsome continued for two years, after which the circus was conducted by the latter single-handed, and the former joined Pablo Fanque's circus as clown. He is next found engaging the talented Delavanti family for a tour, and afterwards coming with them to London, where they were all engaged at Drury Lane Theatre, then temporarily open for circus performances, under the management of Spence Stokes, an American.
In 186.5, Hengler's company and stud came to London, and gave a series of performances at the Stereorama, temporarily converted into a circus for the purpose. On the termination of these performances, and of William Cooke's lesseeship of Astley's, London was without an amphitheatre for several years, with the exception of a few months, when a small temporary circus was opened in the back-slums of Lambeth Walk, by James Talliott, formerly well known as a trapeze performer. The company and stud, which were on a very limited scale, were supplied from Fossett's circus, which tented at fairs during the summer, and Talliott erected a temporary circus for them on the yards at the back of a row of houses belonging to him.
During the time that Astley's ceased to exist as a circus, the music-halls of the metropolis, which were now springing up in every quarter, supplied the seekers after amusement with a constant succession of performers of those portions of a circus entertainment which can be exhibited upon a platform. The fatal accident which befell a gymnast named Majilton at the Canterbury caused the proprietors of those places of amusement to discountenance the flying trapeze for a time, and the rising school of young gymnasts who intended to transcend the feats of Leotard began to practise on the fixed trapeze, single or double, the horizontal bar, and the flying rings. The gymnast known professionally as Airec made balancing the distinctive feature of his performances, and exhibited it on the trapeze in every position. Others gave to their feats on the trapeze the sensational character which was so striking an element in the performances of Leotard and Victor Julien by exhibiting what is called 'the drop,' in which one of the performers falls headlong from the bar, as if by accident, and is caught by the foot by his companion, who himself hangs from the bar by his feet, which are locked in the angles formed by the bar and its supporting ropes.
The gymnasts known as the Brothers Ellis, and sometimes as the Brothers Ellistria, were two of the best performers on the horizontal bar that I ever witnessed. The slow pull-up of James Ellis was inimitable; but in feats in which ease and grace were displayed more than strength, he was excelled, I think, by his partner, who, after their separation, assumed the name of Castelli. I must here remark that gymnastic and acrobatic 'brothers' seldom bear the relationship to each other which the designation conveys. Though it exists in some instances, as in the case of the Brothers Ridley (both, I believe, now dead), they are the exceptions; the Brothers Francisco, who performed in numerous circuses and provincial music-halls several years ago, but have since retired from the profession, were cousins. The Brothers Ellis, the Brothers Price, and many other professional fraternities that could be named were not even partners, one of them making engagements and receiving the salary, taking the lion's share for himself, and paying a stipulated sum to his companion, in or out of an engagement.
The partnership of the Brothers Price, who performed on the double trapeze, was of brief duration. Price, for only one of them bore that patronymic in private life, had the good fortune to receive a legacy of considerable amount, and thereupon retired from the profession; and his partner, whose real name was Welsh, assumed the name of Jean Price, and, knowing that single trapeze performances did not 'go' like the double, he began to practise the 'long flight,' and made it his specialty. Suspending his trapeze above the platform, as usual, he erected a perch, as for the flying trapeze, at the opposite end of the hall, and at the same altitude as the trapeze. Midway between the perch and the trapeze a pair of ropes were suspended from the ceiling, and provided with rings or stirrups, as for the flying rings performance, but long enough to reach the perch. Taking his stand on the perch, and grasping the rings firmly with his hands, the gymnast sprang off into the air, and swung to the trapeze, which he caught with his legs, at the same moment loosing his hold of the rings. He then performed some ordinary feats on the trapeze, and catching the climbing rope swung to him by an attendant, descended by it to the platform, from which he bowed his acknowledgments of the warm applause with which such sensational feats as the long flight are invariably received.
Remarks are often made by gymnasts as to the ease with which they perform on the trapeze and the horizontal bar many of the feats which elicit the most applause, as compared with those which often excite no demonstration whatever. Every one who has witnessed the tight-rope performances of the inimitable Blondin must have observed how much more he is applauded when he appears on a rope stretched at a great elevation than when he performs his feats on a low rope. There is, however, no more difficulty, and no greater risk of falling, whether the rope is stretched at an elevation of four feet only, or of forty feet, while the feats performed are the same. But the greater elevation convoys to most minds the idea of a greater amount of skill and courage being required for their performance, and hence the louder and more general applause which they elicit when they are performed on the high rope. People admire daring, and the more sensational a gymnastic performance of any kind is the more it is sure to be applauded.
Antipodean balancing feats have been exhibited by several music-hall artistes, in various modes, and with a considerable variety of accessories. James King, known as the bottle equilibrist, places a stool on a table, four wine glasses on the stool, a tray upon the glasses, and a decanter upon the tray; and then, grasping the upper part of the decanter with both hands, raises himself to a head-balance. Another artiste of this class, Jean Bond, balances himself upon his bead upon the summit of one of the uprights of a ladder, which is surmounted by a revolving cap, and by turning the cap with his hands, he spins round in that position. A more interesting performance, to my mind, than either of these was shown three or four years ago by an acrobat named Carl, who walked upon his hands along a wire stretched from the gallery to a temporary platform on the stage. In performing this feat, the whole weight of the body rests on the right and left hands alternately, and the equilibrium is maintained by following each movement of the hands along the wire with a corresponding motion of the body, so that, whether the weight is resting on the right hand or the left, the centre of gravity is directly above the wire.
The flying rings, being a less sensational performance than the trapeze, has not been much favoured by gymnasts, though they frequently practise with the rings while training, as a preparation for the flying trapeze. Some very good tricks can be shown with them, however, and several years ago the performance was made a specialty by a brace of gymnasts known as Parelli and Costello. Parelli is not an Italian, as his professional name would lead the incognoscenti in such matters to infer, but a native of Westminster, and his real name is Francis Berrington. Having practised gymnastics with a view to a public appearance, he found a partner in a young acrobat named Costello, also a native of Westminster, whose performances had hitherto been exhibited in quiet streets, and been followed by a 'nob.' He is not, however, the only performer whom the multiplication of music-halls and the consequent demand for gymnasts and acrobats in such establishments, has elevated from the streets to the platform; and it is certain that the change, while it has raised the status of the vocation, has produced a great improvement in the quality of the performance, by furnishing the performer with a constant incentive thereto. It is a curious illustration of the system of adopting professional names differing from their real patronymics, and which obtains equally among all classes that contribute to the amusement of the public in theatres, circuses, and music-halls, that Parelli is the brother of Luke Berrington, who performs under the name of Majilton. Luke Berrington is a very creditable artist in water-colours, and his views of the various portions of the exterior and interior of Westminster Abbey have been greatly admired by competent judges for their artistic finish and the fidelity with which every portion of the venerable edifice has been reproduced. To the general public, however, he is better known as a clever performer of the tricks with a hat of soft felt which were first exhibited in this country by the French clowns, Arthur and Bertrand.
Mr Berrington, senior, the father of Luke and Frank, is not a little proud of his clever sons and daughter. When Serjeant Bates, to win a wager and make a book, carried the flag of the American Union from Glasgow to London, the elder Berrington welcomed him to the metropolis in an epistle signed 'Majilton,' without the prefix of his baptismal name, as if the writer was a peer of the realm, and used his title. He refers, with pardonable parental pride, to his olive-branches, then making a professional tour in the United States, Luke and Frank being accompanied by their sister and Costello; and the serjeant, who had probably never heard of them before, speaks of them as a talented family of actors! Their entertainment was really a ballet of diablerie, like those of Fred Evans and the Lauri family, with a good deal of tumbling and hat-spinning.
Seven or eight years ago, the great 'sensation' of the London music-halls was a balancing feat of a novel character, which was exhibited by an acrobat named professionally Sextillian, but whose real name is James Lee. He arranged about a score of glass tumblers in the form of an inverted pyramid, and balanced the fragile structure on his forehead, the base being formed by a single tumbler. But this was not all. He changed his position several times, constantly assuming attitudes which would have won the admiration of the world, if they could have been perpetuated in marble, and even passed in various positions through a hoop, all the time maintaining the equilibrium of the glittering pile that rested upon such a narrow base upon his forehead. If any of my readers should be disposed to attempt the performance of this feat as a private drawing-room entertainment, they must be prepared with a good supply of tumblers, for I am able to assure them, on the excellent authority of Sextillian himself, that the wondrous dexterity with which he performs it was not attained without an extensive destruction of glass.
Another performance which excited a large amount of public attention, partly through the mystery in which the modus operandi was enveloped, and partly by reason of the excitement previously produced by the Brothers Davenport's exhibition of alleged spirit-manifestations, was the 'rope-trick,' shown first by an expert performer named Redmond at Astley's, and afterwards at most of the music-halls. The performer was enclosed in a cabinet about three feet square, and five or six feet high, with a door facing the spectators, and provided with a small aperture near the top. In a few minutes an attendant opened the door, when Redmond was seen within, securely bound in a chair. The spectators were allowed to satisfy themselves that he was bound as securely as if a second person had bound him, and then the door was closed. In a few moments he rang a bell, then he showed one hand at the aperture; in a few seconds more he began to beat a tambourine, and in a minute and a half from the time he was shut in the door was opened again, and he walked out, with the rope in his hands. This performance proved so attractive that it soon had many imitators, but none of them did it in so genuine and puzzling a manner, or displayed equal dexterity in its exhibition.
The trick was not original, but it was new to the public, or at least to the present generation. I have heard it called both the American rope-trick and the Indian rope-trick, but the former name may have been derived from the similar performance of the Brothers Davenport, who pretended to be passive agents in the business, and to be tied and untied by spirits. Long before the pretended spiritual phenomena were ever heard of, the rope-trick was in the repertoire of the famous Hindoo juggler, Ramo Samee, who performed at the Adelphi and the Victoria some forty years ago. The manner of its performance is said to have been communicated by him to one of the Brothers Nemo, who thought so little of it that he never exhibited it until the public mind had become excited by the tricks of the Davenports and the antagonistic performance of Redmond. Next to the latter, Nemo was the best exhibitor of the trick that I ever saw; but that is not saying much, for most of them were so incompetent to perform it that the effect produced by its exhibition by them was simply ludicrous. I remember one of them - I will not mention his name - complaining when he found that he could not release himself, that he had not been treated as a gentleman by the person - one of the spectators - by whom he had been bound; and another, that he had been tied so tightly that the rope hurt his wrists, and stipulating, on another occasion, that he should not be tied tight!
The peculiarity which distinguished Redmond's feats in a remarkable manner from those of his imitators was, that he not only released himself from the rope in less time than was occupied in binding him, whoever the operator might be, but bound himself in a manner that baffled the skill and exhausted the patience of every one who attempted to unbind him. I was present one evening at the decision of a wager which had been made by a Westend butcher, that he would unbind Redmond in a given time, the tying up being done by Redmond himself. The performer entered the cabinet, carrying the rope, and was shut in; in less than two minutes the door was opened, and he was seen bound, hand and foot, to the chair on which be was sitting. The butcher immediately set to work, several gentlemen standing around, with their watches in their hands, surveying the operation with the keenest interest. It was very soon seen that the butcher was at fault; he could not find either end of the rope. He sought in Redmond's boots, up his sleeves, inside his vest, but the rope seemed endless. He fumed, he perspired, as the seconds grew into minutes, and the minutes swiftly chased each other down the stream of time; but no end could he discover. Time was called, and the butcher's wager was lost. Redmond was then enclosed in the cabinet again, and in less than two minutes he was free.
The secret of this trick is unknown to me, but I was not long in discovering that the mere untying by a person of a rope which has been bound about him by another is, however securely the rope may be tied, a very simple matter. It does not follow, however, that the feat can be performed by every one. The operator must possess good muscles, sound lungs, small hands, and strong fingers. If he clenches his hands, raises the muscles of his arms, and keeps his chest inflated during the operation of tying, he will find that his work is half done by the simple process of opening his hands, relaxing the muscles of the arms, and restoring the natural respiration. If the wrists are bound together without being separately secured, the releasing of one hand frees the other by the slackening of the rope; but the operator is thought to be more securely tied when the rope is tied with a knot about the right wrist, and then passed round the other, both drawn close together, and a second knot tied. In this case, the right hand must be drawn through the hempen bracelet by arching it lengthwise, and bringing the thumb within the palm, so that the breadth of the hand shall very little exceed that of the wrist ; and this operation is greatly facilitated by a smooth, hard skin. With the right hand at liberty, there is little more to be done; for a skilful and experienced manipulator finds it easier to slip out of his bonds than to untie the knots which are supposed to increase his difficulty. Any man possessing the physical qualifications which I have mentioned ought to be able to liberate himself, however securely he is tied, in a minute and a half.
I have performed this feat on several occasions for the satisfaction of friends, and have always released myself in Redmond's time, except on one occasion, when I failed entirely, and had to be released by the gentleman who had bound me. He had, unknown to me, made a noose at one end of the rope, and this he passed over my head, after binding my arms and knotting the rope behind me in such a manner that I could not move either hand without producing a lively sense of strangulation.
‘I learned that trick in Australia,’ observed the author of my discomfiture. 'I tied up a black fellow like that in the bush; and he is there now.'
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