Season Two of the Circus
The plan for the second season was to spend another summer in Michigan, and then pursue a route that would take us to Texas where we would winter in the sunshine of the Rio Grande Valley. The season opening meant that I changed roles, morphing from fabricator and decorator into assuming the set-up and tear down of the side show on the one day stand routine that brought circus entertainment to small towns. During the Fisher Bros Circus season of 1972, I was moving a 30’x60’ tent, had eighteen animals on foot, eighteen animals in cages with two men working for me. Soon a hippopotamus would be among the component of animals.
The second season also introduced twin bandstand trucks to flank the back door of the big top. Marie Loter was on organ and myself as drummer and announcer.
Another attraction was added to the concessions for the second season of Fisher Bros Circus. Jim Kernan brought his small Wienie Wagon concession stand. Jim’s presence offered candy apples and hot dogs to the audience in the seats. Each afternoon Jim would sing in a pleasant baritone while he made the candy apples.
Jackie also showed up from the rodeo scene with her tight and bright metallic looking western wardrobe. She presented a whip cracking act and commanded a lot of favorable attention. Jackie was a good-looking lady and her traveling companion was a large white dog.
During the first season, our show had no water wagon. Raymond Duke was the show’s agent who always booked the show on a lot with a water access. One of the new pieces of equipment in season two was a water tanker. In order for my camper/bandstand pickup to qualify for paid fuel on the show, I was recruited to pull the water wagon. The wagon was made from a pickup truck frame with an elongated square tank resembling a box. Towing the water wagon required that I stop prior to coming onto the lot to fill it each morning. I quickly learned how to divine water from unfamiliar towns and counties.
I discovered that getting water for the circus would get bogged down in red tape if I sought permission. I figured out how to speed things up. During the week, all churches were mostly vacant. To find a church with a hose bib on the outside of the building provided fast and easy access to water. Weekends, when church was busy, I would look for a school to get water in the same manner. But filling up a several hundred-gallon tank with a water hose took time. So to not hang around looking suspicious while the water filled the tank, I began to take early morning walks once the tap had been turned on. This allowed me to enjoy exploring the new town while not arousing suspicion that water stealing was going on. On the walks I discovered old remnants of feed mills, thriving downtowns and lunch counters in the local drug stores. Neighborhoods provided an endless variety of visual wonder for me to observe. I found I could enjoy olfactory stimulation while the water tank was filling.
Circus entertainment in the early seventies still had influences that lingered from the day of horse and carriage. Famous jungle explorers had brought exotic animals to the forefront of the imagination of every child. The exploration of the world brought many live attractions for touring entertainment productions.
Northern Ohio contained the winter quarters and farm of exotic animal showman Tony Diano. The opportunity to purchase his hippopotamus included a large animal cage semi-truck that sported a large water pool and a platform for the feeding and comfort of Ava the hippo. She was named after a popular movie star of that era.
Ava the hippo needed a change of water in her pool daily. I received more cherry pie with the support duties of Ava. Every morning the swampy water had to be dumped on the edge of the lot to lighten the load before the jump to the next town. Once at the next lot, I began the erection of the side show tent and one of my men scooped the hippo cage clean. Then, I took the hippo semi downtown to the fire department and asked them to hose down the hippo and fill the tank. This task was always met with enthusiasm and drew a local crowd. When the tank was full, the heavy rig was carefully driven back to the lot and positioned adjacent to the side show for the paying patrons.
Animal presentations with various creatures accomplishing all manner of feats were part of traditional circus performances during the golden era and they were appreciated because the general population still had horse sense, due to their connection with horses. People revered and cherished the special gifts of a trainer who coaxed his animals to accomplish amazing feats. I developed a passionate interest observing the unique skills of the trainer of circus animals while drumming for these acts during the show. Discussions between shows and particularly at the cookhouse with trainers reflected this.
Billie Grubb was our cook. She was plump, short and her perpetual smile accompanied plain cotton clothes. She had a sprout of short grey hair. Her country accent radiated from the kitchen in a converted white school bus with red lettering and scrollwork down the sides. A small tent with portable tables was set up beside this galley each day. Breakfast was a challenge sometimes, depending on the lay of the land. The largest and flattest area on the lot was primarily used for the big top and seats, and the show cookhouse tent was sometimes set up on a hill. Because of this, the dining tables were often slightly tilted, creating a challenge when eating pancakes. Instead of pouring syrup onto the stack and having it run off the side of the paper plate, we learned how to first cut a square hole in the middle of the pancake stack and pour the syrup into the hole.
A peek at my future occurred while standing in line at the cookhouse. Billie always graced us with encouraging conversation. She noticed my interest in trained animal presentations. As I inched toward the kitchen window, I heard an innocent enough observation about my interest with performing livestock.
“Hey Drummer Boy, you ought to have a pony act of your own” suggested Billie the cook as she dished up my meal.
The others on the show observed my fascination with Liberty Horses. The harmony between the trainer and a group of horses performing At Liberty, or without any tethers or restraints of any type. This is traditionally regarded as being the most elite of the circus performing arts. From the bandstand, I observed these liberty routines at every show and in the backlot, interacted with the same animals as I helped the trainer with his chores.
“My husband could train them for you,” Billie continued as I left her proximity with my meal and sought a seat.
Our cook was from Hugo, Oklahoma. She was the wife of Bob Grubb, an old-time cowboy and horse trainer. Together they had a liberty horse acts and other performing horses in many shows over the years. She suggested that I might want to meet her husband Bob someday and see if he could help me train an act of my own. This invitation prompted a new flood of ideas.