The Liberty Act
“If you get up the courage to begin, you have the courage to succeed.”
The daily routine of liberty pony training in winter quarters at the fairgrounds in Hugo, Oklahoma had progressed to my being in the ring working the three ponies proficiently. I had just a few weeks until the time arrived to go open with a circus. The final step, prior to this deadline was to get the ponies crowd broke, or used to the noise, music and the applause they would experience in the show. During our training sessions Bob clanged trashcan lids, played a record player and created other distractions in the barn while I took them through their paces. This introduced them to working amidst chaos and disruption but nothing would get them used to the real thing.
As the new season loomed, Bob did his best to prepare me mentally for what to expect when I began performing in an actual ring on a real show. As I continued accumulating my understanding, Bob explained to me that the horse trainer actually wants the animal to make every conceivable mistake. It is during guiding the pony through these mistakes into the behavior that is desired, that the pony learns thoroughly.
He told me that the first time a colored circus balloon would land in the ring the ponies would probably be terrified and may bolt out of the ring. He went on to tell me that I would have to remain calm and guide them through all these circumstances because every conceivable thing that can go wrong will go wrong. With each episode I had an opportunity to teach my steeds again. Little did I know that all this coaching and the encouragement would not completely prepare me for what was actually going to happen. As a perfectionist dealing with the immense variety of combinations of mistakes possible, I had created a future with a cacophony of confusion, blunder opportunities and a performing career that would provide industrial strength frustration.
I made a deal with Jimmy Silverlake to present my 3-pony act on his circus. He had left the family and launched a show called Lewis Bros circus with a partner the previous year. Now as the sole proprietor of his own circus, he was willing to give me a position where I could present my unproven act. Typically, special consideration is given to a rookie animal act due to the training that will continue as the animals settle into their routine. With a green act and no truck to haul the ponies, I also needed a situation where I could expose these rookie ponies to the pandemonium of working in front of an audience and also have a place for them to ride. Jimmy had room in one of the show trucks for my livestock. Additional preparations were taking place at winter quarters for the upcoming season and he appreciated my painting talents being available prior to opening.
In the spring I moved my camper, ponies and calliope trailer from Hugo to Medora. I was welcomed again to the familiar Silverlake family winter quarters from my Clark & Walters and Fisher Bros Circus days. My ability as sign painter kicked into high gear, as he made other preparations.
The Barnes & Daily Circus opened in the spring of the year in a nearby small town in southern Indiana. I put up the small tent purchased from Buzz Barton as my stable. I provided many skills for the two inaugural performances. Perhaps, as a hint of the unpredictability to come, I had a rude awakening the next morning. Although the show was torn down and loaded, the location where I had the ponies stabled was in a low-lying area on the lot. After a late-night rain and resulting flash flood, my ponies were standing in knee deep water. After sloshing through the water to rescue and load the ponies in the elephant trailer and tear down my little tent, our 1974 season began.
The series of one day stands began their relentless rhythm and each day ran a little smoother. Our tour opened in southern Indiana and the route took us north through farm country to Michigan. This show was a testimony of efficiency, designed by a man who knew how to move a circus. Traveling on three trucks and trailers, the big top was a bale ring top, as opposed to the push pole tents of previous shows. That meant the poles went up first and the canvas was hoisted up the poles. This method of handling the canvas makes it last much longer. This circus was conceived, built and created by the brother of my original mentor. This was clearly an efficient, attractive, and in my opinion, neatest little circus anywhere.
Each day on a new grass lot, I put the ponies out on the picket line and would turn frail little Teddy loose. He would just hang around. Little children gravitated to his peaceful presence and enjoyed petting him. Although too weak for any other role, Teddy remained loved as our mascot. Three green liberty ponies were a manageable size group for a novice to handle.
Having my ponies on display in their little stable tent on the midway, along with my Calliope, added to the visual appearance on the lot. I played the calliope before each show as a preamble to the performance and for the blow off, or when the patrons leave after the show. I played old time tunes like “Daisy Daisy” and “Bicycle Built for Two” in the afternoon prior to and between shows. While the ponies were on display, I observed their magnetism and the kind air that the children enjoyed. Through this exposure to the public, the ponies developed acceptance, tolerance and love for people.
Inside the big top, my drum bandstand went alongside another calliope. Bobby Green provided the music for the show having migrated from the defunct Clark & Walters. Dot and Sonny Burdett added a touch of class to the show with their presence. Sonny always dressed to the tee assisting his tall, lovely wife with her rolling globe act. Billy Griffin worked in the office and dressed as a clown for the performances. Jim’s wife Marilyn performed aerial web and ladder.
Even an ideal social environment is complicated. This is especially complicated around a circus. Egos get fed by the approval of the crowd. The narcissistic tendency that is inside all of us sometimes gets inflated far beyond its intended purpose. Blind to the origins, sometimes tension develops between personalities. Egos clash. Without interruption or intervention, the caustic condition infects others. Sides are taken and chaos reigns.
I had been on circus seasons when the personnel combined seamlessly to form a team that worked well together and the experience along the entire route was heavenly. Then there are seasons where individual agendas take precedence over what is best for the show. Bickering and back stabbing took on a life of their own, resulting in an unhealthy experience.
Jim Silverlake radiated a sincere regard for everyone present. His pleasant, altruistic mindset influenced others and regard prevailed on his show. That season came close to qualifying as heaven on earth.
At the beginning of this tour, I went through a major learning curve. The pony act was pretty. The animals had the color of a new penny with contrasting red leather harness and feather plumes. But the act suffered visually when a mistake occurred and I became frustrated and it showed. I would learn to develop skills in my new role as an animal trainer. I had to mix acting along with training as I guided the ponies through each mistake. Visible frustration was not received well by the audience. The procedure of correcting an animal in the public eye needed a fixed smile. With some encouragement from the circus owner I began to learn finesse. I became quick to maintain my smile and keep my discipline discreet. As the weeks went by, the ponies caught on becoming more consistent each time we performed. That freed me up to concentrate on acting, the presentation and connecting with the audience during the act.
A few weeks into the season we had a major calamity. The dreaded balloon I had been forewarned about drifted into the ring during the act. I watched in horror as the lead pony “Buttons” went up to it. He sniffed it. He then jumped over it and continued the routine. I was surprised and so proud of him. The other two ponies “Buster” and “Tex” concentrated their attention on following and doing whatever “Buttons” did. So, although they shied away, they didn’t think much of the balloon either. What a relief.
The circus wandered north, crisscrossing the Great Lakes state. I was already familiar with this territory due to my first two seasons on the road. In a very picturesque town on Lake Michigan called Harbor Springs, I took a walk into town to enjoy the splendor of the quaint old vacation homes. I enjoyed the tree and streetlight lined avenues and the beautiful natural setting overlooking the water. On the return hike through utopia, I found a path that went through the woods. The natural beauty of these surroundings elevated my emotions to an unprecedented height of gratitude. Around each turn on the path, my feelings took flight.
The quiet nature walk among fernish greenery and chirping wildlife allowed me to find a secret place within that promoted oneness and joy. As if in a dream, around the final turn that lead out of the woods, I found a lush grassy field with a pretty little circus set up in the middle. This lovely picture remains unforgettable in my mind. The one ring, two pole big top with flags flying, an appropriate sized marquee to welcome the patrons in front of it, and the highly decorated trucks and travel trailers efficiently arranged around the lot made a pretty picture. I walked into this scene and four little yellow ponies looked up at me and nickered from their picket line in the grass.
This was a jewel of a show, the masterpiece of a man who, not only knew the logistics of how to properly put a show up and down each day, but how to load equipment efficiently on a minimum of trucks. As a finishing touch on the lot and to add an interesting feature, my calliope trailer and ponies were situated at the outside edge of the midway to greet the patrons as they arrived each day. As the rhythm of up and down each day combined seamlessly with the pleasant attitudes of the personnel, a feeling of oneness grew inside me. I was truly proud to be part of this show while simultaneously entering a new chapter in my life. Some of the best artwork created to date was on this fleet. I felt that this must be what is referred to as the piece de resistance or quite possibly the “magnum opus” of circusdom. As the season progressed, I thought; what could go wrong?