Show Time

With green (rookie) animals, an introductory season was needed to get them acquainted with performing in the midst of the distractions and rigors of the road. A lesser quality show understands an entry-level price is appropriate to compensate for mistakes that occur with young animals with little experience. The least known of the Garden brothers was taking out a show. Between Gail and myself, we would provide two acts and announce the show.

             I had the horse and mule working pretty good by late winter. Gail made the trek to Florida for both respite from the cold and to see the progress. She hit it off with Gee Gee and went on a road trip with her to see Jimmie Douglas of prop and costume fame.

          I finished up all the sign painting projects for Allen Hill and made plans to head north mid-April. The mass exodus of northbound RVs also took place. After the long trip, I landed with the livestock near Jackson and resumed life with Gail on Washington avenue. It didn’t take long to find some sign work but part of our energy was focused on our mutual goal.

Back in Jackson, Gail got ready for the upcoming circus tour. This included ending her job at Jacobson’s. I built two portable wardrobe closets and she filled them with a variety of jackets, skirts, hats, boots, headpieces, accoutrements and accessories. She could combine these items in any number of creative ways for when she stepped into the spotlight to take command of the audience’s attention. Our local newspaper caught wind of her plans and interviewed her for a story. Her assuming the significant role of announcer on the upcoming tour freed me up to concentrate on training my rookie animals.

          The animal trainer, like a parent, wants every possible mistake to occur so that the child can be guided to provide the desired behavior. Among the distractions during a performance that can distract the animal are the other animals on the show, performers with their apparatus, noises, props and the sudden changes that take place with the band, especially the drummer. The concession salesmen that frequent the venue with trays of treats and bouquets of novelties also represent a threat. The constant unpredictability of the actions of any member of the audience is also a source of surprise, especially children with balloons.

Because I wanted my horse to get as much experience as possible during this tour, I agreed to make an appearance as the opening ringmaster on horseback to start each show. To begin each performance, I rode Souveran into the arena and down the carpet in front of the rings while acknowledging the crowd. Then after I arrived in the center ring, I started the show with the standard “Ladies… and… Gentlemen…” announcement.

          After this opening, I handed the microphone to Ringmistress Gail, who took over. Later in the show, I returned on horseback to perform my act in the ring. This gave me an opportunity to expose the horse to entering and exiting the venue twice per show.

My little mule also performed her liberty act in each show. We had developed a themed act, with a reference to the good old days. Gail got busy and transformed an old wig into a beard for me to wear, along with a goofy hat and a sarape to make me look like a cantankerous old prospector.

EarlyMuleActForSale 2

As the opening date loomed, preparations continued at a frenzied pace. I brought the rig over to Gail’s house to load her stuff. As she placed the last of many items on board, at last, ready or not, it was time to go. We climbed into the truck, left Jackson, loaded the livestock at the farm and immediately headed for Canada. Our circus host met us at the port of entry and once inside the country, our adventure began.

The tour took place primarily in the hockey arena buildings in abundance throughout the province of Ontario. Typically, performers use the rear entrance to the arena. This was where the Zamboni was usually parked, over an iron grate to drain melting ice. I took the animals through this doorway. Although there was little live ice during the tour, the rear entrance, with these industrial features, was always of concern to the livestock.

Souveran did get used to the iron grates, but Betty, being small and sure footed, often scrambled around the sides of the scary iron feature when the time came for her to enter and exit the building.

The floor on which we performed was covered with several layers of carpet carried by the show. Clamp-on rubber shoes helped Souveran with the compromised footing on this hard surface.

For the sake of this tour, the routine with the horse began with a trot around the ring. Then we reversed direction, walked sideways (or two-tracks) through the center of the ring to resume the trot in the other direction. After we repeated in the other direction, we stopped to bow and styled for applause.

Being a sorrel (red/brown) horse, I covered his lower legs with white leg wraps to accentuate the appearance of his motion. I also had a white bridle and white saddle pad. While grooming him, I checkered his rump with a comb. I wore white breeches, black boots and a tuxedo covered with glass jewels with a matching color Mississippi riverboat gamblers hat.

Next came the three-step. After a compete revolution of the ring, we three-stepped up through the center of the ring, reversed direction and commenced to march the other direction. Around the back, we continued to march every stride and went through the center and up to the front. From the front we backed up and did the double-backwards three-step. At the back of the ring, I let him relax into what is called the camel stretch where his front feet were planted in position and he leaned his whole body back until his chest was just inches off the ground. We held this pose for a style and applause.

After that, the prop man set my pedestal with the revolving top in the ring. Souveran walked up to it, placed his feet on the top to assume an elevated, standing position. Then his back legs began to move sideways to turn 360 degrees, facing every direction as we turned.   

Due to the unsure footing, I did no canter work. The conclusion of the act was to simply trot around the ring twice more and bow in the center of the ring. Then I took a bow and ringmaster Gail gave our concluding announcement. I backed him out of the ring, continuing to face the audience for the exit. This was a showy and impressive conclusion rather than turning our backsides to them.

Sir Bow

The rigors of one-day-stands on the road commenced at the start of our tour. We had the usual cast of talented entertainers, jugglers, balancing acts, trapeze, dogs, plate spinners, hula hoops, clowns, trampoline and Risley. One character was a TV personality – Rumpy the Clown. Gail developed a special introduction for the Canadian audiences familiar with him, using her theatrical prowess and the special way she emphasized parts of the intro with exaggerated inflections in her voice.

As a team, our contribution to the show had great contrast. I turned inward to concentrate on my role as animal trainer and Gail became sparkling, proficient and connected with the rest of the cast. We had a mutual difficulty relating to each other’s challenges. We danced the dance of perceived hurt. I responded with distance rather than seeking to understand and be proactive with loving behavior. This produced a continual strain on our relationship. Not knowing how to address what was going on, I simply withdrew into the security of oneness with my animals and remained obsessed with my ambitions. This did not affect my love for her. My affection for her remained immense. Unaware, I suffered from compound ignorance; I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

          One morning after loading the animals and warming up the engine for the trip ahead, I looked for Gail but could not find her. While I waited, my internal thinking went berserk. I wondered what happened.  I did not know where she was and it was time to go. After what seemed an eternity, I finally gave up and headed to the next town. Later, I saw her at the next arena. She caught a ride with one of the other performers that day. I was mystified with her behavior. A silent defiance seemed to fill my partner. Something blocked the flow of communication that would have been apropos.

Living and working together as a couple on the road was perhaps the most difficult of all relational situations. I admire many couples in this business who produce sensational acts together and enjoy successful marriages. This goal seemed to elude Gail and me.

The highlight of the tour was an extravaganza at the giant coliseum at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds in Toronto. Here, everything was big. To augment the shows line-up, the circus hired Albert Rix and his daughter Jeanette to bring their caged bear act for this one engagement. Among those large bruins were several gigantic polar bears. I had a concern because my horse had never been around these animals before.


Prior to each show, their cages were lined up end-to-end to form a tunnel that connected to the big cage erected at one end of the large interior of the building. Albert had canvas draped over the cages to hide them. During show time, I had a new challenge. To open the show as usual, while riding my horse on the track around the three rings, I would pass very close to the bear cages.

I used caution. The first time I entered to do my one-horse parade, I reassured Souveran as we passed by the cages. All went well. He stayed calm. But upon reaching the end of the row of cages, he looked over the last cage and spied something. Mid-stride, as we rounded the last cage, he suddenly jumped into a wide track stance and stood there snorting at the pile of juggling props that waited near the ring. He had trotted past these items twice a day for the entire tour. I don’t know why he waited until that moment to be startled by their sight. Such is the life of surprises in show biz with a wonderful animal.

The tour went well, the animals became proficient performers but the experience put a strain on my relationship with Gail. When complete, we returned to Michigan to resume our contemporary duties. I would again flourish as a sign painter. First, I wanted to stop and visit Chuck Grant and show him how well Souveran was doing. I camped in his driveway for the night and spent the next day with him.

Chuck was 76 at the time. I watched him work five horses before lunch. I realized I had a decision to make that day that would determine what I would be doing when I was 76. At that age, I could be riding horses each day or gasping for my breath.  That epiphany prompted the sequence that resulted in my stopping smoking.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: