The International Circus Festival

The culmination of the holidays found me at the fairgrounds in Sarasota preparing for Circus Competition. During the five performances that took place that week, every participant competed in one of several categories; aerial acts, juggling and acrobatic troupes, exotic performing animals, domestic animals, balancing acts, clowns, musicians and ringmasters. Every facet of the sawdust entertainment realm from all nations were represented.

By this time, I had a confident horse with a good work ethic. I learned on the tour earlier that year, wherever I aimed this horse, he willingly went, and when we got there, he was ready to go to work.

A year ago, I brought him here to get him used to the sights, smells and sounds. This time we were ready with an animated rehearsed routine. The rings in the mega circus tent were on grass, better footing than hockey floors. We were able to trot and canter freely. I had an admirable posture in the saddle, thanks to Vi and a spontaneous brassy attitude for whatever vicissitude should occur, thanks to Chuck. With John’s help, my routine was polished, and in front of all the critics in this business, I aspired to shine.

New red wardrobe had been created using the claw hammer tail tuxedo style jacket with strategic rhinestones sewed on for accents. When the time was right, I mounted my glistening steed. The pre-arranged musical score was provided to the brass circus band. I waited behind the backdoor curtain for my announcement before our entrance.

Finally, the preceding act reached its conclusion. The applause settled down.

After a brief pause came the booming voice “Keeping alive the timeless circus tradition of performing horses, please welcome the American Saddlebred dancing high school horse ‘Souveran’, trained and presented by Dave Knoderer.”

The curtain was thrown open. My horse became immediately animated and we floated at a trot into the ring. Our routine was accompanied by the captivating chords from the theme song of Star Wars, translated by the bevy of brass in the bandstand. A volte in either direction preceded the flawless side pass through the lateral center of the ring.

I knew that every one of the Herrmann girls of Lipizzaner horse show fame were watching and became extra light with my aids to facilitate a seamless transition from the forward to the lateral movement. At the conclusion of the trot work that opened our routine and established that we had a handle of this aspect of horsemanship, we halted at the center of the ring. I sat straight. I knew the horse knew what was next. All I had to do was signal with a muscle tension in my groin and he began to lean back. He lifted his leg as he did and came to rest on one knee. As he did so, I struck the style pose and the audience provided thunderous applause.

The most important part of this movement is the hold. Many rookie horsemen are satisfied with simply getting the pose but the horse learns to do it and bound right back up. The movement has three parts; going into the pose, holding the pose, and coming up from the pose. Knowing horse trainers were in the audience, I made sure to hold the bow for an extended amount of time just to show off the fact that we had a handle on this thing.

Next in the routine was the three-step where the horse moved forward and, at every third stride, a foreleg was elevated and extended in an exaggerated motion. Special care was necessary to not interrupt the forward momentum with too much of the aid that asked for the leg extension. Finesse is what facilitates a good three-step. The movement continued all around the ring. After one revolution, we dissected the ring from back to front and reversed direction. In this other direction we began to march, or do a leg extension every stride, all around the ring.

Special care was needed to prompt, in careful rhythm, the forward walk with a leg extension every stride. During the march I radiated a confident air and remained in contact with the crowd. The march then assumed a track through the center and toward the front of the ring where we faced the grandstand. While up against the ring curb, our proximity seemed to promote the question in the mind of the audience, what’s next?  We began the double-backwards three-step, which is three backward strides and a double foreleg extension which was repeated regularly as we backed through the ring.

In the rear of the round exhibition venue the horse was already sensitized to go in reverse. I provided an invisible cue from my seat and signaled him to glue his front feet to the ground. I then coaxed him into the camel stretch or circus bow where his front feet were out front and his chest was inches off the ground. Again, timing was what allowed the public to notice his magnificence. As he held this pose like a living statue, we provided a picture of the classically trained horse and rider.

From this pose came the exciting conclusion. Beginning with the trot, the goal was an elevated leg extension at every stride. This was called the high trot and was a difficult movement that took years to do consistently. Because our training was still underway, I just asked for three strides. I got the conditions right and began to ask. For whatever reason, the response from him would either be quick or his understanding of what I asked went unnoticed. So, I asked again. When I got a few strides in a row, I discontinued asking and rewarded him with some verbal thanks for being a good boy. I had learned this from Evy Karoli in German years ago; “yo brae.”

To utilize the accumulated compulsion, a transition to canter was next. The gait traversed and went into a figure eight with a change of leads at the center of the ring. We concluded the act by cantering up to the front center to halt. We took a bow and saluted the crowd. Then, while the announcer re-introduced our names, we backed through the ring and bowed again in front of the backdoor curtain.

The act was well received, but I didn’t know just how well until later in the day. Back in my street clothes with the horse and mule bedded down. Philip Anthony rushed up to me.

“Dave, Dave!”

“You won!” he blurted out, “you’d better make plans to be at the black-tie awards banquet tomorrow night.”

My Kingdom for an Elephant

My Kingdom for an Elephant

Jimmy Silverlake had created an efficient moving under canvas circus for season 1974, and the arrangement of canvas tents and the rolling components on the lot were quite pretty to look at. The image of this tented city on a grassy field conjured up awe, curiosity and intrigue. Yet one element was missing. How could this be a circus without an elephant?

In the spring, Jimmy heard about an opportunity to buy an elephant from Tony Diano, a rogue that couldn’t be let off her chain. The deal came with an old rusty trailer and an antique tractor to pull it but Jimmy had room for the elephant in his animal semi. Soon the elephant was transported to Michigan, tethered and out on display. The rig that came with her was then empty. Bert Pettus was contacted and he became our elephant man.

Having this large empty trailer on the show gave me the ability to pick up the remainder of my ponies from Hayes farm and get them used to traveling on the show. This meant I was tending to eleven ponies.

Sunshiny afternoons with my ponies on their picket line proved to be a magnet for the little girls that lived in each neighborhood. I had a bucket full of brushes that I would place near the picket line and the girls would find them and figure it out. Get a brush and groom a pony. The palominos loved the gentle attention and I had the livestock curried by show time.

Later in the summer, Bert Pettus and his wife Marie had their daughter and her family visit between performing on shrine dates. Jack and Sandy Fulbright had two children, two appaloosa high school horses and a six-pony liberty act. For the brief times they visited, we had a tremendous population of ponies on that little circus. They were happy to show me how they tended to and performed with their ponies. This accelerated my understanding of this specialty.

As the season progressed, so did the proficiency of my pony act. But the show didn’t fare well. It is never good when the circus catches up to the agent. The rhythm of one day stands became erratic, with gaps during the week when the show would lay dead for a day at first, and then with alarming frequency. The tour ran out of route late-summer in the Upper Peninsula, due to the lack of advance personnel. On the last school grounds, where the circus played its final engagement, all the investors that had helped Jimmy launch this show arrived to divide up the assets. I had lent him some money too, but due to the hierarchy was last in line for anything.

Sitting dead on that final lot, the group bounced ideas back and forth for dissolution. They figured out what each one was going to get. Then they had an idea.

 “Let Dave have the elephant,” I overheard.

That statement prompted a flood of concerns. The surprise prompted my imagination to dream several survival scenarios. My mind entered a cycle of thinking trying to figure out, like the rest, how, when and where I was going to manage travel from this place. Sitting on the lot with no way of my own to haul eleven ponies and an elephant, I wondered how I was going to proceed. These thoughts occupied my mind the entire night. I was relieved the next day, when they announced other plans had been made for the pachyderm. But this brief episode does qualify me as having the ability to claim being an elephant owner for a day.

Billy Griffin invited several of us to regroup at his family home in Princeton, Indiana. Jimmy let me use the old dilapidated bull semi to get the livestock to southern Indiana while Audrey from the cookhouse drove my pickup and camper. I had to do something to get equipped to tour with my ponies. I needed a truck. Billy helped me find a truck through the dealers he knew in the area. We found an International Loadstar in Poseyville with an eighteen-foot box that would serve me quite well to carry the ponies.

Once this rig was secure, I began the process of getting it equipped as my pony truck. I rigged up a ramp that hinged down from the side door and fashioned mangers inside for the comfort of the ponies. The truck also needed a trailer hitch welded on the back for the calliope.  I could sleep on the bunk in the trailer for now and have plenty of housing for the three ponies, hay and equipment in the truck body.

While we camped in Princeton at Billy’s mother’s home, everyone was making changes. A clown from the show who made the trip with us lived in an old dodge van and wanted to buy my pickup with the camper. He drove his old van like a daredevil clown would, often screeching to a stop from a tight turn that gave him a thrill.  The living quarters inside would be a big improvement for him but he would have to learn how to be careful while driving this top-heavy vehicle.

One at a time the kinkers left for other digs. The clown found another show to perform on and headed that direction. Audrey planned going with Billy to south Texas. I learned about an upcoming job, a several weeks tour of one-night stands through Michigan on a circus that performed indoors in school gymnasiums.

I could leave seven ponies on a pasture nearby for six weeks and pick them up when my tour was over and head for Hugo. We all said our goodbyes and the headed different directions.

At the end of this whirlwind preparation session, enroute to the school house circus tour, I took frail Teddy to Hayes house in Clarklake where he lived the remaining weeks of his life in his backyard. I often think that celestial beings come to us disguised with hoofs. Knowing and believing this is proof enough that I was visited by an angel. Teddy blessed many children while on the circus during his brief life.

Everything that I knew to do to be ready was done. I thanked my friend Hayes and started the trek towards Detroit. Nothing would adequately prepare me for what I would discover when I made it to the next circus.

The Liberty Act

The Liberty Act

“If you get up the courage to begin, you have the courage to succeed.”

David Viscott

Opening Time

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?