The Little Cities Archive

Shawnee, Ohio

When the Circus Came to Town

Posted by JRW on December 28, 2010

When The Circus Came to Town

By Gene Sherrick

..from the Corning Monroe Reader Vol. V

One advantage of growing up in Corning was that every year about the time school was out, the circus would come to town.  I think the circus came to Corning because it was a railroad junction and it came early in the year so that the performers could sharpen up their acts in a small town – kind of like dress rehearsals for the larger cities they would visit later on in the season.  Regardless of why they came, we boys on South Valley Street were happy they did.  As were the kids from all over town.  The circus was big stuff.  With several elephants, tigers, and lions, and all kinds of exotic beasts from all over the world.  There were also a lot of very interesting people; such as, the fat lady, the wild man from Borneo, the lion tamer, the acrobats, the clowns and even the roustabouts who just worked with the animals and put up tents and other routine chores.

Each year the shows seemed to get bigger and better.  There were always new dog tricks and it was wonderful how those pretty ladies with their small costumes could ride the horses standing up, and the horses at full gallop.  And to see a man actually being shot from a cannon, these were things, we would talk about all year long and things we would never forget.

After the circus left town in 1934, we had a nice little Fox Terrier come to our house and my older brother, Arnold, was convinced that he was a circus dog.  Arnold named him “Poochie” and we had him for several years until he died of old age.  Poochie could do a lot of tricks like walking around on his hind legs, playing dead and jumping through hoops.  So, he might have been a circus dog.

Circus Today!

I think it happened in 1935.  The circus arrived in Corning before daylight and my father and his hired helper, Andy Perine, went to Glouster to get a load of ice from Beshara’s Ice Plant, and before they loaded the truck, they went into a bar and had a few beers.  On their way back, they got to the roundhouse and saw a dozen or so elephants standing in the dead pond.  Dad said that almost scared him into giving up on beer, but not quite.  He and Andy Perine laughed about that for a long time.

One thing I remember most was all the good music associated with the circus.  There was the steam calliope playing all the traditional circus music like, Over the Waves, The March of the Gladiators, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and many others.  They also had a large Oompah Band dressed in Prussian style uniforms and playing all kinds of music associated with circuses over the years.  Lots of Strauss waltzes, lots of marches and music from all the exotic places on earth.

They said it was the biggest show on earth, and I think it probably was. To think, there it was in little old Corning, Ohio with all the animals and people from all around the world performing acts that had been in their family for generations.  Many of these acts had played in Paris, London,Moscow, New York, and other major metropolitan centers around the world.

Watching them setting up the tents was almost better than the show itself. The Big Top was the most exciting.  The roustabouts had sledgehammers or large mallets for driving the big steel pegs into the ground.  They used the elephants to pull the giant tent up and hold it in place until the men secured it.  Many of the local kids would help put up the tent and carried water for the elephants.  They would get complimentary tickets for their work.

The main show took place under the Big Top.  There were three rings and there was an act going on in each of the rings simultaneously.  One ring would have a group of dogs doing all kinds of tricks.  Another ring would have the elephants standing on their front feet or upon a big tub turned upside down and an elephant balancing himself on one foot.  The third ring might have a bunch of horses in their fancy harnesses galloping around with people riding on their backs.  And while all this is going on in the rings, there is a group of aerialists on a thin board at the top of the tent.  Another aerialist is swinging upside down with his legs hooked through the trapeze and he is the catcher.  As the one on the board swings as high as they can, they let loose and the catcher grabs them in midair.  The timing has to be perfect.  These people have got nerves of steel, and then the catcher releases the aerialist and he or she goes back to their board. As one act ends in one ring and exits, another group of people come on, perhaps an acrobatic family.  And after the daring young

men on the flying trapeze finish their act, other acts take their place, like the tightrope walkers or a guy or gal riding a bicycle across a thin cable fifty feet up.  Martin Taylor remembers that he had to close his eyes because he was so scared. The show goes on at a dizzying pace.  It is impossible to see everything, and while this is going on there are clowns doing all kinds of crazy things.  As the ringmaster says, “it is a show for children of all ages!”

There would be two shows, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. There are a series of sideshows that go on before and between the shows and after.  There are some strange things to see in the sideshows.

The Big Top was always full for each show and lots of people went to the sideshows.  Also, there were lots of good things to eat and drink, like cotton candy and pink lemonade.  Lots of things to buy like cupie dolls, balloons, funny hats, and all kinds of trinkets.

I remember seeing four or five circuses come to town starting in 1932 through 1937, and each one was wonderful.  We boys usually went to the Big Top show in the afternoon and we usually found a way to sneak in.  In the evening, we would watch as the acts got ready to enter the big tent.  We tried to talk to the performers.  We were fascinated with their costumes, and, of course, we thought the clowns were funny.

Some of the sideshow people intrigued us a lot, especially the man from India, who lived with a lot of poisonous snakes, like King Cobras and Black Mambas.  The lion tamer was always one of our favorite people.  We admired him for his bravery.

But of all the circus people we admired, we most admired the Mahouts, who worked the elephants.  They could make these huge beasts do anything they wanted.  And they lived with the elephants, and that really impressed us boys.

There were games, like throwing baseballs at milk bottles or throwing darts at balloons, or tossing rings over pegs.  These were fun because it gave us a chance to win a cupie doll or a stuffed animal, or some kind of trinket. Everything seemed to be exciting and after a day of one thrill after another, the time finally came when the shows were over and the sideshows began to fold their tents.  As the Big Top came down, there was a bittersweet feeling with us boys.  We knew that we would not see anything that exciting until next year. The day after the circus was kind of melancholy.  You know, kind of like the day after Christmas as we came down from the high, we hit a period of feeling sad for a day or two.

As we got back into our routine of riding bicycles, playing ball and going swimming, we would talk a lot about how the circus would be next year. And the circus came and the circus went, and I think we were all happier for having been lucky enough to have experienced the great adventures of the circus.

One Response to “When the Circus Came to Town”

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