Circus coupons bring back memories
Just the other week, I stopped by Golden Skillet here in Danville to get some of their broasted chicken. Even though being in a Golden Skillet restaurant is enough to inspire nostalgia’s flashback, I saw something else there which took my mind back to just a little over a half-century ago. (Ever noticed that only one letter separates the word “age” from the word “ago?”)
Next to the cash register (digital, not nostalgic) was a little stack of blue-and-white Cole Brothers Circus complimentary coupons, the kind we have all seen at fast food restaurants and other stores over the years.
A couple of days later, I was crossing over a road bridge spanning the Dan River. Just past the river, I saw a giant circus tent in an old, mostly abandoned strip mall parking lot whose long-empty parking spaces seemed to have magically become full again.
This was the circus listed on that complimentary coupon: “Cole Brothers.” In the distance, the big top looked to have been drawn so taut that if a fueling fire had been made in the center of the floor beneath, it would have lifted up like the hot air balloon at an old time county fair.
In the early 1960s at the Rowan County fairgrounds, I saw the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus. It was then, as its descendant Cole Brothers is now, “under the big top,” unlike its major competitor, which has for some time now been “under the big dome” in those cities large enough and fortunate enough to have a dome to accommodate it.
I was fortunate on that early 1960s day to see the great lion tamer Clyde Beatty. With cracking of whip and firing of blanks from his pistol, the lions in his charge did his bidding. (I know that only blanks were fired because no lion suddenly slumped, nor did a spectator from a ricochet.)
Beatty was near the last of his tours across the country when I saw him. My wife, children, and I saw the great Gunter Gebel-Williams on his very last tour with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In the Rowan “big top,” Clyde Beatty and I were at about eye level from each other, but from my vantage point in the Greensboro “dome top,” Gunter Gebel-Williams looked to be about the size of an ant, but a big one, the same apparent size as the colorful one we used to call a “cow killer” back on the Old Concord Road. (The cow killer isn’t really an ant, but instead a wingless wasp.)
Clyde Beatty was one of those men from an earlier time who inspired the imagination, like Robert L. Ripley, Lowell Thomas or Roy Chapman Andrews.
Andrews was the man from the American Museum of Natural History who discovered the first fossilized dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert, while part of the time fighting off Mongolian bandits with his pistol and whip. Needless to say, he was the major inspiration for the character “Indiana Jones.” Clyde Beatty was cut from similar, early 20th century cloth.
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In both circuses, I remember the usual circus fare of elephants, trapeze artists and clowns. Of the elephants of the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus and those of Ringling, I don’t remember much detail in particular, just that they were elephants.
The only elephant which remains clearest and most personal in my memory is the one which my son Jeremy had his picture taken atop the time that a little “one elephant,” “one ring” circus came to the Caswell County fairgrounds in Yanceyville in the early 1990s, when Jeremy was around 10 years old. One elephant, up close and personal, always makes a longer lasting impression than one farther away.
I sort of vaguely remember from the early 1960s Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus an act involving a trapeze which also involved a gunshot (blank) and a pigeon being released from a cage high up. The pigeon then flew out of the circus tent’s opening in great haste. This same manner of haste, when seen in bats, inspired an old term which is not very nice, so I’ll paraphrase it as ”a bat in a hurry.” The speed of that bird on that day could be aptly described by either the not-so nice term pertaining to bat velocity, or my nicer one above, but in either case, since the bird was a pigeon, I’m sure it returned.
The Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus had a midway made up of some “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” type exhibits, mostly human. Also, on the way into the circus tent was a parked truck that, while not an exhibit, drew the spectators’ attention just as well. On top of the truck’s cab was a faux hippopotamus head with a pair of faux human legs and feet hanging out of the hippo’s open mouth. This seemed to say to every wide-eyed little boy who saw it that if he traveled to certain faraway places of this world, he could be consumed by more than just his curiosity.
One of these classic midway personages was the “bearded lady.” During the course of my life, I have seen some women who seemed to have a bit of a goatee, or a hint of a moustache (sometimes, more than just a hint), but this one was truly bearded.
The old midway also had a “human-snake” combination. I think I also remember seeing one of these at the Rowan County Fair one year. The Clyde Beatty- Cole Brothers Circus advertised it as the “head of a man with the body of a snake,” but in this modern day, we are open to a greater variety of viewpoints and interpretations, so now, the “head of a man with the body of a snake,” might just as equally be referred to as “the body of a snake with the head of a man.”
He (it) sat (lay) there and calmly fielded questions about his (its) lot in life (which if it had been the case of the “head of a snake with the body of a man” would have been quite impossible). You and I know, of course, or can easily surmise how the effect of such a “wonder” was achieved, but I won’t go into it, because in addition to occasionally preferring to believe that Santa Claus exists, I sometimes also like to think that the “head of a man with the body of a snake”/”body of a snake with the head of a man” exists too. I’ve seen proof of it in some people I’ve met over the years. Although there was no actual human-snake physical amalgamation, in those individuals there did seem to be a true mixing of the personalities and character of both man and snake (or of snake and man).
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The ole-time aura of that old circus midway truly reminded me of the little two or three-frame “Ripley’s” comic strip in the newspaper, as well as reminding me of some of the strange items which could be mail ordered from the back of comic books back then. One was a “Class C” (or maybe even “Class D”) firework, which when lit produced a coiling “snake” of thick, black ash which remained solid and on the ground after the combustion had ceased. (Having neither the head of man nor snake, nor of any other creature for that matter, it could have been described as “headless.”)
Another item advertised on the back of those old comics was “X-Ray Glasses,” but they were meant for a revealing vision much less than “bone depth” (as pictured in the ad).
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The old Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus at the Rowan County fairgrounds also had an assembly of small cages in one area containing assorted small mammals and reptiles. One could make a contribution toward their upkeep, and I remember parting with a few dollars on their account. Although I don’t remember “animal rights” having yet made the national scene as much as today, these animals did give the appearance of wishing that they were someplace else.
I drove back over that Dan River bridge a couple of days ago, and the present day Cole Brothers big top was gone. My curiosity got the better of me, and I also drove across the old asphalt parking lot, hoping to see the holes where the circus tent stakes had been driven. I saw not a one, so that part of circus tent construction must be done differently now.
I did, however, see other sorts of holes, and they were from one end of the parking lot to the other, the pesky kind, engineered by soil and asphalt slippage during winter, and especially so during this recently past, long-lasting winter: potholes.
Due to the great multitude and extensive expanse of these pockmarks in that old parking lot, I fancied that if great poles could be set within them to raise a tent to the heights, the raised structure would be more than ample for the housing of three rings and a herd of pachyderms.
In another time and place, such a thing might have served as the “big top” (hangar) for something even more “elephantine”: the Graf Zeppelin.