Sunday, April 22, 2012

sparks circus season (1927)

    By Gordon M. Carver. Bandwagon, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Jan-Feb), 1979, pp. 4-9.

    By mid-December of 1926 Charles Sparks was already thinking ahead to the next season. He had an ad in the Billboard asking for performers of all kinds - side show people, wild west people, clowns (he was to enlarge this department for 1927), menage riders who would also do swinging ladders and a Boss Property Man. He also offered for sale two male lions and three baby tigers. His menagerie animals continued to be prolific.

    John Guilfoyle and Franz Woska

    John "Chubby" Guilfoyle and Franz Woska, principal wild animal trainers on the Sparks show are shown in 1927. Eddie Jackson Photo.
    1. The opening Spec produced by J. H. DelVeccho was entitled "L'Ora the Jungle Queen". Most of the performers and lead animals and horses participated. The music of the band was supplemented by Alice Sohn, prima donna, Hazel Lamb, mezzo soprano, and George Sohn, baritone.
    2. In the two end rings there were dogs and monkeys on the backs of running ponies trained by Jack Casteel and John Smith. In the steel arena in the center ring LaVerne Houser presented trained leopards.
    3. In the endrings John Smith and Bert Mayo presented football kicking horses. On the track Paul Wenzel had all of his clowns.
    4. In rings 1 and 3 dogs and military ponies were worked by Lorraine and Jack Casteel. In the steel arena Franz Woska presented his trained polar bears and great dane dogs.
    5. Ray Glaum and the Alexander Sisters were over rings 1 and 3 in iron jaw numbers while eight girls, Babe Pope, Grace McClain, Eva Hill, Beatrice Sells, Mary Lennett, Rae Crawford, Vivian Clarkson and Terris LaVerne, performed over the track on swinging ladders.
    6. John Guilfoyle put his eight lions through their paces in a very thrilling act in the center ring arena.
    7. Three large elephants in each end ring trained by Walter McClain were presented by Babe Pope and Vivian Clarkson. (The babies did not get into the big elephant act this year although Walter McClain had been working with them in winterquarters).
    8. Franz Woska presented eleven tigers in one of the outstanding features in the show.
    9. Two ponies and a baby elephant appeared in each end ring trained by Walter McClain and presented by Babe Pope and Grace McClain. On the track Paul Wenzel, producing clown, had fourteen (including himself) of his clowns, the largest number Sparks had yet had - Charlie Fortuna, pantomimist Roy Barrett, Red Sells, Ed Green, Lindsey Wilson, Eddie McManus, Ray Glaum, Lew Hershey, Jack Howe, Bill Lennett, Floyd Hill, Tommy Vanderpool and Herbert Schneider. Some of these went on to become well known on other shows.
    10. Now came another feature of the show. The Bedini four people comedy bareback act appeared in the center ring featuring Walter Guice and his wife Flora Bedini.
    11. Again the clowns were on the hippodrome track with their walkaround comedy.
    12. In the end rings Sparks now presented the Alexander teeterboard troupe of four men and three girls which featured a triple somersault to a chair, and the Manchichi Jap risley troupe of six people. The latter group did not join the show until May 9 at Harrisburg.
    13. On the hippodrome track Jack Casteel presented leaping greyhounds.
    14. Tight wire dancing by Naida Miller was another center ring feature act.
    15. In all three rings Sparks Circus presented its spectacular rotation liberty horse act under the direction of Bert Mayo, John Smith and La Verne Houser. There were six horses in each ring.
    16. In ring one Captain Belovockey had his performing sea lions and in ring three Jack Casteel had his educated dogs.
    17. The Four Walters Troupe, headed by Walter Guice, performed over the center ring on aerial horizontal bars.
    18. Again Paul Wenzel had his funny men bringing laughs to the audience.
    19. On the track Sparks Circus presented 15 high jumping and broad jumping horses ridden by Bert Mayo, Myrtle Mayo, John Smith, Lorraine Casteel, Mary Lennett, Polly Watkins, Grace McClain, Eva Hill, Mabel DeOrlo, LaVerne Hauser, Vivian Clarkson, Lottie Thompson, Marion Shepard, Rae Crawford and Jim Saunders.
    20. The closing number was the Spec "The Flag of America" also composed and created by D. H. DelVeccho.

Side show ballyhoo

Two of the ladies of the side show, one holding a sword which she might swallow inside the tent, ballyhooing the crowd to come inside to see the wonders. Eddie Jackson Photo.

    Not long after this, James Randolph, who was again to be the advance car manager, was asking for experienced advance car men to get in touch with him at his home in Elk City, Oklahoma. And shortly news came from winterquarters in Macon. There were said to be 75 men at work there getting the show ready for the 1927 season. Walter McClain was breaking the large elephants into new routines for two rings and also doing the same with the young elephants for a center ring act. Both Chubby and Harriett Guilfoyle were working with the lions with four new animals having been added. Franz Woska, working with his largest group yet, had eleven tigers in training as well as his polar bear and great dane act. And two new liberty horse acts of six horses each were being broken by John and Laverne Smith.

    On March 23, the advance car left after billing Macon and the surrounding countryside for the opening of the show there on Thursday, April 7. Randolph had with him on the car three press agents, Roland Butler, Bruce Chesterman and Harry Mack. In the billing crew there was a boss billposter with nine men on excursion routes (these were the men that covered the outlying towns traveling with their hod of paper, a can of paste and a paste brush on the local trains, sometimes picking up the advance car as it passed through one of the towns on their route at the end of the day or sometimes having to hurry back on a return local to catch the advance car before it left for the next stand), a Boss Bannerman with three men and a truck driver who covered the big walls in or near the town, a Boss Lithographer and three men who were responsible for filling the local store windows with those examples circus art that collectors of today are so anxious to obtain, a paste maker, programmer and special agent for a total of 27 men, a large crew for a show of this size.

    The last "Want Ad" before the season started appeared in the April 2 Billboard. This was all for the side show. They wanted a three people Hawaiian act - dancers, singers and musician - a few more "lady" acts and a first class ticket seller.

    Finally with the preparatory work all done the show opened on Thursday, April 7, in Macon under the sponsorship of the Junior Chamber of Commerce. As in the past years it was a gala event. As usual the business district assumed a holiday attire and many civic organizations were represented in the parade. It was said that it was "by far the most elaborate in the history of Dixies' own circus". The event was heavily covered by the local papers. The News issued an eight page circus section on Sunday April 3 and The Telegraph had a circus section on opening day. Two nights before the Elks had a dinner dance for the show folks.
    The first performance went off without a hitch. Jack Phillips, who was starting his fifteenth consecutive year as bandmaster of the show, and his eighteen musicians gave their usual excellent support to the splendid performance. In the band there were four men on cornets (including Phillips), two on clarinets, one on piccolo and flute, two on french horns, two on trombones, two on baritones, two on Sousaphones, a snare drum, a bass drum and the air calliope played by Del Veccho. The steam calliope in the parade was played by Harry Wills. There were 74 musical cues for the band during the performance. Both afternoon and evening shows were given to full houses.

    From Macon the show moved in long jumps to Augusta and Charleston, South Carolina, and then into North Carolina at Wilmington and New Bern, followed by four stops in Virginia at Suffolk, Norfolk, Newport News and Richmond. The week of April 18 had them in West Virginia at Beckley, Charleston, Huntington, and Logan followed by Ashland, Kentucky and Portland, Ohio.

    A long 250 mile Sunday run then took them back into West Virginia at Clarksburg followed by Fairmount. Then they moved into Pennsylvania at Connellsville, Uniontown, Greensburg and Charleroi. The week of May 2 opened in Ohio at Canton where the Sells-Floto Circus was to follow them on Friday. The lot was at a new location on North Market Street. Although Sparks had not played in Canton in years and with "Wait" paper for Sells-Floto up all over town they still had two capacity houses. Also, here Weaver Gray and his wife joined the wild west contingent. The rest of the week took them into Akron, Warren, Youngstown and then Pennsylvania again at McKeesport and Vandergrift.

    Another long 222 mile Sunday run started the week of May 9 in Harrisburg. From there the show moved to Lebanon, Pottstown, Bethlehem, Westfield, New Jersey, and Stapleton, Staten Island. The parade which was bringing raves all along the route had 12 open cages, 4 bandwagons (the Dancing Girls, Clown Behind the Curtains or Hallowee, Girl and Horsehead and Dolphins tab wagons), air calliope and steam calliope, two mounted sections of ten riders each, a wild west section of riders - Indians, cowboys and cowgirls - three camels, two zebras and nine elephants, stretching out over a half mile of city streets and taking about ten minutes to pass. Researcher note: Sparks Circus had three zebras, not two, in 1927 (source: photo) - Ray Lord, April 01, 2010.

    The week of May 16 was spent on Long Island with the shortest mileage of any week in the season, only 127 miles. The towns played were Jackson Heights, Bayside, Hollis, Richmond Hill, Huntington and Hempstead.

    By now the performance had reached its peak. Ray Glaum, female impersonator clown, kept the audience in good spirits during the come-in before the show started. The performance was as follows:

    After Long Island on May 23 they played in Port Chester followed by one date in Connecticut at Stamford where it preceded the 101 Ranch Wild West Show by six days which was due in on June 30. During the rest of the week the show moved north through New York toward Canada playing in Poughkeepsie, Middletown, Kingston, and Oneonta. The following week found them in Ithaca, Cortland, Oswego, Gouverneur, Potsdam and Malone.

    Over the next weekend they moved into Canada for the start of thirteen days there. Monday and Tuesday, June 6-7, was spent in Montreal for their first visit to that large Canadian city. On Monday the side show had the biggest day in its history. Of the four performances given there, one entire show was donated to the orphans of the city as a result of which the show received enormous publicity and goodwill. During their stay in Canada the closing Spec was changed to "Historical Canada" to an enthusiastic reception. Montreal was followed by Ottawa, Kingston, Belleville, Peterboro, Hamilton, Brantford, London, St. Thomas and Chatham.

    The show returned to the States for two days in Detroit, Saturday and Sunday (one of the rare Sunday stands the show played in its history), June 18-19. Then after another two day stand in Toledo and singles at Coldwater, Michigan, Albion and Pontiac they returned to Detroit for a single day Saturday, June 25 at another location. Before returning to the States Naida Miller, center ring tight wire star, had left to join Gentry Bros. Circus.

    The side show now had fourteen banners on the front with ten acts inside. Early in July, a couple more were added. The line up had Anna Loving with snakes; Nelson, sword swallower; Maybelle, sword walker; John Johnson, bag punching; Jack Ballenger, comic bag punching; Radio Girl Illusion; Hilda DeBarrie with her trained cockatoos; and Arthur Wright with his Georgia Minstrels and Dixieland Band. William DeBarrie was the Assistant Manager, Inside Lecturer and did a magic act. George V. Connors was again managing the show. There were the usual two ticket boxes on the front.

    After the circus had returned to the States the side show was enlarged by the addition of a Hawaiian troupe of singers and dancers headed by Katherine Childers. At the same time Billy Lee, a juggler, came on giving the show twelve acts for the quarter admission charge. Across the midway there was a pit show, a big one for Sparks. It was fronted by seven half banners and featured snakes, freak animals, a 22 foot python and a giant baboon. Captain George Scott was the Manager with one ticket box out front.

    After the second Detroit date the show again moved into Canada, this time for a much longer stay - almost five weeks in length. This tour started at Windsor, Monday, June 27, and was followed by Woodstock, Guelph, Simcoe, and Willard, the week being completed with a Saturday in Toronto for very good business. From now on through the rest of the Canadian tour very long weekend runs were the rule. From Toronto they moved 203 miles to Smith Falls, followed by a long run of 212 miles Monday night into Cornwall. Then came 103 miles into St. Hyacinth, 158 miles into Three Rivers but only 22 into Shawinigan Falls and 90 from there to Quebec. The average nightly run for the week had been 133 miles. This was almost double the season average of 79 miles per night.

    The next week with an average of 136 per night was the highest of the season with the second longest run of the season on Sunday, July 10, into Campbellton, N.B. This was followed by a brief return to the States into Maine at Caribou and Holton and then back into Canada at Fredreick and Newcastle. During this stretch in Canada the show was moved in three sections on a couple of occasions because of the weight of the cars and the condition of the track. The usual split was three flats and the five stocks, six flats and the five coaches. But there were no delays and the show was always on time. The last two weeks in Canada started July 18 at Halifax followed by Bridgewater, Yarmouth, Digby, Kentville and Truro. The last week took in Glasgow, Amherst, Moreton, St. Johns and St. Stephan before they returned to the United States on Saturday, July 30, at Eastport, Maine.

    Through all of Canada the show consistently got a good press on its parade. While it advertised a mile long street parade, as we have already noted it was perhaps only a little over one half a mile in length, taking perhaps a little over ten minutes to pass. The feature that seemed to capture the most attention were the number of open dens. It was the practice of Sparks Circus to have the sides off all twelve of its cages, a rather unusual practice on circuses for most kept half or more of their dens closed as "teasers" for the Public.

    Now, as the first of August arrived with a date in Bangor, Maine, the move southward started with stands in Dover-Foxcroft, Waterville, Augusta, Lewiston and Rumford. The next week took the show into Portland on August 8 where it received good notices and good business. Then came two dates in New Hampshire at Berlin and Woodsville. The week ended in Vermont at St. Johnsbury, Newport and St. Albans. Then, starting August 15, came Montpelier, Burlington, Rutland and Bennington before the show moved into New York at Saratoga Springs and Troy.

    By now with only nine weeks left in the season, the staff would be subject to virtually no further changes. So an analysis of the personnel make-up of a show of this size might be of interest. Exclusive of the advance which had, as already enumerated, about 25 people, there were about 390 people back on the show. It is interesting to note the number of people directly involved in the performance. There were about 60 acrobats, animal trainers, clowns and other actual performers. But supporting them were a band of 18, about 21 property men and 15 ring stock grooms. Also there were four or five wild west people who participated in the wild west after show. Finally there were about 15 men in the menagerie crew who took care of the elephants, camels, zebras and caged animals as well as getting them from the menagerie top into the big top for their performances and back again. Thus there were about 130-135 people inside the big top during the show at one time or another actively engaged in the actual performance.

    These figures did not include others who were important to the show such as those selling the various confections and souvenirs, the concession men. In this group there were about 25. Then there were about 20 persons handling the crowds - that is ticket sellers, ticket takers, and ushers, who also put up and took down the reserved seats. Thus the total number of people on the show who were involved with the audience in one way or another added up to about 225 people, or well over half of the people on the show. The others were those that were responsible for actually moving the show. Finally there were those who worked in the side show and pit show which, including the band of ten, minstrels of four and the various side show acts of twelve plus those on the front, totaled about 32.

    In the group that were responsible for moving the show, the largest single crew was George Singleton's big top canvas crew who also were responsible for getting the menagerie and dressing tops up and down, and putting up the blue seats. This crew varied from week to week but averaged somewhere near 45. Next in size but probably the most important was the commissary under John Hogbin with about 40 waiters, cooks and others. The waiters besides waiting on table also put up and took down the dining top and tables and washed the dishes. The cooks and their helpers were, of course responsible for the cook top, stoves and all their other accoutrements as well as preparing the meals. Others that worked on the lot were the side show and pit show canvas crews of about 20 and the electricians under Java Koen (who had started with Sparks Circus in the gas light era) of about eight. Finally there were those who got the show to and from and on and off the lot every day come rain or come shine, Charles Coles' train crew of 15 and the draft stock gang under Jake Posey, including blacksmiths and miscellaneous mechanics in all numbering about 30. These working men including 6 car porters gave the show another 165 people for the grand total of 390, a quite sizable staff. And to this must be added the 25 or so on the advance staff.

    When the show closed Saturday night in Troy, they started on the longest run of the season, 342 miles, to York, Pennsylvania. Here the southern tour started for following Hanover and Chambersburg the next two days they moved to Hagerstown, Maryland, and Westminster ending the week in Alexandria, Virginia. The next week starting August 29 found them still in Virginia at Danville but on Tuesday they had moved into North Carolina at Winston-Salem to be followed by Durham, Raleigh, Greensboro and High Point. Then continuing in North Carolina the first full week in September beginning on the 5th they were in Asheville, Hickory, Gastonia, Salisbury, their old winter-quarters town where they were welcomed by many old friends, Burlington and Goldsboro. They finished that state in Rocky Mount and Fayettesville after which they moved into South Carolina on Wednesday, September 14 at Florence succeeded by Sumter, Newbury and Easley.

    Interestingly enough at this time with the season in its last five weeks we find the show advertising for an "experienced circus cornet" for the big show band. It is something of a puzzle as to why they would bother at that late date to fill one vacancy unless perhaps it was to build a reservoir of good musicians to call on for the following season.

    September 19 was played in Rome after which the show moved to Alabama at Gadsen, Anniston and Tallegda followed by LaGrange and Newnan in Georgia. Many of these towns, while by todays standards hardly seemed large enough to support a show of this size, were giving the show good business. When a town of 5-6000 can twice fill a tent that seats about 3,000 or more we know the circus business had something going for it in that area and at that time. The last week in September starting the 26th began in Columbus after which came Albany, Thomasville, Moultrie and Fitzgerald with the Saturday date being in Douglas.

    By now with the season almost over the canvas was beginning to show signs of the season's use. However, it had not been subjected to any damaging storms so it was still intact. The big top was not the largest the show would yet use in its lifetime for it was only a 130 foot round with three 50 foot middles. The menagerie was a 70 foot round with four 30 foot middles. The pit show was in a 30 foot by 70 foot hip roof push pole top. The side show was in a 50 foot round with three 30 foot middles. The dining top was a 40 foot round end with one 40 and two 30 foot middles push pole, while the kitchen was a 20 by 30 foot hip roof push pole. This year for the first time the ring stock top was given up and the ring stock housed in the center of the dressing top, a 55 foot round with two 30 foot middles. And finally there were three draft stock tops with gable ends each 30 by 90 feet, to accomodate the 90 head of draft stock the show carried.

    The season now had only three weeks to go starting October 3 at Brunswick. This, the 27th week, continued in Waycross, Valdosta, Bainbridge and Cuthbert and ending in Griffin. The following week opened in Cedartown and finished the tour of Georgia of sixteen towns in Cartersville. They now moved north into Dalton, North Carolina, and then to Tullahoma, Tennessee, Fayetteville and Columbia. The final week starting October 17 was spent in Clarksville, Springfield and Pulaski after which they moved for the last three stands of the season into Alabama at Culman, Birmingham and Bessemer, a suburb of Birmingham.

    From Bessemer the show moved back to winter quarters at Macon, a run of about 240 miles to complete the season during which it traveled 13,751 miles. As already mentioned the longest run, was from Troy, New York, to York, Pennsylvania, 342 miles, while the shortest was three miles from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. While Sparks Circus had had both longer and shorter seasons, it was on the whole quite successful and a money maker.


  1. Delighted that I found your site, fantastic info. I will bookmark and try to visit more frequently.

  2. Naida Miller was my Great Aunt and am looking for any information thay might be available.

    Thanks Lorna