Today is the birthday of the great equestrienne matriarch May Wirth (1894-1978). The product of several generations of circus folk, the Australian born Wirth began performing as a child, first learning tumbling, balancing, tight rope walking and contortionism with Wirth Bros. Circus, all skills that would help her become one of the best female riders of her day.
She was riding professionally by age ten. In 1912, she was spotted by a scout for Ringling Bros, Barnum and Bailey Circus. For the next 15 years she was an international star, alternating engagements with Ringling Bros and Hagenbeck’s circuses, British musical hall venues, Big Time American vaudeville (including the Palace), and even burlesque (she toured the Columbia Wheel with a Jean Bedini show).
Wirth, who stood only five feet tall but was extremely strong, could ride standing bareback and could do a backward flip from one horse to the one following behind it. In the 1926 Ringling Bros. show she did the Charleston on top of a galloping white steed. The following year, she played more obscure venues — smaller circuses and county fairs. She retired as a performer in 1937, although she continued to produce acts for decades. She died in 1978 at the age of 84.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville and circus, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.