Anthony Slide lists Adgie and Her Trained Lions as one of vaudeville’s top animal acts. The photo above, which demonstrates that part of her act was to do a ballet dance amongst the big cats, was taken in 1897.
Born Adelaide Castillo in New Mexico, her father was a full Mexican and her mother a Pueblo Indian, according to an interview she gave to the San Jose Evening News in 1907. The father ran a store and kept an informal menagerie of animals. She started out by training dogs and performed with them initially in circus. Then she moved up to lions. She was at the top of her field in her day, and had performed with Hagenbeck-Wallace and Barnum & Bailey circuses in addition to big time vaudeville.
All was not skittles and beer. The New York Times of March 30, 1897 reported that in Omaha “Adgie the lion tamer, a beautiful Spanish girl, who has been exhibiting here with a cage of trained lions, has had trouble with her manager. He came to-day with officers to levy upon the animals, but Adgie put up a determined fight, attacking the manager personally and driving him from the field. The officers then attempted to levy, when the woman caught hold of the cage door and prepared to let out her pets, which were growling savagely. The officers fled, leaving her mistress of the situation. ”
The October 11, 1904 of the St. John [New Brunswick] Sun gives this account of Adgie’s performance at the York Theatre: “The sensation of the evening was kept for the last, and Adgie and Her Lions held the undivided attention of the big audience. The feeding was also interesting and the way the brutes ate the huge pieces of meat suggested ugly possibilities for anyone in the cage.” A reminder: billed last. That’s the haircut act. Ah, Canadians. The headliner was probably Sophie Tucker.
This photo, taken at Luna Park in Pittsburg in 1905, shows the act was playing there (when you magnify the photo, the placard to the right of the colonnade bills them. If you can’t blow it up on this page, try here, which is where I saw it).
In 1914, tragedy struck when her assistant (who also happened to be her fiance) was killed by one of the lions in a railway baggage car. Whispers followed her thereafter to the effect that Adgie had left a cage open out of jealousy when the man put her down for a rival.
Adgie’s last days as a performer were sad. We know this chiefly from the account of acrobat Tiny Kline who worked with her in the Santos-Artigas Circus in Cuba in 1929-30 and writes about the experience in Circus Queen and Tinker Belle: The Memoir of Tiny Kline. She says that by this point Adgie, after trying her luck through South and Central America was a wizened old lady and down to just three very scrawny, underfed cats. By 1932 when Kline bumped into her again in New York, all three cats had died and Adgie was working as a cleaning woman in flophouses. A sadly typical vaudeville story.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, including animal acts like Adgie and Her Lions, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.