Today is the birthday of “Captain” Herbert Roman Gustav Proske (1898-1972). The child of Viennese aristocrats he ran away from home at age 13 with no other aim than becoming a lion tamer in the circus. He realized his goal, but his parents never spoke to him again. In a little over two decades he worked his way up from a stranded teenager with a single decrepit pet bear, to one of the top attraction of European circus , with a full retinue of big cats obeying his every command.
In 1933 Proske got the call to come to the U.S., and though vaudeville was officially past tense, he did bring his lions, tigers and leopards to such major vaudeville-type venues as remained over the next 16 years, including the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, the Roxy, the Academy of Music, the 1939 World’s Fair, the Palace Theatre during one of its many vaudeville revivals, and many others all over the country. He also did many shows for Billy Rose, toured with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, and briefly operated his own zoo in Miami. When he retired in 1949, he was considered one of the premier trainers of big cats in the country.
To find out more about vaudeville past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.