The name Pablo Fanque (1810-1871) has been famous for well over a century and a half, in particular since 1967 when John Lennon made a poster for one his shows into the song “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, a highlight of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album. Ironically, though millions know and sing the name and have been doing so for a half century, undoubtedly fewer know what Fanque was famous for, or that he was a real man at all. And even if you think you do, you probably don’t. For years, I had a vague awareness that he was “some circus guy”, and assumed that he was an obscure one. I think I was fed that impression from commentary about the song by Lennon himself and by Beatles historians. To them, it was just some poster he bought a junk shop. Oh, here, by the way, is the actual poster:
In reality, Fanque was one of the top circus performers and impresarios of his day. Further, as you can see from the photo above, he was a person of color, a remarkable thing in Britain of the time. His real name was William Darby. Some people believe that his father was from India, brought to the U.K. for employment as a house servant. Others believe that he was of African or mixed-race ancestry. At 11, Darby was apprenticed to William Batty, probably the top British circus proprietor of his day, and manager of Astley’s Amphitheatre from 1842 to 1853. Fanque became a circus star, known for his skills as an equestrian, a tightrope walker, and tumbler. After early years working for Batty and others, Fanque toured with his own shows, and even owned his own indoor circus theatres in various cities as was the custom at the time. This was during the era when circus was a principal source of entertainment for the populace, and Fanque’s name was pre-eminent in the field. His shows were renowned throughout Britain until his death in 1871. Oh, and Mr. (William) Kite and the Hendersons were real, as well.
To learn more about the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.