Remembering “Super Circus”

The vagaries of memory are never to be understood. Thus it is that The Howdy Doody Show, Andy’s Gang, and Pinky Lee all appear to have left some imprint in the culture, but somehow I never learned about Super Circus (1949-1956), which appears to have been an equally significantly phenomenon, until recently. Today we redress the lapse.

The centerpiece of the show, beauty queen Mary Hartline (b. October 29, 1926) has been called one of TV’s first sex symbols. Voted “Queen of Love and Beauty” at her Illinois High School, she participated in an amateur contest produced by local radio personality Harold Stokes. Stokes (who was twice her age) “discovered” Hartline: became her manager, produced her television work, and married her. Under his wing she became a model in Chicago in 1945, and a cast member on a radio show he produced, called Teen Town (later Junior Junction), hosted by Dick York (later Darren on Bewitched). Stokes also produced a local kids tv show called Super Circus, which ABC picked up in 1949, with Hartline as bandleader and Claude Kirchner, a veteran of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair in the cast, as well as Mike Wallace (later of 60 Minutes) as an announcer, and several clowns named Cliffy, Scampy and Nicky. The show was so popular it spawned all manner of merchandise, including a Mary Hartline doll:

Children’s books:

And comics:

Though national, the show was produced in Chicago through 1955, and then moved to New York with several fatal cast changes including replacing Kirchner with Jerry Colonna, and Hartline with actress and beauty queen Sandra Wirth (unknown as yet whether she was related to circus star May Wirth).

The new formula flopped and Super Circus went off the air. Hartline returned to Chicago to host the local show Princess Mary’s Magic Castle. Kirchner hosted local cartoon shows on WOR in New York through 1962 and made personal appearances at Freedomland U.S.A. As for Super Circus, there are episodes of it on Youtube at this writing; check it out!

To learn more about vaudeville, including TV variety and kids shows like Super Circus, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous