Archive for the Animal Acts Category

Frank Buck: Brought ‘Em Back Alive

Posted in Animal Acts, Circus, Hollywood (History) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2017 by travsd

March 17 isn’t just St. Patrick’s Day; it also happens to be the birthday of Frank Buck (1884-1950). What an interesting American character!

Born and raised in Texas, Buck started out his working life as a cowpuncher. At the age of 17 he traveled with a herd by rail to the stockyards in Chicago, and decided to remain in the big city. While working as a bellhop at the Virginia Hotel he met lady drama critic Amy Leslie, 29 years his senior, and the pair married. (The arrangement seems to have worked out for both of them — they remained hitched from 1901 to 1913).

In 1911, Buck took his winnings from a poker game and used it to finance an excursion to Brazil. While there, he trapped some exotic birds, which he brought back to New York and sold for lucrative sums. Trapping and caring for animals is something he had done for fun as a boy. Now he he began to do it in earnest. With the profits from the Brazil trip, he next went to Singapore, and then other parts of Asia, capturing all manner of creatures and bringing them back to sell in the U.S.

In 1923, he became on the the first directors of the San Diego Zoo, bringing to the table two Indian elephants, two orangutans, a leopard, two macaques, two langurs, two kangaroos, three flamingos, five cranes, and a python, all of which he had captured in the wild. After a few months, he was dismissed after repeated conflicts with the board of directors.

In 1930 he wrote his best selling book Bring ‘Em Back Alive, recounting his adventures. This was followed by a 1932 film and promotional radio show of the same name. Two other book-and-film projects followed: Wild Cargo (1932, book; 1934, film) and Fang and Claw (1935). He was to co-author five more books over the next decade.

In 1937, he starred in the B movie serial Jungle Menace, the only film in which he acted as a fictional character

In 1938, he and his creatures were the star attraction of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. I love how the poster above stresses that the man himself, not just his animals, will be making a personal appearance.

The following year, he brought his animals to the 1939 World’s Fair.

The coming of World War Two prevented him from going out on expeditions during the 1940s but he continued to busy himself by writing more books, and appearing in numerous films as himself. The last of these was Abbott and Costello’s Africa Screams, which is, quite frankly, where I first heard of him and the reason why you are reading this blog post.

After his death in 1950, his fame continued to spread. In 1953, Bring ‘Em Back Alive was adapted into a Classics Illustrated comic book. In 1954, the Frank Buck Zoo opened in his home town of Gainesville, Texas. And in 1982 Bring ‘Em Back Alive became the inspiration for a tv series starring Bruce Boxleitner! Really, this is about as famous as an animal collector can possibly get.

George Techow’s Wonderful Performing Cats

Posted in Animal Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2017 by travsd


Herr George Techow of Hamburg, Germany toured the Keith Circuit and circuses such as Hagenbeck-Wallace, with a collection of trained house cats who could walk on their front feet, jump through hoops of fire, and jump over each other on a tightrope. One was even dressed as a little clown. He gave a lot of interviews early in the 20th century chiefly because the public was interested in his secrets, it being so difficult to train a cat.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

For National Bird Day: The Bird Acts of Vaudeville

Posted in Animal Acts, Burlesk, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2017 by travsd
Rosa Naynon and Her Cockatoos, circa 1907

Rosa Naynon and Her Cockatoos, circa 1907

I’m informed that it’s National Bird Day, which raises the interesting question, “Is it National BIRD Day? Or NATIONAL BIRD Day?” i.e., a day to celebrate all of our avian friends, or just a day to sing the praises of the bald eagle? Well, I know it’s the former, but it does remind me of the old Bob and Ray routine wherein the announcers mistake ground HOG meat for GROUNDHOG meat.

At any rate, I’m sure the intention of today’s observation is supposed to be about naturalism or preservation or something, but I am going to subvert it entirely by celebrating the working beast,the birds who sing for their supper strictly for human entertainment. In his book Vaudeville, Joe Laurie, Jr had this to day about bird acts:

“There were a lot of cockatoo acts (they were easy to train): Swain’s Cockatoo’s, Merle’s Cockatoo’s, Marzella’s, Lamont’s, and Wallace’s. They walked the wire, rang bells, put out a fire in a toy house, etc. Very entertaining. There were Marcelle’s Birds, Camilla’s Pigeons, Conrad’s Pigeons, and of course Olympia DesVall’s was the best bird act of them all. There was also Torcat’s and Flora D’Alizas Educated Roosters, followed by Kurtis’s Educated Roosters.”


Watercolorist Charles Demuth painted this unidentified “Vaudeville Bird Woman” in 1917:


Birds were an integral part of C.A. Wright’s Traveling Tent Show. 

Burlesque dancer Yvette Dare worked with macaws and parrots who were trained to undress her to music:



Here’s another one of Madame Marzella, circa 1896


For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Goodbye, Circus Elephants!

Posted in ACTS, Animal Acts, Circus, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , , , , on January 17, 2016 by travsd


Got a press release in my e-mail box a couple of days ago from Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus announcing that they have moved up the retirement of all their elephants from 2018 to May of this year.

I am of two minds about this.  One is this: I am above all about tradition, especially where the American circus is concerned. Circuses are about animals. The ring was especially designed for equestrianism. Back in the day, audiences got their first glimpses of exotic creatures in a circus. Most of my favorite circus memories involve animals. When I got to see the Moscow Circus at MSG about 20 years ago, I formed two lasting memories: horseback riding Cossacks…and bicycle riding bears. And look at the picture above — that’s been the signature finale of RBBB Circus for decade after decade  — I first saw that trick at the Providence Civic Center in 1976. It means something to people. What got P.T. Barnum interested in show business when he was a kid? Old Bet the elephant came to town! What did Toby Tyler do when he joined the circus? Watered the elephants!  A circus without animals is Cirque du Soleil, and I’m sorry — that’s no circus at all.

Add to this the fact that the animal rights people are wackos. Are you one? Sorry! Then they’re all wackos but you. When I worked at Big Apple Circus we used to get these letters, scrawled in crayon, with words underlined and seventeen exclamation points in a single sentence, accusing the organization of the worst, most slanderous and untrue calumnies. People dare to tar an entire, centuries-old field of human endeavor with a single brush, and to sling around the VERY loaded word “abuse”, applying it left and right to an entire industry without any familiarity to who or what they’re talking about. I just saw this headline on PETA’s web site: “Three Rings of Abuse”. Eat me. You’re full of elephant shit. Are there cruel animal trainers? Yes. But if you dare to call Big Apple’s loving and caring Woodcock family abusers of animals, you and I are going to have to step outside. Ima stomp you, and I’ll trumpet loudly while I do it.

Now, I first mouthed off on this subject after Big Apple retired their elephants. (Read that post here). But I’ve also done some other blogging about circus elephants. There’s Jumbo, killed by a train while at work. And there’s Topsy, electrocuted for the public’s enjoyment. And there’s that poor creature I saw at the National Zoo, pacing back and forth neurotically, non-stop, in a space about the size of a New York apartment (New York apartments are small). And you realize that, even if owners and trainers are kind and caring like the Woodcocks, and never hit or poke their animals…well these highly intelligent, very large animals need lots of space, and lots of elephant friends and relatives around in order to be happy. I don’t want them to be miserable for my happiness. I can’t enjoy that. If you put it to me like that…it’s all over, isn’t it? Seems to me a lot of the most heinous human behavior was perpetuated out of this idea of tradition and the “natural order of things”. Slavery, the subjection of women, the class system, etc etc. It’s really a lame justification. The lamest possible actually. So, yeah. The retirement of the pachyderms is a positive development.

The Ringling organization is sending their elephants to their big preserve in Florida, and the very idea of them having some space in which to roam makes me happy. If they would put bleachers all around the park and sell tickets so we could watch it would make me even happier.

On the Real Grizzly Adams

Posted in AMERICANA, Animal Acts, BUNKUM, Circus, Dime Museum and Side Show, Impresarios with tags , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2016 by travsd


I came across this delightful information yesterday when writing up my eulogy of Dan Haggerty of tv’s The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.  As I wrote yesterday, the character was based on a real gent, whose given name was John Adams (1812-1860). Surprisingly, he turns out to be one of those Adamses, i.e. the same family that gave us Presidents John and John Quincy, maltster and revolutionary Samuel, ambassador Charles Francis, historian/writer/ philosophers Henry and Brooks, and U.S. Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis (III).

Originally from Medway, Massachusetts, Adams began his working life as a shoemaker, learning skills like sewing and leather working that would later be of much use when he became a mountain man. In 1833 he began working as an animal trapper and trainer for a group of menagerie showmen, catching live bears and other creatures in the Northern New England states of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. Sometime before 1836 he was mauled by a tiger, and retired for a time to raise a family, returning to the trade of shoemaker.

In 1849 he went west for the California Gold Rush. When nothing panned out he became a mountain man, hunting and trapping for a living. In 1853, he captured his first grizzly, named her Lady Washington and trained her to earn her keep as a pack animal. He trapped and trained several more bears and other animals over the next few years, and performed shows as he traveled from place to place throughout the western wilderness.  (One of my most prized possessions is an autographed copy of a novel by none other than Lionel Barrymore. The novel is called Mr. Cantonwine: A Moral Tale, and it is almost certainly inspired by this phase of Adams’ career.) In 1856, he opened the Mountaineer Museum in San Francisco, containing a menagerie of live specimens, as well as taxidermically preserved beasts and other curios. With backing from others he expanded the enterprise under the name the Pacific Museum, while performing with various circuses during the same period.. One of his partners, James H. Hittell, took down notes from Adams’ stories and published it under the title, The Adventures of James Capen Adams, Mountaineer and Grizzly Bear Hunter of California. Mysteriously, Adams had given Hittel his brother’s name, James Capen Adams, as his own. He had also styled himself William Adams for a time. Like many such frontier characters, Adams was given to a certain amount of flim-flam and hucksterism — something of a far cry from how he was depicted in the tv show. (John Huston’s interpretation in The life and Times of Judge Roy Bean was probably closer to the mark).

In 1860, Adams went into partnership with P.T. Barnum and brought his whole operation to New York City. He exhibited under canvas on Broadway for several weeks, and then traveled in New England with a circus. He died in late 1860, apparently from illness related to injuries he had received years earlier… from grizzlies.

Big Apple Circus: Grand Tour

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, AMUSEMENTS, Animal Acts, Circus, Clown, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS with tags , , , , , , , on December 14, 2015 by travsd


I’ve been attending the Big Apple Circus nearly every season for 20 years now…and lately every time I go I feel like the show I’ve just seen was the best ever. I’ve wondered aloud whether current artistic director Guilliaume Dufresnoy is one of the reasons I love it so much more now than I did in the ’90s. Now that I’ve seen several editions generated under his watch by various creators and directors I think I can say with some confidence that, yes, Guilliame has something to do with it. I simply prefer the aesthetics of the BAC as it is today….every artistic choice, from the music, to the script, to the costume design, to the scenery and lighting, all speak to me a great deal more than it used to. The show is rendered with more discretion, taste, and (ironically) more tradition. (The acts themselves have always been great of course. Their scouts go to Monte Carlo and other showcases and bring back some of the best circus acts in the world. I’ve never had any complaints about the jewels at BAC; I just never dug the settings).

We were proud to see our homeboys from Parallel Exit sign on to create this show (with Mark Lonergan as director, and Joel Jeske as writer/creator, and director of the clown bits). Downtown representin’! (Except they’ve also performed at the New Victory; they’ve enjoyed legit success for a while now). If you doubt my objectivity, you needn’t. If anything, as someone who also presents vaudeville, I have incentive NOT to be complimentary, and for that matter I have certainly written downright savage reviews of shows containing friends. So you’ll get fair dealing here.

And you can believe me when I say the show is flipping awesome, and I’ll probably go back to see it a second time (maybe on New Year’s Eve; it’s our favorite way to ring in the new year). This year’s show is lean and mean and moves along briskly — so efficiently and economically that perhaps for the first time at a circus I never looked at my watch. As I’ve written here many times, circus isn’t at the top of my list for theatrical forms. My orientation is vaudeville, and ya know what an acrobat is in vaudeville? The opening act. In the circus, acrobats comprise the bulk of the show — even more so now that larger animals are being pushed out. (I have very politically incorrect opinions on that subject, btw). The current show is not only well-curated and full of fast-paced acts, but (as should surprise no one who’s familiar with Parallel Exit’s work) chock full of fast and funny clowning by the duo of Joel Jeske (“Mr. Joel”) and Brent McBeth, (also of Parallel Exit, here billed as “Skip”). The theme of the show is a Grand Tour in the great age of travel (early twentieth century), so the pair are frequently cast as waiters, flight attendants, baggage handlers and so forth. Jeske’s precision, focus and bag of tricks are to die for. As with many great comedians (Oliver Hardy is my favorite example), you love him more for doing what’s expected, rather than surprises. The man is steeped in the ritual of comedy. Favorite moments included a slop act through a porthole, in which Mr. Joel gets doused with bucket after bucket of water — no matter how he tries to avoid it. And then there was a great game of musical chairs. Mr. Joel has rigged it to win, and he still loses. Also he and McBeth do a musical number, the old song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” — this might be the very first time I’ve witnessed singing in the Big Apple Circus, and it was highly welcome.

As was the dancing — the whole cast performed a Charleston in the charivari and in a closing number. As for the acts: Italy’s Chiara Anastasini performed a beautifully lit hula hoop act — the metal hoops acquiring a slinky-like visual effect the more and more she added. Alexander Koblikov juggled in a sailor suit, at one point keeping the impressive number of ten balls (by my count) in the air. International atmosphere was brought by China’s Energy Trio, an acrobalance outfit who looked very young; and the Zuma Zuma African Acrobats. The Belarussian Dosov Troupe did a fairly standard teeterboard act. Muscovite Sergey Akimov did a graceful, beautiful flight on aerial straps (with no safety wire or net from what I could tell).

Jenny Vidbel brought her critters back; dogs for the first act and horses for the second. The dogs fared better (my favorite gag was when they did a restaurant routine, the clown-waiters brought over some wine, and the dog covered his eyes with his paws when he didn’t like the vintage.) Dogs are smart and funny and you get the sense that they are actually performing. Horses are tougher. Originally the entire raison d’etre for the American circus, horses are not very bright and can only learn the simplest of tricks. Their presence under the big top (I feel) is best justified when it’s about the riders. So in this respect, I miss Katja Schumman’s outfit (and even so — the only time I have REALLY been excited watching equestrians has been at the Moscow Circus or at a western rodeo.) But for very small children, for whom the presence of horses is enough — they have horses. I would be more excited by giraffes (Barnum used to have ’em) but at least they have horses.

Lastly — the show closes the first half (as always) with their most exciting act, in this case, the Dominquez Brothers on The Wheel of Wonder (as opposed to the Wonder Wheel) . This act all by itself is worth the price of admission — and I made a lot of noises (yelps, cries, nervous laughter) as these two guys did their death-defying thing on this cray-cray apparatus. Can’t describe it , looks like this:


As I say, a great show and it flew by. We hope to catch it again before they blow town for their annual tour. Tickets and info here. 

The Time Mae West Was on the “Mr. Ed” Show

Posted in Animal Acts, Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Comediennes, Comedy, Mae West, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , on August 17, 2015 by travsd


Here’s a little tidbit that should be known not only to every classic comedy fan — but to every soul, living or dead who has ever spent time on planet earth. For God’s Sake, man — this isn’t “trivia”! This has import!

Mae West was on the Mr. Ed show. The episode premiered on March 22, 1964. And why is that significant? Well, it’s the only motion picture acting West did between The Heat’s On (1943) and Myra Breckenridge (1970). What’s astounding is the stuff she could have been in, and yet the one job she took during that 27 year fallow period was THIS! The answer emerges, I think, after only a little cogitation. Mae plays herself on the show, and this was probably the only thing she was offered that asked her to play her traditional screen character. In 1964, Mae was 71 years old. She hadn’t gotten scripts that asked her to be a sex symbol in over two decades. The Mr. Ed gig not only flattered her ego….but there had to have been a perverse joke at the back of it. After all, Mae had played Catherine the Great on stage. (The legend is that Catherine died while copulating with a stallion from her stables – -and I don’t mean the stable boy.)

West with "Mr. Ed"'s human co-star Alan Young

West with “Mr. Ed”‘s human co-star Alan Young

If you’re curious you can watch the show here on Youtube. I’ve stopped embedding video. Killjoys are always taking the videos down, leaving me with window into static defacing my blogposts.

For more on slapstick and silent comedy film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


%d bloggers like this: