Archive for animal

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.

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.

Professor Louis Sunlin: Clown and Animal Trainer

Posted in Animal Acts, Circus, Clown, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on February 1, 2014 by travsd


Louis Sunlin (born February 1857) was a clown and comedian who worked with a succession of trained animals, both in vaudeville and circuses. A second generation performer, he was born in Ohio and became a professional in 1880 under the employ of Sells Brothers Circus. He later worked for the Ringling Brothers and Wallace shows among others. His four footed partners included a pair of trained donkeys named “Pickles” and “Peanuts”; a troupe of trained dogs; a trained horse named Mizpah; and a singularly sagacious bull named King Bill, who could lie down, sit up, roll over, etc, just like a dog. If you’ve ever spent any time with cattle you know that they are truly dumb beasts, thus making Sunlin’s feat as a trainer all the more impressive.

At this stage there is some confusion about whether he is the same person as Lew Sunlin, who apparently had a song and dance act with his brother Charles, billed as the Sunlin Bros., and which operated its own circus “Sunlin Bros’ Great R.R. Shows” for at least one season.

In his last years he appears to have done the vaudeville world one last service by taking in the out-of-work female impersonator Mansel Vardaman as a household cook. Sunlin passed away in 1935.

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


And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc



Adgie and Her Lions

Posted in Animal Acts, Circus, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2013 by travsd


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 vaudevilleincluding 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.

The Legendary Fink’s Mules

Posted in Animal Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2011 by travsd

Thanks to the memories of most of the vaudevillians and vaudeville fans who survived into the late 20th century, Fink’s Mules is an act that has become not only legendary, but proverbial. They worked their way into the public mind as the perfect opening or closing act on a vaudeville bill. Now: readers of No Applause know that those were the least desirable slots on the bill for most types of acts. To be a singer, dancer, comedian or actor in the opening and closing spot was not only an indignity but a trial to be overcome. But for an animal act? For an animal act, opening or closing on a BIG TIME bill was the highest to which the act could aspire. Fink’s Mules, which also included monkeys, dogs and ponies (viz, canines above) always made a big stir, and for all the reasons you can imagine. Mules are stubborn and independent beasts, well known to do precisely NOT what they are told, all the while kicking their hind legs and emitting what is undoubtedly the most retarded-sounding of all animal cries. Audience members (who or may not have been stooges) were invited onstage to attempt to ride the contrary critters. The ten-minute act was a staple of the biggest big time venues, such as the Palace and the Hippodrome through the late nineteen-teens and twenties.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


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