BY DON KENTON HENRY
I grew up in the most magical of places a boy could hope to. A place where every summer day was a circus. And when I was not watching in wondrous amazement . . . I was performing. The place was Peru, Indiana and my home at 333 Sycamore was directly across the street from the residential headquarters for retired circus performers. Oh, I am not speaking of an official retirement home. I am referring to Widow Finster’s boarding house. How, I do not know but it came to be home to Willie “The Great Wilno” – Human Projectile; acrobat and trapeze artist, Montago Vespici; bareback rider and stuntman, Sir Oliver Boliver; beautiful Queen of the Circus, The Stupendous Antoinette Silverado; Falala the Bearded Lady and clowns Paris Garters and Biffalo Buff. Those were just a few of the souls whose spirits I know now shine in the night sky but at that time lived and, for the most part, spent their last days in what would appear to most to be nothing more than another Indiana corn town. It was a time when I was growing up before their tired but still gleaming eyes.
Many other veterans of “The Greatest” and “Lesser Shows on Earth” would replace them until the last of these old timers had gone to The Great Big Top in the sky. Or perhaps to retirement homes in Sarasota, Florida. Sarasota became the new Circus Capital of The World after Peru surrendered that title when the winter headquarters, on two hundred ten acres a few miles outside town on the banks of the Wabash River, burned to the ground destroying the equipment, calliopes and magnificent circus wagons. That was November of 1941. But by the time I was a wide eyed tike, it was the early 1960’s and, like trout, weathered, tired, put out to pasture performers returned to the home they had known during so many winters. And found a home in that of the Widow Finster.
Me? No, I’m not Toby Tyler. They call me, “The Sheik”. At least that’s what the lovable, motley band of retirees from the three rings called me those years so long ago. Montago, the fearless King of the High Wire, was the one to tag me with this moniker. He anointed me such after calling me over to their home’s grand porch swing on which he sat most days, along with the others, idly swinging away the hours, watching in amusement as I and my loyal band of cohorts from The Viking Club (“No Girls Allowed!”) engaged in daring escapades oblivious to adult or parental observation. I was seven or eight years old at the time and had just dispatched a marauding gang of no less than three highwaymen with my sword fashioned from melon crate slats. This I did with graceful aplomb whilst parrying thrusts from their own swords with my trash can shield.
“I christen, you, The Sheik,” he said, in the most official of tones as Biffalo Buff and Paris Garters, seated next to him, nodded in approval. Lemonade in hand, Sir Oliver Boliver did the same from his white rocking chair under the porch fan.
“Why do you call me that, Mr. Vespici?” I asked quizzically.
“Not only because of your dashing heroics with the blade, Sheik . . . but because of your high cheekbones, dark exotic features and the wistful way the young damsels vie for your attention.”
“Huh?” I replied while cocking my head, totally puzzled by his explanation.
“Do not concern yourself, Sheik. It will all make itself abundantly clear to you in a few short years. And I, The Magnificent Montago, will be here to help you sort it out as need be. You can be assured.”
Falala laughed from under her beard, then gray and desperately in need of trimming, “You can be certain Monte will have that covered!” And with that I was off to conquer more continents.
Often times, it was the heat of the day which caused myself, my brothers, sister and the other neighborhood kids to congregate on that sweeping, wrap-around porch, shaded by it and just above the steps, at the feet of The Great Wilno who inevitably would get the conversation started. One day it began with something to the effect of, “Ah, the climatic conditions are ripe for one being shot from a cannon! Oh, to fly eighty feet through the air to be caught in the arms of a beautiful woman suspended from a trapeze. How I miss my youth in all its splendor!”
“What do you mean, ‘climaxic conditions are ripe’, Wilno?” I asked.
“Opportune, Sheik. Opportune!” he replied.
“Another word with which you will become familiar soon enough, Sheik!” interjected The Magnificent Montago.
“You really did that? You really let someone shoot you out of a cannon into the sky?” asked my younger brother, Preston.
“Not just anyone, son. Only my beautiful wife of forty years – Zazel!”
“And what happened to Zazel? Why is she not here with you, Wilno?” I questioned.
With that he cast his eyes to the porch and … after a moment’s hesitation … went on to explain. “On occasion she would allow me to shoot her from the cannon and, one windy afternoon in Wisconsin, we attempted a shoot and she hit her head on the Ferris wheel. We must have performed that stunt a hundred times before and she always cleared the wheel. But alas, a gust of wind kicked up from out of those damn dells . . .” And his voice and mind drifted off to another place.
Sensing the consternation visible on our young faces, Biffalo Buff magically pulled some balls out of his pocket and start juggling them and Montago went inside to the kitchen and returned with a butcher knife only to begin sticking it down his throat to our horrified amazement. If it had been a day for barbecuing on a grill – as it always was on the 4th of July – he might have let a shish kabob catch fire and put it in his mouth and extinguished it! I swear that man was so multi-talented he could have filled in for any performance! One never knew when Biffalo Buff might pull his hat off to reveal a live parakeet perched on his head or Lady Falala would scream, “She walks, she talks – she crawls on her belly like a reptile! She’s a leapin’, screamin’, creepin’, crawlin’ mawnster! She’s eleven feet lawng and she’s alive! She’s the AllliiiigaaaaTOR Lady!” All the while pointing at some imaginary aberration of nature supposedly slithering on the floor in front of us until we kids – convinced something was there – jumped off the porch, squealing our way to safety. With that Widow Finster would giggle with delight and run to the kitchen to fetch us all lemonade.
Like life, summers always reach a point when one senses their eventual, then imminent passing. At this point one reaches to grasp, then savor all that is good about these treasure chests of limited opportunity. This epiphany usually dawned on my barefoot band of renegades, sidewalk surfers, Wabash river rafters, catfish catchers, gravel pit swimmers and pillagers of backyard gardens after the first week of August and before Labor Day. As a means of consolation and out of empathy for our loss of youthful freedom, which they had spent their entire lives resisting, the performers took to organizing a circus with which to celebrate another great summer before adulthood robbed us of all innocence. Before life bridled our enjoyment of it absent commitment and inevitable responsibility. In these special performances, we – The Viking Club and other children of the neighborhood – constituted the entire cast. In 1964, my tenth summer, I was designated by Wilno to be the Grand Ringmaster. The Stupendous Antoinette lent me her bull whip which I learned to crack with proficiency after hours of practice on my own front steps. Of course the real circus veterans were behind the scenes organizing the acts, lending us props, coaching us for the various stunts and ever observant for our safety. The acts were always held in the large side and back yard of my house on which set a massive two story garage. It was assembled with wooden spikes and hand hewn beams and, in the early years of the 20th Century, the bottom floor served as a stable and a place to park one’s carriage while the second floor served as a hay loft. In reality it was an historical urban barn. In our case – a Big Top. From the rafters of what comprised the first floor ceiling were suspended a trapeze and Little Karem Atkins, under the tutelage of Montago, would here become our high flying artist and catcher for his coy and winsome partner, Elizabeth “Freckles” Lovette. The Goode brothers and Marla Markowski learned the tricks of the clown trade from , Biffalo Buff and Paris Garters. But the coup d’ grace and The Grand Finale of this year’s show would be performed by “Bucktooth” Wally Woodhams who billed himself as none other than – “The Great Wally!”. His act of course was choreographed by The Great Wilno himself and consisted of Wally being shot from a cannon. That we had no percussion device of any sort, much less one for large enough to eject a slightly pudgy eleven year old, at first seemed something of a problem. This, in fact, was no deterrent because Wilno had been the original creator of the cannon which launched him over amusement park rides and to the top of circus tents on thousands of occasions. And the loss of the beautiful Zazel on one bad day could hardly be counted against him. So it was of little surprise to all when he constructed our personal version of The Big Gun from a garbage can. The garbage can was first suspended from three ropes – two tied to each of its handles at the open end and one at the top of the opposite end. The ropes were then tied to a large branch of an oak tree such that the can suspended in a horizontal position parallel to and about six feet off the ground. One end of another rope was then placed through the bottom of the can and its opposite end trailed thirty feet or so where it was tied to the trunk, among the upper branches of a mulberry tree, above a tree house. The tree house was more of a platform as it consisted of only a floor and no walls. The concept entailed the garbage can being drawn up to the floor of the tree house where Wally would climb in, football helmet on his head. On cue from the band – comprised of one snare drum and two clashing garbage can lids – the rope would be released, sending Wally , in his can, swinging from the tree house only to be brought to a sudden and excruciating halt on the upside of a grand and sweeping arc when the slack played out of the rope. The theory was that, at the point the can came to halt, Wally would be ejected and – after flying approximately ten feet up and through the stratosphere – would land on a double mattress complete with a plastic cover which was a remnant from my bedwetting days.
The opening act would be a fearless display of hyperactive tumbling in one of the three rings composed of a deflated plastic swimming pool and slip and slide separated by the Main Ring. The latter was created by a making a circle in the grass with fifty feet of garden hose. The gymnastic feats would be performed by kids as little as four and five followed by a live animal act composed of my Brittany Spaniel, Princess and my brother Preston’s Chihuahua, Karen, jumping through hoops while my pet raccoon, Rocky, walked a tight rope in pursuit of a marshmallow. A caged tabby cat would be carted around among the perimeter of the yard in the back of a red wagon drawn by a toddler, my little brother, Mark. And this was followed by Becky Frushour, in leotard and tutu, crossing the same rope the raccoon had just walked except that she would hold a broom stick as a balancing pole. The entire extravaganza had been well advertised by poster boards nailed to telephone poles, throughout the neighborhood, announcing it a full ten days ahead of the performance. It always took place late on a Saturday afternoon so all parents, grandparents and cousins could be there.
The big day arrived and, as anticipated, the event was well attended. The audience came from two or three surrounding blocks and most found seats in the rows of folding chairs encircling the three rings. These were borrowed from the Presbyterian Church just behind my house and of which we were members. Those who could not find seats, or simply chose to, spread blankets and enjoyed picnics on the lawn.
The opening act finished to rousing applause and Becky’s tight rope act received the same. With that, I motioned everyone to the garage stable where Karem swung from the one trapeze to another, culminating in the Freckles Lovette swinging into his gangly arms. All the while, clowns mingled among the audience pulling stunts with timing honed by countless hours practicing on The Widow Finster’s porch.
Things were going magnificently until Rocky took an exit from the animal high wire act in an attempt to steal a box of Good & Plenty candy from an elderly patron, Mrs. Braun who was sitting in the front row under an apple tree. She was not about to surrender it and put up a valiant struggle in which Rocky discovered a treat he liked even more. Ear wax. That animal went into a frenzy over ear wax and, sensing something special about Mrs. Braun, wrapped his legs around her neck and head, grasping handfuls of her silver bouffant and buried his muzzle deep in her ear. Rocky was chirring at about one hundred twenty decibels but Mrs. Braun’s blood curdling yells exceeded the level of a jet taking off on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Her cries for help brought those not terrified of rabies rushing to her aid and I, myself, was cracking my ringmaster’s bull whip like a Clyde Beatty, the famous lion tamer, as Rocky persisted in driving his nose deeper and deeper in her inner ear canal. Like the Pooh bear, he had found a honey hole. At last, The Stupendous Miss Silverado arrived on the scene and calmly placed her hands on Rocky and whispered something in his own furry ear. With that he released his death grip on Mrs. Braun’s head. Antoinette clutched him to her ample breasts, bent and retrieved the box of Good & Plenty and left with Rocky, disappearing into the Widow Finster’s house. I dropped the whip and applauded enthusiastically. At first, I did so because I was actually utterly amazed at the spell Miss Silverado cast on Rocky. But, in the end, in an attempt to make the audience think it was part of the act. Expressionless, they just stared at me and did not share in the applause.
Eventually calm was restored and the final act began, although Mrs. Braun had not remained to see it. Bucktooth, a.k.a. – The Great Wally! – climbed the slats nailed to the side of the mulberry tree onto the platform. Once there, he stood and saluted the crowd. At that point a drum roll commenced on the snare drum below and Wally crawled into the garbage can feet first. A number of parents began to look about nervously as he was about twenty feet off the ground. The Great Wilno, however, was standing by nodding and smiling reassuringly. It seemed to calm the crowd to know a true professional was overseeing this amazing, death defying stunt. I had abandoned my post as Ringmaster and climbed to the platform also. Wilno took over and directed everyone’s attention to the platform high above the ground. The drum roll was to continue another thirty seconds after Wally climbed into the breach, followed by a clash of the metal trash can lids below. That was my cue to push the can and Wally off the edge of the platform, while making certain the slack rope attached to the rear of the can played out. The eyes of the audience below, especially the children, were wide with excitement. The trash can cymbals clashed, The Great Wilno nodded and I pushed the can off toward the lawn below. Things went according to plan. For about the first ten feet of the downward trajectory. That is when the rope behind me became snagged on a nail that, unbeknownst to us, had worked its way out of a board and just high enough for the woven hemp rope to catch on. As small as the nail was, it was strong enough to bring the falling can to an abrupt halt about ten feet off the ground at a forty five degree angle. To the shock of all, Wally was ejected straight into the Kentucky Bluegrass of our lawn. His hands had been pressed tight against the walls in order to hold himself in during his descent but they slid through the exit first and were the first thing to hit the ground, breaking his fall. He flipped forward onto his back and lay there as Wilno and all the adults ran to his aid. Fortunately, Wally fared better than the beautiful Zazel and, after a good cry, got up to scattered applause and even took a bow while managing a feeble grin. The Great Wilno was officially retired by the parents in the neighborhood; the crowd disbanded and this was the last time a Human Projectile Act was part of the Sycamore Street Circus.
With the passing years, I spent less time on the Widow’s porch and younger children took my place as I came to understand the meaning of “opportune” and to fulfill my destiny as, The Sheik. Still whenever I was about to jump in my Chevelle or climb on my motorcycle and saw one or more of the performers wistfully watching from across the street, I would pause, walk over and exchange a few words. The Magnificent Montago was especially grateful whenever I brought a pretty female friend to meet him. His eyes would light up as I imagined they always did when he climbed to the top of the big top, looked down and heard the roaring applause of the crowd below. “Protect the Princess well, Sheik,” he would say as we departed. Later still, I would visit when home from college for the holidays and to the last of them, their first concern was always to address my welfare.
One trip home was for the most auspicious of occasions which occurred when The Magnificent Montago and The Stupendous Antoinette Silverado were joined in matrimony on a trapeze platform high above the sawdust of our local community circus – another gift of the performers to our town. My parents divorced when I was twelve. My mother was only thirty-eight at the time and still a very pretty woman. As such, she began to receive entreaties of courtship from various members of the community. By no stretch the least earnest – and certainly the most interesting of which – were from Falala, The Bearded Lady. My mother, being a very conventional but gracious lady, informed Falala that, “my trapeze doesn’t swing that way.” Ok – those might be my words – not hers – but Falala got the point and was crestfallen. So much so that she actually shaved her beard and cleaned up her act. Eventually, however, she rebounded and ran off with a senior biker chick who came through on a road trip. Next thing we knew, she was riding bitch on the back of a Harley across the Wabash and outta town. As the entire crew waved good-bye from the The Widow Finster’s porch, Wilno, said, “That biker’s one butch chick. I didn’t think Falala would ever ride bitch behind anyone.” And that’s the last we saw of her until the funeral of Biffalo Buff.
One day, while away at school, my mother called in the pre-dawn hours of a winter morning to tell me Biffalo Buff had passed away. He had been my favorite of the clowns, never, through the years, having failed to make me laugh. No matter how many times you’ve seen it, there is something endearing about a bird under a person’s hat. I recalled this and so much more as I packed my weekend clothes for the one hundred twenty mile ride home to attend his funeral.
Now how can you do justice to a funeral where the entire first row consists of clowns in full costume and makeup. The world’s most famous clown, Emmett Kelly was in attendance as was his son, also a clown, Emmett Kelly, Jr. Beside them sat Paris Garters, Banana Puddin’ and Daffy the Duck Wrangler. Also in attendance of course were the rest of Widow Finster’s boarders as well as additional circus performers who traveled from as far as Sarasota and Arizona to pay tribute to one of their own. We could have managed one heck of a circus with just the people in the funeral audience. If you think a funeral is a somber affair – regardless the deceased – think again. The first thing which distinguished it from the more morbid affairs we may be accustomed to came to my attention when the minister of that same Presbyterian Church came in and unknowingly took a seat on a whoopee cushion hidden under the pad of his chair. It was an enormous whoopee cushion and that kind of broke the ice, so to speak. With that invisible birds began chirping, slide whistles began blowing and cuckoos went off! One by one we began to file by the casket for one last look at that beautiful white and red face paint under a wig of orange hair. Not only was his smile painted on but it seemed that even under his makeup a real smile graced his face. Though I smiled back at my old friend, tears welled in my eyes as I leaned in for a closer look. And that’s when it got me. A million times he had gotten me as a kid on that front porch but I never saw it coming. As I leaned over his face prepared to say, “good-bye my friend”, a stream of water squirted from the daisy on his lapel and got me right in my left eye! I caught my breath at the shock and jerked my head back wiping my face with my hand as the entire audience erupted in thunderous laughter and applause. And of course the sound of birds, whistles and cuckoos reached a crescendo! I and smiled back at the audience who could not tell my tears from the water on my face. To this day, I do not know how or who pulled off water squirting from a dead clown’s lapel from within his casket. Did he have outside assistance? Was it divine intervention? Or was it just another perfect prank by my good friend, and one of the other world’s greatest clowns, executed – as in life – with perfect timing from the other side?
Ultimately the minister took the podium and spoke of how Biffalo Buff had brought much laughter and joy to the church, especially to the children and how charitable he had been volunteering his services for every worthy cause. He spoke of how heaven was going to be a much funnier place with Biffalo Buff there to greet the newcomers. Then close friends were given an opportunity to say a few words and there was seldom a point at which most, if not all of us, were alternately laughing and crying as each recalled a particular stunt, shtick or attempt to cheer us by Biffalo.
The Great Wilno took the podium and, after his bittersweet eulogy, to my surprise said – “Biffalo would be most happy to know The Sheik is in attendance,” and asked if I had anything to say. As a nervous twenty-year-old, I took the podium and, after some pause and hesitation, I smiled and said, “In life, and now in death, he has made me laugh. He always said life is an act in which we all perform. We can choose either to be happy or sad performers. And – ‘I choose happy’. Laughter was his gift to the world and was one he would hope each of us would share with each other. I will do my best, to do my part.”
Circus Busch GREAT WILNO (c.1927 – One Sheet)