Before anyone attacks me for liking circuses – let me categorically state that I am against the use of exotic animals in circus acts. Times and attitudes have progressed and society now understands (for the most part) that chimps, tigers, lions, elephants, hippos, bears and other animals should not be forced to suffer in captivity and be made to perform tricks for people’s entertainment
Indeed, thanks to Dr. Jane Goodall’s breakthrough research on the chimps at Gombe, it is now widely understood that animals (other than humans) have emotional lives, many demonstrate culture and social history, and have intelligence far beyond what was previously accepted.
And now on with the show!
As a child I loved the circus.When I was very little my family went to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It was truly a spectacle. I loved all the sparkle and drama.
And I admit that as a kid, I loved seeing all the animals during the show. I especially loved the horses and wanted to be one of those lovely ladies that leaps about and does acrobatics on the broad back of a horse.
And who doesn’t love to see tiny poodles dance around in skirts?
One of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid, was simply called Circus and featured international circus performers every week.
And I never missed the Ed Sullivan Show which regularly featured circus performers, as well other more famous acts (like the Beatles).
I was also a big fan of the 1956 movie Trapeze starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida, because there was a lot about circus life in the movie – how the girls learned to stand on the backs of cantering horses, and particularly how the acrobats trained and performed on the trapeze.
(Burt Lancaster had actually been an acrobat before he became an actor, and performed with the Kay Brothers circus early in his life.)
When I was maybe 10 or 11 years old my mother gave me a book to read called Umberto’s Circus. It was a charming story about a small European circus trying to just get by. It made me love the circus even more.
The last time I went to an old-fashioned circus, I was in my twenties. There was a trapeze act as usual, and as usual it was a family act. They came out to great fan fare, climbed the high tower to get to the trapeze swings and performed without a net below them. That was the draw of the act – trapeze without a net.
During most trapeze acts one or more of the acrobats falls by accident into the net underneath – this usually brings a huge gasp from the audience. Sometimes, it seems to be intentionally done to heighten the tension during the terrifying leaps. This time, however, the high flyer fell all the way to the floor and didn’t move – it was a real and deadly accident, and it was terrible to witness.
Now back to more happy memories with –
The Great Santini!
One of the happiest and most memorable circus experiences I had, was one Summer when I was 13 or 14. My cousin took me to see the circus in Moncton, New Brunswick.
My sister and cousins were all a lot older than me and so when I did get to go along with them somewhere, I was always just tagging along, quiet, out of the way – the dumb kid that no one really took any notice of. But this time my cousin asked me to go with her – just me, and it was very special.
It was a hot sunny day and when we arrived at the parking lot there were already many cars there. The circus tent was full with a noisy, excited crowd.
As we were walking through the parking lot a man approached us and introduced himself. He said he was The Great Santini and that he was the sword swallower and knife thrower in the circus. He wasn’t in costume, just street clothes, but he looked like a circus performer. He had slicked back, collar length black hair and a mustache and goatee. He looked devilish.
He flirted with us and I can’t remember what he was saying, but we giggled, and declined his attentions and went in to watch the show.
The circus was not a famous one and had some not so fancy acts. I seem to remember that there were acrobatic goats that walked along a board about 3 feet in the air (or something like that), but it was very entertaining and it was very sentimental.
When The Great Santini came out, he was wearing a dramatic black body suit with winged sleeves. The costume had red and gold flames all over it and he wore high black boots. He had the usual knife throwing wall that a glamorous woman has to stand in front of, and he had a tall shiny silver rack holding long, shiny, scary looking swords.
He swallowed the swords, he juggled the swords, he swallowed fire and blew fire from his mouth, and he threw daggers with relish.
He was a great showman. It was very exciting to have met him in the parking lot.
The weekend magazine in the newspaper even featured a big color photo of him blowing fire. I kept that magazine for years. Unfortunately, my parents threw it out when they moved from the farmhouse, and it is now gone forever.
Too bad there is no record of The Great Santini online that I can find – but he must be out there somewhere.
And now for some photographs of circus performers new and old for your enjoyment !