The Circus and The Great Santini


circus degas miss-la-la-at-the-cirque-1879

Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas, 1897


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!

clown cropped

Not all clowns are scary – some, like this fellow, are absolutely wonderful.

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).

circus horse 1890

Circus lady with horse 1908

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.)

circus movie Trapeze

Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida in Trapeze, 1956

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.

Ringmaster, Petit Gougou as Monsieur Loyal at the Monte Carlo Festival of Circus, 2011 (

Ringmaster, Petit Gougou as Monsieur Loyal at the Monte Carlo Festival of Circus, 2011 (

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.

circus knife thrower 1890s

Circus Knife Thrower 1890s

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.

circus Lucy-long-knives-300

I Love Lucy, 1951

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.

circus DecorativeOrnament_vector

And now for some photographs of circus performers new and old for your enjoyment !

konchak snake handler

The Great Konchak

cirque du soleil

Cirque du Soleil (

circus triple cycle highwire

19th century triple cycle highwire

circus tightrope

circus poster of gorilla

Created before King Kong existed – a hand painted Sideshow banner

circus tall walkers stilts

Life Magazine

circus 1910 trapeze

Life Magazine photo Nina Leen

circus snake charmer 1900scircus little girl on horse

James Stewart starred as Buttons the clown in the 1952 Academy Award®-winning film "The Greatest Show on Earth." The film was the 25th to win the Oscar® for Best Picture. Restored by Nick & jane for Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans Website: Enjoy!

James Stewart starred as Buttons the clown in the 1952 Academy Award-winning film “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Life Visits the Circus in Florida- Acrobats clowning around on ropes

Life (Magazine) Visits the Circus in Florida- Acrobats clowning around on ropes. photo Nina Leen

circus george bellows circus 1912

Circus by George Bellows, 1912

circus horse toulouse lautrec

by Toulouse Lautrec

circus Pierre-Auguste Renoir 1879 Jongleuses au cirque Fernando

Jongleuses au cirque Fernando by Pierrre Auguste Renoir, 1879

Circus-Barnum and Bailey dog

This is the kind of dancing dog I remember, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus

circus At-The-Circus-by-Ottokar-Walter

At the Circus by Ottokar Walter, 1889

circus Bridgman-American-Circus-in-France-1869-1870

The American Circus in France by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1869-1870

circus toulouse latrec entering the ring

Entering the Ring by Toulouse Latrec 1899

circus WC Fields Sally of the Sawdust

A scene from the movie Sally of the Sawdust starring WC Fields 1925

circus sideshow art

Life (Magazine) Visits the Circus in Florida

circus trapeze artist

Life (Magazine) Visits the Circus in Florida

circus dog Fifi Roncycircus acrobatscircus old postercircus trapeze Gaston Paris Roger-Viollet-Photo-Agency-since-1938

Life Visits the Circus in Florida- Acrobats and stage performers in various stages of action.

Life (Magazine) Visits the Circus in Florida

Cavalia edmonton sun acrobats

Scene from Cavalia from the Edmonton Sun

cavalia edmonton sun

Scene from Cavalia from the Edmonton Sun

circus wagon

Circus Wagon. When the circus came to town it usually paraded down Main Street with a series of intricately carved wagons pulled by the circus animals and showing the performers.

circus Nellie-McHenry-A-night-at-the-circus-by-H-Grattan-Donnelly-1893-Theater-Poster



Cavalia Odysseo-11

Cavalia is a contemporary circus employing only humans and horses. It is a love song to the Horse.


Cavalia. The horses are royalty, and treated with respect and admiration.


circus charlie chaplin

Charlie Chaplin in love with a circus girl in The Circus, 1928

Two dogs dance during a performance at ZoppŽ Italian Family Circus at Chandler Center for the Arts, on Friday, Jan. 6, 2011. Michel Duarte/The Arizona Republic.

Two dogs dance during a performance at ZoppeŽ Italian Family Circus

circus contortionist

Contortionist late 19th century

Juggling with fire

Juggling with fire, 19th c

circus clowns-or-798393

Congress of Clowns

circus tatoo lady national geo 1931

Tatoo Lady from National Geographic 1931

circus zelda boden

cavalia stallions

A final and beautiful image from Cavalia



Horse Love


A scene from Odysseo by Cavalia

I just went to the show Odysseo by Cavalia last Thursday night with my youngest daughter – she and I are the horse fanatics in our family. I was given the tickets for a Christmas gift and then had to wait all those weeks and months to finally be able to go. My daughter and I were ecstatic and so worked up about going, that we went to the big white tent on the wrong night, a week too soon…


Horses from the Lascaux Cave c 25,000 BC

… Horsies, ponies, horses and horses and more horsies and ponies… We weren’t the only ones excited by the upcoming show – many of the drivers I encountered that night in the parking lot (and on the long lines of cars) had the same bright hysterical glint in their eyes too.

The passion for horses is shared by many cultures across the world. People have been admiring and worshiping the horse for centuries.

Some writers like to get all Freudian about horses – “the horse is a phallic symbol and that’s why pubescent girls love them”… well I say that’s a load of crap – horses are noble,  graceful creatures full of power, warmth, and intelligence and men and women both have always been in love with their beauty and their companionship.

parthenon frieze 3

Rearing horse from the Parthenon frieze, c 443-438 BC

When I was small I was like most kids – I liked horses even though I didn’t personally know any.  I saw them in art at museums, on TV, in books, on the streets of NY. I used all my birthday cake wishes over the years for a pony of my own (which never came true BTW). I’d grown up knowing that my mother had ridden at a military stable on Staten Island when she was a teenager (I still have a picture of her with High Top on my dresser), so the dream was within possibility.

Reynolds John_Manners_Marquess_of_Granby_1763-65

I always wanted my portrait done like this – standing nobly with one arm draped over the back of a beautiful horse. Horses have long been considered a status symbol – the finest horses were always owned and bred by the wealthy. This is a portrait of John Manners, Marquess of Granby by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1763-1765.

But I didn’t meet an actual horse til I was 12 and my family went to Eastern Canada to look for real estate in the spring of 1972 (see earlier posts). We stayed at my aunt and uncle’s “gentleman’s farm” in Jolicure, NB. They had a couple of cattle, a goat, a rabbit, some chickens, a lot of cats, two dogs, and a beautiful black mare named Mammy Fortuna.

Mammy was my cousin Lorrie’s horse. She was black with a white star and a couple of white socks. She was sleek and shiny and though she wasn’t a big horse, she had a big personality.

Betty Mammy Lorrie in barn 1972

Meeting Mammy for the first time in the Spring of 1972. My beautiful older cousin Lorrie is holding her.

From the moment I was introduced to Mammy and she gently nuzzled my hand and puffed her warm breath into my face, I was smitten.

And when for the first time I was given a boot up into the saddle and was led slowly around, precariously balanced on her back, I suddenly saw the world differently.

My cousin taught me to ride – head up – heels down – back straight – and also taught me how to take care of Mammy – all her grooming, feeding and stable needs. She even taught me to jump Mammy – and though it was all very basic riding, I loved it. I rode Mammy in the fields near the farmhouse, in the riding ring by the vegetable garden, and down the back roads onto the Tantramar Marsh.

Eventually I was given the responsibility to exercise and take care of Mammy when my cousin would go away for several months at a time. We lived maybe 4 or 5 miles from my aunt’s farm. I managed to get there by bike, by school bus, or I’d walk in from the corner when the road was bad, and often I’d have my mother drive me.

Betty Mammy Lorrie 1972

My first riding lesson with Mammy and Lorrie 1972 – I’m wearing my groovy psychedelic striped elephant leg pants –  it is the early 70s after all.

She’d visit with my aunt while I was busy with the horse.

I love all animals, but there is nothing like the friendship that you can have with a horse.

Mammy was an individual with a complicated personality. She wasn’t a push button horse, and her spirit wasn’t broken like many of the horses I’ve seen lugging tourists and children around at parks and camps. She had deep passions and demanded respect.

I learned that the only way I could work with her was to remain calm and to acknowledge her moods and needs. I needed to remain in control but never be a bully – I had to work with her, not against her. That calm state of mind, that peace that comes with being centered, is what made riding Mammy so wonderful.

When we got to the point of knowing each other we shared the world and our friendship became strong. She looked forward to my company and would whinny at her stall when I’d arrive at the farm. There was no greater joy than that shared with Mammy on a beautiful day on the Marsh.

Tantramar Marsh valley road

One of the roads I rode on near my Aunt’s farm went across a valley of the Tantramar Marsh.

Luke the dog always came with us. He ran alongside Mammy and explored all the smells of the wild along the way. He was my buddy and a beloved member of our little team.

Betty and Luke 1972

Meeting Luke for the first time 1972. Lukie Daddles, as I called him, became a dear friend and always accompanied me with Mammy on rides. Every time I’d arrive at the farm he’d run to the wood pile and bring a giant log out for me to play stick with him.

I have rarely felt the trust and closeness of the animals I’ve loved, in people. With animals there is an unspoken bond that is powerful and requires a kind of communication and honesty that people are often unable to create. If you gain the respect of a horse or a dog (or any other animal) there comes a peace and comfort and an innate closeness that cannot be replicated.

Whatever the weather – cold and snowy and icy, or warm and sunny with wildflowers around us – riding Mammy was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.

When I returned from graduate school one Christmas and asked to see Mammy I found out that she’d been put down. It was devastating – I’d never contemplated the world without her. Later that night my father held me in his arms while I sobbed. He cried too – because he said I hadn’t cried like that or hung onto him like that since I was a little girl.


When I was getting married my father asked me what I’d like from my parents for a wedding gift. I asked him for a painting – and left it at that. A few months later he gave me this beautiful painting of me with Mammy on the Tantramar Marsh. Its one of my most prized possessions. Betty and Mammy by Bernard Safran, oil on masonite 1988.

Mammy will always be in my heart. Though she wasn’t my horse, I loved her like she was. I am eternally grateful to my cousin for sharing her with me.

A few years ago a painting came up for sale on eBay of a black mare done in the 19th century. We won the painting to my joy. I was contacted by the people who came in behind us – they asked to buy it from us because it looked like a racehorse they’d owned. I wrote back that no, I was keeping it – because it was like the horse I loved and rode as a girl and I needed it. And it hangs on my bedroom wall across from my bed where I see it every morning and every night.


We won this painting on eBay a few years back – it reminds me of Mammy. I believe the painter knew this horse – its a study of an individual – full of love and warmth. Black Horse by the Danish painter Frants Henningsen c 1890.

Things I loved about Mammy:

her big beautiful eyes

the warmth rising off her on a cold day

her smooth shiny coat and long mane and tail

the strength and firmness of her body

her soft velvet nose

her biting teeth

her swinging walk

her joyful gallop

her breath

her smell

sharing the excitement of a ride…

… of a jump

enjoying the sun and fresh air together…

being best friends and loving her with my whole heart.