Jolly Nellie Lane

Sideshow Attraction and Movie Actress

by Jack R. Cox

 

People in Hocking County, Ohio, especially some senior citizens, still talk about Nellie Lane, the girl who literally ran away with the circus. They have heard about her, but few know anything more. Here and there one will find a bit of information, but there is still so much of her history that is obscured.

What of her family? Nellie’s parents were Charles H.B. “Charley” Lane and L. Jenny Showalter who were married June 7, 1893 in Roane County, West Virginia. A son, Clarence D. Lane, was born to them January 12, 1894 in Pomeroy, Ohio.

Nellie was born Nellie Blanche Lane May 1, 1898 in West Virginia. The date was prophetic, for in the old days of the circus, shows started on the road around May 1. New people with the circus were known as “First of Mays.”

Somewhere in the early 1900s the Lane family moved to a farm near Jobs, Hocking County.

Hocking County Birth Records show that other siblings were born there:

Fred Lane, born January 9, 1904 in Jobs (pronounced with a long “o”), Ohio

Bessie Lane, born February 20, 1907 in Jobs

Carl Wesley Lane, born June 29, 1909 in Murray City

Later records make no mention of Fred or Bessie. It’s possible that they did not survive.

Nellie attended grade school in Jobs and high school in nearby Murray City. She was very overweight and was persecuted by some of other children. Her high school teacher was Ruth Brooker, later Ruth Pinnick

According to a long-time Jobs resident, the late Hugh Bateman, somewhere along the way Jenny Lane left husband Charles and moved to Columbus, taking the children with her. Hugh said that, perhaps, Charles sent them away. Whether Nellie also went to Columbus or stayed in Jobs is not known. Also, it is not known in what year this occurred. The 1920 Federal Census shows that Jenny was living in Columbus with three children: Clarence, then aged 25; Carl, age 10; and daughter Mabel Alice, age 14 months.

Clarence evidently was the sole support for the Columbus family because he was the only one listed as employed - occupation truck driver. During World War I he had served with Company D of the 327 Machine Gun Battalion. Clarence died March 10, 1970 in Dayton; he was still a Columbus resident.

The 1920 Census lists Charles as still living in Jobs. According to Hugh Bateman, he continued to live there until shortly before World War II, at which time he became ill.

Clarence is said to have come from Columbus and taken him away; people around Jobs never saw him again.

Nellie is not listed as residing in either Columbus or Jobs. In fact, I couldn’t find her anywhere in the 1920 Census. I was to find that, for her, this was the norm; she seemed to “stay under the radar” for much of her life.

As the story goes, in 1918 Nellie joined the John Robinson Circus as a sideshow attraction, and was known as Jolly Nellie. How she came to “join out” with this show is not known. Perhaps she answered a “call” for sideshow people in a show business publication, such as Billboard or the New York Clipper. The Robinson Circus did play Athens, Ohio (near Jobs) August 13, 1918. However, that was late in the season to take on new personnel.

Customarily, circuses issued “route books” which, in addition to listing the route traveled by a show in a given year might include the program of acts, personnel and their departments, and some interesting information about performers, etc. These books were often sold as souvenirs. In keeping with all the problems of finding information about Nellie, it is not surprising to learn that there were no route books for John Robinson for 1918 or 1919, only route lists, so I have been unable to determine the circumstances of her joining the show. Robinson records for 1920 and 1921 show her as being with the sideshow. She is not listed for 1922 or for following years.

In 1920 and 1921 postcard photos were made of Nellie. Her weight was listed at 642 pounds.

By 1923 Nellie had made her way to Los Angeles where she appeared in a silent movie titled Circus Days, starring Jackie Coogan, then a child star. Jackie played the role of Toby Tyler, and Nellie played the sideshow fat lady. A still shot from this movie was found in a website for silent movie fans, but this site is no longer available. This photo shows Jackie on the sideshow bally platform and in the background is a banner for Jolly Nellie.

A review of this film in the August 15, 1923 issue of the Los Angeles Times praised the circus atmosphere that it said was provided by a show “. . . which happened to be wintering in Los Angeles. . .” Further research revealed that this was Tom Atkinson’s Dog, Pony, and Monkey Show. The movie was given a lot of publicity, including a day of free circus performances featuring Jackie doing some bareback riding. Among the attractions listed for that day was the fat lady.

A notice in the January 5, 1924 Billboard lists Nellie with the Northwest Carnival for the winter season of 1923-1924. This was a California-based carnival which played winter dates in warm areas, such as Southern California.

In 1926 Nellie again played a circus fat lady in another silent move, Spangles, which starred an actress named Marian Nixon. I understand that Ms. Nixon played a character based on the famous equestrienne, May Wirth. This film was shot on the back lot of the Al G. Barnes winter quarters in the community of Palms (Los Angeles area). Information about it will be found on page 12 of the July-August 1986 issue of Circus Historical Society’s magazine, Bandwagon, in an article about the 1926 Barnes Season written by Chang Reynolds.

Later in 1926 Nellie was on tour in Hawaii. There she met Carl Leon Terrell, also on tour, who was a performing motorcyclist who did a motordrome act. Carl had a cycle accident which resulted in a broken leg. Nellie nursed him through his convalescence, after which they were married.

According to Carl’s great niece and great grand niece, at times he was a circus owner, and he also performed for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, perhaps for other circuses. In 1946 Carl published an autobiographical book, Seven Naked Women in a Tokyo Jail. Here and there throughout this book he provides information about Nellie, including her varied talents, a little about her personality, her performances, and her weight which he said was at the most 615 pounds.

Carl and Nellie Terrell returned to United States at the close of the 1926 season, setting up residence in the Los Angeles area. They were engaged to make a tour to the Orient for 1927, which was to be the first of several tours to that part of the world during the next seven years. Most of Carl’s book concerns these tours. He relates that Nellie was a phenomenal attraction in the various countries in which they appeared. She had her own show, while Carl presented his motordrome act.

For the 1927 tour they hired Nellie’s 17-year-old brother, Carl, and a friend of his who at that time were living in Venice, California (Los Angeles area). In 1933 Nellie’s 15-year-old sister, Alice (listed as Mabel Alice in the 1920 census) went with them. No mention is made of their mother, Jenny. Considering the age of this younger brother and sister, one would assume that the mother must have been in California with them. The 1930 census lists Jenny, showing her as head-of-household at a residence to be in Bell City (Los Angeles area). Also residing there was son Carl, now employed as a printer, and daughter Alice.

In the concluding chapter of Seven Naked Women in a Tokyo Jail, Carl mentions that he is married. However, he does not say to whom. Among the picture pages of the book are two photos of him, one when he was young and very attractive to women, the other as he looked at the time of publication when he would have been 67. In the caption for the second picture he made the remark that his wife had been trying to get rid of him for the past 10 years. His great niece related that the latter photo was shot in the backyard of her family’s home in El Monte, California (Los Angeles area).

My next reference for Nellie shows that she made a brief appearance in the 1947 movie, Nightmare Alley. This film, which starred Tyrone Power, was about a carnival sideshow.

Pictures of Nellie Terrell were found in a book, Very Special People by Frederick Drimmer, and on a picture postcard for sale on the internet. Another picture was offered on a online auction, and I bid successfully for it. In the background in this photo is an automobile that appears to be of 1920s or 1930s vintage. There is also a short biography which reads:

“JOLLIE NELLIE TERREL was born in Columbus, Ohio, U.S.A., is now 26 years old. At the age of 12 weighed 82 lbs; 5 lbs at birth. Parents both normal in size. Has two brothers and one sister, all normal. She weighs more than her entire family together. Is five feet, six inches in height and measures eight inches larger around than her height. 26 inches around upper arm. Wears 5 ½ shoes; enjoys perfect health, and eats only 2 meals per day. Now on her fifth trip around the world.”

Although Columbus is listed as a birthplace in this biography, it could be because Nellie Lane did live in Columbus, and wished to claim it. The statement that there were two brothers and a sister is consistent with the 1920 census. I believe that they must have “fudged” a little on her age; she didn’t meet Carl Terrell until she was 28. That’s PR for you.

Nellie Lane/Terrell died of cancer in Los Angeles September 5, 1955 at Los Angeles County General Hospital. She was cremated September 12, 1955 at the Los Angeles County Crematory. The Funeral Director was the hospital.

According to the Death Certificate, her residence at the time of death was 142 ½ W. 90th Street, Los Angeles. It was stated that she had lived at this address for 5 years.

The Death Certificate listed her occupation as Entertainer and business or industry as Show Business. It was also stated that she was divorced, and her name was listed as Lane.

On November 11, 1955, Nellie’s ashes were mailed to Rose Hills Memorial Park, a prominent cemetery in Whittier, California. There they were inurned in the Santa Rosa Corridor of the El Portal de la Paz Mausoleum. Arrangements for this inurnment were made by Nellie’s brother, Carl, who by then was living in Hemet, a town to the southeast of Los Angeles, where he had a printing business.

 

Carl died in Hemet on August 7, 2000 at age 91.

 

Images

1- Jolly Nellie

2- 1920 Season Jolly Nellie, age 18, weight 642 lbs


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