Migrant Showmen

 

by Cosmopolitan Showman Lee Kolozsy

 

About a decade back, while showing at the Kissimmee Valley Fair, I was having a discussion with carnival operator Dick Carl[1], who’s father and uncle were circus performers. Dick’s Uncle, George Carl, was a world class entertainer and legendary eccentric comic. I once toured with him through Canada’s A route of fairs performing for grandstands full of fairgoers.

 

Dick and I were lamenting the loss of live entertainment at the fairs. The absence of  the midway shows and the numerous free acts of yesterday. He stated, “Where are we going to get the people to do that job nowadays, I can’t even get enough help to move the rides.”

 

Several decades back, the circus had experienced the identical problem, and had solved it by importing people with the necessary skills. I mentioned this bit of history to Dick and he immediately raised several arguments as to why it wouldn’t work for the carnival. After a few points I made knocked the wind out of his sails, he evidently tired of playing devil’s advocate and began contriving supporting arguments in favor of it. Pretty soon he was enthusiastically advocating the concept.

 

I surmise that the idea caught on, because today, I can’t help but notice that at the majority of shows I visit, the rides are moved and operated by people with a variety of accents. This seems to come as quite a shock to most carnies, but is altogether too familiar to those with a background in the circus.

 

In the early sixties, I was on the Clyde Bros. Circus, owned and managed by Howard Suez of Oklahoma City. Acts on the show included the Hanneford wild west riding act[2], the Dubskys[3], Cuccillo[4], Bobby Yerkes flying act with David Nelson[5], the Verdus[6], Bert and Sandy Pettus[7], the Gutis[8], Prince Bogino ( Junior Ruffin)[9], the Fossets[10], Tai Funs[11], and a large contingent from Latin America[12].

 

Howard had a big date every year in Mexico City.  Mexico has a culture with a rich heritage of the circus arts. He brought quite a few great Mexican acts north with him for his tour of shrine dates. Many of these families established themselves in Sarasota and have descendants, now in the fourth generation since the move north, still in the circus ring,

 

By now everyone in the American circus is related by either blood, marriage, or incest.

Just one big happy family. Thoroughly assimilated, and completely American. To the degree that many of them are now complaining about all the invading Russian performers putting them out of business. Kind of like I remember the old guard of Germans complaining about the invading Mexicans.

 

The players change, but the game remains the same…

 

What I notice from my visits with the big carnivals and their armies of immigrant labor is that the shows seem to move and run well, despite the fact that many of these folks have limited English, and the carnie supervisors have only terrible English. I have also observed that their bunkhouses are generally orderly, the trash is kept picked up, the area is quiet at night with no drinking and carousing. They seem to be finer people who work hard and are well behaved and very polite when shopping in town. They seem to frequent the thrift stores and are wise in their spending habits. I also see them lining up for phone cards and money orders. I imagine that most of them are taking care of families back home. This is to be admired.

 

They are an asset to the show world, and I for one welcome them.


[1] Founder of Crown Amusements

[2] At the time there was only one Hanneford family, only a generation removed from England, both Tommy and George were athletic young gymnasts specializing in rosinback riding.

[3] Hungarian risley artists

[4] Midget clown from Italy

[5] Son of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson of television fame.

[6] German rolling globe act

[7] Elephant trainers from Texas

[8] German gorilla parody

[9] America’s first black wild animal trainer presented a cage full of jungle cats which kept trying to eat him.

[10] High double sway pole act from England

[11] Chinese themed hair hang and plate spinning act, actually German.

[12] The Barrada family, the Navarro family, Louis Murillo, Los Argentinos (Munoz), the Jorge Rosell wire walkers, and many others

 

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