We Remember Circus Day
… as one of the biggest days of the year in our hometown. On the first or second Saturday in May, Hunt Brothers Circus came to town and gave two performances on the athletic field of one of the local junior high schools.
Hunt Brothers was a small tent show that traveled from town to town up and down the northeast in a small convoy of trucks and house trailers. It was a small show but a big deal to the kids in Norristown.
A few weeks before circus day, a small van would come to town and go street to street putting up circus posters on telephone pole, walls, fences and in store windows announcing the upcoming performances.The appearance of the circus posters gave all of the kids a reminder that winter was almost over and that Circus Day was near.
The afternoon before circus day, the small van would return to town and this time they would mark the route to the circus lot with cardboard arrows that they attached to light posts and arrows painted on the roadways with a temporary paint (called whitewash). These arrows marked the route that the circus convoy would follow the next day on its way to the circus grounds. Fortunately, there was always a big white arrow on the street at our corner directing the circus out De Kalb Street – right pass my house – to the circus lot.
On Circus Day, I would be up at the crack of dawn and waiting on the front steps for the circus to pass. Finally after what seemed like hours the first of the dilapidated red trucks with their fancy white and silver lettering proclaiming Hunt Bros. International Circus would pass. Circus Day was here.
As soon as the last truck passed, I would follow it on foot to the site where the circus would set up to watch the circus crew transform the school grounds into a magical tent city. By the time I got there, the canvas men were marking off the places were poles would be raised to hold the canvas big top. I would stand in amazement and watch the poles being pulled up by an elephant using a series of ropes and pulleys. Then tent’s canvas was laid out on the ground and each section was carefully laced to an adjacent section of canvas to form the Big Top.
As soon the canvas was assembled into a huge, single canvas around the already raised huge center poles, the tent would be raised by an elephant pulling a string of ropes through a strategically placed series of pulleys. As the elephant walked the length of the tent what would soon be the big top rose majestically to its seemingly massive height. As the tent rose, Roustabouts (laborers) immediately started to place quarter and side poles inside of and around the tent to give it additional support and the big top shape which we all were accustomed.
While the smaller poles were being positioned, local boys who had been hired in exchange for a free show ticket began setting up bleachers and folding chairs for that day’s audiences. Circus crew members, were in the mean time, setting up the circus rings, the lion tamer cage, rigging the trapeze apparatus while strategically placing props for the performers.
While the big top was being set up, other workers had set up a cookhouse, dinning tent, a side-show (fodder for a future post) and the enclosure for the all of the animals. This traveling zoo which was called the menagerie was open free of charge to all ticket holders before the main show.
About noontime, all of the activity came to a halt for lunch and the performers’ show preparations. That was my cue to go home, get ready for the afternoon performance and quickly get back to the show grounds. In later years, both Pat and I would go to the afternoon performance before we ventured out on our Saturday nite date.
The performers, mostly Hunt family members, consisted of a group of clowns, trainers who put lions and tigers, a troop of horses, six or eight dogs, and several elephants, including one named “Jewel”, through their routines. Pat always got a big kick out of the elephants commenting that her Grandmother was also named “Jewel”. Several families performed various solo and group trapeze acts while several of the animal trainers doubled as acrobats. The show lasted about two hours and in hindsight was definitely not of major league caliber but to us small town kids it was Circus. We loved it and looked forward every year to circus day.
I was never around for the evening tear-down but made it a point to visit the circus lot the next day where you could still see the footprints that were left in the grass – trampled grass along what had been the midway, outlines in the turf where the rings had been set and mounds of hay and animal excrement where the menagerie had been. That and the memories were all that was left of what had been a busy circus lot the day before.
Posted on 1/24/16 by Frank Fleming
In Loving Memory Of
1936 – 2016