Excerpt for Circus Dreams Fulfilled by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


CIRCUS DREAMS

FULFILLED




by



JACK PRINCE







Copyright Jack Prince 2017

All Rights Reserved

Published by Jack Prince Publications

Cheyenne, Wyoming

Printed in USA



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS


Thanks to God, family and friends for their unfailing love and encouragement throughout life's journey. For some very special help in writing and detailing the following memoirs, deep appreciation goes to associates, friends and mentors, Gayle and Sheryl Lain. Appreciation for the many hours of reviewing my writing goes to Margaret Shaw. Her expertise in evaluation and editing helped create this document.







To my beloved wife Jeannie Ellen,

daughter Paula, sons Mike, Grady,

and Chris, their spouses, and our nineteen grandkids.

Thank you for listening to my story.

TABLE OF CONTENTS


CHAPTER 1 FLEDGLING FALL FROM GRACE

CHAPTER 2 SCANNING THE SCARS

CHAPTER 3 DREAM SHIFT

CHAPTER 4 FLIPS AND FLOPS

CHAPTER 5 KID CLOWN

CHAPTER 6 SURPRISES

CHAPTER 7 DREAMS AND THEMES

CHAPTER 8 THE PRINCE TRIO

CHAPTER 9 ESCALANTES

CHAPTER 10 ICEL

CHAPTER 11 WALLACE AND CLARK CIRCUS

CHAPTER 12 JARGO THE TALKING GIRAFFE

CHAPTER 13 PYTHON POWER

CHAPTER 14 ON THE ROAD

CHAPTER 15 SIDESHOW

CHAPTER 16 END OF THE DREAM

CHAPTER 17 GRIFTERS

CHAPTER 18 OPENING DOORS

CHAPTER 19 THE BIG BOUNCE

EPILOGUE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH



CHAPTER 1

FLEDGLING FALL FROM GRACE

I was a confident 16-year-old the day I strode into the outdoor stadium in Fresno, California. I was a long way from home, but that didn't deter me. I had the key to my future, I thought--a wrinkled letter in my pocket from Louie Stern, manager of the Polack Brothers' Circus. The letter said that Stern would be expecting me.

I knew I was a fortunate teenager to have a summer job with the circus. When I arrived, the matinee had just ended, and competition among patrons to reach the parking lot was in full swing. I had to buck the crowd to reach the arena. In spite of my feelings of exhilaration, guilt poked at my conscience. To get them to allow me to join the circus for the summer, I'd lied to my parents about Mr. Stern and his “wife” being willing to watch out for me. Actually, there was no guardian agreement between the Sterns and me. As far as I knew, there was not even a Mrs. Stern. I knew it was wrong to lie, but, at the time, I would have said almost anything to be there. Apparently, I had done a good selling job. I wondered, however, how much my mother and stepfather really knew. They were bright, responsible, loving, and caring. Once again, knowing my intentions, they realized that I would have probably run away had they not granted me permission. Whatever their reasons, I was circus bound, with authorization.

Prior to the trip, I had picked up a second-hand suitcase from the Salvation Army in Denver. To give the rather ordinary container an authentic circus look, I sprayed it glossy black and, on each end, painted my name in red letters, PRINCE. Holding my “official” traveling case in front of me, ram fashion, I walked upstream against the flow of people exiting the circus grounds.

The outdoor facility dictated the show's layout. Unlike traditional shows with tents and wagons all neatly positioned around the Big Top, this outdoor circus conformed to its varied surroundings, making it seem different in many ways from its canvas-covered predecessor. Removing the tents, it seemed to me, had a sterilizing effect. Missing was the large banner line, with its giant, full-color posters highlighting the sideshow wonders of exotic creatures hidden on the inside -- Joe-Joe the Over-Sized Gorilla! Con Colossal, the Giant Albino Elephant (deceased and stuffed, of course), or whatever other intriguing sights the show happened to feature that season. The carnival-style concession stands that once lined the midway were gone, too. Fortunately for the crowds, the no-win games, known as flat-joints, were also gone. Their motto was, “If the mark (patron) is green, take the money and run!” Such games, run by grifters, always a thorn in the side of legitimate shows, were common among smaller circuses. There were no apparent grifters in Fresno. This modern circus had a different feel. At least the “front-yard” had changed.

But there were pitchmen, waving balloons, banners, and trinkets in the faces of the departing crowd, giving every man, woman and child one last opportunity to trade some coin for a circus memento. “Get your circus souvenir!” they barked. The pungent smell of animals -- elephants, lions, tigers, bears, horses and monkeys -- blended with the aroma of sawdust, cotton candy, and hot buttered popcorn. Tents or not, this was indeed “Circus!” Elated about being a part of it, I took in several deep breaths and began looking for familiar faces.

The long bus ride from Denver had left me exhausted. I discovered that the ride on seats inside the old Grey dog were not as swift as the sleek icon painted on the outside implied. By the time the bus rolled into Fresno, all my fellow travelers, including myself, seemed a little droopy. The men needed shaves and the women needed mirrors. We chose this bus travel as a matter of economics, else we may have ridden the rails or taken the wings of the morning, arriving refreshed. Both nights on the road had been chilly. With no blanket or way to stretch out, I had not slept well. Nevertheless, I was excited to be on my way to California to join the circus. I would not have rested very well anyway.

Upon reaching the arena, my concerns morphed into illusions of grandeur and the glorious adventure just ahead. I was thrilled to see palm trees for the first time, and I could not wait to wrap my fingers around that heavy, leaden trapeze bar and swing to my destiny. Shortly, Eddie Kohl, aerialist extraordinaire, appeared and welcomed me to the show. Immediately, I asked whether I could go up and take a swing on the trapeze. His response was, without hesitation, "Go ahead." I set my suitcase down close to the rope ladder hanging from the pedestal board and began the climb skyward toward heaven. This had to be a dream!

My fixation faded as I glanced down. The net, ten feet wide, fifty feet long with thirty-foot aprons, extended upward and outward at each end, seemed to blend with the grass beneath. From this height, the two-inch squares in the net merged into the background, making it almost invisible. The net was in place all right, but every aerialist knew that even with a net, a bad landing could turn it into a big-black spider bite, metaphorically speaking.

I recalled an earlier practice session at the Denver Y when the net spreaders were not taut. I dropped into the net and smacked into the hard wood floor beneath. The impact had left an impression, and not on the floor, but on my backside. Since then, I have landed safely hundreds of times, but I always wondered what if I or the net failed and out came the spider.

Using the wire hook in my right hand, I grabbed the bar with my left and swung it upward, leaving the wire hook behind. At the same time, I gripped the bar with both hands and swung downward, away from the pedestal. Approaching the center of the arc, I sharply dropped my feet toward midpoint, thus allowing my legs to drift back and behind me. As my swing reached its apex, I pulled hard on the bar and kicked out with both legs in a full-body extension to accelerate the swing. This was living!

The back swing was smooth and swift, taking me back and above the pedestal board, without banging against it. I kept my back, head and shoulders straight, legs and feet slightly forward in a pike position, eyes looking just over the top of the fly bar, arms extended. Upon reaching the top of the swing, I reversed the grip with my right hand and swung downward. Exhilaration! At the end of the swing forward, I turned my body one-half-turn, and released my left hand and grasped the bar. Now facing the pedestal, I was ready to finish this adrenalin rush. Here, I was at last with the circus, on the trapeze, swinging high above the arena. It was indeed a dream come true. This was my destiny.

Convinced this routine was enough for the first day and again realizing genuine fatigue, I decided to reign in my euphoria and climb down. But as I returned to the pedestal, the idea occurred to me that rather than climb down the rope ladder, I could just step off the pedestal and land in the net on my back. Surely, that way down to the ground would be easier.

After taking a long look at the net below and calculating the rebound results, I indeed stepped off the board. That was the last thing I remembered.

Regaining consciousness, I realized I was on the ground, next to the net with excruciating face pain. Rudy Docky, a performer with the show, came running to my side. From his initial vantage point, he thought a steel stake had penetrated my torso. Fortunately, my careening body had missed that stake. Seconds later, a crowd of circus folk surrounded me. Everyone asked what had happened. According to Rudy, I had dropped into the net and rebounded directly into the fly bar, striking it face first. That blow had knocked me unconscious and I fell, uncontrolled, back into the net and then ejected out of the net and onto the floor.

Finally able to take questions, I explained to everyone what I was doing on the equipment in the first place. In this case, destruction came before pride. I could see my swollen lips in front of my nose. I had not lost any teeth at the time, but I had severely injured a right front tooth that I would soon lose. I was grounded. From glory to grounded! I spent the next few weeks earning my keep as a roustabout and stagehand, nursing the swollen face and suffering the nagging pain. The work involved moving heavy equipment and hustling setups and teardowns. It was hard and the hours were long. I was paid $2.50 a day. Following the night show, I crawled into the cab of one of the trucks, curled up on the seat, and remained motionless until morning. I slept wherever and whenever I could, including on passenger trains between towns. I sure was glad we were in sunny California where the nights were not too cold. I could not chew regular food, so I stuck to a diet of malted milks or anything that would go through a straw. Hamburgers would not. I was miserable.

I tried keeping in shape, tumbling and doing handstands between shows, but any head-down activities were painful. I tried swimming whenever the circus set up near a pool. Diving was out of the question. Finally, I got the message. They were not about to let me fly again. Besides, I needed medical attention.

I decided to leave the show. My dreams of flying as a circus star had turned into ground-level drudgery. I had muffed my chances. My last morning, Mr. Stern asked me to take a bundle of his white shirts, about a dozen of them, to the laundry. I completed that task, but despondent and unable to say goodbye for fear of crying, I slipped out early in the morning, boarded a bus in Bakersfield and returned home to Denver. The boy was fine, but the fall from Grace had pierced this fledgling’s heart. It was wrong to have lied to my parents. Was my misfortune retribution for my bad behavior?

A week later, back in Denver, a letter arrived postmarked Pasadena, California. The contents were short and to the point “Dear Jack: Where did you go, and what happened to my white shirts?” The letter was signed Louie Stern, manger, Polack Brothers Circus. In my fog of pain and defeat, I had forgotten all about the day the show landed in Bakersfield. I did not know what I did with the ticket, and I could not remember the name of the laundry. I apologized to him.

Louie evidently forgave me, because a year later, I was stranded in LA, and he wired me bus fare to get home.



CHAPTER 2

SCANNING THE SCARS

I had a lot of time on the bus ride home from California to examine my circus dreams, now in ruins. In pain and humiliated, I wondered where I got this crazy dream to be a trapeze artist? How could my fortunes go so wrong so fast? How could I have failed so completely after all the hours of preparation to follow my heart? I looked back over the road that brought me to this point and I wondered if maybe I was not, after all, in sole charge of my life.

* * * * *

My story began on September 12, 1931 when my mother, Frances (Hamilton) Moon, who at the ripe old age of fifteen, gave birth to me in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I think I can remember being an unwanted child, and who could blame her? My young father, Earnest North Moon, was in the Army, stationed at F.E. Warren Field in Cheyenne. He gave me my life and then, after a few months, marched away forever.

Mother, a single parent seeking a means of support, found employment in nearby Denver at the Mode-O-Day dress shop, downtown, next to the Denver Theater on Sixteenth Street. She worked six days a week. Being a very attractive young woman, she, and a new-found friend, Betty Welcho, a Samoan beauty, began modeling. Betty was a single parent, also, with a daughter Icel, who was my age. Icel and I became best friends.

While Mother worked, I lived with her sister, Aunt Thelma (Hamilton) Petersen, a practicing nurse, and her husband, Clark Petersen. Mother often commuted the 100 miles back and forth from Denver to Cheyenne. Clark learned his trade in the U.S. Navy and now worked at the Weather Bureau, next to the Cheyenne Airport. I remember their upstairs apartment downtown, just off Carey Avenue. The furnished place included a living room with a wall-towall carpet that proved to be a perfect playground for small cars and toy airplanes. Clark contributed to the array of toys by bringing home used radio tubes that replicated Buck Rogers’s rocket ships. The transparent vacuum tubes facilitated my imagination; I pretended crew members inside at work.

Even before I started school in Cheyenne, I wanted to be a cowpoke. So did everyone else in Cheyenne. The town's department stores reflected the cowboy mystique--the Wrangler, the Plains Hotel, and Western Ranchman Outfitter. The whole town promoted the cowboy image. Vehicle license plates carried the Bucking Bronco symbol. They still do.

In 1934-5, it was common to see a horse on the streets. Milk was delivered each morning from a horse-drawn wagon, and the milk was packaged in a Plains Dairy container. To my delight, the bottle label carried a picture of a cowboy. The brown paper wrapping around the bottleneck came off easily and made a perfect cowboy wristband that lasted at least twenty-four hours, until the next milk run. My imagination was alive and well.

When I was young, I wanted to be a cowboy, a real cowboy just like my granddad, Wild Bill Fitzgerald. He rode, roped and herded critters year-round in Old Wyoming. He also participated annually in the Frontier Days rodeo, known as "The Daddy of ‘Them All." I remember standing before the long-mirror on the back of my aunt's bedroom door dressed in my full cowboy regalia -- boots, spurs, white hat, neckerchief, rodeo chaps, wristbands, holster and six-gun. I would quick-draw against the make-believe culprit in the mirror. Was he fast! But I was faster, and I never missed. Oh, I may have been wounded a time or two, but the hombre in the mirror always went down, while I stayed on my feet. I developed quite a reputation for myself.

On Friday night, I was off to the Princess Theater to see cowboys on the screen replicate my mirror shoot-outs. When my aunt and uncle could not take me to the movies, I went with neighbors, Frank and Margaret Pillie. Frank was a lithographer for the Cheyenne Eagle newspaper, and he was always available to go to the movies on Friday evening.

To be a real cowboy, I felt I needed a horse. More than anything in the world I wanted a horse or a pony. I would have settled for a dog, but I really wanted a pony. Instead, I was given a little glass dog, which I was allowed to hold every day as soon as I cleaned up, dressed and got my hair combed. Auntie held my chin as she combed my hair, and I sure hated that. Once the chores were out of the way, I could sit back in the big soft brown chair in the living room and hold my little black and white dog, Spot. It was not a pony or even a real dog. Hard as he was, I sure loved that little fella. I swear, the longer I held him, the softer he got.

One morning, a photographer showed up in front of the apartment. He said he had a live pony, with a saddle and all the rest, and wanted to take my picture sitting on his pony. Auntie stepped outside with the man and closed the door. I think the answer she gave him was no, because he left and not another word was mentioned. I sat with my little dog for a long time that day.

* * * * *

Scar tissue forms from disappointments. Pain hurts less in time. My occasional twinges of disappointment passed. Most people mask their hurts, and so do I, but these injustices gave me the structure upon which I built my life. I understand this now, but as a little boy, I just made my way from one experience to another.

I did not realize it at the time, but the people who entered my life shaped me. They brought me an understanding of God and His relationship to me. Tough as that day was for me, I now know that God intervenes to lead me, whether I knew it at the time or not. Now, I see that the time with my aunt and uncle, and all the others who come into my story, planted seeds of imagination, determination and adventure that gave direction to the rest of my life.


That's Life Children run in it.

Teens run into it.

Smart people run it.

Dumb folks run up against it.

Elders run out of it.

--Jack Prince




CHAPTER 3

DREAM SHIFT

Travelling was always a part of my life. I was shuttled between Cheyenne and Denver from the time I was four years old. My jaunts back and forth made me feel closer to my mother and grandparents and, provided relief to Aunt Thelma and Uncle Clark. Before placing me on the train bound for Denver, Aunt Thelma pinned a note to my shirt, providing the essential details of who I was, where I was going, and who was to meet me at the Union Station. The railroad conductor on that route happened to be a Cheyenne neighbor. He assured Auntie he would keep an eye on me throughout the trip until I was picked up.

When I reached my fifth birthday, I moved to Denver with my grandparents. They enrolled me in kindergarten, first at Swansee Elementary School in East Denver, and later, following our move to the middle of town, Franklin Elementary School at Speer Boulevard and Colfax Avenue next to what was then the Denver City Jail. (There is a limerick in there somewhere.)

Some go to Harvard

Some go to Yale.

I got my education

… Guess where?

Following kindergarten, it was back to Cheyenne, where I began first grade at Central Elementary School, a block south of the State Capitol. The school playground was the paved street running east and west in front of the building. Upon finishing second grade, I returned to Denver. However, there was problem!

Third grade students in Denver were already writing in cursive, while I had only learned to print. The teacher began class with a spelling test and instructions to write, not print, the answers. I hit the panic button. As the teacher recited the words, I knew each of them, having recently spelled those same words correctly on a test in Cheyenne. Now, all I needed was to link my printed letters. This seemed like a creative endeavor that, while not exactly right, would get me by. When the teacher reached my desk, she exclaimed loudly, “What is this?” She took that teachable moment and in one fell swoop taught me to hate school. I had had loved school in Cheyenne, but now I was embarrassed and degraded. That afternoon on the playground the other kids mocked me. My first day at Evans was a lousy day. It set the stage for another emerging theme, that the classroom was not the place for me, leading me to a life in the circus.

Mother remarried when I was eight years old. This was a true Divine Intervention. This gift got me a new dad and a new name. Chet Prince could not have been more encouraging and interested in me than if he had been my natural father. He was interested in everything from boxing to opera and shared his delight in life with me. Until he came along, my adventure and bravado were exercised only in my imagination, but he took me places and introduced me to new things, all the while encouraging my own explorations.

We moved to an apartment at 1315 Bannock Street, a block south of the Court House in Denver, and across the street from Grace Community Church. The church provided free lunch to children attending Evans School, and I took advantage of their ministry.

Denver’s population was around 500,000 souls in those days, and it was a child’s dream world. We moved around a lot in Denver, but regardless of where we lived, we were only a dozen blocks or so from downtown and close to the world’s greatest playground, the Civic Center, surrounded by a child's dream of playgrounds: the State Capitol Building, Court House, public library, state museum, and amphitheater. Working water fountains and sculptures were everywhere. A reflecting pool with opposing seal fountains arched water streams at each other in front of the library. In addition, throughout the park were yards and yards of rich, plush grass. This was my cultural paradise. I spent most of my time at the Civic Center playing until dark, arriving back at the apartment, exhausted, starved, and unimaginably content with the life and freedom the area provided.

To add to what I considered an ideal childhood, the evenings were spent listening to the radio and exercising my imagination with an array of programs and stories. For the kids, it was The Lone Ranger, I love a mystery, Captain Midnight, Quiz Kids, and Charley McCarthy. For the adults there was Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Grand Old Opera, Truth or Consequences, and on and on. Radio provided something for everyone – local and world news, drama, music, mysteries, comedy -- on just about every subject.

When we were not listening to the radio, we took off for the movies. Denver offered more than a dozen movie theaters downtown. To keep customers coming during the Depression Era, Wednesday nights became “Bank Nite,” and the lucky patron whose ticket stub was plucked from the squirrel cage during intermission could walk home with twenty-five dollars cash in his pocket, big money in the Thirties.

Combining a cash give-away with feature films, the houses drew large crowds, mostly families, who sat together through an entire picture and were never embarrassed by romantic scenes or off-color dialogue. Until Gone with the Wind came out in 1939, swearing was not heard in motion pictures and intimate relations were alluded to but never shown.

I was a movie buff, even as a kid. Saturday mornings were journeys to the Magic City to enter bigger-than-life adventures. I took in Theater Row downtown, between Fifteenth and Eighteenth Streets on Curtis. Clear lights flashed around big bold black letters on no less than nine theater marquees that blazed intriguing film titles. Still in my cowboy phase, the question was, “Which western shall I see today?”

I suppose my acute interest in westerns stemmed from my step granddad, Wild Bill. During the times I spent with my grandparents, we attended hundreds of rodeos. Even as I grew older, I thought seriously of becoming a cowboy. Annually, I would dress up in cowboy attire and march in the Denver Post Western Costume Contest. While receiving recognition for my efforts, I never won the event, like my close friend, Bob Manhart. Bob was well-read. He spent hours in the library, and his research on cowboys paid off. Years later, he became the editor for the Denver-based, Gates Company. He successfully encouraged me to spend more time in the library.

Most theaters on Curtis Street ran westerns. The Victory Theater was one of my favorites, because it was newer than the others and played newer releases. I was especially fond of Gene Autry, but any cowboy picture would do. The only setback was that kids’ tickets sold for fifteen cents at the Victory. Next door was the Palace Theater. Tickets there cost ten cents. Next to the Palace, the Colorado charged a mere five cents. Together the Palace and Colorado offered four, and sometimes five, feature films. While they did not match up to the Victory in style or décor, the offering of real action always won out. The Palace and Colorado were shopping mall type mini-theaters, by today’s standards, in long, narrow buildings turned movie houses. I liked the plainness of the smaller theaters with their round-cornered screens, sort of like viewing through a plastic toy movie-viewer with its dark sides and stark-white screen. Curtis Street also ran other features along with the westerns. Horror films and comedies were among them. I had no trouble tolerating Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges. The westerns starred real cowboys like Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, Johnny Mac Brown, and Hop-a-long Cassidy. Roy Rogers was a late comer, but I eventually accepted him as one of the boys. The theaters opened their doors at 10:00 a.m., and ran films back to-back until 11:30 p.m.

Across the street, and not to be ignored, was the State Theater. Because of its huge size and mouth-like shape, people today would probably refer to it as "Jaws." The door featured an impressive, half-round, fifty-foot concave facade, lined with millions of lights, all of them working. Frankenstein and The Vampire were among some of the more memorable films I saw there.

A block east of the State Theater on the north side of the street stood the Plaza Theater, a huge older building. The theater was always very dark inside, including the lobby and hallways. It sported no fancy motifs or new carpets. The theater was frequented by a rougher crowd than one might encounter up the street at, say, the Victory. I chanced going to the Plaza because of its big screen and large balcony. The space was not crowded, so I could sit wherever I wanted.

Directly across the street from the Plaza stood the Isis (nothing to do with Middle Eastern terrorists). East of it near Eighteenth Street was the Gem Theater. Somehow, I never was able to make the connection between the theater and its name. Perhaps it was a diamond in the rough. It had an unusual fragrance unlike any of the other theaters, something between spicy foods and rat poison. I went there twice, once to see Lil’ Abner.

West of the Gem, the Isis specialized in movies and stage shows. I liked stage shows, which often included acrobats. Only a block farther west was the famous Tabor Theater, on Sixteenth, just across the street and around the corner from the Victory. It ran stage shows, too. An elaborate rococo-filled opera house in its prime and a carryover from vaudeville, it was a complete theater with a three-tiered balcony and box seats on every level. The full-length rich blue curtains bordered an honest-to-goodness stage, able to handle every sort of theatrical extravaganza.

Across from the Tabor’s stage entrance on Curtis Street, was the Rialto Theater. It too, had been a prominent vaudeville house with a near vertical balcony, orchestra pit and real stage. A large, Phantom-of-the-Opera chandelier hung from the red and gold ceiling. To accommodate movie goers, the box seats were remodeled. Nevertheless, the stage with its trap doors and dressing rooms beneath remained untouched. I discovered these features in my teens when I worked there after school as an usher.

My interest in becoming a cowboy waned the moment I saw the movie As Thousands Cheer, starring Gene Kelly. He played a trapeze artist drafted into the army and assigned to the Infantry. Of course, he preferred the Air Force. I watched the film and the wonderful trapeze act and was sold on the sheer beauty of trapeze flying. My focus suddenly and emphatically became airborne. The idea of somersaulting in mid-air was compelling that it burned its images into my mind. From that very moment, I dreamed of becoming a trapeze flyer and somersaulting into the arms of a catcher, as Kelly’s double (Gus Bell) had done in the film as a member of the Flying Corbinos.

The influences in my life were beginning to gather momentum.



CHAPTER 4

FLIPS AND FLOPS

Throughout my teens, dreams of flying on a circus trapeze drove my pursuit of a career. However, it did not take me long to see that my tall, skinny frame was not ideally suited for acrobatics. Undaunted, I decided that desire came first before natural-born physical traits. I would just have to work harder to realize my dreams. I was aware that acrobats were usually relatively short, muscular people. Their low center-of-gravity would give them an advantage over taller persons in turning somersaults. If I were to become an acrobat, I would simply have to overcome any physical disadvantages and learn how to somersault. Physique was relevant, but perseverance was more important.

Acrobats turned flips and so would I. Unfortunately, I did not know how to turn flips, nor did my junior high school physical education teachers. In order to learn, I would have to assume some responsibility on my own.

Subsequently, one afternoon after school at Byers Junior High, I hid in the gym locker room and waited until I was sure most people had left the building. The custodian always cleaned the gym floor first and finished by 3:45 p.m.

In one corner of the gymnasium, a stack of mats stood approximately three feet high. I could run the length of the gym, jump on top of the mat pile and attempt to execute a front flip, with the intention of landing on my feet. I spent the next hour repeating the sequence, consistently failing to rotate completely to my feet. For the next two weeks, day after day, I flipped and flopped most of the time.

I kept an eye on the gym clock as it approached 5:00 p.m., my witching hour. Though exhausted from exercising, I felt some accomplishment at having occasionally landed feet first! Finished for the day, I snuck out of the building and headed for home. Both my parents worked, so we all arrived at about the same time.

Determined to master the front somersault, I followed the same routine after school -- hiding in the locker room, running the length of gym, jumping on top of the pile of mats, and somersaulting. I gradually realized progress and was indeed becoming more consistent. By the end of the third week, I managed to land feet-first ninety percent of the time. I also discovered that by lowering the pile, I could conserve energy and complete the stunt much more easily. Forward momentum from jumping upon the higher pile was essentially unproductive. This newer approach resulted in a fraction of a second more time to become airborne and complete full rotations every time. Eventually, I reduced the mats to just two for a consistent success rate.

Delighted with my newly-acquired skill, I began demonstrating the flip to friends in gym class. Our gym teacher, Mr. Dolly McGlone, liked what he saw and permitted me to substitute my own tumbling workouts for the routine calisthenics. Mr. McGlone, who always wore sweat pants, sweatshirt, and gym shoes, fulfilled my perfect image of a gym teacher. Two friends joined me in what had begun as a clandestine adventure. Within a few weeks, my school had a cadre of would-be tumblers. I was greatly encouraged.

During that time, only a couple of the Denver schools had swimming pools. The school district offered recreational swimming one afternoon each week to students from schools who had no pool. My parents agreed to pay the small fee required to participate. Therefore, I was off to Morey Junior High on Friday after school. I already knew how to swim and viewed this as a great opportunity to learn how to dive, using the springboard for somersaulting. The skills acquired in water sports were directly applicable to the skills in tumbling. Since water landings were softer than the gym floor, I could experiment with twists and somersaults from the diving board without fear of injury. Later, in 1949-50 while attending North Denver High School, I became city and state champion in swimming, diving, and gymnastics.

After I finished seventh grade at Byers Junior High, our family moved to 2147 Lowell Boulevard, in Northwest Denver, where I enrolled in Lake Junior High School. To my amazement the gym teacher, Mr. Jack Moulton, was dressed in slacks, dress shirt, and street shoes. Not my vision of a gym teacher. However, during class a few days later, I discovered with great joy that Mr. Moulton was a full-fledged gymnast. A graduate of Iowa State University, Mr. Moulton was not only a great tumbler, but also a horizontal bar specialist and all-around gymnast. If this newfound blessing was not enough, the boys' advisor, Mr. Lindsey D. Keeler, was also an accomplished tumbler. Both men became my immediate idols and tutors. As soon as the school day ended, I headed downtown to the YMCA, where gym and swim facilitates were readily accessible.

My classmate Don Robinson, who later became an all-American gymnast while attending the University of Northern Colorado, became my close friend. I helped Don learn his first somersault when we spent hours in my backyard jumping on my homemade trampoline. After finishing college, Don became gymnastic coach at Aurora High School, then Eastern New Mexico University and finally, coach of the NCAA champion gymnastic team at Arizona State University. When Don left New Mexico, I replaced him as gymnastic coach.

While I was still, in junior high there was another young man, Sterling Crane. I do not recall the circumstances under which we met, but we hooked up somehow, somewhere, because of our common interest in the circus. Sterling’s uncle had been a famous high-wire walker, the Great Dryden.

Unfortunately, Dryden was killed earlier in a fall from the high wire in Washington State Hells Canyon. Nevertheless, Sterling practiced his natural talent for wire walking. I remember watching him walk across the tops of schoolyard fences. When he reached an open section, he simply jumped across the opening and continued walking atop the fence. These fences were six-feet high! Each Denver school had a fenced playground, and we visited them all to check out their equipment, which included high bars, rings, swings, and ladders.

Sterling and I lived only a few short blocks apart. His home was a large, elegant three-story mansion, in the 700 block on Pearl Street, where he resided with his mother, three beautiful blond sisters, and an older brother. My interest in his sisters first drew us together, but once I learned of his interest in the circus, my focus on the Crane family members sharpened. Sterling had hundreds of pictures of his uncle, The Great Dryden High Wire Daredevil, and Dryden's best friend, Hubert Castle, King of the Bounding Wire, doing all sorts of acrobatics. We studied them in detail.

We could see that to become circus performers, we needed to have skills and equipment. Sterling needed a bounding wire rigging, spring-loaded 3/8" wire, and I needed a real trampoline. Neither of us had money, but we were resourceful. We became collectors, traversing the streets and back alleys. Daily we walked the back alleys of downtown Denver, and found steel pipe, bed frames, steel springs, wires, mattresses, and other throwaway items. We even found a public accountant’s official stamp-press, with which we could have validated our inventory. An old steel bed frame and mattress served as our makeshift trampoline. We collected enough material to assemble Sterling’s wire rigging. Our equipment eventually took over my back yard.

Sterling’s bounding wire fit between two cherry trees. My trampoline took the center of the yard. We tumbled on the grass and did handstands on wooden boxes.

Sometime later, while walking a pipe railing, Sterling fell onto sharp steel spikes welded to the pipe. After straddling those spikes, which raised his voice an octave, he gave up the notion of wire walking.



CHAPTER 5

KID CLOWN

Just prior to turning fourteen years old and enrolling at Lake Junior High School in West Denver, I appeared as a clown with the Polack Brothers Circus. In fact, Sterling and I both appeared as clowns with the show.

The circus, sponsored by the Shriners, was an annual affair. When the show played in Denver at the old city auditorium, I skipped school to join up. I am sure Mom and Dad felt that having me absent from classes for ten days was preferable to my running away with the circus full time. In deference to my interest in the circus, my stepfather wrote an advance request for my absence from school. It went something like this: "Because of Jack’s deep interest in the circus, Mrs. Prince and I are asking that he please be excused for ten school days. If you have questions, please call me."

Then I did something very foolish. Imagining that school officials would not accept such an unusual excuse, I wrote a counter excuse to be presented when I returned to school after the circus left town. I put down something like, “Jack was ill,” and I signed my grandmother’s name. It was near the beginning of the school year, and I was aware that the office saved the first excuse of the year to use as a reference for the entire semester. The counterfeit worked so well, I unwittingly trapped myself into writing all my subsequent excuses for absences to be consistent with the first false one, even some that were legitimate.

Acquiring the temporary clown job in the first place was the product of what I figured was Providential Circumstance. My close friend, Sterling and I had gone to the city auditorium to meet Uncle Dryden’s childhood friend, Hubert Castle, King of the Bounding Wire.

Sterling and I shared a common objective. We wanted to join the circus. Our quest was a little more serious than that of most youngsters. We were taking steps to make our dreams come true. Sterling was learning to walk the wire, and I was learning acrobatics. We had gotten together, shared our dreams, and began pooling resources. We met Mr. Castle as planned and, were approached by Jack Keppel, a lead clown with the Polack show.

“Are you boys going to be around for the next ten days?” Keppel inquired.

In unison, we chimed, “Yes! You bet we are!”

Keppel then came with the unimaginable offer: “How would you two like jobs as clowns?” He did not have to ask twice. We spent the next ten glorious days doing two shows daily. All we had to do was don large papier-mache costumes, which the show provided, and participate in the Clown Walk-Around while the trapeze net was readied for the flying act.

One of the local papers carried a story with our picture, “Denver Youth Clown with Polack Brothers Circus.” Sterling and I posed arm-in-arm with the circus stars, including Hubert Castle on his unicycle, and Ruth Antelek, the beautiful aerialist and member of the Great Anteleks’ balancing pole act. Sterling was asked his reasons for being in the circus, and, of course, he related his connection with the Great Dryden, his uncle.

Seeing the reporter's interest when Sterling mentioned his uncle, I interjected a false claim about my own genealogy. Mine was a flat lie. I said, “I also have an uncle who was a trapeze artist.” I embellished my claim, saying that someone in my family had traveled with a carnival as a flying act headed by Roy Valentine of The Flying Valentines.

Mr. Valentine’s name had merely been mentioned a few times in my presence, and I did certainly not know the man. My lie that day hung heavily on my heart for longer than I care to confess.

Years later, I visited Roy Valentine at his home in Houston, Texas. We worked together on his trapeze, and I shared my story with him. We laughed because he already knew the story long before this. We were now birds of a feather and, in some Divine way, family of a sort.

During those exciting days with the Polack show, Sterling and I met as many circus people as possible. We ate, slept, and breathed circus. We hung around the auditorium day and night, arriving early in the morning and leaving late at night. We talked to anyone who would listen and stood close to anyone who remained stationary long enough to for us to brush up against them.

I sat in dressing rooms, chatted with performers as they applied their makeup, helped aerialists check their rigging, and worked out with performers as they practiced between shows. I introduced myself to the circus manger, Mr. Louie Stern, a short little round man, who was all business, and his eloquent ring master, Mr. Jack Cline. Mr. Cline wore a top hat, red tails, white riding britches, shiny black boots, and commanding whistle, which he used to signal the end of one act and the beginning of another. He continually fondled the whistle hanging around his neck, asserting that symbol of authority.

By week’s end, I knew most of the performers by their first names and acquired their pictures and autographs. I tried to get to everyone one way or another, including property crew, performers, front office people, and pitchmen. The handsome Eddie Kohl, blond and athletic, became one of my immediate heroes. A member of the show's Joe Sechrist Flying Act, Eddie had been in the military along with a local mentor and professional acrobat, George Moreno. Eddie was a shining star, but the glare had not blinded him. I had no way of knowing it at the time but Eddie would later distinguish himself in other ways – as dear friend.

Movie buffs may remember the Cecil B. DeMille film, The Greatest Show on Earth, starring Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, and Cornel Wilde. It is a story of life with the circus. Until the Fifties, nearly all circuses traveled by rail, and in this film the circus train is central to the story. The film is also a documentary signaling the end of an era -- the death of the Big Top canvas, as we knew it. While a few smaller tent circuses remain to this day, none compares to the Ringling version of the Big Top. As the traditional circus under canvas disappeared, and following the early lead of Polack Brothers Circus, most shows began playing in stadiums and auditoriums. Another change was also taking place as the majority of smaller circuses transitioned from railways to highways. With the exception of the Ringling Show, trucks replaced the railroad cars entirely.

In the film, and what buffs may not remember particularly, is a small part played by Eddie Kohl. Of course, I thought the part was major, since I knew the guy! In the film, there is a catastrophic train wreck. The circus is in shambles. Fearing no one would turn out to see the devastated circus, the show people rallied to create a performance out of the rubble, hoping someone – anyone in the communities nearby – would show up. The word got out, the townsfolk responded, and they all marched out arm-in-arm to see the circus. It is my friend Eddie Kohl, as Whitey, sitting atop the main tent pole, who shouts, “Here they come. Here comes the whole darn town!”

* * * * *

Experience and Grace taught me that my goals were achievable, but dreams alone were not enough. I had to be actively involved in realizing my objectives. The objectives had to be reasonable and systematized. I needed to plan and to engage in activities designed to achieve my objectives. I needed to evaluate the effects of my efforts, and to make changes where necessary. I had to have some talent – not much perhaps. Most of all, I needed a desire to succeed. Some would add luck. I was not aware of the degree to which I was being led though various episodes. I had assumed I was actually the lone manager of my life. Looking back, however, and finally putting the story of my life together, I saw an almost preordained line of circumstances had led to the circus. Multiple blessings were occurring one after the other. As I whiled away that pivotal summer, practicing my skills when I could, I a kaleidoscope of factors brought me to my current condition, a beautiful kaleidoscope set in motion by Divine Intervention.



CHAPTER 6

SURPRISES

By the end of that pivotal summer when I was sixteen, my body recovered, and I was ready to redeem myself. The 1948-49 school year was to begin in two weeks, and the Clyde Beatty Circus had just arrived in Denver for a three-day stand. In those days, Billboard Magazine listed circus routes, so I knew ahead of time the circus was coming to town, and I planned to watch the setup and see the show. The circus lot was near the railroad tracks in Northeast Denver, approximately a mile north of City Park on York Street. Between cross-town excursions on gasoline driven-buses and tramway cars, I could get just about any place I wanted to go in Denver on eight cents. An automobile was not required.

Incidentally, gasoline sold for around seventeen cents a gallon in those days.

Early in the morning on circus day, I grabbed the Lakeshore bus at 23rd and Lowell Boulevard, a block away from my home in Northwest Denver. I rode downtown, transferred to the Number 14 streetcar and rode to East Colfax Avenue and York Street. From there, I walked north a mile or so to the circus lot, following a large crowd of other eager circus fans.

Circuses move early and quickly. When I arrived on the scene, men were unloading animals and equipment from the train cars. On the lot, elephants pulled huge center poles into place for the Big Top, which was ready to be unrolled from the canvas wagon. The Big Top’s location had been roughly plotted out by the boss canvasman. Around it stood large men in dirty overalls. The men, some black, some white, arranged themselves in groups of six. Each held a ten-pound sledgehammer poised to strike one of the many steel stakes that provided tie-downs for the billowing, giant canvas stadium.

At the crew chief's command, each man swung his hammer hard in rhythmic sequence against a stake’s head, causing the shaft to sink methodically and emphatically into the ground. PING!-PING!-PING!-PING! PING! PING! Only four to five cycles of strikes drove each stake to its proper depth. Better not miss, I surmised, or a crew member might be struck. When hammer strikes were not quite dead center, bits of metal sparked into the air. Watch your eyes, I thought. Nearby, a machine-driven stake driver pumped noisily up and down, unable to match the men’s faster pace of driving stakes the proper depth into the ground.

I joined a hundred or more boys who were volunteering to help unroll the Big Top as it came off the canvas wagon. The reward for the service was a ticket to the show starring the great animal trainer, Clyde Beatty, and his mixed array of African wild lions and tigers. Teams of men, boys and elephants worked in unison for an hour or so in the heat of the August morning to raise the mighty canvas edifice.

By noon, the Big Top was up, and most of the boys collected their reward and headed home for lunch. I stuck the precious ticket deep down in my pants pocket and hung around to watch the performers set up their special equipment. I approached a member of one group and asked if I could help him. As it turned out, it was Mr. Phillip Escalante, manager and performer of the famous Escalante Troup. He was most gracious in allowing me to assist him, along with his brother Lalo and their friend, solo trapeze artist, Mr. Frank Doyle.

Excited to have such an opportunity to be back working in the circus, I enthusiastically did everything I could. I helped carry poles and bags of equipment into the arena, ran and fetched whatever items I could. Some were just too heavy for my slim, maturing teen body. Once the equipment was in place, I asked if I could try out the trampoline. With a reluctant okay from Phillip, I mounted the trampoline and did a low-bounce routine of twists, somersaults, and maneuvers that I had practiced over the summer. The Escalante’s liked what I did and enlisted me on the spot. That very afternoon I performed as a member of the Escalante Troupe on the Clyde Beatty Circus. It was as if I had bounced into heaven. The fledgling had returned to the nest!

For the next three glorious days, I performed in the Clyde Beatty Circus six times. The Escalantes had taken me in and made me feel as if I really belonged. They introduced me to virtually everyone on the show, provided me with costumes and makeup, told me what and whom to watch out for, and generally took very good care of me. How could all of this be happening?

Circumstances were changing, as if by precise order. Doors closed and doors opened. Was this providential circumstance?

During one of the performances, a close tumbling friend, Dave Owens, caught the show and was quite surprised to see me in it. He and I had worked out at times on his homemade trampoline. Dave came up afterward to inquire of my good fortune. I remember the excitement of sharing my tale of triumph and joy with him.

The summer of my sixteenth year started out badly, but the ending was a dream come true. I had, in fact, joined the circus. Interestingly, during summer vacations Dave, too, took a break from teaching, to perform as a clown and acrobat in playing county fairs and rodeos.

The glorious three days on the Clyde Beatty Show drew to a close. It was late August and school would begin in a few days. I wanted to forget school and join the circus full time. The Escalantes offered me an opportunity of a lifetime as a member of one of America’s great circus families. I was sure that as soon as the railcars were loaded and the circus left town, my dreams and the gracious opportunity would vanish. This open door was about to slam shut!

I begged my parents to let me leave town with the Escalantes. Despite my threats to run away with the circus, they gently, but emphatically, said, “No.” I had reached only the half way mark in high school. They were adamant in their refusal. Their position was that I must finish school. My position was, what about my chances to realize a dream? How could I even think of going back to school and sitting in a classroom when I could be performing with the circus?

My parents didn't budge. My rationale was not working and, deep down, I knew my parents were right. I had to honor them and their position. I stayed in school that year.

Interestingly, the story did not end here. I kept in touch with Phil Escalante. The door of opportunity remained open a crack. The Escalante troupe invited me to join them during the summer. During the following summer vacation, I joined their family in California and trained in aerial acrobatics and the flying trapeze. They taught me many things about circus life and performing.

I again realized circus life was not easy. Days on the road were long and always busy. Constant traveling was hard work, and performing twice daily took its toll. Circus life was not the way it was in the movies. We lived on dirt surfaces. Getting by with water warmed only by the sun and delivered daily in buckets, presented a bathing problem. If the weather was bad, the lots became muddy and the water remained cold. The bathroom “doniker,” a portable facility used by those who did not live in a mobile home, was unpleasant. Keeping costumes and clothing clean was a challenge. There was no laundry on the lot. Anything to be washed demanded at least a bucket of water. Moreover, where would a person hang garments to dry? There was also the upkeep of equipment and props. Packing, unpacking, setting up, tearing down, and working day in, and day out meant life on the road required commitment and endurance, and, as I came to see, education.


CHAPTER 7

DREAMS AND THEMES

Hanging around the circus that summer, I finally realized that my parents were right. Most circus folks believed schooling was extremely important. I saw that most performers were well educated. Some shows even employed a traveling teacher. Pinned to my bedroom wall were pictures of circus performers. One photo stood out in this regard, always reminding me of the importance of learning. The inscription on this picture said, “Jack, I hope you accomplish all your ambitions.” It was signed “Dwena Zaccini, The Flying Zaccini’s.” She, and her brother Eddie and their trapeze catcher, George, were well educated.

It was their relative, Hugo, who brought home the importance of education. Hugo invented the human cannonball act, along with the technology that shot a person from a cannon for a flight of several hundred feet skyward before landing alive and well in a safety net downrange, a feat that has thrilled audiences for nearly a century. I witnessed Hugo at a fair in Denver in 1950 being shot from one of his cannons over the top of two Ferris Wheels, half a block or so downwind. That shot, like all his successful shots, was well calculated using science and engineering know-how. Today’s cannon act, like its predecessors, requires precise computations. The contemporary version is a double-barreled cannon that launches two performers simultaneously. Clearly, the circus required people who knew and applied mathematics, science, engineering, and communication skills, all subjects a person learns in school.

My initial perception was that school posed a barrier to my joining the circus. The months spent at a school desk seemed intrusive at the time. However, when I began to grasp the relationship between education and its application, I realized I could do both, go to school for nine months and work with the circus during summer vacations. This dispelled my fears of missing an opportunity to “Get with it!”

Schooling fit in. I had merely to realize where. A trapeze rigging, for example, includes angles of incidence, vectors, and exacting calculations required to build and perform daring stunts using a scientific structure. Imagine being shot from cannon by someone who merely guessed at the trajectory, or executing a double somersault from a flying trapeze to a catcher swinging inches out of reach because of a miscalculation.

There was also the side of the circus that involved the arts -- music, dance, composition, and design. Knowledge, information, correlation, and application were circus-relevant issues. The need to know and understand more about the world of academe loomed larger at every turn. Once a body is in motion, it tends to remain in motion. I began to see that schooling was essential even to a circus-minded kid. I weighed the cost of postponing my circus dreams against what I could learn in school now, missing subjects that would move me closer to realizing my ambitions for the future. The circus world called for skills I yet lacked -- verbal, physical, emotional, social, vocational, and academic.

Eddie Zucchini put this in perspective when he drafted a set of plans for me to build a trampoline just like the one he used on the Polack show. From the quality of his drawings and explanation, it was obvious he had formal training in mechanical drawing and composition. My dad commented on these skills as we discussed the need to continue in school. There would be contracts to read, correspondence to write, and people with whom careful communication was essential. My uncle Clark, in a letter written from Panama in 1947, where he worked for the U.S. government, encouraged me to pursue the circus career after completing high school. An abundance of good advice came to me from all directions.

The fact was that I had joined two different circuses that summer, and the probability of continuing in the pursuit of a circus career was indeed within reach. My short-term goals became clear: finish school first and then join the circus. I had to admit it was sound advice all the way.

While the Fresno accident was a setback, it proved to be only temporary. In spite of my missing molar, the Clyde Beatty Show and the Escalate family gave me plenty of encouragement. Joining up with the Escalante’s was a tremendous experience. Answers to prayers are sometimes delayed. There was so much to learn and so much to be discovered.



CHAPTER 8

THE PRINCE TRIO


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-26 show above.)