Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Morning Midway: The Bright , Then Very Sad Life of Circus Man Charles Sparks

As I read through Bandwagon's coverage of circus owner Charles Sparks, reprinting, in its latest issue just out, many of the letters he wrote to colleagues, friends and fans over the years, I was reminded over and over again of how big top business can be, in fact, more often that not is, so wildly, depressingly fickle. It takes leathery resolve to stick out a series of seasons, and those men and women who succeed do not retire gracefully from the rings.

Charles Sparks was, according to Pfening's take, loved and respected by many. Pfening begins his coverage by reprinting a story about the man written by Earl Chapin May in 1924 for Collier's magazine. Sparks addresses the old tent-show article of faith: "If you can't be for it, don't be with it," meaning that, no matter how many personal or trouping frustrations you may face, you are either for the circus itself above all else, or you had better go somewhere else. Sparks had scarce patience for people who put personal issues above their daily jobs.

The man was a hands-off owner who granted his bosses -- as would Ringling ace manager Art Concello in later years, generous autonomy.

"The best people on the show are the people you hear the least from."

"If you give the average man some responsibility and show your confidence in him, nine times out of ten he'll do his level best to make good."

"Having picked a department boss, I have to leave him alone [exactly what Art Concello imparted to me during an interview.] You see the results. Trainmaster Cross has the runs down and the wagons coming off the flats ... I hardly know his voice ... Singleton --- the boss canvasman -- gets up the big top, poles, ropes, stakes, seats, and everything, and gets it down again almost without word."

Plagued by health problems and depression, in 1928 Sparks sold his Sparks Circus at a huge profit to the American Circus Corporation. Almost immediately following, he regretted the move, and his trouping life thereafter, at one time operating the Downie Bros. truck circus, was fraught with depression era struggles and finally, by the death of his believed wife Addia in 1938.

His most painful professional blow was a promise reneged upon that Robert Ringling had made Sparks while the latter was managing Ringling's one-ring show Spangles at Madison Square Garden in 1943. Sparks recounted this bitter betrayal in a letter to his close and dear friend Bert Cole: "I was promised by the Ringlings that if they ever leased the Sparks title to anyone, that I would be the only person that they would lease the title to."

Instead, the title was leased to Jimmie Edgar. Sparks felt "double crossed," and he nursed the wound for life.

In and out of hospitals through the 1940s, and still wanting, ambivalently, to get back in the business, ironically he delighted in how circuses were once again attracting larger, more profitable crowds. But the parade had passed him by, as it had John Ringling in the 1930s. Now, he observed the action from the sidelines. Charles Sparks died on July 28, 1949.

[Bandwagon photos, from top: 1924 courier; Addie and Charles Sparks; Bert Cole, left, and Charles Sparks

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