Friday, November 26, 2010

When Circus Flyers Flew High Over Bloomington, A Town Itself Was a Great Circus School

The Flying Wards, circa 1920. Illinois State University, Milner Library Special Collections.

Finally, yet another revelation (or belated realization if I sound too melodramatic) has hit me in the face. There is a legitimately productive circus school in the United States of America (as opposed to Russia or China, Peru or ...) that turns out top flying trapeze acts. A real school that fills American circus rings with thrilling twisters and twirlers, spinners and somersaulting daredevils high over the sawdust circles.

Ooops -- make that past tense. Rewind back by a few decades when it was actually in operation. And I suppose we're really taking a town and its circus-friendly culture more than one particular school. The town is Bloomington, as in Illinois, home to the Illinois State University. So there.

It hit me all at once. I've long known of the Art Concello flying acts that trained somewhere in the area. And I've long harbored rich memories of the fabulous Nine Ward-Bell Flyers (three troupes flying simultaneously next to each other) with the great Polack Bros Circus. From where or whence they flew, I knew not.

Many circus acts, mostly aerialists, wintered in Bloomington. Many of them appeared in the annual Y Circus, up until 1955. Flyers who started out or wintered or inspired other young flyers in the town at one time counted for 90% of all flying acts in the country. There, dozens of young acrobats wishing to add their names to the list first tested their baby wings, then flew higher, and eventually tossed aside mechanics for a net below.

In the current issue of Bandwagon, that's where this hit me in the face. There's a 1956 essay by the late James Monathan about Bloomington and the aerialists. He interviewed a number of those who practiced out and perfected up in various locations around town. For one, there was Eddie Ward's training barn.

A very young Art and Antoinette Concello with Eddie Ward, Jr., right, from a Ringling-Barnum photo, 1936. Pfening Archives.

About the legendary Art Concello, he was said to be "the most famous graduate of the Bloomington YMCA." And he, of course, who would one day train and book top-flight flying acts on U.S. shows, among them, the mighty Ringling-Barnum that he later managed for John Ringling North. "Art had been considered a 'devil' around the Y,'' said the Y coach who discovered him, C.D. Curtis. "It was believed that he would either go to the circus or St. Charles reformatory." (Perhaps he went to both. )

And Bloomington gave us another legend, Tony Steele, the first flyer to turn the three-and-a-half up there, a seminal event that inspired others to aim for the quad. Go, America, Go!

Cutting to the chase, here's a sentence that jumped out, challenging the skeptic in me to react. "In the circus profession, it [Bloomington] is known all over the world as the city that turns out more big-time aerial acts than any other place in the world."

An even more bullish Bloomington boast appears in the same issue of Bandwagon by managing editor Fred D. Pfening III, in another article, calling the city a "the birth place of the modern flying trapeze." I'd like to feel like a proud American circus fan and cheer the claim. Not sold yet.

Here's a brief history of the evolution of the high-flying trapeze, drawn from Australia's The Outdoor Showman, October-November, 1982:

1859, Paris, France: Jules Leotard, first somersault from bar to bar.

1879, Paris, France: Eddie Silbon, first double somersault with catcher. Would this not mark the modern trapeze?

1897: Are you ready for a big surprise? Sydney, Australia: first flyer to execute the triple -- a woman! Lena Jordan. (Judy Finelli, hope this makes your day.)

1909, Havana, Cuba: First male flyer to execute the triple -- Ernest Clarke.

1962, Durango, Mexico: First 3-1/2 somersaults -- Tony Steele.

1982, Tuscon, Arizona, USA: first quad -- Miguel Vasquez.

If somebody out there wishes to challenge these claims, please step up and post your stats.

Wrapping up back in bonny Bloomington: "Anyone who is not too heavy, is well developed muscularly and will work hard should make a good aerialist if started young enough," said flyer Bert Doss. "Most of the professionals develop from the youngsters. That is one reason for the number of acts coming out of Bloomington. The young fellows hang around when the acts are training, get a chance to try it, and are developed, if they show promise. Schools and colleges with well equipped gymnasiums also provide a great deal of material these days."

Make that those days.


Agnes Doss on the single trapeze with Sells-Floto, 1930. Pfening Archives.

3 comments:

CIRCUS HISTORY said...

in the group pic i am pretty sure that is Harold Voise on the far right? What do you think?

Cherie Valentine said...

I am pretty sure that is Bert Doss, husband of Agnes Doss, of Bloomington, IL.

Cherie Valentine said...

I believe it is Bert Doss, husband of Agnes Doss, aerialst.