Sunday Morning, Looking Back ...
They have often played critical roles behind the scenes if not out front. And in the beginning, when women who performed over sawdust were lumped together with women who served men across the tracks, one of the most fearless and arguably important of all was Al Ringling's wife, Louise. She charmed snakes, rode horses, sewed sequins onto costumes, and helped Al be an on-the-road father to the four younger brothers he talked in to joining him, first on winter-time vaudeville stages, then in the ring.
The recent passing, at 93, of long-time Hollywood publicist Shirley Carroll, who back in the 1950s with her husband Norman, founded an L.A-based advertising firm that promoted the early Ringling-Barnum indoor days in the City of Angels, reminds us of how far our distaff dynamos have advanced -- from scorned figures in spangles to the powers of today who produce the shows.
Before landing the Ringling gig, Shirley handled press agentry for the Clyde Beatty Circus. She met her husband, Norman, whom she married in 1945, when he was a ringmaster. The two set up their own Carrolls Agency in 1953, turning out press copy and landing photo coverage for the likes of H. Warner Buck's Sporstman Show at the old Pan Pacific Auditorium (where, I by the, way, dance skated in a regional roller skating meet -- and tore my white pants while moving around the floor, earning scores that eliminated me and my partner from the first round). The Carrolls tub-thumped for Ringling-Barnum, for Jungeland In Thousand Oaks, and for the Pacific Ocean Park at Santa Monica. After Norman passed away in 1967, Shirley kept the business going, taking on Broadway shows playing L.A. houses.
In her memoir, Life is a Circus, Shirley recounted sharing an automobile ride on her honeymoon with an uncaged leopard -- oh, what they do for free publicity! She also managed to lose eight elephants on Hollywood Boulevard. 1969 marked her last season with the circus. Ever adaptable, by 1974, Shirley was crafting a pr campaign for the American premiere on Sunset Boulevard at the Roxy Theatre of the Rockey Horror Picture Show. Somebody dubbed her "the oldest counter-culture publicist."
But hold onto your history, big top buffs! As it turns out, Shirley was not the first woman to sing the praises of Big Bertha, as reported in the Hollywood Reporter, from which my above tribute was adapted. Former Feld flack master Jack Ryan informs us (thank you Jack), that Estelle M. Butler, wife of famed Ringling PR director Roland, took on press assignments from her husband to visit city newspapers and work the rooms. And it's all there in black route book ink (from the 1948 edition through Roland's last tour for John Ringling North in 1953) -- Estelle's name sharing credit with the likes of Frank Braden and William Fields, among others. Writes Jack, "In addition to driving him coast to coast, year after year (he didn't drive), she visited many city rooms on her own, delivering the year's photos and stories." And handing out, we trust, thousands of free press passes.
For a few seasons through the mid-1960s, Mae Lyons enjoyed executive staff masthead status as the Big Show's "Publicity Director."
Onward and upward! Now, the Big Show show is being produced by Kenneth Feld's three daughters, Nicole, Alana, and Juliette. So, asked a reporter, "Is it now Alana and Nicole's circus?" Answered the Feld of Felds, "It's their show, but it's our circus." Kenneth is quite obviously doing with his daughters what his dad, Irvin, did so fabulously well with him (corporately speaking). Might Mr. Feld, in fact, be drifting towards the egress? "I'm not going anywhere because this is not a job ... I don't have an endgame yet." And so, for those avid Feld fans out there, be of good cheer. These Felds are not going away any time soon, if ever. Irvin Feld died at the young age of only 66; perhaps Kenneth believes it imperative to have a viable line of family succession in place.
Back to the House or Ringling: There is yet another Ringling North extension out there. Although we have yet too see or hear from John Ringling North III (yes, there is a JRN III), don't underestimate the recently surfacing daughter of John Ringling North II, Sorcha. She made her first appearance in the ring at her dad's circus -- Kelly-Miller -- on the last day of the season, in Ardmore, OK, appropriately on the top of an elephant. I see grit and glamor ridinng that pachyderm.
Louise Ringling would be proud. Louise Ringling, I fear (blame the Ringling brothers partly) will never get the credit she deserves. Without her, I wonder, would the brothers have risen to the ranks of America's undisputed circus kings?