Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sunday Morning with F. Beverly Kelley: The Strange Tale of His Season Trumpeting for Ben Davenport's Notorious Dailey Bros. Circus

In the right hands, this unlikely association between a gentleman press agent and one of the circus world's most notoriously crooked operators might make for a great film (we are, yes, still waiting for a great circus film). Gradually or maybe not so gradually, F. Beverly Kellley, hired by Ben Davenport to direct his Dailey Bros. Circus press department in 1948, comes to sample evidence all over the lot, front and back, of rampant grift. Whether he expected it or not, he comes clean about this issue in his sporadically informative book, It Was Better Than Work.

Kelley's Alma Matter was Ringling-Barnum, starting out in 1930. During his years with the Big Show, Kelley landed two major National Geographic stories, got Merle Evans and the band onto the Fitch Bandwagon Radio Program, and penned a winning slate of magazine articles tied to his employer's famed circus. Of course, the name of the circus no doubt opened numerous doors for Kelley that might otherwise have stayed shut.

Why he left Ringling in 1947 is one of numerous questions Kelley oddly fails to address. This book is a major disappointment, considering who wrote it, what he knew, and what the book might have been. Possibly at this late time in his life, he lacked the health to give it his all. Or maybe all of those who looked helpfully over his shoulder while he typed away simply failed to challenge his rambling narrative.

During his Dailey days, Kelley observed evidence of old-time circus grift. And, to his credit, he writes about it, which is really why I dug into the book, intrigued to see what he might have to say, if anything, about the issue. Ripping customers off at rigged gambling games or over three shell monte. Slippery fingers all over the lot. On the show itself, red lighting and slot machines conveniently located near the spot where, nightly, staffers were paid, a shrewd move to maximize the immediate return of the payroll back to the payroll. But, yes, yes, yes, old Ben was such a great guy to those who worked for him.

A clever decision was made to keep all of the unpleasant stuff from Kelley's official knowledge of circus life. "I never entered the tent where it took place. This was so that if and when I might be asked ... I could honestly say that I had never seen any dishonest games."

The year was 1948. Kelly was, for reasons never made clear in his murky tome, in between Ringling -- and Ringling. He landed impressive national coverage for Ben by taking a little baby elephant to the Republican national convention. The boffo PR breaks, however, did not lift biz over what it was the previous tour. In an end-of-the-year interview in The Billboard, Davenport still judged the contribution of his Class A press agent a plus, because, as he reasoned, the economy took a dive in '48, and so Kelley was valued for his "helping us keep even with last year."

Declared the big top boss, "Getting Bev was the smartest move I ever made." Kelly had brought with him at least one other ex-Ringling flackmaster, Frank Morrissey. "We hope they will be with us for many years," said the man who hired them.

Well, they weren't. Kelly did not return in '49, nor does he shed much light on why. One can only imagine him rethinking the season just past and asking himself, "Is this what i really want to make of my life life?"

Davenport made hay the next year, in '49, ripping and tearing like he were on a thieves holiday through Canada. In '50 when he returned, Canada failed to to show up at his ticket windows. And that dismal rebuke of 1950 marked the last season for one of the most corrupt circuses that ever hit the sawdust trail. To my knowledge, nobody has since tried to revive the Dailey Bros. title.

Never mind the messy details. Ben Davenport, somewhere, is enshrined at the Sarasota circle of infamy.

And why did F. Beverly Kelly last only a single season? "I had left the Dailey show at the end of the 1950 season." That's all he has to say, although his experiences on the dark side of the midway likely dissuaded him from singing on for another tour. From there, he went to work for Cole. Bros. And then, he drifted back to Ringling-Barnum during the show's slow stumble to big top oblivion in Pittsburgh.

This book is so ill-structured, so lacking in details. Bev tells us nothing of his last years with Ringling in 1954-1955, when there was so much drama to write about. And very little about all of those riotously entertaining Ringling family power wars of the flaming forties.

It's like listening to a friend chat about his life, wandering back and forth between circus gigs and theatre PR work, shifting gears suddenly mid-chapter for no coherent reason, ignoring whole sections of his life with Ringling. He could have said so much more. I wish the right editor or friend could have been there to make the right suggestions.

Bev was a gentlemen through and through, a gifted writer who turned out wonderful magazine stories, graced with inspiring captions. and an even greater human being; I feel nothing but profound respect for the man. I must yet give the well-selling book he co-wrote with Emmett Kelly, Clown, a visit.

How lucky I was to have met him, once in person, across the street from the Geary Theatre in San Francisco where he was working on the PR advance for a play -- many years after that strange season when America's most literate press agent worked for the country's most corrupt circus owner.

What a match. Lights! Action! Roll the cameras!

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