Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks and Toni Williams: African American Circus Performers - Still a Concept?

It is still a question I have never been totally able to answer to my satisfaction: Why so few of them under our big tops?  Given their indisputable achievements in sports and dance, I am fairly astonished at the continuing dearth of black acrobats, jugglers, trapeze artists.

When I fronted James Bros Circus in 1969 working press, we had the all-black Flying Souls making their "debut" on the show; their act was average, but I found it ethnically a refreshing novelty, not to mention a racial breakthrough.  In a press release I prepared, I wrote, "They are living proof that the circus's only requirement for stardom is talent."

I interviewed the act's founder,Toni Williams, for the story. She had made Ringling history starting out on the John Ringling North produced show three years earlier as a "ballet girl." My obvious question to her was, why were there so few African American performers under U.S. big tops. 

"It takes a first always to open the door." answered.Toni.    The scene was changing, and when the band strikes up and the ringmaster works the crowd, she said.  "Here we are now, ready."

The door was apparently opened, and it apparently has stayed open, but since then, few candidates have entered.

Fast forward 16 years.

Here, in his letter to me dated August 17, 1985, is Don reacting to the highly ballyhooed act of Satin on the Ringling show that year, in particular to the efforts of Eddie Howe in promoting the widespread coverage it received, assuming that to have been true:

"I had another thing from Eddie Howe which is all glowing reports on the Ringling show and the aerial team of Satin.  I don't understand what he is doing or trying to do.  That aerial act is OK but it is not the greatest thing that there ever was and they do have just as good or better cradle acts on most shows.  Might be because they are black, but I can't help think he is trying to get them built up in hopes of landing some sort of work from them or some such thing."

Regrettably, I can't recall the Flying Souls -- Toni Williams, two gymnasts Labar Irwin and Danny Crisp, and a former pro athlete, J. "Skippy" Dyer -- lasting beyond a few seasons, if that.  Perhaps they all went their separate ways, to pursue sports careers or the Olympic trials.

[End ringer foot note: Toni Williams, really? I remembered a black Ringling showgirl making the same history but not with that name, so I checked my own book, Big Top Boss, to read that an apprentice aerialist named  Priscilla Williams was, in 1966, spotted at Del Graham's School for Flyers in Los Angeles, and signed to a Big Show contract.]

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