Don in the 1970s
The day was Sunday. Don Marcks did not know that I spent my 50th birthday with him, at his house. I did not play up my birthdays. I had more intimate friends, and there was always that reserve about Don, but we shared circus, the reason for my having invited myself over, as I had many times before.
Now, that is how I intended to open this post, but that is not exactly true. I discovered, when returning to my weekly At-A-Glance booklet for the year, a more specific reason for my seeking Don’s company: This I wrote: “Why Marcks? Because I’ve known him longer than any of my other friends, and we share circus”
I point this out because, memory alone can be a careless editor, which is to say that some things in these posts may be inaccurate constructions of what actually happened. Oh, how a single document can be such a beautiful thing!
Our personal lives were rarely if ever discussed other than Don now and then talking about a woman he was trying to date, or more likely, hoping to. His romantic pursuits felt to me a bit more like a pattern more than a passion.
Aches and Pains -- and More
The most intimate encounter I ever had with Don was in the ICU at Doctor’s Hospital in Richmond, only a few miles from where he lived. He had survived some medical crisis — he would suffer many — and was hopefully on the mend. I could tell it had shaken him to the core. He looked into my eyes almost with tears, and practically reached out to hold my hand, and, as if making a sacred vow, promised to continue on and make Circus Report even bigger and better than ever. I knew it was the great love of his life.
He almost never took a vacation. And rarely, to my knowledge, exercised. The only time that Circus Report subscribers missed copies was when Don was hospitalized, usually announcing in advance of having to take so many weeks off. He suffered many medical problems through the years.
Don did have an ego. He coveted his position in the CFA, as a prominent and maybe senior member of the Joseph Andrew Rowe tent. So prominent, that when another local fan, new I think to the CFA, made waves about wanting to reboot the dormant group, Don spoke harshly of the fellow – as if a move was afoot to topple his position.
Don grew suspicious of people offering to help out with Circus Report. Two locals from Berkeley wrote him with such an offer, the implication being that there would be someone to carry on when his time had passed..
Nov. 6, 1983: “She says I ought to relax the strings a bit and not work so hard, but I’m not in favor of their helping out ... I keep getting the feeling they just want to see how things are done and go get a chance to see what money comes, in. etc.”
The next time I visited Don he brought up the matter, pulling out the letter. I encouraged him to consider that their motives might be genuine. And there before my eyes, he tore it up almost in a peevish fit, and threw it into a waste basket.
The Gift of Praise
The greatest compliment he ever gave me was to bring up the subject of my book, Behind the Big Top, and to tell me how books like mine had never been written before. More than that, how it seemed to me like he had made a conscious effort to force himself out of his comfort zone in order to make his recognition known. I regarded this as a supreme compliment, coming from Don. Touched by the adulation, yet there had been other books, by Dexter Fellows and by William Coup, that candidly covered some of the darker aspects of circus life, such as grift and animal abuse. Another time, Don offered me my own regular space in the paper for a weekly column. I wrote to him of my gratitude, telling him of my fears that I would write something that got us both in hot water. I had not contributed a single piece since my Irvin Feld story.
A Long and Long-Forgotten-Why Silence
.There came an impasse between us, a wordless falling out if you will. There had been no arguments, nothing dramatic, just perhaps, on both sides, a growing number of irks and perceived slights forming a mass of vague, lingering resentment. Either of us could easily have lifted the phone and dialed the other’s number, and likely, the conversation would have flowed on.
In his last letter to me, dated Dec. 3, 1995, Don ended by talking about a showboat model he had been working on, having discarded one and now considering a second try at another: “Only recently found some folks who have knowledge of the thing, because of their study or River Boats - who knows, it might arise from the ashes, as they say.”
We never arose from our own ashes. I have no letters from him during all of 1996, not a single one. Which even intrigues me to try recalling what might have silenced our dialogue
My subscription came up that year for renewal in October. $40 a year. I had grown, frankly, a little disengaged by the papers particular style — unless there was something he had done that set me off and hastened the cancellation. In the last issue I have, Oct. 28, 1996, Billy Barton’s column is missing. Perhaps he had been gone for some time.
And so I decided to spend my money, instead, on the Bandwagon, and in a brief note, dated 10/22/96, made this known to Don, singing off “Good luck on CR’s future ...”
Yes, I know, the sound of betrayal.
Seven years later, Don Marcks passed away. He left behind his widow, Martha. I believe she was the woman at the post office who had through the years been of great support to Don in his weekly send outs.
A Circus Auctioned to the Wind
Truly saddest of all, Don left his model circus to Richard Tuck’s then-in-the-planning Playland Not at the Beach on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerritos, where it would be displayed in separate cases. And when the museum closed in 2018, the circus, like every thing else, was auctioned off in sections. A terrible pity that it could not have been offered to a single entity, such as one of the circus museums.
The house at 525 Oak Street is no longer recognizable as the one I knew when I visited Don. The large side yard of grass upon which stood the old shed where his model circus was kept, is now a faded pink, one-story motel-like apartment house. In that long-gone shed, a twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy had once stood in rapt awe while the builder of the wagons opened large trunks to take out one, and then another, for the boy to see and to hold. To his eyes, they were the most magical objects he had ever seen. And from that same house on Oak Street, for thirty four years there had gone out a weekly circus paper to subscribers near and far.
And thus, the story of my friendship with fellow circus fan Don Marcks comes to a close. One day maybe, I will be on a bus going up San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito, and get off to walk up to Mechanics Bank on the corner of Fairmount --- where I got off a bus one day long ago, to walk five blocks up and make a left on Oak.
P.S. today at 4:35 PM, I just went down to my mail box to find the last last issue of Circus Report. It feels so bleak and sad, like a defining death that I can't put into words. I don't want to put into words. As if, trying, some kind of a reigning light above the whole of what we had has gone out. Thank you, Bill and Jan, for keeping it going as long as you did. Goodbye, Circus Report, good bye.
All of Don’s letters will eventually join my archives at Illinois State University’s Milnar Library, under the direction of Maureen Brunsdale.