Shortly after April 12, 1955 — after my having twice seen Polack Bros. Circus from a reserved seat in Santa Rosa at the Fairground’s Grace Pavilion, I had in hand a rough draft of a review. I crossed the driveway of our neighbor, Carmella Perlie, climbed a short staircase to her kitchen door, knocked on it and was greeted with a smile and maybe a few Perlie giggles. A bumptious, cheerfully pretty woman who had never married, Miss Perlie loved to giggle, and she seemed to enjoy my visits. Usually, towards the end of each, she would offer me a root beer float..
Inside, I was invited to take a seat at a small wood table in the middle of the kitchen, upon which stood, ever so invitingly, a strong sturdy upright Underwood typewriter. Rare excitement faced me as I proceeded to type out the first circus review I would ever write.
"The lights dimmed, exposing the caged arena," it began. "And after an introduction by the ringmaster, Professor George J. Keller slipped into the arena ..."
I was high on the show, lauding it for "tremendous thrills,"finding plenty of things to say nice things about. And, yet, so full of nagging qualms: "... there are many obstacles that stand in the way of the show." Gone, I noted ruefully, were the Ward-Bell Flyers and "the big thrillers" like La Norma. Not only that, I complained that "The clowning has fallen through somewhat."
My biggest problem were the Dagenham Girl Pipers from Britain. I wrote that while they "hurt the circus, it is not all the act itself. It is the fact that the act appears last on the program. While this is a let down from the famous flyers, it especially hurts the circus impression left on the customer. The fact that there is little relationship between the act and the circus proceeds to change the circus atmosphere entirely."
I argued for placing the act earlier in the program and ending on a more traditional punch.
Other nitpicking: "Some choreography is good, while other isn’t. Some costuming is good, while other isn’t, and right down on the line. In parts of the show a few of the girls appear to be more amateur than pro... a few of the girls can not compete with the dance steps given them."
This in the White Tops? Looking back, I am gratefully astonished that what I wrote — well, read on ...
Proud as punch with the long Manila sheets now bearing my opinionated prose, I sent them off to the editor of the White Tops, a man named Walter H Hohenadel. I knew almost nothing about the man then, and I know still almost nothing about the man now. Recent queries to the CFA bring forth very little. And those who might have known him well are not talking. He was, I am informed by Steve Gossard passing along the recollections of Richard Reynolds, a solid circus fan away from his print shop profession. He was, in fact, there at the very beginning when the Circus Fans Association of America was formed in 1927 — there to be given member number 42. Eight years later, he took over editorship of the White Tops, working out of his already established W. H., Hohenadel Printing Company in Rochelle, Illinois. He would perform this duty through the July-August 1962 issue, when a younger Hohenadel, Walter B, carried on.
I still wonder exactly what Mr. Hohenadel thought when he received my manuscript. Did he sense my age? Take the time to actually read through the notice? Show it to any CFA officials for approval? Was he in a hurry to wrap up the issue, and here was a perfect one-page filler? Maybe he handed the piece to a typesetter without comment. Whatever he thought, he did not write back, nor did he return my submission. I was kept dreamily in the dark.
In a letter to circus fan Don Francis, who lived fifty miles south in San Francisco, I told him what I had done, and he wrote back on April 20, "I doubt if Walt Hohenadel will be able to use the writeup of the Polack show, for it will have been covered in on the mid-western dates."
Indeed, it was, in the January-February issued, which must have arrived in our mail boxes very late that year. (They always showed up around a month late.) There on Page 13 was a thoroughly positive review of Polack Bros. by Carl Huassman. The reviewer’s kick-off reservation was redeemed by generous praise thereafter — "While to me it lacked the one-two punch of Harold Alzana and the Ward-Bell flyers, the producers have come up with a package that is a delight to behold ... from beginning to end." The Dagenham Girl Pipers, in his opinion, "were very effective in the finale."
Polack already reviewed. What were my chances of getting published with a notice so contrary to what others were saying? I could only wait for the May-June issue, and hope ...
Sometimes in mid to late July, there in our mail box at 609 Brown street was the familiar envelope containing the next issue of White Tops. I rushed into the house, ripped open the envelop, and thumbed through the pages, hoping against hope for a miracle. Page after page. Nothing after nothing. Not me. Not me. "Hunt Bros. Circus Has Thrilling Opening‘ headlined a review by Bill Montague. Mills Bros, also covered, was described as "the greatest opening in their history." Were these writers press agents, I wondered. Not quite so Earl M Allen, whose critique of Kelly-Miller, calling it "not strong,"then offered a list of nice things about the show. What was "not strong" was never explained.
And THEN, there on page 19, at the inside back cover, this:
POLACK BROS. WESTERN UNIT FOR 1955, BY DAVID HAMMARSTROM
What a thrill! That one exhilarating moment of acknowledgment sent a 14-year-old kid into critical orbit. And my own first byline in CAPS. Half way into my 14th year, I had arrived in some sort of a monumental way. I was emboldened, recognized, allowed to be myself — and, miracle of miracles, sent through the presses.
Looking back, I wonder where and why I ever got the nerve to go against the standard White Tops circus review grain. Reviews in the Billboard which I had been reading for over a year were also uniformly affirmative. Nor had I yet discovered Variety, which looked at circuses sometimes as critically as it did stage shows and movies.
Was it Tom Parkinson in his earlier Polack review, tactfully predicting in an otherwise flattering piece that the pipers might provoke discussion and debate? Unlike my contrary view about the Pipers, TP asserted, "They have what it takes for a circus."
Was it something in my DNA? Or maybe the crusty Miss Perlie getting a kick out of me typing out a review and egging me onto "give ‘em hell"? Not that she uttered those words, but she had a certain free wheeling manner that could have produced them.
Here is my own best guess:. By 1955 when Polack Bros. came to town, I was a spoiled circus fan. Spoiled rotten. Anybody heard of the movie the Greatest Show on Earth? Anybody ever see Francis Brunn or the Wallendas 7-high, Lou Jacobs or the Zoppes or Rose Gould or La Norma? I did. I saw them and more. These tanbark stars may have infected me with punishingly high expectations.
Whatever it was, Mr Hohenadel accepting my article and printing it the way it was written seems in retrospect an act of courage — or kindness. And in the act, the world said, okay, you might have some ideas worth publishing. It’s okay to look at a circus more critically. Go ahead, kid. Keep it up.
And so, to the memory of Mr. Hohenadel, who surely cast a long-lasting spell over my entire life by allowing me, at the age of only 14, to be myself, with profound gratitude I dedicate my latest book.
-- Choice, July 2008
American Library Association
About the photos:
* About the time, in 1955, when my review was published in The White Tops.
* Proud contributor to John Swann's Circus Review, circa 1959.
* With my sister, Kathy, in the Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco on May 21, 1977 to see Lena Horne at midnight. By mere coincidence, that morning a contract from A.S. Barnes arrived for my first and personal favorite book, Behind the Big Top.
* At the circus museum in the Leningrad circus building, 1979, researching for my book Circus Rings Around Russia.
* At the circus in Leningrad during intermission, with director Alexei Sonin. He granted me an on-the-spot interview; we rounded up a prop guy to crudely translate. Here, while a camera snaps away, Sonin is directing me -- "Look up, David! Look down, David!"
* After the show during a special rehearsal. There I am surrounded by some of the crew and the director.
* After a performance of the Moscow Circus at the Los Angeles Forum, 1988, presenting a copy of my book Circus Rings Around Russia to Tamerlan Nugzarov, whom I had interviewed for the book in Moscow at the New Circus building in October, 1979.