The great international circus at Olympia
In 1919 Bertram Mills was one of the guests at the Christmas circus in Olympia in London. After the performance he apparently claimed ‘If I couldn’t do better, I’d eat my hat’ and despite having no experience in the profession he undertook to produce the circus at Olympia the following year.
Although Bertram Mills had no experience of working in circus, like Astley before him he was a keen horseman. Having travelled to horse shows on the continent he had come into contact with American and European circus and realised the potential to reinvigorate circus in the Britain. Mills commissioned John Ringling to bring his famous three ring circus to London from America.
In June 1920 Ringling withdrew because he couldn’t ship his show over the Atlantic. Undeterred, Mills set off with his son to see and commission acts from all over Europe. Bertram Mills’ sixteen act show opened at Olympia on 17 December 1920 for the Christmas season. It included Japanese gymnasts, Sanger’s elephants, Henning Orlando’s horses, and trick cyclists.
Bertram Mills had the foresight and vision to create an international circus, bringing the most exciting acts from all over Europe to Olympia. He was an astute businessman and realised that in order to profit from the circus he would have to sell seats at a higher price than was customary. To try to attract a richer audience he instigated ‘opening lunches’ inviting as many influential people as he could muster, including key members of the press. His innovative and high profile advertising campaign paid off. The press billed the Olympia performance as ‘The Great Circus Revival’.
Within a few years Olympia’s opening lunches were attracting members of high society. By 1927 the prestigious guest list included Winston Churchill and his wife, politician Ramsay McDonald and the Earl and Countess of Orkney.
The Christmas Circus at Olympia became a huge success and continued until the 1966 season.
Every season at Olympia the Bertram Mills' Circus had two dress rehearsals on the day before opening. Each rehearsal was attended by children from poor families who were chosen by the Mayors of the London Boroughs. They not only saw the show, but were treated to refreshments. Between seven and ten thousand children were invited to a pre-Christmas rehearsal every year, and there were always more who would have liked to come.
This photograph is from the 1948 rehearsal. The children were from Bethnal Green in East London and Greenwich in the South East.
This programme is from the Bertram Mills' Circus 1931 tour, printed for its appearance in Lincoln. This was only the second tour that the circus had undertaken since it had previously been based at London's Olympia. The programme features a list of complimentary quotes inside the front cover, including one from Lady Eleanor Smith who travelled with the circus for several weeks to research a novel about a family circus.
Among the acts pictured in the programme are Cossmy's Polar and Brown Bears. These, and the tiger on horseback were shown by Carl Cossmy although one of the polar bears had killed their last trainer, Carl's father, the year before. Also featured was the hugely popular stunt of a man being shot from a cannon. An image of Leinart, the artist who was daily shot to the roof of the big top was chosen for that year's poster.
This programme is from the 1926/27season of Bertram Mills' International Circus at Olympia. By this time Mills' circus was well established, and attracted a prestigious audience, and his 'opening lunches' attracted such influential figures as Winston Churchill and the Earl and Countess of Orkney. Mills marketed his circus brilliantly to attract a wealthy, upmarket audience who would pay well for its seats.
This programme has a lengthy section reviewing books written about circus, and trumpets the exclusivity of the international acts brought to London by Mills and his sons. They travelled far and wide to see and book acts such as Katie Sandwina from Russia, 'the world's strongest woman', the Andreu family of musical clowns from Spain, and Barbette from Austria. The programme boasts that the performers have created new and original acts especially for the Bertram Mills' Olympia engagement, and illustrates Schaeffer's midgets, a popular attraction that season, billed as 'Chafer's Midgets'.
Bertram Mills’ Circus
The popularity of Bertram Mills’ Circus in the 1930s and 1940s enabled it to continue to expand. Alongside the winter season at Olympia, Mills mounted a summer season which toured to all the big seaside resorts in the UK.
When Bertram Mills retired, his sons continued to develop his circus, bringing new acts from across Europe and America. They also continued to tour Bertram Mills’ Circus across the UK and soon other tenting circuses followed: Chipperfields’, Billy Smart’s, the Robert Brothers’, Bobby Robert’s Circus, Cottle and Austen’s, Gerry Cottle’s, and more recently, Zippo’s. Circus in permanent buildings continued to draw the crowds at the Blackpool Tower Circus and the Kelvin Hall, Glasgow. In the 1950s and 1960s a trip to the circus was still an eagerly anticipated treat for millions of British schoolchildren.
The Theatre Museum has a large collection of photographs taken by Baron de Rakoczy, which show the heyday of Mills’ Circus. Here is a selection.
Click on the images below to view larger version
Cavallini's crazy car
The Cavallini Taxi was a 1920 T-model Ford. It came juddering into the ring to pick up its passengers dressed to go out for the evening. As soon as they climbed into the car, the engine stopped. Everyone clambered out and with much silly business took the baggage off, the roof before opening the bonnet to examine the engine - typical clown logic! The engine would then suddenly start all by itself and everyone would frantically leap back in. Immediately they were ready, the engine would stop again and bits of the car would start to fall off - wings, running boards, head-lamps. Flames and smoke then exploded out of the engine to be extinguished by Tom the midget fireman. Another explosion shot the lady passengers into the ring in an undignified heap. The performance here took place at Bertram Mills' Circus at Olympia, in 1948. As with so many circus acts, this was copied from an earlier one. The car act was already running in 1912. John Pimpos, one of John Sanger's clowns had a comedy car, which stopped and started of its own accord, and sprayed its owner with a fountain of water when he opened the radiator cap.
Coco the clown
Technically, Coco is not a clown but an 'Auguste' - that is the foolish character who is always on the receiving end of buckets of water and custard pies. The Auguste often works with the cleverer white-faced 'clown' who always gets the better of him. Coco, whose real name was Nicolai Poliakoff, was born in Latvia in 1900. His parents worked in the theatre when Nicolai was born, but both lost their jobs a few years later and, in order to survive, Nicolai started busking from the age of five. In 1929 Nicolai, or Coco as he was then called, came to England with his young wife Valentina and began working for Bertram Mills' Circus. He left the circus temporarily to serve in the British Army during World War II, but returned straight afterwards. He performed before royalty all over the world and received a medal from the Queen for his years of work in promoting road safety for children.
Elephant, Bertram Mills' Circus
This act is from the 1949/50 Olympia season. The act being performed was called the 'Elephant Ballet': 'An amazing act by twelve girls, six of them human'. The elephants at Bertram Mills' Circus were carefully looked after. The first elephants to perform for a circus were Baba and Kiouny who were seen in Franconi's Circus in Paris in 1816. They have been part of the circus tradition ever since, and from the 1870s, troupes of elephants were being taught increasingly difficult tricks. Each elephant belonging to Bertram Mills' Circus had its own groom who slept on a camp bed in the tent with the animal. Performers recall that 'not the slightest cruelty was tolerated'. The trainers knew and understood each animal individually.
Gulden's bears, Bertram Mills' Circus
This was the first time Gulden's bears had performed in the UK. As well as riding round on a motorbike, the bears performed a version of a chimps' tea party which inevitably ended in an enormous amount of mess. The programme reminded the audience that although they didn't look dangerous, they should not be taken for granted. Bears are the most dangerous of all circus animals and were responsible for more injuries and fatalities than all the big cats put together. Although they are relatively easy to train and are quick to pick up tricks, they never become entirely reliable in their behaviour - hence the muzzles and chains. A bear can at any moment revert to its instinct as a hunter and turn on its trainer and it is very difficult to see the attack coming because bears' faces and body language are not as easy to read as those of other animals.
Unicyclist Rudy Horn
Rudy Horn was discovered by Bertram Mills' son Cyril in the 1950s. Cyril was not terribly impressed by the young German boy at first, although he had never seen anyone toss six cups and saucers up one by one and catch them on his head. Rudy's father then boasted that his son could do the same trick while riding on a unicycle, and Cyril Mills said that he would give him a job. This is Rudy Horn performing the promised stunt. To get the objects on to his head, he would balance them on his foot and flip them up. To top the trick, he would toss a lump of sugar and a teaspoon into the topmost cup.
Liberty horse, Bertram Mills' Circus
A 'liberty horse' is a horse that performs without a rider or any tack, by responding to verbal and visible commands. To make a horse jump through what looks like a solid hoop is not as easy as it looks. You cannot explain that the tissue paper is not going to hurt and that there is nothing dangerous on the other side. Bertram Mills said that there were no secrets to training a horse. 'Patience, understanding, and carrots are the eternal triumvirate. There is no other way with a horse and never was'. Just teaching the horse to remain calm in front of an audience takes time. It must grow accustomed to working in a brightly lit ring, surrounded by thousands of spectators, with the rhythm of the band, and the laughter and applause of the audience. Bit by bit the distractions are added: a loudspeaker, bright lights, squads of grooms and stable hands come to rehearsals and stand around the ring, shouting, clapping and waving 'programmes' until the horse becomes completely accustomed to them.
The decline of traditional circus
The popularity of traditional circus in the UK has waned in the last 30 years. Gone are the magnificent circus parades to announce the arrival of a circus in town. No longer do great trains carry circuses across the country by night. Gone too are the wild animal acts, side shows and menageries.
In the 1960s and 1970s television brought circus and circus acts to a wider audience in Britain. Television began to show natural history programmes and people began to question the use of animals in the circus. Safari parks, a phenomenon of the same time period, enabled people to see wild animals in more natural surroundings. People were no longer as thrilled and amazed to see lions and tigers in the circus ring as their 19th century ancestors.
Many circuses today however, still feature equestrian acts, including liberty horses and trick riding – the skill that encouraged Philip Astley to start the first circus, Astley’s Amphitheatre in London over two hundred years ago.
In Britain other forms of popular entertainment have increased competition and seen a decline in circus audiences.
There are now fewer than 20 circuses in Britain today. The circus owners who continue the tradition are constantly aiming to find new ways of attracting the public with increasingly ambitious staging of their shows.
Elephants played a very important role in Billy Smart's career. He often used them for publicity purposes, 'parking' an elephant beside a parking meter in Mayfair in London or personally escorting five elephants travelling by aircraft from Bankok to England. Elephants also played a poignant role on the last day of Billy Smart's life. He was conducting a band playing 'I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts' while waiting to greet the arrival of his elephants at Ipswich station. As the musicians played he had a heart attack and died almost immediately. A floral display of an elephant in 3D was sent as a floral tribute from all the animals at his funeral. Smart was a flamboyant showman and was usually seen wearing a large white stetson and smoking a huge cigar.
Sasha looks as docile as a domestic cat lying across her trainer’s shoulders. However, leopards, along with pumas and panthers, are the most unreliable of big cats.
Circus acts involving big cats first became popular in the 19th century with performers such as Isaac Van Amburgh, who performed for Queen Victoria. Van Amburgh called himself a lion 'tamer' rather than trainer, and his act was of a type known as 'en ferocité', involving a lot of shouting and whip cracking. Emile Smith, like most modern trainers, has an act 'en pelotage' that is, one in which animals are petted and rewarded for learning tricks, rather than terrorised. In some ways, this type of act is considered more dangerous than an 'en ferocité' act because the trainer is so much closer to the animals.
Both new circus and traditional circus in the 21st century draw on a multi-national pool of performers. The appeal of the circus has remained more universal abroad and Monte Carlo still stages the prestigious annual World Circus Championships, which attract a wide and enthusiastic audience.
Many of the traditional touring circuses still operating in the UK employ performers from eastern European countries such as Romania, Hungary and Russia. Here circus is still popular and the opportunities for training on the road still exist. Circus Knie in Switzerland even has its own train with specially constructed circus trailers to tour its circus across the country.
British circuses continue to tent abroad and to include top international acts in their programmes whilst international touring circuses regularly visit the UK. These include the Chinese State Circus, a mainly acrobatic circus featuring balancing acts, plate spinning, ropedancers, tumblers, foot jugglers and many more gravity defying acts.
The Moscow State Circus has its home in a six ring amphitheatre in Moscow which opened in 1971. The varied programme includes such novelties as a circus on ice and a circus ballet. Moscow State Circus tours to 20 countries per year. Its characteristic big red tent can be seen in many UK cities. Moscow State Circus includes a programme of traditional circus acts: trapeze, clowns, juggling, high wire acts along with magic and some trained animals. However the animal acts do not tour to the UK.
These are the largest touring circuses regularly to visit the UK.
This is a Conte pastel drawing of Sedov and Zoubarov about to perform their comedy aerialist act in the big top with the Moscow State Circus, showing the two clowns in costume, left, waiting behind the scenes, dressed in costume as a man and a woman, whilst the stage hands prepare their balloon, right, from which the two clowns performed their acrobatic act.
The Bertinis were from Czechoslovakia. They were one of the most colourful and fast-moving unicycling acts, winning the circus world championships held in London in 1976. Cycling acts have been an element of circus entertainment since the late 19th century. Nowadays, boards are always put down on the ring to give cycling acts a smooth floor on which to work. The climax of the Bertinis' act was when one girl somersaulted from a springboard on to the shoulders of another who was also riding a unicycle. The Bertinis are seen here performing at the 1981 International Circus Festival. This annual event takes place in Monte Carlo in January and February. It was created by Prince Rainier the Third in 1974, and has become one of the most prestigious circus events in the world.
A 'liberty horse' is a horse that performs by responding to verbal and visible commands, rather than to a rider's seat and reins. The horse working here with Sascha Houcke is a Lipizzaner – a breed particularly suited to circus work. The Lipizzaners are one of the oldest breeds of horse in the world and are probably most famous as the horses used in the Spanish Riding School in Vienna since 1572.
Lipizzaners were originally bred as war horses. They were not as fast as other breeds such as Arabs, but their strength and willing temperament meant that they could be taught to perform difficult, slow moves. These leaps and pirouettes that are now seen in high-school dressage demonstrations were originally battle moves, designed to frighten enemy foot soldiers. A true Lipizzaner is always dark grey when born, and becomes white within a few years, changing colour with each new summer and winter coat. The Lipizzaners of Knie's Circus are world famous, and appear in many international circuses.
Whilst traditional circus may be in decline, alternative circus has drawn on traditional skills and presented them in a more contemporary style. Circuses such as Circus Oz, Cirque du Soleil, Ra Ra Zoo and Archaos tour internationally and have attracted new audiences to circus. Gerry Cottle’s ‘Circus of Horrors’, is billed as a ‘darkly comical show’, and presents circus skills in a more theatrical framework.
Circus Oz, the Australian circus based in Melbourne, Australia opened in 1978. Its performers are all multi-disciplined; they include acrobats who play musical instruments and musicians who juggle. Their style is humorous, political and bizarre. Acts include the new and the eccentric such as a man trapped in a hamster wheel. Other acts draw on more traditional circus skills but are given a contemporary twist. Mr Sands’ 1853 feat of walking upside down is reinvented with the addition of a glass of water.
Archaos, the punk circus which came from France in the late 1980s specialises in thrilling its audiences with dangerous acts, juggling with chainsaws, jumping motorbikes and creating tension through speed, noise and a high-tech style.
Cirque du Soleil’s performances combine acrobatics with contemporary music. Founded in 1984 by Guy Laliberté, Cirque du Soleil grew from a group of performers who came together at a street festival in Canada. The original aims of the company were to use the inspiration of the heyday of circus and add to it the best of contemporary practice. The style that they have developed draws on theatre as much as circus. Set, costumes and music are an integral part of the show and performers are often characters in a story.
Here you see Marguerite Michelle Ayala, hanging by her hair. Audiences often presume that there is some hidden harness under the costume of artists who perform this trick, but the artists themselves maintain that this is not true. Asked if it hurts, Michelle said, 'It always hurts. The best you can do is try to concentrate on the juggling. When I think about that I forget the pain'. Michelle was performing with Ringling Brothers' Circus in New York City in 1979. Ringling Brothers' Circus was started in 1884 in the American state of Wisconsin by the brothers Al, Otto, Charles, John, and Alf T. Ringling. It later merged with the Barnum and Bailey show to become the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The move being executed here is called a 'double pass' where the catcher (on the left) lets go of one partner, and catches another on the same swing. This team, 'The Flying Volarez', were among the top circus acts elected to take part in the first Circus World Championships in 1976. Norman Barrett, the Ringmaster from the Blackpool Tower Circus, was Master of Ceremonies for the five day event held on Clapham Common in London. Only three or four entries were invited from the five categories (trapeze, high school horses, the high wire, cyclists and ground acrobats, and animal acts and clowns).
Late 20th century
Despite the decline in traditional circus, new circus schools have opened in the UK to train performers in a variety of circus tricks from aerial acts to juggling. Circus training is popular and growing. Performers from a variety of different areas – dance, mime, theatre and television are interested in developing circus skills.
In 1983 Gerry Cottle set up Britain’s first circus school which included touring with professional companies as part of the training for its students.
The Circus Space in London opened in 1989 as a centre for training in contemporary circus skills, teaching tumbling, trapeze, acrobatics, and juggling. The courses range from evening classes to a degree in circus.
Whilst traditional circus is in decline, a new generation of companies are reinventing circus for contemporary audiences. Circus is far from dead. Its future may lie in its ability to reinvent itself for a contemporary audience without losing sight of the conventions, skills and glory of its heyday.
These American clowns, or 'augustes', from Hoffman's American Circus are made up with the typical heavy greasepaint makeup and red noses which we associate with modern clowns. Each clown tries to create the most distinctive 'trade-mark' makeup that he can. 'Augustes' are the 'fall guys' who wear baggy trousers and often work with the elegantly dressed white-faced clown who is cleverer than his buffoon friend. Ancestors of the clown can be found in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In the Middle Ages in Europe, both 'natural' fools (who were genuinely backward) and actors who played the fool were employed as entertainers in noble households. Modern white-faced clowns find their more direct ancestor in the 'stupidus' or buffoon who appeared with the Commedia dell'arte, but the first 'auguste' clown may have been Jimmy Guyon, who made this type of clown popular in Paris at the Hippodrome de l'Alma.
This photograph from 1985 shows the performances underway in the three rings of the Ringling Brothers' Circus in America. Since buying out Barnum and Bailey's in 1907, Ringling's billed itself as 'the Greatest Show on Earth'. The staff, animals and 500 tons of equipment of the two touring shows are transported around the country on specially customised trains. The show no longer takes place under a canvas big top, but in sports arenas with all their modern conveniences. It takes around 175 people fourteen hours to set up the circus from scratch. More than eight miles of rope and wire are used in setting up each production. When Bertram Mills first agreed to mount a circus at Olympia in 1920, he commissioned Ringling to bring over his three-ringed circus, but the deal fell through because Ringling couldn't ship the circus across the Atlantic. Instead, Mills created his International Circus at Olympia, using one large ring. The huge success of these shows meant that British circus continued the single ring tradition, rather than the American three-ringed style.
The Two Arvings are seen here performing on their unicycle. The unicycle was invented in 1869 in France, adapted from what we would now recognise as an exercise bike. An Italian circus performer named Scuri created a new act using the unicycle, managing such feats as jumping over a table on his single wheel. The unicylist Harry French could play the mandolin while riding down the stairs with his brother on his shoulders. Other amazing stunts included diving into tanks of water whilst on the bike and a unicycle 'wall of death', which was later adapted for use by motorbikes.