Modern Circus, theatre
Cavallini's crazy car, Bertram Mills' Circus, Olympia, London, 1948-49 season, black and white photograph
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, about 1960, black and white photograph. Museum no. OL.51/52.1
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, Olympia, London, 1949-50 season, black and white photograph. Museum no. OL.VI.49/50.6A-7
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, Olympia, London, 1950-51 season, black and white photograph. Museum no. OL.IV.51/52.27
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, Bertram Mills' Circus, Olympia, London, 1951-52 season, black and white photograph. Museum no. OL.V.51/52.37
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, Olympia, London, 1960-61 season, black and white photograph. Museum no. OL.I.58/59.19
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.