Jamie at Durward Discussions posted a delightful and informative article about the legendary circus showman P.T. Barnum titled Under The Big Top. That same day, my Spousal Unit left me a note telling me that our local PBS station would air a program on June 4th about my favorite circus: The Gainesville Community Circus. It seemed to me that my circus story was screaming to be written.
Now I must confess that I’ve never gotten to go to the circus. My parents preferred watching television in the air conditioned living room. Personally, that’s my preference also. But, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of going to a circus.
Y’all haven’t ever heard of the Gainesville Community Circus, have you? Don’t worry, I wouldn’t have either if I hadn’t lived in the tiny North Texas community of Gainesville for several years.
In 1973, I married a man from Gainesville and settled into his community, about which I knew virtually nothing. A sudden urge came over me to know “my roots.” I needed to know about the people whose genes had combined to make me the person I was. I joined a genealogical society, and began to query my family about our own personal “begats.” Imagine my surprise to discover that my maternal grandmother had been born and raised in Gainesville, when I had never even heard of the town before I moved there! I began interrogating my Grandmommy.
At first she was reluctant to tell me much about her family. Hers was as dysfunctional as they come. Her parents had divorced when she was young, and neither of them could be burdened to take their children! My Grandmommy and her siblings were separated and farmed out with other families. Eventually I got it across to Grandmommy that I needed to know this information, and she finally began to talk. Oh, the stories I got from her were wonderful! She told me about her grandmother, who was Native American, and about an uncle of hers who was a sheriff. She told me about schoolteachers in the family and about seeing lynchings when she was small. It was exciting for me to hear these tales.
One story in particular caught my imagination. She told me this,
“I remember that my uncle had an alligator act in the Gainesville Community Circus. He had a house on Culberson Street. In back, there was a pit dug in the ground with a shed built over it. That’s where he kept those big ole alligators, and sometimes he let us kids toss chunks of meat to feed ’em.”
Wow! I had a Great-Great Uncle who was in the circus! Why, that was almost as good as having a President or a bank robber in the family tree.
I began to research the ]Gainesville Community Circus. The local museum had information, and I talked to historians in the area. I also found the postcards you see in this post. That little circus was a pretty fascinating enterprise.
The Gainesville community theater found itself in debt during the Great Depression. Business was slacking off, because people were drawn to those new-fangled talking movies. A fellow named A. Morton Smith was the director of the theater, and also the editor of the local paper. He had always been fascinated by the circus, and proposed that the troupe put on a burlesque circus to raise money. The idea sparked and caught like a wildfire in the breeze. Housewives made costumes, and men created rings, stages, props, and hurdles. The first performance, in 1930 featured trapeze acts, high wire stunts, clowns, bare back riding stunts, and animal acts. All of the performers were volunteers from the community…just regular folks. It was a success and paid off the debts for the theater. On top of that, the circus group was invited to take the show on the road and perform at the Denton County Fair (30 miles south) the next year.
From 1930 to 1952 that circus of volunteers gave over 350 performances in fifty-seven cities around the United States. Through the years, more than 1,500 Gainesville residents were involved in the production of the circus. None of the performers had “professional” circus experience, and all of them worked for nothing more than the delight of performing a good show. And, it must have been good because Billie Rose, who was one of the most famous showmen of the era, called the Gainesville Community Circus, “the most delightful thing I have ever seen.”
It became a three ring circus with trapeze artists, clowns, jugglers, acrobats, high-wire performers, a band, and acrobats. The big top covered more than 20,000 square feet and could seat 2,500 people. The circus had seven tents, six ornamental wagons, a calliope and more. The circus animals included an elephant, lions, chimpanzees, and Shetland ponies. It’s fame was “world-wide.”
But, what about my Great-Great Uncle’s “alligator act?” The official historian for the circus at the time I was doing my research told me that they never had an alligator act, and had never heard of my uncle! What?!
I had my feathers ruffled when I approached my Grandmommy. I snapped, “Grandmommy, I can’t believe any story that you told me now! I talked to the people who keep the history of the circus and they said there was no such thing as an alligator act and that your uncle was never a part of the circus! I can’t believe a word you say. Why did you tell me all that?”
She sat at that white Formica table in her kitchen with her coffee cup in hand. Grandmommy smiled an impish grin as she took a drag of her cigarette. She blew the smoke high in the air, winked at me over her glasses and said,
I guess I know whose genes make me the person I am.
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
If you’d like to know more about The Gainesville Community Circus, here are some good references: