The circus comes to town!

Do you sometimes wake up in the middle of the night around this time of year, to the sound of the ocean’s loud, crashing surf? It takes me back to the early days in Venice, when it’s not too much a stretch of the imagination to hear instead, the roar of wild animals taking the place of the roaring surf.

From 1907 – 1919, this late-night cacophony was common place in Venice, because, the circus was in town!

In December of 1906, Venice Doge Abbot Kinney, ever the promoter for his youthful city, negotiated with the Sells-Floto Circus to spend the winter season headquartered in Venice, instead of enduring their usual winter shut-down. A traditional tenting circus that traveled by train, this circus operated a large one-tent show on the banks of the Lagoon by the Midway-Plaisance, near today’s Main Street Video store. In 1869, after the golden spike was laid and train travel across the country opened up, the Castello circus, from Racine Wisconsin, was the first circus to piggy-back its cars on trains to the West Coast on the new Union Pacific.

The use of rail travel paved the way for America’s distinctive three-ring circuses, because trains could carry many more people, animals and pieces of equipment, allowing circuses be to larger.

The circus season of 1872 was the first year that a train carried a circus completely designed for rail travel. Until this point, a show was limited by how far its baggage stock horses could walk overnight. Now trains could carry circuses to towns hundreds of miles away, while performers got a good night’s sleep. 

Originally, the four Sells Brothers were Columbus, Ohio, auctioneers, deciding to start their circus in 1872. During the late 1800s, the Sells Brothers Circus became one of the largest, most successful shows of its kind in the country.

Elephants were somewhat of a passion for the Sells Brothers, who, within a decade, boasted eight elephants. The show grew steadily, and by 1878 was transported all over the United States by railway. By 1890 the Sells Brothers Circus was the second largest circus in America.

The advertising medium of those days was the ubiquitous circus poster. The splashy posters were plastered upon every available surface days in advance, proclaiming the arrival of the "hero horsemen of two hemispheres… presenting all nations, 600 people, 3 herds of elephants, 425 horses, 11 acres of tents, a splendid menagerie, and 1,001 wonders." The Sells-Floto Circus was coming to town!

Imagine, if you will, the full-color image of M’lle Breeson on a poster showing the tight-rope walker prancing precariously with a parasol. Or of Rose Millette, "the greatest bare back rider of all time," shown standing dramatically next to her lead white stead, right arm held aloft, while her horse bows and gives his right front hoof. A jester clown at right mimics the horse’s posture.

Or Princess Victoria, so regal as the "fantastic wire dancer." A high wire act of sublime sophistication, in a red ballerina’s skirt with matching leggings and ballet-esque slippers, balancing so confidently, so stare-straight-ahead, topped off with a red tuflet headdress and coordinating ear flowers. A vision of ultra-elegance balancing high above your head.

Or of M’lle Fugere and her Trained Little Baby Elephants. A fetching, come-hither lovely, she’s portrayed on a high-seated chariot with whip in hand, flowers bedecking the spoked wheels, urging the little pachyderm onward, right into another cute elephant, sitting up, waiting and pleading to be unleashed. A truly "exclusive European novelty."

The Sells-Floto Circus opened on the Midway Plaisance January 20, 1907, with a grand parade of elephants, camels and ponies. During the week the circus performers practiced their acts for the spring touring season. They gave two daily performances and established their 200 wild animal menagerie in one of the Plaisance’s unusual buildings. There was plenty of red lemonade and peanuts for the Venice tourist crowds as they viewed Del Fugo, the clown, an equestrian act and the Eddy Family, who skipped and danced across a high-wire.

Sells-Floto returned for the 1907-08 winter. Under the baton of Bandmaster Karl L. King, its featured acts included famous clowns Emmett Kelly Sr., Tony Anthony, Otto Griebling,"Bumpsy Anthony," the Eddy Family of acrobats, Sharpe’s equestrian team, a troupe of trained ponies, a knife and battle-axe throwing duo, a mule hurdle race, trained Arabian stallions, Zora, "the world’s bravest woman," and the famous herd of trained elephants.

The returning 1908-1910 version of the Sells-Floto Circus featured the Famous Nelson Family, the "Most Famous Acrobatic Act" in circus business. For fifteen minutes each evening, this remarkable four-generation family kept the spectators actually excited by their performance. It was a hurricane act from start to finish, and during its progress, as well as its conclusion, the applause was both spontaneous and deafening.

The Sells-Floto Circus brought its final parade to Windward Avenue in 1911. The performer who attracted the most attention was the harem girl who displayed her exotic costume all along the parade route.

Later that year, Paul Shoup, president of the Pacific Electric Railroad, and Abbot Kinney negotiated with the Al G. Barnes circus to establish permanent winter quarters in Venice.

Alpheus George Barnes Stonehouse, known as Al G. Barnes, was one of those rare individuals who found himself to have an exceptional "way" with wild animals. They understood him and he them, thus resulting in his development of probably the leading trained wild animal circus of Amercia.

The Al G. Barnes Wild Animal Circus, with a payroll of 506 employees and a menagerie of 600 animals, arrived in December of 1911 aboard its private train, each of its 40 cars named for a city in Southern California. The three-ring circus held its customary street parade and then treated Venetians and visitors to an exhibit of its animals – both familiar and exotic. One of the big features was the zebus, sacred cattle of India.

The circus was also the home of Tusko, an 8,000-pound elephant and featured boxing kangaroos, wrestling bears and a singing mule, Jack the Human Fly, fat Sally and her 112-pound sweetheart, and highlighted animal trainers Louis Roth and Mabel Stark, the "world’s only woman tiger trainer." She had gained her fame because the woman who had the tiger act before her got killed.

As usual, the visual cacophony of posters preceeded their arrival. Imagine the expectations aroused at seeing a huge poster proclaiming "a truly big show" featuring a tiger riding on an elephant’s back. Or another with Poodles the Clown, shown leaping over a galloping horse carrying four members of the Hanneford family, standing and waving and smiling on its back. An imminent crash lurks for certain.

Or four "big steel arenas in which are presented marvel acts by ferocious jungle animals," with 8 lions being tamed by 2 brave ring masters, whips at the ready.

The circus left its winter quarters in January 1912, for another season on the road. While in residence in the city, modern menagerie wagons had been built and a new tent was sewn for the three-ring show. Mr. Barnes expressed regret in leaving Canal City – Venice’s official name at the time – and added, "The people really have been kind and treated us royally."

Before leaving, however, one of the trio of elephants decided the street was not acceptable for strolling while he was being led from the Auditorium on the Pier to his stable near Mildred Avenue. So, he stepped between the arches and continued up Windward Arcade, unmolested. His keeper shouted ineffectual commands while various pedestrians dove from the walk into the nearest doorway. For a while it appeared as if the huge pachyderm pedestrian intended to raid Cesare Menotti’s fruit stand, but changed his mind. The beast continued his saunter to the end of the arcade where the keeper got him back in hand.

December 1914, the circus once again made a grand entrance on its return to Venice, with an outstanding street parade. City officials had decided not to allow the parade but no one informed the show people of this decision. And since locals had already lined the streets in anticipation, the Barnes people would not be thwarted.

The show ran for three weeks and then closed for the winter, with personnel either leaving for other parts or engaging rooms in Venice. The wild animal managerie was moved to the Kinney Pier where the Ostrich Farm had stood, on the south side, about where the present-day police station is located. Performers who remained in town began rehearsal of new acts for the upcoming season.

November 1915, the Barnes Circus made their annual last stop of the season in Venice and signed a contract to winter here. The show guaranteed that 300 to 350 people would reside in town, 150 of whom would be working men engaged in painting repairing and rebuilding. The remainder were chiefly performers practicing new acts for the next season on the road.

In March 1918, a herd of five elephants stampeded into the streets of Venice, frightened by a small dog that entered the ring barn of the winter quarters. Pedestrians jumped through doorways and automobiles stopped in their tracks. Trumpeting as their speed increased, the pachyderms crossed the Pacific Electric tracks on Trolleyway, now Pacific Avenue. They hesitated, then ran along Mildred Avenue toward Washington Boulevard. Their trainer, Sidney Rink, saddled his horse and, nearly a mile from the barn, finally overtook the big beasts. When Chief, the leader of the group, saw Rink facing him, he turned and the rest of the herd turned also. All were then led slowly back to the barn and fastened to their hobbles. While the elephants were gone, a number of horses and four camels took advantage of the broken fence in the corral and made their escape. They, too, were rounded up and brought back by circus employees.

Problems like these of coexistence with the residential population continually plagued the circus people. A July 1919 petition asked that the circus not be permitted to return to Venice because of "diseases, the low element they attract and the destruction of property they cause." Mrs. Cathering Kellar told tales of animals roaring and screeching all day and all night, the destruction to her property and the ever-increasing threat of escaping beasts. The roar of the lions at feeding time could be heard all the way to Ocean Park Avenue, now Glencoe.

So Barnes, flush with box office profits, bought 100 acres at Washington and Sawtelle Boulevards and opened his new permanent winter home, named Barnes City. For eight years, he entertained from that location, finally moving to Baldwin Park in the fall of 1927. The Al G. Barnes circus was merged into the Ringling Brothers Circus in 1929. The Sells-Floto circus was absorbed by Ringling the following year.

In 1984, author Ray Bradbury wrote his 34th novel, Death Is A Lonely Business. It’s a story of intrigue, based on his childhood recollections of his youth spent among the shadows and murky canals of Venice in the early 1950s. Here’s how it starts:

“Venice, California, in the old days had much to recommend it to people who liked to be sad. It had fog almost every night …and the slap of dark water in the canals and the hiss of sand against the windows of your house when the wind came up … along the empty walks.

At the end of one long canal you could find old circus wagons that had been rolled and dumped, and in the cages, at midnight, if you looked, things lived; and it was all the circuses of time somehow gone to doom and rusting away.

How the lion cages got in the canal no one knew.

But there they were, the canals and, at the end of one, …the ancient circus wagons and cages, flaking their white enamel and gold paint and rusting their thick bars.

A long time before, in the early Twenties, these cages had probably rolled by like bright summer storms with animals prowling them, lions opening their mouths to exhale hot meat breaths. Teams of white horses had dragged their pomp through Venice and across its fields.

Now all that remained of the old parade had ended here. Some of the cage wagons stood upright in the deep waters of the canal, others were tilted flat over on their sides and buried in the tides that revealed them some dawns or covered them some midnights. Fish swarmed in and out of the bars. By day small boys came and danced about on the huge lost islands of steel and wood and sometimes popped inside and shook the bars and roared.”

Like the nightly surf. And long lost circus times.