Thrills

A veteran trapeze artist describes the intoxicating feeling of flying high without a safety net
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Up at the top of the circus tent, on a flying trapeze, a small white and gold figure spun dizzily. Over and over the slender steel bar it turned, now hanging by its toes, now by its knees, now by its hands, now dizzily holding by its teeth. Now it swung head downward, clinging by the very tips of its toes. Far beneath it on the ground, a man held one end of a rope, the other end of which hung just beside the white and gold figure on the trapeze. He held it far away, so that it did not touch the swinging acrobat, whose outstretched hands reached toward the audience watching from the seats below.

The man with the rope stumbles; the rope, suddenly released, swishes toward the swinging figure, strikes it, dashes it from its slender grasp, and down through space hurtles a flash of white and gold, while up above the bar swings crazily. Now the rope in its erratic course swerves toward the falling figure; the outstretched hands reach toward it, grasp and hold it; the hurtling figure, falling head downward, stops with a jerk, the legs whip down, and, a scant yard from the ground, the white and gold figure swings clear, steps off, and takes a bow. The audience applauds the daring trick; the acrobat climbs up the length of rope to the crazily swinging trapeze above and finishes her act.

No one in the crowd knew that it was a fail, that only chance swung the rope toward the falling woman; but I knew it! I was the white and gold figure, and I had a pair of sore shoulders for a while to remind me of it.

My experience has included twenty two years on the road, and fifteen seasons of aerial trapeze work with circuses, at parks and fairs, in vaudeville and indoor exhibitions of all kinds. Among the circuses in which I have appeared are those of Shipp and Feltus, an all American circus traveling in South America; Ringling Brothers; Barnum and Bailey; Sells Floto; Santos and Artigas, a Cuban circus. I have performed indoors for the Shriners, Elks, Moose, and the American Legion. My work has included trapeze, a rope called the Spanish Web, 'iron jaw' (hanging by my teeth), rings, singing and dancing. My rigging usually hung forty feet from the ground, and I have never had a safety net below me.

I liked circus life best of all. I liked the association in the dressing room, I liked the traveling in the circus cars. Out of doors all the time, in all kinds of weather and in all parts of the country! In the many years during which the circus has been -- an unfailing source of pleasure in the United States, its repertory and types of performance have varied little. It has undergone few changes. One of its fixed institutions used to be the parade, and every time I read how good for the health is an early morning ride I think of the dressing room in the days before the parade was discontinued. We used to leave the sleeping cars somewhere in the train yards, find the lot, get some breakfast if we were not too late, go to the dressing room and get ready to ride some kind of animal, or appear on a float or a cage. The parade may have been beautiful to look at, but as memory presents the scene in the dressing room as the performers made ready it is associated mostly with hurry and confusion, no time for breakfast, boiling hot days, or freezing cold. If it rained, you just got wet; if the lot was far from town, and if the parade was long, perhaps you missed your lunch as well as your breakfast. I can truthfully say that the admiration of the crowd who witness the parade has little or no effect on an empty stomach. When dinner time arrived at four thirty, there was no lack of appetite. After the parade as an institution had gone once and for all, we found that it was sorely missed by a lot of people who did not have to ride in it. But we used to read about the strenuous protests of town councils and merchants' associations against parading, and traffic conditions finally made an end of it.

A check up at the end of the first season without parades showed a general increase in the morale, health, and appearance of people and animals. Yet it used to be fun at the start of the season to watch the new members of the troupe trying to 'catch up with the parade.' If one of them moaned the lack of time, there was a chorus of reminders that people who would troupe with a circus must not expect their breakfast to be served in bed, that they ought to consider all the country they were seeing, that nothing was so healthy as an invigorating morning ride, and that it was something to wear a beautiful costume for the crowd to admire. Comforting, for a harried acrobat or horseback rider, trying to wash tights, clean shoes, fix riggings, mend clothes, bathe, or accomplish other odd tasks before the bugle blew to mount!

Parade had few compensations, but often it led to an unexpected thrill. Once I was riding on a cage filled with bears, along with half a dozen other girls, and it upset on a piece of sandy road at the far corner of the show lot. It turned over slowly, and we all followed the turn of the cage and did not get thrown off, but the bears did not like us scrambling over the bars. They were not friendly at all, and we had to do some quick moving to keep from being clawed. It was a noisy tangle: the driver was swearing, the bears were howling, we were yelling, and the elephants were coming right behind us; but nothing at all happened. And we did not go in the parade that day!

The press agents have a great deal of patter about the life of the circus people and the running of the show, but one thing which they never fail to say is true, as near true as human statement can be. They say that the circus is one big family. I can think of nothing that will describe it any better than just that. An immense family, who eat and sleep and dress and live together season after season in the close confines of the tenth and railroad cars. Hundreds of people from all parts of the world, all nationalities, all beliefs, bound by one common bond -- the show.

From the advertising placed by the cars ahead to the tearing down of the tent when the performance is over, the show is the thing. The departments of advertising, commissary, and admissions, the side show, the menagerie, the big top, the wardrobe, and the concessions, all exist only to promote the big show. Hostlers and grooms, property men, candy butchers, light and chandelier men, waiters and cooks for the cookhouse, truck drivers, wagon makers, sailmakers for the canvas of the tents, blacksmiths, water wagon men, seat men and canvas men, exist for the same purpose. The centre of activities is the back yard, the space surrounding the back door of the big top, where the show goes in and comes out. Nothing must be allowed to mar the show, nothing must interfere with it, nothing must stop it. It starts with its glittering tournament around the track in the big top. Tournament is as carefully drilled and presented as any act in the performance. Its members are acrobats, clowns, and riders; its places are assigned at the start of the season and are maintained throughout, unless accidents prevent.

About a half hour before the show is to start, a bugle call is blown. Just before the performance begins, a second call is blown. The Equestrian Director blows the whistle that actually sends the show into the tent. When the show has been delayed in getting to town the three signals follow each other closely, and there is a mad scramble to get ready.

One such day a surgeon, the guest of one of the staff, was going to watch the show from a seat placed beside the band leader. He strolled out of the back door to watch the gathering when the first bugle blew, and stood beside the leader, who told some of us afterward about the conversation. The manager of the show came out of the back door with his watch in his hand, approached the leader, and said: --

'Do you think they are ready in the dressing room? It looks like rain, and we are late now in starting.'

'Oh, I think so,' answered the leader; 'they have had fifteen minutes, and they all know we are late. Shall we have the second?'

'Yes, let's get it on its way.'

The bugle blew the call and followed it by two short quick notes, which mean, 'Hurry up.' And this is what the surgeon later told the leader: --

'What you folks call the back yard was to my notion very small and crowded. When the bugle blew, into that space poured, yes, poured, from all the dressing room tents and some of the wagons, men and women and animals, a wild hurrying mass, brilliantly clothed. Almost instantly the whistle blew, the band formed and entered the big tent, and after it came the rest of the procession. Men and women ran to their places under the very noses of camels and plunging horses and huge elephants, trumpeting their nervousness. An original beauty climbed into a palanquin swung between two jerking camels and called out, "Somebody hold these two ships of the desert so I can assume my languid air."

'The king -- I knew it was the king, because he carried his crown in his hand -- dashed wildly out of the dressing room and mounted his prancing steed, adjusting his false moustache with one hand and his crown with the other, aided by two grooms. He caught up with his queen and entered the tent with a truly royal air. Men in armor ran with spears and shields, women dressed as butterflies and flowers piloted huge costumes with enormous wings and petals -- at risk of their necks, it seemed to me. Floats detached themselves from the maze, their human burdens climbing on all over them; elephants knelt to allow their riders to get up on their backs. Expecting to see some of the men and women get trampled to death right before my eyes, I hurried into the tent to see what it looked like in there. Around the track the procession went slowly and unhurried, sparkling and glowing and in the most perfect order. I stared at it in amazement. At my hospital I thought I had a system, but here before me was a miracle.'

Most of the circus reaches town early. Often we used to plan an entertainment of some kind for the time between shows -- a dance on the stages in the big top, or a swimming party in a town where there was a large pool. In 1925 the combined circus of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey contained two teams of lady baseball players; May Wirth, the bareback rider, was captain of one, and I was captain of the other. We had a game one day to decide which was the better team; we played between shows in a lot beside the dressing room. All through the matinée the teams and their sympathizers wore their respective colors, which waved gayly from the horses in the rings, from riggings, and from costumes. Most of the show managed to be present at the game, and quite a few townspeople. An enterprising reporter on a local paper wrote that he was astonished to learn that all the members of the two teams were performers; he thought that they sank exhausted after their acts and were glad to rest. It was a good game, and about as technical as a game played by ladies should be. We chose as umpire a member of the show who was hard of hearing. All the performers were good hitters; the ball sailed far, and often and many were the arguments. It was not so hard to get them to hit and run, but the rules suffered a lot. I had as third baseman a bareback rider, her body strong as iron. A runner could reach third only after a hard struggle; and she deserved the base when she got there, for my baseman, in spite of all warning, used all her strength and resourcefulness to keep runners off her base. She ran toward second and dared them to come her way. She was used to swarming all over a horse, and she covered the base effectively. She even heaved runners away bodily, and if she tagged them they knew that they had been tagged. My pitcher was a contortionist. She had long arms, and her delivery was weird. She seared the batter half to death. The ball would come shooting at her from the strangest angles of the pitcher's body.

I always admired the wild animal trainers. There was Mabel Stark, fair and tiny, a little feather of a woman. I think that fear and Mabel had never met; yet no performance of hers was without a thrill or two. Something always happened, which she took as a matter of course. All of her tigers were twice as large as she. 'Cats,' she called them. She dressed near me in the tent, and one day she came in from her act, put her great whip in the handle of her trunk, hung her uniform coat on its hanger, and started to go out. I asked her where she was going, and she said to the doctor's tent, that one of her cats had bitten her. He had, twice, through the leg, and she spent most of the next two or three weeks in bed. As soon as she could hobble, she was on the lot looking out for her eats. She said the cat that bit her had fallen off his seat on the side of the arena and at the same moment she had stepped backward and stumbled against him, and that he was a nice well behaved tiger and would probably never do it again. She ought to know -- she knows her tigers.

And there is Olga Celeste, whom you see so much in pictures. She had a leopard act in the show in which I appeared, and dressed at the end of the aisle. Her leopards were temperamental; two of them seemed to dislike each other, and periodically they would start a row. And right into that mass of snarling, spitting, sure death she would go. A cut with a whip here and a sharp command there, and the row was over. I said to her: --

'But, Olga, suppose they should turn on you! Not for anything would I ever try to settle an argument like that! No one would ever catch me refereeing a fight, right among the fighters.'

She laughed.

'Yes, and no one will ever catch me balanced in the air on a little tiny trapeze bar.'

III

I think the saddest looking thing in all the world is the circus lot on a rainy day. Everything droops, even the spirits of the dressing room, and the band in the big top has a hollow, unearthly sound. But of course it has to rain. I have waded over and across and through so many muddy lots that I think I could identify a clod of mud from almost any section of the United States. Down South it is stickier. In some places it is black and in some brown; and some of it is a deep red; but it always is just mud. In the big top it is nicely covered with sawdust, but we have no trouble in finding it.

On a muddy lot one day, I finished my act and came down my rope looking for a nice spot in which to land. I chose a spot that looked innocent of guile, and was deceived -- I went in up to my thighs, and it took two property men to fish me out.

A muddy lot, especially on a rainy day, works the greatest hardships on the stock and workingmen. They are right in the thick of it, for the heavy wagons must be brought to the lot and placed. I have never seen kinder drivers than those who travel with the circus. They love their teams; they care for them as though they were children. I have seen them with tears streaming down their faces, calling out to their horses when they were half buried in the mud themselves. On a dull, cloudy day, a bridge that we were crossing caved in beneath the weight of the cookhouse steam wagon. Four of the six horses had successfully crossed. On the seat of the wagon as it went down, the driver loosened the reins and called to his team, and steady and sure they pulled. They dug their hoofs into the pavement and, fighting for a foothold, strained with all their strength. The driver, cut about the head, was fast losing consciousness, but still he called to them, and as long as they heard his voice they pulled. Help was soon there, and men cut the traces and released the team. The driver sobbed like a child for one horse that had broken a leg so badly that it had to be shot.

Rain, wind, and mud make it difficult to work in the air on a rigging that jumps and rattles with the poles of the big top. Wind is the greatest danger of all.

I remember particularly a storm in a town in the Middle West. A cyclone appeared shortly after the matiné began. The big top was crowded; a lot of people were sitting on the ground on straw, in front of the seats. It was hot and uncomfortable. As the wind rose and the tent flapped, some of the crowd near the top ranks of seats began to get nervous, but the show went on just the same. As it grew dark the lights were lit and inside the big top you could not tell much about the storm. Ushers watched the spectators who grew nervous, and soon the crowd settled down. Acts came and went, and to all appearances the show was going on in a calm, unhurried manner. I guess that most performers are nervous themselves at a time like this, but they do not show it. A part of their task is to reveal only a smiling face to the crowd.

But outside the tent no such calm prevailed. All the workingmen on the lot were there, working in gangs of five or six, driving stakes as fast as they pulled, tying down flapping canvas, fixing broken ropes, changing broken poles. Down want our cookhouse (we had a cold meal), and the side show followed it. The dressing room, in the shelter of the side show, soon had a sad air; its poles were at all angles, and its canvas looked like a bad job of draping. The rain came down in torrents, but by the time the matiné was over it had dwindled to a drizzle, and the crowd poured out of the show and viewed with the greatest astonishment the tenth that had been blown down, and the uprooted trees on the lot. And about nine miles away a small village had to be rebuilt. Luckily, we did not get the full force of the blow.

Often during a storm the water floods the tent and you dress on the top of your trunk while the whole thing rocks and the canvas flaps and the side poles dance and wiggle around. And often the tent blows down and is scattered all around the surrounding country. In Cleveland, a storm came suddenly off the lake and the wind blew so hard that the show had to be shortened. I fought the wind to get to the big top, just as word was being sent back that the show would end with what was in the ring. By the time I got back to the dressing room, about three minutes later, one end of it was down and the other looked as if it would soon be on its way. We put our street clothes on over our costumes and dressed in the railway station, which is close to the lot there. In Canada, a sudden wind rose just before the night show started, and in a wink the dressing room was half a block away on top of the station. We closed down our trunks and made a bee line for the cars, for all the rest of the tents were sailing merrily away. The big top was nearly torn to shreds.

IV

People have sometimes asked me how it feels to fall from a great height.

Such an experience is commonly supposed to be thrilling. It is, when it is all over, and if the performer who falls is still able to feel a thrill. My past life never floated through my mind during the falls I have myself undergone; I was too much occupied with the immediate present.

I know that all successful aerialists have a sort of sixth sense that makes it possible for them to keep a clear head and perfect presence of mind while performing high in the air. I know that I am not dizzy on my rigging, or at any height, and that I never was. An aerialist from long and arduous practice acquires a keen sense of balance -- so very keen that any slackening of the rigging is felt at once. From the same practice comes the ability to decide instantly what is to be done in such a case, and also the instant response of a finely trained body. An aerialist with a head full of fear and a wavering judgment will not stay in the air very long. The perilous moment that demands quick thought usually finds the true performer with a mind in good working order. An emergency comes, a decision is made and acted upon.

Sometimes, when the accident is averted, the audience sees what appears to be a fumbled trick, and again, when Lady Luck has a day off, it sees a fall. Occasionally the rigging breaks, and that will come under the heading 'just too bad.' But the percentage of fatal and serious accidents in circus life is very small, and the number of lucky escapes is legion. For my own part, I did my work because I liked it. The thrill of a fall or two affected me little, except to make me more careful.

In a New York paper was an account of a young woman who desired to commit suicide. She chose to jump off a sixteen story building, and she was soon on her way to the sidewalk. The paper said that in some way while she was falling she learned how to fall, as the circus performer learns. An automobile was parked near the curbing and she went right through the top of it and escaped with a broken shoulder and a dislike for high dives. We circus people read the account, and after a careful check up in the dressing room we could not find a performer who knew how to fall. We agreed that you just fall and that you usually land on what happens to be under you.

Once I was gayly balanced on my trapeze when a steel ring at the top of the centre pole broke with a loud snap. The break, occurring on one side, turned the rigging and threw me sideways and right toward the centre pole. I did not think of anything at all simply opened my arms imploringly and met the pole, and slid down its length to the ground, acquiring slivers and blue paint all the rugged way, and leaving little pieces of my skin and tights and the whole front of my white satin costume. Down on the ground, I gathered the remnants of my tights and costume around me, took one look at the tangled mass of my rigging on the ground, and crept out of the back door to the dressing room. Later, the band leader told me that the next time I put a long slide for life in my act I ought to let him know in advance, and he would have the drummer cooperate with a stirring roll on his snare drum. The doctor picked splinters out of me for an hour or so, and every once in a while during the rest of the season I would find one or two he had overlooked. I must have been too eager to get started on my slide, for I had a bump on my forehead, black and blue and very prominent.

Many people believe that after a hard fall it is a dreadful struggle to climb back on the rigging. I know that where the fall has been due to a trick that has miscarried the performer practises it as soon as he can, to find out how the mistake happened. And after a fall the acrobat goes back to work as soon as he is able, because muscles soften quickly without regular practice. If the performer is fearful of the trick, then he works to regain confidence.

I think that Hilary Long, the head balancer, gets about as many falls as anyone in the business. He slides down a wire while balanced on his head. To carry his weight, and give the needed resistance, the wire is guyed down very tightly. He has to watch every part of his whole rigging constantly, for overstrain. And he has to examine the slope of the ground, so as to determine how gravitation will act, and its texture, to see whether it will hold the stakes. He is a calm little chap, hard to ruffle. He climbs his rope ladder up to his pedestal and looks down the slide wire while the announcer is telling the audience that he is about to slide down that slender wire, balanced on his head. He takes his position on his head, and away he goes. Part way down, perhaps, he loses his balance, and cannot recover it. He catches the wire with his hands, turns over, slides to the ground hanging by his arms, goes patiently up the rope ladder again and gets ready to do it all over. Down again he comes, after an assistant has adjusted some part of the apparatus. If he makes it this time, he steps off on the ground beneath his wire, takes a bow, and departs. He hears the applause, but his mind is busy with the reasons why he did not succeed the first time. He does not give a single sign that only the quickness of his eye, his hands, his body, has kept him from a broken neck. If you should ask him about it, be would probably tell you, as he told me, that of course he grabs the wire if he can -- that nobody wants a broken neck.

The big show dressing room accommodates most of the performers, clowns, and animal trainers. It is divided into two parts, for the men and the women, and in the centre are ranged the wardrobe tables and trunks containing the tournament clothes. Outside, in private tents, and sometimes in the wagons, are the dressing rooms of the stars and feature performers. Inside the big dressing room the trunks are arranged in rows with an aisle between. They are all numbered and are in the same place every day. Each member of the circus is allowed a small folding chair, and each has his own buckets for washing and bathing. Outside, on the guy lines of the tent, clotheslines may be strung. Nearly all the larger towns have one day service for laundry and cleaning, and that is arranged by the porters in the sleeping cars.

The dressing room is looked upon by the circus people as home. It is the only home they have, the long season through, and they act there just as you do in your own home. It has no rules, for it needs none; it is respected and guarded and cared for, much as you respect and guard and care for your own home. As the people who take part in the show are gathered from all parts of the world, the dressing room is a lively place, full of all manner of personalities. Dangers, good times, pleastires, floods, escapades, birthdays, weddings, quarrels, are intimately shared, and everyone risks his neck with his neighbor. There are clubs of all kinds, most of them favoring sports, but chess and card clubs also have their place. Most of the women do lovely embroidery and make their own costumes.

Often the gay orderliness of the dressing room gives place to a hush and a hurrying. As the show goes on, you keep in mind the piece the band is playing and that tells you what troupe is working in the big top. When there has been an accident it is almost always the sudden change in the music that tells of it. For a new number is begun as soon as possible and the next act goes in to take the memory of the disaster from the audience. The man who blows the whistle to start and stop the acts is just inside the back door, watching closely. If an accident occurs, he blows his whistle, and the band concludes its piece. The next act is ready, of course, but the one next to that must hurry up.

One day when the high perches were working the band suddenly went into the fast music of their finish. The number that followed was a riding number, and of course it was ready. I was in the next number to that one, and I hurried to finish dressing. We knew that something had happened; the wife of one of the perch performers went out to the big top. The dressing room became quiet; one or two women came and helped me dress. We learned from a property boy that a perch had broken and that two men were hurt. In the big top, while I was walking down the track toward my rigging, I remembered that that particular act worked in the same ring in which I was now to perform; and when I stepped into the loop of my line, to be pulled up to my rigging, I saw the broken pole lying on the ground, just outside the ring. It is not an easy thing to work at such a time. You have in mind, of course, the injured performers; and then the audience is not in a good mood. They will not enjoy your offering, and the more thrills you provide, the more coldly they will receive them.

This audience was not only still, it was tense, and later, in the dressing room, I learned why. The man on the perch was hanging by one foot from a loop at the top of the pole when it broke. He dropped at once. The man below, the pole on his shoulders, turned so that the part of the pole he was still holding would not fall into the audience, and threw it away from him and got beneath the falling man. There was not time to brace himself for the shock of the contact; he caught his partner on his shoulders and both of them went to the ground in a heap. All in the flash of a moment, the man below had done the only thing he could do, bravely and without hesitation. The crowd knew that he had taken a hero's part and that perhaps he had given his life to save another. They were both back in the ring inside of three weeks. The one below had a strained back and the one on top had a broken shoulder blade.

VI

The train, as well as the big top, provides its moments of excitement. On a long Sunday run in the Cascades, a drawhead pulled on one of the elephant cars, and as there was no sidetrack long enough to allow the train crew to put the car anywhere else, it was shunted out ahead of the engine. The car was full of small elephants, and when a few moments later we stopped on a curve we saw their little trunks waving out of the doors to right and to left. The sides of the car were going in and out as if they were being agitated by a monstrous kind of breathing, and the elephants were telling the world that they did not enjoy being pushed along ahead of the engine. As soon as trackage allowed they were put on the end of the train, for a herd of baby elephants all possessed by one idea is quite enough to wreck a train.

Somewhere in the Northwest where we stopped on a long run to feed and water, our section of the train pulled into the town just as the crew were switching the cars of the first section, soon to be on its way. They were for the most part flat cars, loaded with cages containing the animals of the menagerie, two cages to a flat. The yards were full of people who had gathered from all the surrounding country to see what they could see. Some few of us left our coaches and started to walk down the tracks toward the town just as the train crew were bringing two lines of flat cars toward each other. To the right of us was a cross track with a line of slowly moving cars, each with its load of cages, and coming toward it from the other way was another string about as long. There was a sudden shout, and we looked just in time to see one of the cars from the second string break away from the others and head for the centre of the first string. Right before our startled gaze, the runaway car hit one of the others square in the centre, and the cages rose in the air. I expect that everyone there knew as well as we knew that there were wild animals in the cages; there was a wild yell, and a rush, and the yards were cleared. Someone grabbed me by the arm and shouted: --

'Come on away from here! When those cages come down it will be raining wild animals all over the place!'

I had no intention of seeing what would happen; I just vanished. I was back in my berth when the loud crash announced that everything was on the ground. A kangaroo was killed, and a large bird of some kind. Luck was certainly in attendance. Tigers or lions might have been harder to kill.

Toward the end of the season, when the nights are cold and you wonder what you have done with your season's salary, many discussions occur in the dressing room as each performer tries to decide whether to play in vaudeville or to take a long rest. There is much thinking back over the season's trek, and bets on the closing date are offered.

When the circus is over, the people before whom we have played are conscious of the tug and the pull of it, even as we are, as they frantically pick the children off the hack fence, or the roof of the garage, where they are imitating the acrobats. There is a lure, and a memory, that will bring them to see the show when next it comes to town, just as we know that when the whistle blows to start the next season we shall be there.

It is the last night, and the last act has played and bowed and left the sawdust ring. The band pauses, then swings into 'Auld Lang Syne'; all work on the lot stops until it is played, and then as the last note dies away there is a cheer, rising from the hundreds of throats. Something has gone. The characters are changed into men and women; the circus has folded its tents and vanished, silently, magically, somewhere into the night.

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