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.