In 1930, when the Gainesville Little Theatre discovered a $300 deficit, the theatre board decided to solve the financial problem by organizing a burlesque circus using local residents as performers. The editor of the Gainesville Register was an authority on circuses, townspeople visited professional shows for inspiration and ideas, and every member of the show spent their after-work-hours practicing. The show proved so popular that it ran for three performances and the theatre ended up with $420. From the beginning the entire operation was a volunteer effort—no one got paid—and they purchased their own costumes and made most of their equipment.
one was turned down. If a volunteer could not master the high wire or perform acrobatic tricks or swing from a trapeze, he could be a clown. The tax collector and the postmaster created the clown gags. A local car dealer donated a stock car that an auto mechanic converted into a funny Ford, a trick machine that appeared to be driverless, squirted a stream of water from the radiator, blew horns, and rang bells.
A junior college student went through four grueling months of exercises required to hang by her knees from a trapeze while holding in her “iron jaw” a girl spinning below. A housewife and young mother learned to climb hand over hand up a rope and whirl high above the ring in a Spanish web. An eleven-year-old girl wowed the crowds on the loop-the-loop trapeze and a gasoline station operator served as the principal bareback rider who stood on a galloping horse while balancing two girls on his shoulders.
When visitors from nearby Denton saw the show, they invited the circus to perform for their 1932 County Fair, which launched The Gainesville Community Circus road shows. After completing their regular day job, the circus performers drove to surrounding towns to present their three-ring circus under a big top. Profits went back into improving trapeze rigging, expanding to seven tents, and adding a 22,000 square foot big top that seated 2,500. The troupe purchased six ornamental tableau wagons, a calliope, and hundreds of costumes.
From 1930 to 1952 the circus offered 359 shows in fifty-seven different cities, cancelling only one in Ardmore, Oklahoma, in 1939 when a tornado destroyed the big top. In 1937 over 51,000 spectators crowded Fort Worth’s Will Rogers Coliseum to see the traveling show and by 1941 it was touted as the third largest circus in the country. During its twenty-five year history about 1,500 Gainesville residents performed in the circus. Although a fire in 1954 destroyed the tents and equipment, the performers struggled to rebuild the circus. After a few small shows, the troupe tried in 1958 to make a formal comeback but as the former circus president and chief clown said, “Television and air conditioning killed” the circus.
The memories are kept alive at the restored Santa Fe Depot Museum where photographs, costumes, and a 1937 Paramount Pictures newsreel shows a behind-the-scenes look at the famous Gainesville Community Circus.
I love a circus. At one time several of them over-wintered in Hugo, Oklahoma (just north of the Texas border). It was always fun to go.
P.S. Tornadoes are STILL plowing through Ardmore, OK.
Fun post full of memories. Thanks Myra
Thanks, Barb. I’m glad it brought back good times.