Monday, February 19, 2007

Polack Bros. Shrine Circus


When the Polack Bros. Circus came to town, I used to go to the IMA auditorium a day or two before it opened to watch them set up and rehearse for the opening. Flint was the first date of their tour, although they had a second unit that played in Saginaw at the same time. It was exciting to watch new acts rehearsing. I loved everything about the circus, the animal smells, the music, costumes and excitement and of course, the tight, tights on the trapeze artists. I guess that is the reason so many gay people go to the ballet, to see men showing off their cocks in tights. Mel Brooks did a comedy take-off on this in one of his films.


In those days the Polack show used to have big production numbers, big extravaganzas with the whole circus participating. (Ringling still does). This was different from what they called "spec," when they all parade around the arena in costumes. An aerialist by the name of Barbette, was the choreographer. At one time he had worked the web in drag. A web is a rope that hangs from the ceiling and females in elaborate costumes, climb the rope and do different twists and movements to the music. It is beautiful to watch. It's also dangerous. Barbette used to dress as a woman to do the act, but one day fell and from then on he walked with a limp and never worked the web again. But, he used to teach others how to do the act. He taught a young man by the name of Jerry Phillips, who lived in Flint. Jerry even traveled with the circus for a while. But, he had to hang in the air, by a rubber ball in his mouth, (in drag), attached to a rope that was twirled around and Jerry said it nearly killed him. Years later, Jerry would kill himself by hanging after becoming a drug addict. When I knew Jerry he was in his teens and was always around the circus and he was a very handsome young man. He had one of those perfect faces like Rob Lowe, but drugs had taken their toll and over a few years you could see him age and lose his looks.

My favorite clown was Lou Jacobs. He had toured with the Ringling show, but for a couple of years he toured with Polack. When I met him, in the early fifties, he had just gotten married. I've forgotten his wife's name but she was very pretty and friendly. Lou drove a small car, just a couple of feet wide. I don't know how he managed to twist his large six foot frame to fit in that small a space. He had been having trouble with the motor and I used to hold his tools for him while he worked on it. During the "walk-in" when customers first arrived in the auditorium, Lou would walk around holding a bird cage with a yellow clown shoe hanging inside. And he would whistle real loud, like a bird. In the movie, "The Greatest Show On Earth," Charlton Heston walks past him and says "Lou you had better feed your bird," and you could see the bird cage with the shoe hanging in it.

His make-up was the best clown make-up and the Ringling show later used his photograph as a type of logo. Lou died a few years ago and I know his fans miss him, although he had retired a year or so before he passed away. His daughter is now performing in the Ringling show. I think Lou may have left the Ringling show, when I met him, due to a drinking problem. He was sober during rehearsals but would get pretty tipsy when the show started. Not falling down drunk, but high. You could smell the whiskey on his breath. But, he was still able to do his act and entertain the crowd.

One of the best production numbers I can remember was to the song, "Be A Clown, " which Judy Garland sang in, "The Pirate," movie. It was a wonderful song and Lou led the performers in the number, with the pretty girls doing web, while the Ringmaster sang the words to the song. I'll always remember that as well as Lou, my favorite clown.

During the rehearsals there would often be serious accidents. One time the net catching the trapeze artists, split and the flyer nearly hit the floor. Many acts had to audition at the rehearsals and many were very bad. I would get so involved with the circus that I would go to the IMA as soon as I got out of school and I would watch all three performances on Saturday. I was such a familiar face that the security guards thought I was with the circus and I would walk through the performer's door and never be stopped, and never had to pay to get in. Later, when I got older, I used to skip school and spend the whole week there. When the circus left, it left me feeling so alone. But, there would always be the next year.

I met several of the clowns, and at that period of time. I'd say 80% of the clowns were gay. Many were older men who didn't want to retire and decided to become clowns in the circus. They were all wonderful people and professional in every way. This is where I met Robert "Locke" Lorraine. He was with the Polack show and very friendly. Out of make-up he was a very handsome man. Between seasons he would work as a movie extra in Hollywood where he lived. Locke used to let me sit in the make-up dressing room and watch everyone get into clown drag. I really enjoyed it. One time I started whistling and really got jumped on. It's a bad omen to whistle in a dressing room and clowns were very superstitious. The clowns were all familiar with the gay Golden Spike bar, a couple of blocks away. Since it was a bar/restaurant, I could get in too.

One funny thing that happened was watching the elephant man cleaning out the elephants before they performed. He would put water on his bare arm and slip it into "the elephant's ass" and pull out the lumps of shit. This was so the elephants wouldn't shit on the floor during their performance, although sometimes they still did. The trainer would lift the elephant's front leg, so the guy could reach all the way into the elephant's intestines. He'd pull out a lump then reach in for another. Bill Gallagher, a Flint Journal photographer, took a picture of him doing this and used to show it around town. He asked the guy why he didn't stop doing it? The guy was supposed to have said, "and quit showbusiness?" Bill is the photographer who took the famous picture of Adlai Stevenson's shoe, with a hole in the sole. Stevenson was running for President and while sitting down, had crossed his leg and Bill, seeing the hole, discreetly took the photo that was printed around the world. He won an award for it.

I think that a lot of the stagehands were envious of circus people, because the circus people were always traveling from town to town, and lived in an entertainment atmosphere, with the costumes, music and audiences. I used to notice that they often stood around watching everything, just like a little kid. And they were always ready to do whatever was asked of them, in helping to set up and take down the show. Cecil B. DeMille was right. It was the "Greatest Show On Earth."

( Silkini-The Asylum of Horrors-On stage