When one ring had a ring

All sum­mer long we boys dreamed ’bout cir­cus joys! Down Main Street comes the band, Oh! “Ain’t it a grand and glo­ri­ous noise!”

Pasatiempo - - Onstage This Week - Craig Smith For The New Mex­i­can

Those words from Charles Ives’ song “The Cir­cus Band” con­vey the ex­cite­ment of the days when cir­cuses were a sta­ple en­ter­tain­ment all over the United States. Big and small tops held their own for decades, from the early 1800s clear up into the 1950s and ’60s. Since they trekked to just about any town with rail or road ac­cess and a big enough space to set up the show, they out­lasted chal­lenges from movies and ra­dio; it was the spread of tele­vi­sion that fi­nally took them down. Why go out in the hot sun to take in a cir­cus pa­rade or stand in line for ad­mis­sion when you could watch the world from home— in­clud­ing cir­cus acts?

But be­fore then, the snappy sound of a rous­ing cir­cus band was long the sig­nal for ex­cite­ment and fun in cities and towns of ev­ery size. In New Mex­ico, the sound might an­nounce any­thing from a good-sized cir­cus such as W.W. Cole’s, which played Santa Fe in 1884, to one of the many Mex­i­can cir­cuses that toured the South­west in the 19th and early-to mid-20th cen­turies. Th­ese carpas were gen­er­ally small, fam­ily-run op­er­a­tions, in which ev­ery mem­ber of the clan took part in some way. They per­formed in a Euro­pean sin­gle-ring for­mat rather than the three-ring ar­range­ment beloved by such Amer­i­can giants as Rin­gling Broth­ers or Bar­num and Bai­ley; in­ter­spersed with the per­for­mances in the ring were song and dance num­bers on a stage at one end of the tent. But they al­ways had a well-schooled band in sharp uni­forms, and every­one took pride in his work.

Given that New Mex­ico was a ter­ri­tory un­til 1912, with few cities and not many well-main­tained roads, it’s no sur­prise that the big-daddy cir­cuses gen­er­ally came no closer to Santa Fe than Texas, Colorado, and Ari­zona; maybe, they played the south­ern part of the ter­ri­tory as they cut from Texas over to the west. P.T. Bar­num’s route books from 1871 to 1880 (visit cir­cushis­tory. org) show that Bar­num got no closer to New Mex­ico than cen­tral Texas dur­ing this pe­riod. Cooper, Bai­ley & Co.’s route books from 1876 to 1879 tell a sim­i­lar story. Van Am­burgh & Co.’s 1875-1877 route took it all around the East Coast and Mid­west, with a fi­nal note that, beginning in Jan­uary 1878, the show would “travel by steamer in South­west for two months,” which ruled out New Mex­ico. On the other hand, in 1912 the Sells-Floto Cir­cus played Al­bu­querque on March 30 and Las Cruces on April 1, dipped down to El Paso for a show on April 2, came to Dem­ing on April 3, and then headed west into Ari­zona and Cal­i­for­nia.

Dur­ing th­ese years, the field was left open to smaller op­er­a­tors in­clud­ing the Mex­i­can cir­cuses, known as las maro­mas, or the

stunts. The name was apro­pos, for the Mex­i­can cir­cuses fo­cused on hu­man abil­i­ties rather than an­i­mal acts, some­thing like to­day’s Cirque du Soleil. They might have some eques­trian or dog acts — the fa­mous Es­calante Broth­ers had a per­form­ing bear one sea­son and Poines, “the only singing coy­ote in the world” — and oc­ca­sion­ally they might rent big cats and an ele­phant or two, com­plete with their own keep­ers and wag­ons. But in gen­eral, the fo­cus was on ac­ro­bat­ics, trapeze work, slack-or tight-wire walk­ing, clown­ing, con­tor­tion­ists, and so on in the ring, with comic songs and Span­ish danc­ing mixed in from the stage. Each cir­cus had its own dis­tinc­tive set of colors for uni­forms, wag­ons, and other re­galia.

Un­like most big shows, Mex­i­can cir­cuses ap­par­ently had no sideshows or freak shows, though they usu­ally of­fered for­tunetelling and some­times sold cures in the style of a medicine show. As au­thor Car­men Guzmán noted in the Spring 1998 is­sue of La Heren­cia mag­a­zine, writ­ing about her early years in the famed Or­tiz fam­ily cir­cus, her fa­ther sold cures along with be­ing a fa­vorite clown en­ter­tainer, and her mother was a re­spected cu­ran­dera who also took part in the fam­ily’s sharp­shoot­ing act. The show played all over New Mex­ico, and Guzmán noted that “in Taos, a cir­cus tent was erected on the empty lot near the Plaza. One night, as the cir­cus was per­form­ing, my fa­ther made a lady laugh so much that she had a heart at­tack and died. He was ar­rested for her death, but the charges were later dropped.”

In the Jan­uary-Fe­bru­ary 1961 Band­wagon mag­a­zine of the Cir­cus His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, Bob Taber paid trib­ute to some of the mas­ters of the Mex­i­can cir­cus. He wrote, “There was an era in the cir­cus his­tory of the South­west, prin­ci­pally Cal­i­for­nia, Ari­zona, New Mex­ico, and Colorado, when the so-called Mex­i­can cir­cus filled its place”— that is, the place of big-top at­trac­tions. Through the 1940s, the kings of such troupes in­cluded the three Es­calante Broth­ers, the Ri­vas Broth­ers, Juan Soto, El Modelo, and the Or­tiz cir­cus. The qual­ity of the hu­man acts was so high that many Mex­i­can per­form­ers wound up star­ring in ma­jor cir­cuses as acro­bats, trapeze per­form­ers, or spe­cialty acts, and Mex­i­can per­form­ers are still a sta­ple in big shows to­day.

Las Maro­mas,

The Es­calante Broth­ers were kings of the saw­dust, Taber said. They got their first cir­cus go­ing in 1909, and the show moved through Mex­ico via ox cart. They came to Brownsville, Texas, in Oc­to­ber 1911 for a suc­cess­ful three-month run, and then re­turned to Mex­ico and were caught by the Pan­cho Villa revo­lu­tion. In short or­der, they came back over the bor­der for safety and cus­tomers who would pay to watch them, rather than shoot out the can­vas.

The broth­ers’ band was one of their ma­jor at­trac­tions. “Mr. Es­calante still feels, as he did, that to have a suc­cess­ful cir­cus one should have a good tent, lots of bright light, and a good band,” Taber wrote af­ter in­ter­view­ing Mar­i­ano Es­calante around 1960. “He re­calls that in 1916 there were 16 loud-blow­ing mu­si­cians in the band. The first cal­liope was de­liv­ered to the cir­cus of Las Cruces, New Mex­ico, in the sum­mer of 1929. With that and his band he pa­raded in Agua Pri­eto over the bor­der, bring­ing good busi­ness that night across the in­ter­na­tional line to his show.”

Cir­cuses, in­clud­ing the Es­calantes, did come to Santa Fe rel­a­tively of­ten dur­ing the late 1800s and well into the 1900s, though ex­act records are hard to come by. Un­til the Lamy-Santa Fe rail spur was com­pleted in 1880, they would have had to come cross-coun­try from the Ra­ton Pass or from Ok­la­homa or Texas, or toil up La Ba­jada from Al­bu­querque. Al­ter­nately, they might come down from the west­ern edge of Colorado. But the area’s wide-open spa­ces were a prob­lem in terms of trav­el­ing over­land: cir­cuses by na­ture needed to do short hops so as to not ex­haust per­form­ers and to make enough money to keep go­ing. Amer­i­can cir­cuses would thus seek main routes, while the rel­a­tively smaller Mex­i­can cir­cuses could stop in many vil­lages or ham­lets where peo­ple sel­dom saw out­siders and where the shared Span­ish lan­guage was a plus.

Af­ter 1880, we do know that cir­cuses of­ten came here via the spur and camped on what is now the west side of St. Fran­cis Drive. To round out the tour­ing pic­ture, there were smaller op­er­a­tions mov­ing about. His­to­rian Marc Sim­mons, in a 2004 New Mex­i­can ar­ti­cle, noted that min­strel shows and medicine shows were com­mon in New Mex­ico along with the Mex­i­can cir­cuses. He ref­er­enced a trio called Los Arabes that played Taos in the sum­mer of 1890. Whether they were re­ally Ara­bic, or even from the Mid­dle East, is un­known, though all three men wore fezzes as well as suit­able cos­tume. They had a trained and muz­zled bear that danced to the sound of pipes. On the other hand, troupes of Gyp­sies, which were also com­mon in the 1800s and into the 1900s, were known as Tur­cos, or Turks. They trav­eled in red wag­ons drawn by bur­ros, Sim­mons said, and sold live­stock and told for­tunes, be­sides of­fer­ing en­ter­tain­ments with trained dogs or mon­keys. They were mostly seen along the Río Grande from So­corro up to Ber­nalillo.

In the case of Mex­i­can cir­cuses, it was more than chang­ing times that shut them down. As else­where in the coun­try, New Mex­ico town coun­cils seem to have re­garded many trav­el­ing shows the way me­dieval burghers viewed ac­tors: as rogues and vagabonds. One method of con­trol was to ini­ti­ate a li­cense fee for any itin­er­ant group that wanted to per­form, then keep rais­ing it. In his ar­ti­cle, Sim­mons noted that as early as 1833, the Santa Fe city gov­ern­ment re­quired show op­er­a­tors to pay for and get a li­cense. Over time, such fees could rise so high that they cost more than a day’s tak­ings. And that was a tightrope few could walk safely.

The Elks’ Bur­lesque Cir­cus Pa­rade, circa 1892; Cen­ter for South­west Re­search, Uni­ver­sity Li­braries, The Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico; Neg­a­tive No. 000-119-0720

Ta-da! Above and left two pho­tos, mem­bers of the Es­calante Broth­ers cir­cus (in­clud­ing Sadie the Ele­phant)

Cir­cus poster; Inset, ad from The New Mex­i­can, 1912

The Elks’ Bur­lesque Cir­cus Pa­rade, 1900, Cen­ter for South­west Re­search, Uni­ver­sity Li­braries, The Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico; Neg­a­tive No. 000-119-0716

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