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!”
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.
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