In the first half of the 20th Century, few events in the life of a child were as exciting as when the circus came to town. In the days before television, not much could compete with the parade of elephants and tigers, trapeze artists and clowns, highwire walkers and circus “freaks” that made their way to Milford every year or two. While the quality of these shows could vary greatly, and townsfolk were always on the lookout for “crooked tent shows,” the circus could also thrill like little else – truly providing, in its best moments, the greatest show on Earth.
The key to a profitable circus was promotion. To do well in a town the size of Milford, a circus needed to turn out virtually the entire town. And usually, it did. On a Tuesday in August 1937, the Milford Cabinet commented, “There were a few people in Milford who didn’t go to the Kay Circus on Monday. Not many but we found a few.” Some 1500 people crowded under the big top for a 1905 show when the town’s population was still so small that Milford was usually still called a "village." Even so, the circus had to really keep moving to make any money. One-night stands were the rule with shows at 2pm and 8pm at Endicott Park. The 1940 schedule of the Hunt Brothers Circus was not unusual, as they staged shows in Derry, Amesbury, Plymouth, Pittsfield, and Milford all in one week. As the Cabinet commented, “Moving the whole show every 24 hours is a colossal job for any circus.” One typical circus visiting Milford included 135 employees, 75 horses, 40 trucks and dozens of wild animals. And a small turnout in town could mean no return visits. Reporting daily expenses of over $1000 and losses of $500, one manager frankly told the Cabinet in 1916, “Milford is too small a town to have these exhibitions.”
Effectively promoting the show began with the circus advance man. Paying a visit to a small-town paper, he’d spread the word – as well as a few complimentary passes known as Annie Oakleys – to the newspaper staff. In turn, smalltown papers like the Cabinet would promote the circus heavily, usually quoting advance copy word for word. One Cabinet write-up in 1955 included the following paragraph: “The circus entices the emotion of wonder with a momentary view of another world, a bespangled land where sawdust is the earth, and the canvas is the clouds in the sky.” Readers likely made plans to attend while simultaneously rolling their eyes.
But a bad circus could summon the wrath of a hoodwinked newspaper reporter. One 1937 Eddy Brothers show did not live up to expectations. The next day’s paper summarized: “A buxom miss wrapped a tired four-foot python around her neck a few times while a four-piece colored band made weird noises on two trombones and a couple of drums. The ‘huge menagerie’ contained an elephant, a mountain lion, monkey, pigeons, a bear, and a few ponies.” In 1905, the Robbins circus was really roasted: “The clowns were not funny, not even a child was amused at their doings and sayings. There were not enough features in the show for more than one ring. We shall never again be fooled into recommending a circus from the stories the advance agent tells us.”
But the best circuses could provide Milford youngsters with unforgettable memories. The construction of the big top was a shown in itself. Dozens of trucks would rumble into town and roustabouts would pile out to begin assembling the small city of tents. Milford kids would be there to greet them. In June 1940, the Cabinet anticipated that “Hunt’s Circus would have the usual army of hopeful young elephant waterers on hand at dawn to offer their services in exchange for free passes.” Anticipation would often be at fever pitch as the entire circus would parade through the Oval at noon and down to Endicott Park. Things could sometimes become almost too exciting. 1200 spectators got a scare in August 1939, when just before the show was to start, “A high wind swayed the tent so badly that officials ordered everyone out.” Soon the wind subsided, and with the casualness of the day, the show simply “resumed a few minutes later.”
When the great shows came through, the dime or quarter admission price seemed well worth the expense. Often under an air-conditioned tent, three rings would operate simultaneously, and the roster of performers could be extensive. Of course, some of the most favored acts might make us wince today: The hairy man, “Oriental” dancing girl, world’s tallest woman (7 foot 6) or 650-pound woman – all subjects for intense gawking. They were joined by such performers as Argentine whip dozers with 40-foot whips, family troupes of tumbling and high perch acts, Hippodrome clowns featuring “the most modern stunts in the realm of clowndom,” beautiful snake charmers, Wild West shows and specialty acts like “Mitad the Mindreader.”
The Cook & Wilson Circus included African lions that were “put through a series of stunts by their trainers” and which the Cabinet called thrilling: “The angry roar of the beasts was blood curdling.” In 1955, in the waning days of the circus era, Beers & Barnes featured the Lois Troupe, America’s Premiere all-girl wire walkers, as well as Patsy, a bicycle-riding chimpanzee who “does everything a tomboy can do.” And Hunt’s featured Dolly the Patriotic Pachyderm, who could pick out the American flag from “a conglomeration of other emblems every time.”
These days, of course, it’s hard to find a circus outside of Vegas – and good luck waking junior up at dawn to help water down the elephants for a free ticket. But when the circus does come to New England, even for kids who have television and so much more, there is still something special about the spectacle under the big top.
The Kay Circus received a strong turnout in Milford.