Circus Cowboys by Boyd Magers

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Circus Ring MasterCIRCUS COWBOYS

With the cessation of Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey Circus after 146 years, we thought it would be good to look back at the B-Western Stars that appeared with various circuses.

The first real circuses began in Europe and eventually came to the U.S. in 1793, beginning in Philadelphia. By the 1800s traveling troupes went from town to town in wagons drawn by horses and mules. TV Westerns took hold of that idea with “Circus Boy” and “Frontier Circus” series. Barnum and Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” flourished in the late 1800s. The first Ringling Brothers Circus went out in 1884. Over time they bought out several small circuses and in 1907 bought Barnum and Bailey but the two shows didn’t merge into one circus until 1919. In the intervening years they traveled separately.

During the golden age of B-Westerns the big five stars were Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson and Tim McCoy. All were featured with circuses. Some worked in a circus before their film career; some started their own circus or wild west show. Other than Mix all their shows were unsuccessful.

Mix joined Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Wild West in 1905. Around 1909 he was with A. S. Dickey’s Circle C Ranch Wild West. Dickey had a connection with the Selig Polyscope Company where Tom made early films. After becoming a major star, sound pictures challenged him and in 1929 he went to work for the Sells-Floto Circus for three years. Zach Terrill, owner of Cole Brothers Circus, said, “When I was on Sells Floto with Tom Mix, we could set up five miles out in the country in a weed patch and do turn away business.” Mix’s appearances were always popular, though they were more a measure of his fame than of his circus skill. In his liberty act, as an example, the horses were not well trained and it was Mix’s habit to go sit on the ring curb and wait when a horse temporarily forgot his lessons. Mix received invitations almost every day to speak before luncheon groups or similar gatherings. His personal popularity was immense. He could have fronted something much less in the way of a circus and still made money. But here was a strong show combined with a national celebrity, a difficult combination to oppose. Children worshipped Mix and, unlike most shows, his played to very heavy matinees. Until the weather became extremely warm the matinees equalled or bettered the night performances in date after date. With his circus, more than any other since Buffalo Bill's Wild West, the personality of the star performer was the great drawing card. Unlike a pure circus personality—such as Clyde Beatty—it was not what Mix did in the arena that drew the crowds; it was what he had done before. Usually when other cowboy movie stars appeared with any circus it was in a ‘concert’ setting. Only with Tom Mix did he appear as part of the regular performance. In 1934 Mix joined the Sam B. Dill Circus. In 1935 Tom bought that circus and continued it as The Tom Mix Circus through 1938. At its height the show was the largest and most successful on the road.


Tom Mix in the Sells-Floto Peru, IN winterquarters just before the opening of the 1931 season.

Tom Mix and Tony and others just before the 1931 season opening for Sells-Floto.

Sells-Floto Tom Mix ad in 1930 and a Sells-Floto Tom Mix poster.

Tom Mix with his new 1930 Lincoln at Peru, IN winterquarters.

May 14, 1930, Toledo, Ohio.

Sells-Floto ticket wagon, June 19, 1931 in Jersey City, NJ.

Tom Mix and Tony in Pittsburgh, PA May 16, 1931 when he was with Sells-Floto. Sells-Floto Tom Mix circus poster.

Tom Mix ad with Sam B. Dill Circus in 1934.

This semi carried the cook house for Sam B. Dill's circus in 1934.

Tom Mix Circus poster.

Program for Tom Mix Circus in Vancouver, Canada. And newspaper ad for Tom Mix Circus in 1935 in Pasadena, CA.

Tom Mix Circus grounds in 1936.

Tom Mix Circus grounds in 1936.

Tom Mix outside his circus tent. And Tom Mix waves before a performance.

One of the railroad cars used to transport Tom Mix's circus.

Tom and a friend take a break between performances.

Tom Mix beside his live-in bus in 1936.

Program for Tom Mix Circus in Chicago in 1936. And a newspaper ad for Tom Mix Circus in Salina in 1936.

Buck Jones was with Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Wild West in 1913 and Gollmar Bros. Circus in 1914. His first film, a short, “Life on the 101 Ranch, Bliss Oklahoma” was released in 1914. Buck played a sergeant. Like Mix, Buck became a major Western star in the silent era and carried his success over into sound. In 1929 he organized the Buck Jones Wild West and Round Up Days. Montie Montana was with Jones’ show when it opened on May 16. Unfortunately, Buck’s business partner absconded with all the show’s money leaving Jones high and dry in July. Buck quickly joined Robbins Bros. Circus to finish the season.

Buck Jones letterhead.

Buck Jones standing in front of his dressing tent in 1929.

Ad for Buck Jones Wild West Shows and Round-Up Days. And..Mr. and Mrs. Buck Jones on his Wild West Show in 1929.

Buck Jones for Robbins Bros. in Clinton, OK September 16, 1929. Buck joined Robbins Bros. after his own show failed earlier in '29.

Buck Jones Wild West Shows and Round-Up Days wagon.

Ken Maynard was with the Buffalo Bill Ranch Wild West in 1913, then joined the Kit Carson show in 1914, and was later with Ringling Bros. in 1914. He went with Hagenbeck-Wallace outfit in 1915 and was later with Pawnee Bill's Circus. He was again with Hagenbeck-Wallace in 1918. Like Mix and Jones he became a major Western film star in the ‘20s and on into the sound era. In 1936 Ken bought wagons and rail cars and organized The Ken Maynard Diamond K Wild West Circus and Indian Congress. The show opened in Van Nuys, CA and only lasted a few weeks. The following year, 1937, Ken was featured with Cole Bros-Clyde Beatty Circus in 1937, 1938 and 1940. His B-Western days over by 1944, he was with Arthur Bros. in 1945 and then appeared with the Biller Bros. Circus in 1950.

Ken Maynard (right) with George W. Christy from whom Ken purchased equipment in January 1936.

Ad ofr Ken Maynard's Wild West Circus and Indian Congress.

Large Posters on wall of building for Ken Maynard's Wild West Circus and Indian Congress.

Rare photo of Ken Maynard and Tarzen in the arena during a performance of his Diamond K Wild West Show in 1936.

Diamond K stagecoach, May 2, 1936.

Poster for Cole Bros. Circus highlighting Clyde Beatty and Ken Maynard.

Ken Maynard with Cole Bros. Circus in 1937. And...Ken Maynard and daring riders Dorothy Herbert in Rochester, IN for Cole Brothers in 1938.

Ad for Cole Bros. Circus with Ken Maynard in Chicago in 1938. And...Cole Bros. Circus program featuring Ken Maynard.

Ink blotter advertising Ken Maynard with Cole Bros. Circus.

Ken Maynard for Cole Bros. billboard in N. Platte, NE July 26, 1940.

Ken was briefly with Arthur Bros. Circus in 1945, assisted by Bernice Dean doing trick riding and fancy roping. Ken left Arthur Bros. by the end of ‘45. In 1947 we know he was appearing as guest star at several rodeos.

Ken was with the relatively unknown Biller Brothers Circus in 1950. The two ads below come from the 24 page Biller Brothers (Hy and Arthur) promotional circus comicbook, circulated free.

Ken Maynard beside a clown with Biller Bros. Circus in 1950. And...Ken Maynard highlighted Biller Bros. Circus in 1950 newspaper ad.

Tim McCoy starred in silent westerns at MGM then graduated easily to sound in the ‘30s. In 1935 Sam Gumpatz hired McCoy to produce and star in a Wild West after show for Ringling-Barnum. He returned in ‘36 and ‘37. Tim then made elaborate plans to tour his own Real Wild West and Rough Riders of the World show in ‘38. In was all new from rail cars to wagons, except for 10 railroad sleepers bought used. Tim opened his show at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago on April 14 in direct competition with Cole Bros. and Hagenbeck-Wallace. A foolish move for all three! After 10 days in Chicago McCoy left the Windy City to open under canvas in Columbus, OH. Limping along it's route, one week later the show folded May 4 in Washington, D. C. where Tim was forced to sell the show at auction. The venture cost Tim $400,000 (real money in ‘38!), just about wiping him out financially. His starring film days over by 1942, at 65 he joined the Al G. Kelly and Miller Bros. show in 1957. The following season saw him with Carson and Barnes Circus where he remained through ‘61. During the first few months of 1962 Tim appeared with the Hoxie-Bardex Circus. He partnered with Tommy Scott’s Medicine Show later in ‘62 and remained for 13 years.

Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus presenting Col. Tim McCoy.

Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus with Col. Tim McCoy personally leading his Congress of Rough Riders and Indians.

Tim McCoy poster for Ringling Bros./Barnum and Bailey Circus, July 24, 1936 in Douth Bend, IN.

Wagon for Col. Tim McCoy's Real Wild West. And..Tim McCoy poster from 1938. And..newspaper ad for Col. Tim McCoy's Real Wild West and Rough Riders of the World.

Poster ofr Al G. Kelly and Miller Bros. Circus starring Col. Tim McCoy in 1957.

Tim McCoy was with Carson and Barnes in 1961.

Prior to entering the movies in 1910 Hoot Gibson was an accomplished rodeo performer. He was with Dick Stanley’s Congress of Rough Riders and Bud Atkinson’s Circus and Wild West. Tex McLeod, World Champion Fancy Roper from 1912 through 1916, who played small parts in dozens of silent Westerns, stated, “I toured with Hoot Gibson in 1912 with the Bud Atkinson Circus and Wild West Show. Hoot was the best I knew.” Hoot was featured with Wallace Bros. Circus early in 1937 then joined Hagenbeck-Wallace for the rest of the season. In 1938 he was with Robbins Bros. and in ‘39 he went with Russell Bros. Circus. In 1940 he organized the Hoot Gibson Rodeo and Thrill Circus which didn’t last long.

Hoot Gibson with Wallace Bros. in 1937.

Hoot Gibson on the Hagenbeck-Wallace lot in 1937.

Hoot Gibson and Mrs. Poodles Hanneford on the Hagenbeck-Wallace lot at Norfork, VA on August 9, 1937.

Clyde Beatty and Hoot Gibson in Jacksonville, FL beside a 1937 Studebaker promoting Robbins Bros. Circus.

Hoot Gibson on poster promoting Robbins Bros. Circus.

Train car for Robbins Bros. Circus in 1938 highlighting Hoot Gibson.

Robbins Bros. poster promoting Hoot Gibson in Ithaca, NY. Ink blotter advertising Robbins Bros. Circus with Hoot Gibson.

Sound truck for Robbins Bros. Circu in Kokomo, IN in 1938. Note the Hoot Gibson poster on the side.

Hoot was with Russell Bros. Circus in 1939.

By 1944 Hoot was relegated to rodeo appearances and hosting at his Painted Post in L.A.

Further down the sawdust trail, Jack Hoxie was with the Kit Carson Buffalo Ranch in 1914. He began in 1929 with the Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Wild West. In 1931 he was with Schell Bros. According to longtime circus employee, Jack Bennet, Hoxie and the Schell owner “had words” and Hoxie beat him up and, shall we say, departed. In ‘33 and ‘34 he rode for Downie Bros. In ‘35 he was with the Harley Sadler Show and returned to Downie Bros. in ‘36. In ‘37 an investor fronted Jack Hoxie’s Circus. It closed abruptly when the investor left. Hoxie reopened a month later but it closed again within two months. Jack was back with Downie Bros. in ‘38, traveled with Lewis Bros. in ‘39 and with Bud Anderson in ‘40. He ended his circus career with Mills Bros. in ‘46 and ‘47.

Billboard advertising Jack Hoxie in person with the 101 Ranch and Wild West Circus. And..Jack was with Zack T. Miller's 101 Ranch Wild West beginning in 1929.

Jack Hoxie rode for Downie Bros. in '33-'34 (above) then was with the Harley-Sadler Show in '35 before returning to Downie Bros. Circus in 1936 (below).

Newspaper ad for Jack Hoxie Circus.  And..Route card for Jack Hoxie Circus in 1937.

Jack Hoxie and wife Dixie Starr on the day the Hoxie show opened in La Grange, GA in 1937.

Newpaper ad for Jack Hoxie Circusw in Lima, OH.

Two posters for Jack Hoxie Big 3 Ring Circus.

Jack Hoxie Circus on lot in 1937.

Trailer used to carry Hoxie's horse Scout and other equipment. Somerset, PA.

Jack was with the smaller Lewis Bros. operation in 1939 when they played Sebewaing, MI on the coast of Saginaw Bay in Lake Huron.

Jack Hoxie with Mills Bros. Circus in 1947.

Minor B-Western star Reb Russell was with Russell Bros. (no relation) Circus in ‘36 and ‘37.

Harry Carey appeared with Barnett Bros. Circus in 1934. The Barnett Bros. Circus was founded in 1927 by Ray Rogers. In 1937 Rogers joined with financiers George and Minter Wallace, changing its name to the Wallace Bros. Circus. When Ray Rogers died in 1943 the floundering Wallace Bros. Circus merged with the Clyde Beatty Circus.

Montie Montana was the Wild West attraction of A. G. Barnes in 1934. Tom Tyler was featured with Wallace Bros. in ‘37. In ‘38 William Desmond worked with Barnett Bros.

Montie Montana was with Al G. Barnes in 1934. Tom Tyler with Wallace Bros. Circus in 1937. Willam Desmond appearing with Barnett Bros. Circus.

Rex, Wonder Dog of the Movies, appeared with Famous Robbins Circus in ‘36. In ‘33 Buzz Barton traveled with the Walter L. Main Circus. Barton was with World Bros. in ‘38.

Rex the Wonder Dog in 1936 with Robbins Circus. And..World Bros. Circus featuring Buzz Barton in 1938.

Advertised as the original Lone Ranger, Lee Powell starred with Barnett Bros. in ‘39, Hamid-Morton Circus in ‘40 and Wallace Bros. in ‘41.

Lee Powell with Barnett Bros Circus in 1939, Hamid-Morton Circus in 1940 and Wallace Bros. Circus in 1941.

The Walter L. Main Circus featured Bill Cody in ‘32. A report in BILLBOARD magazine (6/11/32) stated that in New Bedford, MA, at suggestion of Chief of Police Samuel B. McLeod, Cody and his company provided an impromptu performance for crippled children at the Sol-E-Mar Hospital. Newspaper photographers were present and scenes were taken during the impromptu perforamce and published in the next day's papers. Following his time with Walter L. Main Cody followed with a junket with Bostock’s Wild Animal Circus. Cody was a Downie Bros. star in ‘35. On April 27, 1935 BILLBOARD reported, Jack Hughes directs the concert, introducing first Bill Cody. Bill makes a nice talk about the movies and his public, then has the kids line up along the rail and shakes hands with them. Cody went over big with his hand-shaking and that was all that he did at the opening matinee.

Bill Cody with Bostock's Circus and with Downie Bros. Circus.

Lash LaRue was with Dale Bros. Circus in ‘49 and later with Rogers Bros. Lash made appearances throughout the '50s, especially in the South, with various fairs and sideshow attractions.

Ad for Alabama's Finest Fat Stock show and circus featuring Lash LaRue. And..sideshow setup for Lash LaRue with his great all star Western show.

Bob Steele was featured in the Clyde Beatty Circus during the 1950 season.












B-Western heavy Art Mix was with Kay Bros. in ‘37, Cole Bros. in ‘39, Kay Bros. again in ‘41 and the short-lived Terrell Jacobs show in ‘44. He was the star of the Buffalo Ranch Wild West in ‘47. He was also with the Seils-Sterling outfit probably in ‘38.

In 1950 Cole Bros. Circus featured William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd.

Cole Bros. Circus featuring Hopalong Cassidy. And newspaper ad for Cole Bros. Circus presenting Hopalong Cassidy.

Hoppy's sidekick, Rand Brooks, aka Lucky Jenkins, was in charge of the Wild West
After Show for the 1951 Clyde Beatty Railroad Circus.

The Cisco Kid (Duncan Renaldo) was with Cole Bros. in ‘53, Tom Pack’s Ball Park Circus in ‘54 and Clyde Beatty’s organization in ‘56. For a short time Renaldo was with James Bros. in the late ‘50s.

Duncan Renaldo as the Cisco Kid at the Clyde Beatty Circus in 1956.

From ‘65-‘67 Kirby Grant, as Sky King, was featured on the Carson and Barnes Circus. He was the last B-Western star to be featured with a circus.

Sky King with Carson and Barnes in 1966.

Although the Shrine Circus employed week-long or weekend appearances by various TV stars, the circus world was changing—later B-Western stars such as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and his brother Doug who traded on the Autry name, Bill Elliott, Rex Allen and many TV Western stars found a new home on the rodeo circuit. (Our appreciation to Fred D. Pfening Jr. for much background information.)

Zembo Temple Shrine Circus featuring Sergeant Preston of the Yukon (Richard Simmons) and The Lone Ranger (Clayton Moore). Roy Rogers Thrill Circus program booklet from 1947. Gene Autry's Stampede program booklet from 1942 and Gene Autry's brother Doug trading on the Autry name with the Clyde Beatty Circus in 1955.

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