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.” 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.
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.
Ken Maynard was with the Kit Carson Buffalo Ranch Wild West in 1913, with Ringling Bros. in 1914 and later with Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. 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 Ken was featured with Cole Bros-Clyde Beatty Circus where he remained until 1938. He came back to Cole Bros. in 1940. In 1950, his B-Western days over by 1944, he appeared with the Biller Bros. Circus.
Tim McCoy starred in silents 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 Wild West Show in ‘38. In was all new from rail cars to wagons. 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. One week later the show closed 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
Minor B-Western star Reb Russell was with Russell Bros. (no relation) Circus in ‘36 and ‘37. Harry Carey appeared with Barnett’s show in ‘34.
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.
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.
Advertised as the original Lone Ranger, Lee Powell starred with Barnett Bros. in ‘39, Hamid-Morton Circus in ‘40 and Wallace Bros. in ‘41.
The Walter L. Main Circus featured Bill Cody in ‘32 followed by a junket with Bostock’s Wild Animal Circus. Cody was a Downie Bros. star in ‘35.
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.
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.
In 1950 Cole Bros. Circus featured William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd.
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.
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.
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.)