By CATHY MOUNCE, Register Staff Writer
One-time performers from the Gainesville Community Circus (GCC) returned to the city March 26 for a lecture series presented by the Morton Museum of Cooke County and North Central Texas College. This installment of the museum’s lecture series celebrated a part of the city’s history and the GCC.
Area historian Steve Gordon kicked off the presentation with a timeline of circus activities beginning in 1929 when the city’s Little Theater group sought a solution to its $300 budget deficit.
The stage performers, Gordon noted, were losing their audiences to movie venues which featured talking motion pictures.
The editor of the Gainesville Register, A. Morton Smith, was a known authority on circuses and it was under his leadership that the first circus shows were created as a way to support the theater and help pay off its debt.
In order to recruit performers, Smith advertised in the Register. The only qualifications listed for the circus performers were that they must be Gainesville residents and have a desire to learn a circus skill. No previous circus experience was required.
Members of the community volunteered to be part of the circus. In the beginning, many clowns, cowboys, horses, dogs and other local acts were part of the circus.
“The Gainesville circus was not one of professional acts and circus performers,” Gordon said. “It was a circus made up of just regular citizens from Gainesville. That is why it was called the Gainesville Community Circus. Everyone that performed in the circus had full time day jobs. The circus was what they did after a long day at work.”
“Not only did the Gainesville participants learn a new craft,” Gordon said, “They also made their own costumes, riggings and built seating for the attending crowds.”
The first three performances were so popular that by the spring of 1931, the circus was asked to perform at the main exhibit hall at the Cooke County fairgrounds. With the invitation to perform at the Denton County fair the next year, the tradition of the GCC road show was born — a difficult endeavor since most of the performers could not leave town until their day job was over.
In the beginning, the GCC was a one ring circus but over the years the show grew to three rings. At one time, the circus had a big top tent which could accommodate over 2,500 spectators.
During WWII, the circus was not operating and the tent was used as barracks for carpenters and workers in the war effort. Many of the performers enlisted in the armed services.
In 1950, a loan of $3,500 was secured to purchase Gerry — a 900 pound elephant. She was transported to Gainesville via horse trailer and was a popular member of the troupe.
The original big tent was destroyed by a tornado in 1939 near Ardmore, Okla. In 1954, after 25 years of performances, a fire destroyed the replacement tent and equipment. Only one animal, Jimmy the chimpanzee died but $65,000 worth of equipment was lost.
The circus was gradually rebuilt but according to performers, it was never the same. Just as talking pictures had hurt the Little Theater in the beginning, television spelled the beginning of the end of the GCC as many people stayed home in air conditioned surroundings to be entertained.
In 1957, the animals were given to the Gainesville Zoo.
Present at the lecture were four of the circus’s performers that still live in the Gainesville area.
A fifth surviving participant, Evelyn Kaps Walker, could not attend.
Betty Brewer was with the circus from 1949-1953. Brewer and her husband and daughter Kathy were part of many acts including working with Gerry the elephant and participating in the swing ladder, an aerialist group and the grand entry.
Johnny Brown was with the circus from 1951-1953. After his stint with the circus, he enlisted in the U.S. Army for two years and then received his doctor of veterinary medicine degree at Texas A&M University. He spent many years as a veterinarian in Texas.
Larry Johnson was in the circus band from 1957 to 1962 and after his circus career, he became a high school band director.
Billy Woods joined the circus at 16. After high school he traveled all over the world as part of a flying trapeze act and spent over 30 years working at the Circus Circus hotel in Las Vegas. The GCC performed in over 57 different cities and produced more than 350 shows.