It had been over ten year since a show came into town via the railroad. The notification to the Local that a circus was coming via the rails was a surprise. Our circuses, even big ones like Ringling Brothers. had long since gone over completely to trucks. But then when it said it was the Moscow Circus On Ice, that was coming in retro on us, it wasn’t so surprising… even though Russian shows, like their great ballet companies had traveled by truck in the U.S. for years.
Russian touring companies felt Russia had invented show biz and took forever to adopt improvements in the business. For instance, instead of castors on their road boxes, they had four to six handles to use to hand carry the boxes..
‘Ve strong in Russia. Ve don’t need those silly little vheels to do our vork.’
But we noticed that these strong Russians were mostly finger-pointers, and they had our stage hands do the heavy lifting.
The first time a Russian show came in with castors on their boxes, they were so proud of ‘their new invention’. Like they say, you can lead a Russian to progress, but you can’t make him think.
I was working shows at the Guthrie; and while I could not work the circus shows, I could work the Load-In and Out. On the In, I never got close to even seeing the train. I was on the prop crew working on the concrete floor of the ice arena of the Minneapolis Auditorium. The entire floor could be an ice rink for ice shows and hockey game, but this time there was only a 20’ by 20’ sheet of ice in the center. That was where the four Russian bears played hockey, the stars of this circus..
Russian bears had been a staple of Russian show biz since even before the balalaika, that musical instrument the Russians invented after seeing some gypsies playing one. Naturally, Russian bears are not quite like our common brown bears. The biggest difference is the head. Russian bears have a slightly different shaped head and a much longer nose. And of course, a Russian would tell you that their bears are much smarter than the average bear.
Another work crew was hollering for assistance. They had a large black circus wagon on the landing just before the ramp down to the arena floor and there were screams of helping to get it to the floor at a reasonable speed. I heard a something about a light dimmer. So I assumed it was an old fashion dimmer pack. Leave it to the Russians to bring back outdated equipment.
As I got close I could see there was an outer metal shell on the four sides and top. I got to the one corner and could see there was solid bars inside. At first I thought I would stick my arm in the crack for a more solid place to push back on. The metal sheets looked to be only attached on the top. But then I decided against it, afraid of getting pinched or worse being trapped if the wagon got away.
On the other corner, Nicky had the same thought about getting something solid. He stuck his arm in the crack.
‘Ah, I wouldn’t do…’screamed one of the hands.
Nicky screamed louder and pulled his arm out. His sleeve was ripped and his arm was bleeding from long scratches.
‘There’s a bear in there,’ a hand shouted… too late.
‘Now you tell us!’ I hollered. ‘Somebody said it was a f#####n light dimmer.’
‘No!’ a hand argued, ‘I said this f####n devil’s not light!’
Chaos! Men screaming at each in English, Russian; and when Henri, the French-Canadian stagehand that was hired on in Montreal, came on the scene, his French overpowered everybody. He was in the smaller Russian trainer’s face, and I could hear the word ‘forklift’ and a lot of French words the oldtimers back home used when they got mad.
Henri was hired for two reasons. He was a liaison between the Russians and the stagehands they would encounter on the tour. And also, he spoke both French and English and the Russian interpreters felt more at home with French than with English.
The local hands were swearing at Russians, the bear, and each other. One banged on a metal sheet covering the cage and the roar of a bear erupted and the cage began to shake. The local hands jumped back. My crew went back down to the arena floor…quickly.
I had helped Nicky to a seat and was standing there while the auditorium nurse was applying first aid. She wrapped the arm and told Nicky that a gofer would take him to the hospital for a tetanus shot.
‘Tell him we will go to my house after,’ Nicky said in a low voice, I’m going to pick up my 30-30. It’s open season on f#####g bears.’ The nurse laughed, but she didn’t know Nicky like we did. We knew Nicky was serious. Westie, the house carpenter, quickly told Nicky to take the rest of the day off…with pay, and get ready for his work in the hotel that night.
Henri got a forklift and backed it in front of each cage to slow them down the ramp. The two Russian trainers spoke to us on the floor and made motions to help take the metal sheets off the cages. They might have not understood what we said back to them, but they understood the one-finger salutes we gave them; and worked on the cages by themselves.
When we helped Henri with his work box I noticed his name, Henri Perron. painted on it. Without thinking, I blurted out, ‘My maternal grandfather’s name is Henry Perron.’
Oh, did Henri get excited. And then he really got excited when I told him about growing up in a small village across the river where several generations ago a large group of French-Canadians, following the fur trade, settled. I mentioned some of the last names, pronouncing them in the way they are pronounced in French and Henri recognized them as names common in Ottawa, Quebec, and all through French Canada..
‘We are cousins, Donny. Not close… but many years back. I am a Perron. You are a Perron from your mother. We are far cousins.’
Very far. The original Perron in Canada was a fisherman from Rochell, France, who came to Ottawa in the 18th Century and was a large propagator, both in marriage and out. The Perrons take up a large amount of the White Pages in Ontario. The name dominates the providence like the name Jones dominates the United States.
I broke a cardinal rule. In the Army you never tell the mess sergeant your name or you will be the brunt of the jobs on KP simply because he calls names he knows. The same is true for a road stagehand. Never tell a roadie your name. Now Henri not only knew my name, he considered himself family.
After lunch he approached me. ‘Cousin Donny, I am told you are a very good rigger. I need you for a special job. I need you to rig the trapeze. The artist’s rig does not go that high so you rig these two cables I made up when I found out that the beam here was one hundred feet up.’
I told him I never heard of a trapeze artist who would let someone else rig his trapeze. Oh, Henri explained that the artist would rig his swing on the cables I rigged. I said that he would still depend on my rigging as well as his own. I thought he should rig the long cables also just to be safe.
‘Well,’ Henri said in a low voice, ‘I think he is scared to go up that high.’
We set up the house contraption to get me up that high. The darn thing went up in ten feet sections, then would pause and shake a bit before spitting up the next ten feet. I hated it!
They sent Jimmy, the Guthrie prop builder, along to help me. He quickly huddled in a corner of the cage and when we reached the correct height, he begged me to just let him stay in the corner. He was breathing fast and deep. I was afraid he would hyperventilate on me I told him to just relax. I didn’t have a paper bag he could breath into. And we both agree mouth to mouth was out of the question.
Rigging the cables was a snap compared to the ride up.
Rig a trapeze! A lot of responsibility! After that, I had a lot more respect for the parachute packers that rigged the chutes we jumped with. One big difference is the packers always have to jump a chute they packed and I wasn’t about to swing from the trapeze I rigged.
Once on the Camping Exposition In, Joey B. and I were on the high beams working while a young trapeze artist was rigging his swing. Joey commented that swinging on a trapeze was a hell of a way to make a buck. The kid said it beat the hell of the last job he had before working a trapeze.
‘I got shot out of the cannon,’ he said, very matter-of-fact.
Every day of that Russian Circus week I kept checked the news, praying I would not hear that the trapeze failed and the artist fell. When I didn’t hear anything, it made my day, believe me.
A couple of the shop hands at the Guthrie worked the nightly circus shows, and wished they didn’t.
There were very few cues to work, but everyone worked the one big one during the bears’ hockey game. They were spaced out on the outside of the ice rink. Each hand was given a lead pipe. If a bear decided it wanted to leave the rink, the man closest was to hit the bear on the nose with the pipe.
Luckily during the local run the bears behaved.
A few years later when Henri came through with the Canadian Ballet he told how on the next stop, Chicago, the ice never got made the first day. The bears got sent out on the bare concrete to play hockey. One of the bears panicked and decided to leave the ‘rink’. The stagehand closest to the bear, stood up, threw the pipe hitting the bear in the nose, then turned and ran out of the building. He never stopped and never came back for any other performances or the Out.
‘I think he maybe still running,’ Henri said. ‘Didn’t even look around and see his pipe made the bear behave.’
A lead pipe to a Russian bear trainer is the equivalent of a whip and chair to a lion tamer.
BAP! Hit the bear on the nose with the pipe to get it’s attention.
BAP! Hit the bear on the nose to make it sit down.
BAP! Hit the bear on the nose before putting the skate on the bear’s foot.
Twenty years later I worked a different kind of Russian circus that featured trained bears. No hockey game just tricks like a bear on a unicycle and several bears wearing tutus and ‘ballet’ dancing. Same as before, the lead pipe, bap, bap, bap. All a person could do from taking the pipe and hitting the trainer on the nose.
When we were setting up that first day, one of our hands, Matt, showed you didn’t need a pipe to make a bear behave. Matt wasn’t paying any attention, a trait he excelled in, and he backed too close to a bear in the cage. Matt stopped and the bear reached through the bars and placed it’s paw on Matt’s shoulder. Matt turned his head, and having grown up on the Iron Range, had a lot of experience with bears, he slapped the bear’s paw away. Then Matt commenced to shout at the animal in Croatian. Matt didn’t move from the cage. It was the bear who jumped back and retreated to a far corner, away from this crazy man.
The bears did have a high degree of intelligence. Richie, the local’s hippie, liked the looks of the large red apples the bears got for a treat. He gave the friendliest bear a cigarette to eat. The bear loved it. Then Richie offered the bear another…only in exchange for the bear’s apple. It was a deal. When the bear got another apple it held on to it until it saw Richie and then would offer the apple to Richie in exchange for a cigarette.
The one Russian trainer saw what was happening and he offered to exchange an apple for two American cigarettes. Richie ate a lot of apples that week and made two new friends.
And now if you will ‘bear’ with me until the next post
I will tell what happened on
The Last Train Out