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Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Damoo Dhotre: Notes on his career with Alfred Court

The following are notes taken from circus/zoo historian and wild animal trainer, Jim Clubb (my father). They are a response to questions asked of him by a descendent of the great Indian wild animal trainer Damoo Dhotre. From 1938 until 1952 Dhotre was in the employment of the legendary French wild animal trainer, Alfred Court. Court was a massive inspiration of my father's. You will note that Dhotre presented snow leopards, trained by Court. They were the first snow leopards ever trained. Bailey Fossett was the second person to train this species and my father was the third.

Damoo Gangaram Dhotre: Brief History from when he joined Alfred Court

1938: Damoo joined Alfred Court at the age of 36 to present Court’s new group of small cats (leopards, black panthers, jaguars, pumas and the only trained snow leopards in the world). He arrived in Paris and went to Liege in France to work at Circus De Jonghe. This was a small circus that took the act in its first season to break it in to the lighting, music and public.

1939: Blackpool Tower Circus, Great Britain. The act consisted of 15 mixed small cats (seven Indian and African leopards, two black panthers, two black jaguars, two pumas and two snow leopards). Damoo usually worked the matinees (afternoon performances) and Court worked in the evening. Because of the outbreak of war, Court left Blackpool half way through the season and went to Europe to organize the sale of some of his animals to other circuses and the transportation of two of his large mixed groups to go to Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus in the USA at the end of the 1939 season.

Court originally left to go to Berlin to organize a winter engagement for the mixed leopard act, but while he was there he was informed of the imminent outbreak of war. The Germans invaded Poland while he was in Berlin, so his plans changed overnight. While he was away Damoo presented the act, assisted by Wilson “Willy” Storie, Alfred Court’s nephew and business manager. After the first week of the season, the male snow leopard, Niet, died of pneumonia.

December 1939: The animals, accompanied by Damoo and one groom, left from Liverpool docks on the American ship, “The West Chatala”, heading for New York. The journey took two weeks and experienced bad weather conditions. They eventually arrived in the USA and were transported by rail to Sarasota, Florida, which was the Ringling Brothers' winter quarters. The other two mixed groups arrived at a similar time accompanied by Fritz Schultz, Joe Walch and Harry and May Kovar. Damoo wrote to the American historical magazine, Bandwagon, in 1967, listing all of Court’s animals that had been transported from war-torn Europe to Sarasota. They were:

Six Himalayan Black Bears
Six Polar Bears
Four Pumas
15 Lions
Six Tigers
16 Leopards
Six Black Panthers
Two Jaguars
Two Black Jaguars
One Snow Leopard
Two Spotted Great Dane Dogs

1940: At Ringling's winter quarters Damoo and Court trained five additional leopards as spares for the act. One of the leopards attacked Court, injuring him and also bit Damoo in the hand. The act opened with Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus at Madison Square Gardens. Alfred Court and Damoo were in the centre ring with the mixed group of panthers. During the dress rehearsal one of the leopards, Igloo, managed to get through the petition that separated him from the snow leopard, Dotchka, biting her in the neck and killing her. Damoo and Court tried to save her without success. The Igloo, when in the arena cage, attacked Court and clawed him in the face, resulting in Court nearly losing his right eye. Nevertheless, he carried on with the rehearsal! Igloo then climbed the cage and bit through the safety net above, escaping into the Madison Square Gardens auditorium. The leopard was eventually captured by the Court grooms.

1941-1942: Damoo presented the mixed group of small cats, flanked either side by Fritz Schultz and Joe Walsh with a mixed group of lions, tigers and bears, and Harry and May Kovar with a mixed group of lions, tigers, bears, black jaguars and Great Dane dogs.

1943: Alfred Court trained a new mixed group – his last. It consisted of nine tigers, five lions, two leopards, two pumas and a jaguar. However, the jaguar and pumas were omitted later on. The act was due to be presented by Damoo, but unfortunately one of the leopards took a dislike to him, so he was unable to present it. However, I do have pictures of him rehearsing the act in winter quarters. Damoo enlisted in the US army. The mixed small cat act was taken over by May Kovar who had quite a few accidents with this very dangerous group.

1944: May Kovar still presented this act, but in July 1944 Ringling’s suffered a terrible fire at Hertford, Connecticut and the circus had to return to its winter quarters.

1945: The leopard act was presented by Willy Storie, assisted by Vincent Dorr and Walter Flint. It also contained six girls who worked with the leopards. This act only worked for the 1945 season.

Winter 1945/46: Damoo returned from the army and took the original leopard act to a winter circus in Havana, Cuba. Storie, Dorr and Flint went with him. At that time the act consisted of the following animals:

Leopard "Sonia" Female
Leopard "Champion" Male
Leopard "Boopet" Female
Leopard "Taboo" Male
Leopard "Mincezu" Female
Leopard "Igloo" Male
Black Panther "Meckow" Female
Black Panther "Bangkok" Male
Black Jaguar "Zougou" Female
Black Jaguar "Negus" Male
Puma "Sudie" Female
Puma "Riton" Male

1946: Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus did not have a wild animal act for this season. They subcontracted the mixed small cat act with Damoo to Sparks Circus.

1947/48: Damoo, with his act, returned to Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey. The act worked in ring one. In ring two (centre ring) Roman Proske worked with his tigers and Ring three had Michael Konzelmann with Hagenbeck’s 14 polar bears.

1948: Damoo also doubled for Jonny Weissmuller in the feature film, “Jungle Jim”. For this filming he used his leopard Sonia for an attack sequence. The same footage was used again three years later in “Fury of the Congo”.

1949: Damoo was in ring one with the mixed small cats. Ring two (centre ring) featured Clausen bears and ring three had Mathies with Hagenbeck’s tigers.

1950/51: Alfred Court negotiated the sale of the act with Damoo to Circus Amar in France. It then consisted of five leopards, two black panthers, three pumas and two black jaguars.

1952: Damoo joined Circus Pinder in France. I am not sure if Amar sold the act to Pinder or what capacity Damoo worked at Amar. At the end of this year he returned to India.

Notes: It is worth reading the book “Circus Doctor” by J Y Henderson, as he mentions Damoo quite a lot. There is also a French book published about the transaction of the act when it was sold to Circus Amar. The above information was taken from various correspondence me (Jim Clubb) and friends of Alfred Court, including Willy Storie, and articles written by Alfred Court himself.

©Copyright J S Clubb 2009. Any reproduction or direct quotes from the above to be cleared through J S Clubb