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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Circus elephants lend a helping trunk in Missouri

Cover of "Dumbo: Classic Soundtrack Serie...Cover via Amazon“Hike! Urgh! Hike! Urgh!” My toddler daughter is addicted to Dumbo and the words of that song, along with most of the others, now regularly haunt my waking thoughts. Romanticists would say “It’s in her blood”. True, her grandfather, great grandfather, great uncle and cousins have all been circus elephant trainers at some time and she has a potential unbroken performing lineage on my mother’s side that stretches back 300 years. However, the more sceptical would say that other influences around her might have something more to do with it. Anyway, for those of you who know the film might recall that the song I was referring to is the “Song of the Roustabouts”. Roustabout isn’t a term I have ever heard used in UK circus culture, but it refers to what we would call “tent-men”.  As the name implies, these are the men who put up the Big Top along with the rest of the show. In “Dumbo” the fantastical scene that accompanies this song sees the tent-men being assisted not by the show’s fellow human performers, but by the circus elephants.



This isn’t as incredible as it sounds. In fact, around the time “Dumbo” was being made it was very common for circus elephants to aid with putting the Big Top up and it was part of the spectacle of the upcoming show for those who watched. Asian elephants, of course, have been caught and domesticated in their own countries for centuries. Indian elephants, which were among the most common species of elephant in circuses from the 19th century up until the 1970s, have over millennia of history as domesticated animals that probably began in the Indus Valley civilization[i]. A circus operates best an all cooperating community with many a circus boss being proud of the fact that his family work as hard – if not harder – than the rest of the show. This was always the boast of my grandfather anyway. With the need to be resourceful and swift it made perfect sense to employ the ultimate beast of burden, the elephant, to lend a helping trunk when it came to lifting and pulling heaving objects and structures. This also applied to emergency situations, which leads me to a recent news item and the main inspiration to write this ramble. 

A tornado struck Joplin, Missouri, in the last week of May 2011, leaving a reported 139 people dead and devastated city. President Barrack Obama has pledged that the city will be rebuilt, but in the meantime a lot of work needed to be done in order to clear debris. It just happened that Piccadilly Circus was scheduled to show the week after the tornado and found their area occupied by a makeshift hospital. According to a report published in The Telegraph newspaper an unnamed circus employee said "We thought it'seither take the day off or give a hand to the people who really need it." So, they lent the support of their elephants to help pull cars out of the way and clear the debris. The whole incident reminds me of a different age when circus automatically assimilated itself into any community it visited. 

Circus brought spectacle, entertainment and unusual animals to the common man. It may have been patronized by royalty, and still is in certain countries, but its main strength came from the fact that by its travelling nature it brought excitement to those who could not afford to travel to the big cities or faraway countries. I have read countless numbers of articles describing the way a visiting circus made friends with the communities they visited and for the short period they showed, were accepted as being temporary locals. 

When I wrote my book “The Legend of Salt and Sauce” I was interested to uncover a story about the book’s lead protagonists’ – two Indian elephants – involvement in the war effort. I wrote a post on it here.
So, it was no real surprise to me to hear about a visiting circus getting immediately stuck in and aiding the location where they visited in a time of need. However, what was a pleasant surprise was to read about it in a British newspaper.


[i] The cartoon anthropomorphized elephants in “Dumbo” are all depicted as Asiatic, which is what makes the film’s hero’s giant ears that much more unusual. 

Jamie Clubb's other blogs: www.beelzebubsbroker.blogspot.com www.clubbchimera.com
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7 comments:

Wade G. Burck said...

Jamie,
Nice piece. A circus dictionary with word/term meanings is probably one of the most interesting reads available. Add to it the same action, object or place in a different country, with different dialects and it is truly amazing. A few small publications have been done on the subject, not nothing that I am aware of combining the world. How about it? Might be your next project? Some of my favorite's are beast wagons in Europe/England, rolling stock/cage wagons in the colonies. We break up fights, you sort them out. We correct them, you give them a hiding. LOL The wonderful thing about some of my internet discussions with your father, is the vast number of folks who have told me they didn't realize how much of what we do is the same, but so very different given the different circumstances of a performance area. Roustabouts isn't a term used much today, the more common being "tent/canvas crew" led by a "tent/canvas boss." Interestingly, I heard a term used on a youtube video, of a UK circus owner who was obviously knackered by the actions of his crew and was giving them lashing used. He referenced his man in charge as a "top builder" and the men he was talking to as "lousy builders." I had never heard the term "builder" before. What is a builder?
Speaking of Dumbo's ears, have you ever seen the old Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movie's with the obviously Asian elephants with the strapped on leather African ears, and and long artificial tusk caps?
Yes, it is strange, but we seem to get more British circus news here in the Colonies, then you seem to get across the pond.

Regards to you and your father, and be safe.

Wade Burck

Jamie Clubb said...

Hi Wade, thanks for putting me straight about current circus slang terms on your side of the pond. I had never heard the term roustabout before "Dumbo". Being a fan of words and also protective of my culture, I love to learn more about our language whenever I can. I have also found how we sometimes have traded slang with showmen (circus and fair, you would say carnival or carnie, were indistinguishable at certain times in UK history), with Romany gypsies and even cockney jossers. Also a lot of our slang was adopted directly as Palari, which was the code slang for the gay community used in theatres when homosexually was illegal in the UK. You can hear terms like it in the "Round the Horne" BBC radio show of the 1960s courtesy of Kenneth Williams.

We say build-up and pull-down. You say tear down. Dad says he's never heard the term "builder" before and thinks it might be a modern one, obviously taken from "build-up". Did you hear it in the infamous recording of Martin Lacey Snr. tearing into members of his advance team? He might have been saying "biller", which would make sense as this is a term we use for the people who put the bill posters up of the circus (the advance).

We say Big Cats, which isn't necessarily a circus term, but we never say Cats, as you do, when referring to lions, tigers, leopards and snow leopards.

I find it all fascinating, but I can't imagine it would be a project I could do justice to. The first time I saw a circus term glossary was in Olivia Fitzroy's children's book "Wagons and Horses". However, the editor of my second edition of "The Legend of Salt and Sauce" has already written a dictionary on the slang. I have posted it at the end of this article.




Here's a post I wrote about tenuous cultural connections in the traveling community. Dad is currently finding out that he has more traveling blood in his genes than he realized!
http://jamieclubb.blogspot.com/2010/05/circus-travelling-connections-ramble.html

Wade G. Burck said...

Jamie,
Most interesting, particularly the link to Palari. As the "lingo" has never been politically correct(with terms like bally broad)I suspect here in the Colonies it had a lot of it's source in the the world of vaudeville. I find like any language, if you have used it for much of your life, it is hard to not use it out of habit. Just last night, I was at a "British style restaurant" in Texas run by a British proprietor. I asked, "excuse me, where is the donniker( circus slang for toilet). He said, "the what?" I said, "excuse me, the restroom." He said, Oh, the loo. It's at the end of the hall to the right." :)

Possibly the tape(yes, that is the one. Forgive me, as unfortunate as it was, it was hysterical) which I thought the world "builder" was said, was actually "biller", which makes sense and also indicated a different work force then the one I thought. I accept in a situation like the one Mr. Lacey was involved in, you are allowed to use or make up any word you want(I have done it many times, in the same situation LOL) I wondered at the term "you have one week to get yourself un-rubbished!!"

I disagree, and think you could do a definitive book justice, with your desire for factually regardless of what the fact's may indicate.

Joe McKennon offered a book a number of years ago titled "Circus Lingo" which so far is the definitive work here in the Colonies.

http://circushof.com/glossary.html.

Regards,
Wade

terry bunton said...

Fantastic peice Jamie.The international parlari is never ending. In the Latin countries what I thought might have been international circus parlari didnt exist there. They do not even have an equivalent word for josser simply calling them outsiders.In Spain public Spaniards would not know the words palcos(box fronts),mastiles(king poles),picas(side poles),tubos (quarter poles. I also found it interesting that the italian bog top firm scola teloni literally means school of material in English translation from the Italian.It is also interesting to note that artists entrance is control,the curtains are telon and that there are no Spanish equivalent words for beastman,beastwagon and many others we in Uk circus use .

Jamie Clubb said...

Wade, sorry forgot to acknowledge your earlier comment re: the years. I distinctly remember watching the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies in our old wagon (Tarzan, as you can imagine, was compulsory viewing in our home) and being told about the artificial ears.

Loved the story about the "British" restaurant and a wonderful example of a clash of terms. George Pinder (from the famous Anglo/Franco circus family) discussed with me recently about all the various coding, including the backslang. Cockney slang crossover meant that there is rhyming circus slang too and reverse slang (backslang). Plus we have borrowed terms from other traveling communities.

Thanks for the continental insight, Terry. Of course, much of the UK slang comes from the Latin languages, varde, nante palari etc.

Radar said...

A very nice post, Jamie. I posted too regarding the tornado disaster relief effort, though I was only illustrating the vast spectrum of comments at different news articles with coverage of the event. I am going to post a link to your article from mine with the hopes more people can gain a greater appreciation for the history of elephant labor to assist mankind. As a side note, the last big top circus in America to raise the tent via elephant power daily is ours here at Kelly Miller.

>> http://showmeelephants.blogspot.com/2011/05/picadilly-circus-joplin-mo-tornado.html

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