Tuesday, March 22, 2016

EARLE REYNOLDS: My dad grew up in a circus (1st of 3)

     Now that you know him as "Skipper," I thought I'd describe other facets of this  remarkable renaissance man who was my father.
     Dad was not only a physical anthropologist, playwright, yacht designer and captain, tri-state tennis champion, peace activist and a felon. He was also, at one time, a trapeze artist.
     In his 80's, when dementia had stripped him of most of his memory, Skipper could still remember building a boat and sailing it around the world. Until the dementia he could also remember growing up in the circus.
      He was born Earl Frederick Schoene on October 18, 1910 as the circus passed through Des Moines, Iowa. His parents and Uncle Frederick were trapeze artists and tightrope walkers.
      As a child, I loved hearing him tell of "sleeping in a wardrobe trunk," on the lid of which he remembered were pasted the pictures of his "best friends: the fat lady, the man with no arms and the Wild Man of Borneo." He said he cut his teeth on the corner of a resin box.
      They moved constantly, always staying in the best hotels, eating in the most exclusive restaurants, wearing expensive clothes--for show; expenditures always kept pace with their earnings. Before he could read, his parents would tuck the name of the hotel into his pocket and let him roam all over whatever the city they were in by himself. He remembered one day when he had walked himself to exhaustion and, as instructed, found a cab and handed the driver the card. With a flourish, the driver bowed and opened the back door for him. He drove slowly around the corner and stopped, then got out and opened Earle's door for him. Earle had been only half a block from his hotel.
     Once he rounded up all the local boys--newsboys, shoeshine boys, street kids--and brought them back to the hotel dining room for breakfast, charging his parent's room. Just once.
     He remembered as a toddler singing "Over There," the sentimental song of the Great War, for crowds and having people throw him pennies; on rare occasions I could get him to sing it for me. His version was "He climbs upstairs in his unnerwears" (instead of "all unawares"); please tell my daddy to COME home. Just a baby's prayer at twilight for his DADDY over there."
     After eighty years, he still resented the memory of a "piddly little girl" who walked up and stood on her head once while he was singing. His parents made him split his earnings with her "and all she did was stand on her head. Anybody can stand on their head!"
     In his unpublished (and unpolished) eight-page memoir, Penny Arcade, Earle described his experience in the circus in the third person. (He didn't actually change his name from Earl to Earle until he was adopted by his stepfather, Louis Reynolds, Then he changed it to Earle Landry Reynolds.) Here's part of his memoir:

Circus Day
     Even before the sun had entirely chased away the shadows on the lot, scurrying strikers had pitched the most important tent--the cook tent. Here, while the busy workers set up the big top and the menagerie, preparations were in progress for breakfast. The heavenly odor of frying bacon, the sound of the pounding tent-pegs, and the confusion caused by urchins quarreling over the honor of watering the elephants, all rose on high in an indescribably conglomeration. Seeming chaos reigned.
     But this confusion was only outward. In a miraculously short time, the empty, barren lot was transformed into a billowing sea of canvas. [Foreshadowing the billowing canvas which would be raised hand over hand up the masts of the Phoenix? JR] By early afternoon all was in readiness: The animals were groomed, the red and gold wagons glistened, the clowns were in full regalia, the parade commenced, augmented by the entire juvenile population.
     What heaven this was to a boy! What seven times seventh heaven it was to a boy who, not once or twice a year, but daily, enjoyed this unsurpassed splendor! Earle reveled in it. The thrill of actually sleeping in a special train, with yard-high scarlet letters on each side; the excitement of arriving in a new town in the small hours of the morning; the never-ending pride of being the center of an admiring and envious group of town boys--all the joys conspired to keep the youngster happy and content.
     He was all over the circus lot each night, and on the inside of every gimmick and con-game ever devised to extract money from honest people's pockets. For in those days it was not even expected that the games and chances offered to the suckers should be on the level. Not a single concession but had its pet method of bamboozling the rubes.
     Earle's occupation around the age of five was an exalted position as howler in the den of the Wild Man of Borneo. The word describes the work. With a well-resined string, a tin can, a glove, and plenty of energy, he howled. . . Meanwhile, the dimes rolled in.
     Earle had two unavoidable duties. First, he must every day study with his mother, both in secular subjects and in his religion (Catholicism). Even while their life stretched out as a succession of one-night stands in one-horse towns, she planned far ahead for her boy. He learned to read, and, far more important, he learned to love to read. . .
     His second duty was indeed no duty, but an unalloyed pleasure. One hour each day he spent on his own miniature trapeze, hung a few feet from the ground. Here he practiced hanging from his heels, "skinning the cat," and all the other bone-cracking acrobatic delights known to boyhood.
     His one aim, contrary to the intentions of most boys, was to follow in his father's tracks--but then, most boys' fathers are not trapeze performers! Earle's greatest delight was to be carried aloft with his parents during rehearsal, and, securely strapped to a swinging bar, watch the ground move swiftly underneath.

To be continued

Monday, March 21, 2016

EARLE REYNOLDS: My dad grew up in a circus (2nd of 3)

Continued from Penny Arcade by Earle L. Reynolds:

     The Schoenes, signing a new contract, now went back into vaudeville. Earle once more was forced to leave his beloved circus, this time for good. Again came the regular succession of theater after theater, of hotel instead of tent, of city instead of town, of solitude instead of the companionship of the show-kids. The game had lost its glamor for him.
     On the same bill with the Schoenes one season was a quiet little Englishman whose act included grotesque impersonations and comic tumbling. A perfectly nice young fellow, thought the Schoenes, except for his ridiculous interest in some new fad in the theatrical profession, a flickering shadow-box affair, calling moving-pictures.
     Of course any professional entertainer could tell you that the dim, jerky figures moving drunkenly across a wavering screen could never supplant the popularity of the established show-world; but they could not tell the serious little Englishman. He seemed strangely confident, so confident in fact that he planned to leave the bill at the end of the season, and sink all his money into a foolhardy attempt to actually make an acceptable picture-play of full length.
   His plot, centering on the life of a tramp, required the use of a juvenile lead, and he offered the part to Earle. However, the youngster was now taking part in the regular act, and the Schoenes did not feel it worth their while to disrupt a signed contract for some fly-by-night scheme. They turned the offer down.
     At the end of the season, the pantomimist left the show, and went to California.
      In the next year, the Schoenes sat in a darkened theater, as did thousands of other skeptical people throughout the country, and viewed, with the sound of their own distant doom in their ears, the first attempt of their fellow-actor of the former season. Outside the theater was emblazoned in electric lights the title of the picture: SHOWING THIS WEEK ONLY
                      CHARLIE CHAPLIN
                              THE KID
                        JACKIE COOGAN

       For two years more the routine of three-a-day went on. Earle was now billed separately, as a juvenile singer, and drew each Saturday night, with pardonable pride, a tidy check from the box office. He seemed destined for a theatrical career, and quite probably his future would have gradually merged into a settled decision to enter permanently into show-business. But this was not to be.
     War broke out; all plans were upset; William enlisted, and the Landre Troupe again broke up, this time forever. William was detailed to the South, as an acrobat! Not even in the stress of war-time could he escape his career. The Schoenes now turned entertainers--for khaki spectators. From training camp to training camp they went, from Texas to Carolina, giving free exhibitions for soldiers, and operating a shooting-gallery. Earle still sang and practiced faithfully on his own trapeze. . .
     William had perfected an entirely new type of performance. He had evolved an unrivaled trick, inverted walking. This consisted of walking head-downward, supported only by the strength of the toes, which were thrust into little U-shaped loops. At that time, it was an absolutely novel act in the field of entertainment, and he won wide acclaim. His new program consisted almost wholly of variations of this trick, and for his trapeze he substituted a long looped apparatus, which he hung between office buildings.
   Now William played only cities; voluntary contributions were collected among the thousands who crowded the down-town streets to see the feat; the proceeds went to the Red Cross.
     In August, 1918, he gave a special performance between two of the highest buildings in Dallas, Texas. During the course of his act, a high wind blew in from the Gulf. Had it been an ordinary performance, the show would have probably been quickly concluded, but now, with literally thousands looking on, with hundreds of dollars in contributions already given, the performance must continue.
     It was a tremendous gamble, and William lost. He was blown from his precarious hold, and fell to the street below. He was instantly killed.
     In November Madelaine left the game forever, and went home, for the first time since her madcap marriage, eight years before.

      The traveling was over. Madelaine and her son settled in Vicksburg, Mississippi. For the first time in his life Earl lived in a house, slept in the same bed every night, completed an entire year of school.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

EARLE REYNOLDS: My dad grew up in a circus - (3rd of 3)

     When you start digging for family roots, don't dig too deep.You may do nothing but destroy legends.
     Our family legend had it that the girl who was to become my paternal grandmother ran away from a convent to elope with a trapeze artist. The girl, Madelaine Landre, was only sixteen when the circus passed through her Canadian hometown. William Schoene, the man she married, and his brother Frederick comprised an acrobatic troupe, first called The Schoene Brothers Aerial Artists and then, when the (first) world war made all things German unpopular, The Flying Landrys.
     A year later they stopped in Des Moines long enough for Madelaine to give birth to their only child, my father Earl Frederick.

     That is the legend. I tried to trace the "Flying Landrys." There are a couple of brief references to them in Billboard: "The Landry Brothers work a neat and classy rope acrobatic turn for six minutes, in full stage, which brought the brawny lads one legit." The circus was probably the John T. Wortham Shows, also known as John T. Wortham Carnival.
     I tried to trace the encounter with Charlie Chaplin. It is likely the Schoenes and Chaplin did spend a season together. If so, the vaudeville troupe they were with in 1913 would have been the Fred Karno Company (Karno Pantimime Troupe). Chaplin toured the United States and Canada with the Karno Company from 1910-1913.
     Dad remembered his parents telling him how Chaplin was about to leave vaudeville to produce a "moving picture" with a child lead and that he offered the part to Earl. In 1913 Earl was three. If, having found his lead, Chaplin had produced The Kid in 1915, Earl would have been five, the age Jackie Coogan was when The Kid actually came out (1921). But the question is moot. Earl's parents turned down the offer because they felt movies were "a fly-by-night scheme" compared to vaudeville.
     Chaplin's autobiography indicates he built "The Kid" around Jackie Coogan. There is no evidence he considered any other child for the lead.
     I tried to trace the beautiful, scandalous Madelaine Landre and finally held her birth certificate in my hands. "Maude," it read. Not Madelaine. "Born in Prentice, Wisconsin." Not Canada. "Father unknown, mother unknown." Maude may have run away from a convent at 16, although I find no record of the seven years she supposedly spent in one, to join the circus when it passed through her hometown. She was certainly with the circus by the time she turned 17, when she gave birth to Earle.
     A friend who had nursed her through her final illness sent me photographs of her, a miserable woman sitting up in a hospital bed beside a dejected Christmas tree.
     My mother told me her own memories of Maude, who lived alone, sold Fuller Brush products, and went on periodic drunks. During her visit to meet her son's new wife, Maude attempted to slit her wrists in their kitchen sink. (Was it because she was "losing" her only child, being replaced in his life? Was it because his new wife was Protestant? Who knows.)
     I tried to trace the daring William, who, Earle had been told, fell to his death while performing for WWI troops in August,1918. There was no record of a dramatic death in Dallas. It would be quite a gulf wind which could blow a man off a tightrope between two buildings in Dallas. According to public records, William Schoene died of pneumonia in San Angelo on April 7, 1926 and was buried in public ground. William's obituary appeared in the May 8, 1926 issue of Billboard (p. 90). Maude had long since married Louis Reynolds, an electrician, on the condition he would leave the circus.

     I miss the legends. I wish they had withstood research. Instead of heroes I am left with very human, hurting people--a woman whose choices or whose son's choices conflicted with her religion and whose guilt (over the divorce? over lying about it?) may have driven her to drink, a man who never quite made the bigtime. Real people.
     People I wish I had known.