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.