September 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Small-time big top

By Cate Kennedy
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Perry Bros Circus has set up again at the showgrounds in town, its familiar red and yellow striped tent rising like a rare winter flower behind the Saturday footy match. Its two elephants, Minyak and Saigon, don’t perform anymore; they’re just for “display”, as the circus poster says. Behind the Big Top, where they’re tethered, local kids watch them stolidly munch hay before the show starts.

Elephants have been a part of Australian circuses for 150 years, but these two veterans, at 58 and 50 years of age, are about the last ones left. “Each year,” says a sign in front of their enclosure, “our elephants spend time off away from the circus roaming on our circus property with other retired circus animals.” When on that property, in Victoria’s north-east, they’re cared for by 80-year-old Fred Maynard, who also looks after a couple of retired lions, ponies, donkeys and camels.

Fred’s nephew, Perry, is an integral part of the current Perry Bros show. As Oscar the clown, he rides trick bicycles, which gradually fall apart. The kids in the front rows rock back and forth in hysteria, entreating him to get on the seven-foot unicycle. Finally, triumphantly, Oscar guides the towering unicycle around the ring – his huge red shoes flapping – in a routine that seems not so much timeworn as a precious fragment of a disappearing world.

He re-appears later on the highwire, doing everything from dancing to rope-skipping to traversing the wire blindfolded. For the adults present, that’s a spellbinding thing to be watching at a tiny family circus set up behind the local oval, but the kids are more taken with Geronimo the pony, bedecked in feather plumes, and the fire-twirling Miss Zena. Watching her spangles and megawatt smile, it’s hard to believe that, 10 minutes earlier, she was selling you a cup of popcorn outside. That’s true of all the performers. Perry Maynard’s lithe, handsome nephew, Warren James – who somehow juggles clubs and passes through a small hoop while balanced on a stack of rolling cylinders and a bowling ball – is the same person who tears your tickets at the door. The plate-spinning Chef Brodie, the ‘Master of Disaster’, mans the Laughing Clowns stall in the break, and the family’s matriarch, Lorraine Maynard (nee Perry), sells hot doughnuts and fairy floss before appearing with her Canine Wonders.

It’s a tight-knit spectacle of multi-skilling and multi-tasking, sometimes happening so quickly you can’t believe they’ve been able to get their wigs and white-face off in time to come back in cowboy outfits for the whip-cracking. The warm smell of grass mashed into mud by hardworking feet and hooves fills the tent. Yasmine Perry thanks the audience for coming, Warren James spins a 70-foot rope lasso, and the show’s over for another season. With barely a pause, the cast start packing up.

The Perry Bros circus opened in Melbourne in 1852 after Lorraine Maynard’s great-great-grandfather, George Perry, a convict, was granted his ticket of leave and arrived from Tasmania. “He played the violin,” says Lorraine as we sit in the plastic ringside seats after the show. “He wrote the ‘Circus Polka’.” She hums a few bars for me, smiling. “We all still know that tune. And it was the first circus to go right round Australia. They performed at Aboriginal missions, they performed at Marble Bar. My grandfather took the show to Cairns, back before there was a road up there. He put his wife and kids on a tugboat and they went up by sea.”

Her grandfather also took the circus overland with two Aboriginal trackers, driving the animals in front of them through the bush. “It all went OK,” says Lorraine. “They only lost one horse to a crocodile.” She reaches into her bag and pulls out some big, framed photographs. “Queer cargo for Cowes”, one is captioned, showing a couple of elephants loaded on the Phillip Island ferry. “We had a baby elephant born in the circus,” says Lorraine. “1912. A bull elephant named Tommy. He was in the circus for years but ended up killing his handler.” She pulls out another grainy reproduction, dated 1870. A group of men stand outside a tent that looks almost exactly the same as the one we’re sitting in.

The 1930 souvenir circus program that she shows me has a sense of glory days about it, full of drawings and details of the spectacular “Perry Bros. Centenary Circus and Zoo”. “Captain Monzalo trained these Wild Animals to perform their Wonderful Tricks,” runs the text beneath an engraving of an intrepid man facing down several roaring lions, which are “introduced by Capt. Wizard, who enters the Steel Cage with no other means of protection than an Ordinary Chair.” At the time, there was a whole troupe of elephants, “specially imported from India by Perry Bros., and trained by Captain Boston,” as well as Miss Doris, “who stands on her head at the top of a 30 ft pole.” Otherwise, the 1930s acts look very similar to those I’ve just seen: there was Tommy the Trick Pony, Martin the Comedy Juggler and the clowns Slip and Slide (“you will roar at their Funny Antics”).

 “We employ and feed 120 people daily, who eat 52 loaves of bread, 300 lbs of beef and any amount of groceries,” the program concludes, giving a sense of the size of the circus back then. “The animals eat 1 ½ tons of hay and chaff daily. All these items are obtained from your local tradesmen. We pay cash for everything.”

That’s another thing that’s barely changed. As I’m reading this, a local woman comes up to settle the week’s account for the hay she’s delivered to the elephants, camels and horses. Lorraine and I sit talking with her for a few minutes until the crew, who half an hour ago were spinning plates, doing balloon gags and dancing on the highwire, tell us they must stack our chairs and strike the tent. Holding the photos and memorabilia that span 139 years, we move outside into a wintry Sunday afternoon, so that the Big Top can finally come down.

Cate Kennedy
Cate Kennedy is the author of Dark Roots and The World Beneath. She writes poetry, short stories and novels, and has written for the New Yorker.

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