My new book, with Theresa Griffin Kennedy, Mayor Baker's Portland (coming from History Press in February 2016) will include more information on Roy Moore, King of the Northwest Bootleggers, and the Sells-Floto Circus robbery of 1921. Here is some background on the circus.
The ad in the Portland Oregonian for the 1904 first performance of what became the Sells-Floto Circus is full of whimsical artwork and copy designed to highlight the romance of the circus.
In the nineteenth century, before mass entertainment media existed, travelling shows were the most exciting thing that could happen in a town, even a town the size of Portland. There was a strong theatrical circuit in the Pacific Northwest, led by the Baker Players, under the leadership of George Baker. Vaudeville shows, with jugglers, singers, clowns and risqué dancers were highly popular, but not always socially acceptable. Portland had a lively theatrical scene that included both legitimate and “variety” theaters and the Chautauqua circuit with its program of oratory and education was highly popular in the summertime. “Coontown” – the African-American neighborhood located near Union Depot in NW Portland – was the center of Portland’s music scene and the Colored Immigrants’ Aid Society and other black social organizations put on elaborate pageants and “cakewalks” to highlight their music. Even with all of this, by the turn of the twentieth century Portland was still hungry for entertainment.
On July 29, 1904 The Great Floto Shows and Circus Beautiful made a one-day appearance in Portland under a gaudily painted bigtop tent pitched at the corner of NW 21st and Savier. At 10:00am that morning the circus parade started out from the tent and marched through the streets of the Slabtown neighborhood with music from a huge steam calliope. The small train of circus wagons was accompanied by the Ben Hur Herd of Arabian Stallions and Herr Litzen’s Funny Dutch Elephants, the Priskorn brothers on unicycles followed by a “prodigious aggregation of living freaks.” On the wagons the star performers in their dazzling outfits waved to the crowd; they included La Belle Leona, premier equestrienne; Mlle. Arline, the “girl in red” with her performing dogs; Mlle. Vallecita, the beauteous jungle queen with her caged “savage wild beasts;” Sugimoto’s score of Japanese; the Bartine Trio, neck breakers, flip-flappers and twisters; and the Great Ellett Family of flying aerialists. The free parade was a great show just in itself and it drew a long line of excited kids back to the show grounds. Any kid who could scrape up a quarter attended at least one of the two shows. For adults the fare was fifty cents and a lot of them went too.
The bigtop was packed for both the 2pm and the 8pm show and the sideshow with its freaks and games of chance and skill did great business. It must have been after midnight when the tent folded and the roustabouts got everything packed away. They would have had to leave at dawn to make it to Chehalis in time for the parade at 10 a.m the next morning. It was a rough life, but the glamour associated with the elaborate shows created a strong attraction and many young people, even children “ran away to join the circus.” One young man who did was Alexis Priskorn, who did velocipede and unicycle performances with his brothers. Known as the Great Alexius, he had a famous “loop-the-loop” trick that “defied gravitation.” At the age of 24 Alexis had become a headliner with his “death defying” act featured on circus posters and advertisements. The Great Alexius was featured on the ad for the Portland show too, but he wasn’t there. On July 19th when the show reached Baker, OR after five months on the road from Dallas, TX and up the west coast, Priskorn was hospitalized with a high fever. Less than a month later when the show was performing in Golden, B.C. Priskorn died of what was believed to be typhoid fever. The circus continued on, making daily appearances in towns and cities across western Canada and down through Minnesota and Missouri back to Texas.
In Europe Eph Thompson, the African American animal trainer, was nothing unusual, but in the United States it was rare to see a black performer in a starring role.
With the 1904 performance a tradition was born that would continue for the next two generations and longer. Owned by the publishers of the Denver Post the Floto name came from one of the paper’s most popular sportswriters, gambler and fight promoter Otto Floto. In 1906 Willie Sells joined the staff and the name changed. The Sells-Floto Circus was an annual event in Portland until the 1940s, when it was swallowed up into the Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey conglomerate. The circus was heavy with trick riding acts and it almost always included elephants, although elephants, tigers, lions, bears, rhinos and hippopotamus came and went with the seasons. Between 1906 and 1910 Eph Thompson, the African-American animal trainer who toured with the country’s first “somersaulting elephants” performed with the Sells-Floto Circus when it came to Portland. In 1914 and 1915 Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, with its trick shooters and racist reenactments of recent history, toured with the Sells-Floto Shows and played in Portland.
Bonfils, the hippo, was a wildly popular performer from the time he was featured in the Baby Animals Exhibit. Some of the other animals didn’t fare as well.
By the 1920s the circus had become engrained in the local culture and adults with fond memories of childhood circuses built up a romantic image of the circus in the younger generation. The Sells-Floto Circus worked hard to keep that romantic image alive. One of the big attractions of the show was the “baby animals” exhibit which featured baby camels, elephants, lions and Bonfils, the hippo who was a hit for the circus from the moment he was born. The babies didn’t all do well, though. Tillie, the elephant who toured with the Sells Floto Circus for nearly twenty years, gave birth four times, the only elephant births in captivity at that time. None of her babies lived longer than a year. One newspaper report from 1911 describes skinny, shaking elephants and toothless lions, but the next year the press agent for the circus made sure that everyone knew the problem had been corrected.
The big stars of the early 20s Sells-Floto Circus was the trick-riding “Happy Hannefords” featuring Poodles Hanneford the trick-riding clown. Another great star of that period was Berta Beeson, the “slack-wire” aerialist who appeared to be a beautiful young woman in a spangly outfit, but was actually a young, male grocery clerk from Indiana named Herbert Beeson. These acts and some sixty more, not to mention 57 clowns and the freaks performed at the Vancouver, WA show on the night of September 16, 1921. After the last performance that night as the circus’s treasurer was transporting the box office take to the railroad yard a pair of robbers took more than $30,000 from him and assaulted Poodles Hanneford and his mother Grace before fleeing in a stolen car. One of the robbers was Roy Moore, who would become even more notorious later in the decade as the “King of the Northwest Bootleggers” and then in the 1940s as the leader of a ruthless, brutal gang of thugs and robbers. The robbery didn’t hurt the circus too badly, even though it held up the crew’s payday for one day as the circus treasurer took out a loan from a local bank to cover the loss. The publicity was good for business and the take from Portland was higher than usual during the circus’s two day stay.
The Happy Hannefords were famous for their trick riding and their clownish member Poodles “The Prince of Clowns.” Poodles had a bad experience one night in Vancouver in 1921.
In 1926 Mayor Baker convinced the circus management to do a benefit performance for the Shriner’s Children’s Hospital, a project he considered his greatest accomplishment. Baker’s persuasion created another tradition that exists to this day. The Shriner’s Circus is still a national show that raises money for the Shriner’s charitable activities. In 1929 the Sells-Floto Circus was purchased by the American Circus Corp. and continued to tour with acts like Tom Mix, the singing cowboy of the movies, through the 1930s. By then the circus was becoming more of a nostalgic sensation than a popular form of entertainment. The “golden age” of the American circus was long past before World War Two began. On the west coast for the first two or three generations of the twentieth century it was a popular and engaging form of entertainment. For Portlanders born between the 1890s and the 1930s the Sells-Floto Circus was a vivid memory and an annual event.