One of my old N-S sources/connections/lunch dates checked in via the comments on the N-S piece, below. Hey, Pete! Good to see you here. I haven’t seen him in years, and he brought up one of the single most amusing stories that either of us lived through. He was an actual participant; I just read about it in the paper and laughed my butt off.
Pete was an officer in a service club that planned to bring a circus to Fort Wayne in 1986 — the Toby Tyler Circus. Their posters said, “a tradition since 1881,” which, I contend, might lead a reasonable person to believe the Toby Tyler Circus had been in more or less continuous operation for a century. In fact, the Toby Tyler Circus had been around for about five minutes, and laid claim to “since 1881” on this basis: The book “Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks With a Circus,” about a little boy who runs away to join one, had been published in 1881.
This was a sure sign of trouble. Unfortunately, it’s one nobody saw until it was too late.
The Toby Tyler Circus was traveling east, and leaving a trail of unfortunate incidents in its wake, stories our very bright and enterprising police reporter, David Allen, noticed on the wire when it was still near the Illinois line. There was a bleachers collapse, show cancellations, the sorts of things that, if they involved more bare breasts, might have made a halfway decent episode of “Carnivale.” Unfortunately, they just made hay for David, who started writing stories taking note of the approaching, delaminating circus, which was scheduled to play in Fort Wayne in just a few days.
These stories, as you might imagine, didn’t please the service club or the people who were in charge of making sure the show went on safely — police and fire officials, who began telling David they were sure interested in inspecting the circus’ equipment and permits and all that stuff. Meanwhile, the venue that was supposed to host this affair decided you know, we don’t need this trouble and cancelled their reservation. This was, like, the day before the show.
The circus arrived in town, trailed by David, the fire marshal, various other authorities and, of course, Pete. The road manager/ringmaster kept saying, “Don’t worry, the show will go on! We’re a circus, we make people happy! It’s our tradition!” Which I think is when the “since 1881” business was revealed, but I’m not sure. (I’m relying on my memory, and my 20-year-old impression was, the whole business played out like farce.)
The circus spent the morning shuttling around town, authorities in tow, getting booted from this place and that, increasingly desperate, until finally they were knocking on doors out in the country saying, “Can we borrow this field?” (David was actually filing updates on this breaking story; we were an afternoon paper, after all, and the show was supposed to be that night.)
At one point someone said yes, which led to perhaps the best single quote of the story, the year, and maybe ever:
“I got a call from my tenants this morning and they said there were a couple of midgets in the back yard putting up a big tent.”
I think it was then — when the landlord came over and evicted the midgets, when the ringmaster finally faced the truth, when Pete and his service club finally grasped just how bad a horse they had bet on — that the circus was finally shut down, although all they did was move on to the east and the next gig.
I think David wrote at least one more story, quoting a couple of homeless guys who were hired to do setup in the next town down the road and never got paid. He kept a Toby Tyler Circus poster up next to his desk until he left the paper five years later. I met Pete shortly thereafter; he mentioned his work with the service club. “You mean the ones who had the fiasco with the circus?” I asked. He was not amused. Over time, I got him to admit it was at least a legitimate story, although it took forever.
And just to show you how years can pass and nothing changes, there’s this: In 2004, when the Fellows visited Toronto, Alan and Kate and I made a side trip to Niagara Falls. (I’d never been there, and the Turks in the group were all going, in part to see a great North American natural wonder and in part to see the site of the Marilyn Monroe movie “Niagara.”) While there I picked up a $3 booklet in the gift shop, about people who’ve gone over the falls in barrels and other conveyances. I became convinced — still am — that there’s a great, great movie to be made about these people, and remembered that a Detroit-area man had been the last one to go over the falls. In fact, he’d been the only person to survive a falls plunge with no protective equipment. He later more or less admitted he was trying to commit suicide, but in the immediate aftermath acted like he’d planned the whole thing.
After we got back to Ann Arbor I looked up the stories about him, then did further Googling. When the spotlight shifted away he was still an unemployed metro Detroiter, but like so many falls daredevils before him, he was able to trade his foolhardiness for a little lasting notoriety and a job.
As “world’s greatest stunt man.” With the Toby Tyler Circus.
Which is still having PR problems. Although only God knows if it’s even the same one.
Sorry it’s been a little spotty around here. Much work. I don’t think it’s a good idea to talk about work here — one of the things I’m being paid for is not to scoop my own employers — but it’s fair to say this: I’m doing lots of work for magazines, and with their long lead times, this means it’s Christmas in my head. Talk about rushing the season. I’ve been thinking of chestnuts roasting on an open fire for days and days, and we haven’t even carved the pumpkins yet.
Things will ease up soon. In the meantime, tell us a circus story.