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When the circus train came to town ...

Saturday, February 1, 2014
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Heavy rain was the major drawback when the Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey Circus played two performances Wednesday, July 9, 1952, on Northern Boulevard in the town of Amsterdam.

Local resident Sam Vomero said it was the last time a circus train came to Amsterdam.

The predecessor Barnum & Bailey show played Amsterdam on July 30, 1903, also in heavy rain. The circus tried to set up on Ross’s flats, later named Coessens Park in the East End. The big wagons sank into the mud and the circus made the difficult move up the hill to an alternate site on Locust Avenue parkland across from Wallin Street. Hauling the wagons up the steep incline was too hard for the horses, but the Recorder reported that elephants came to the rescue.

Other circuses came to Amsterdam through the years: Walter Mains, Hagenback-Wallace, Sells-Floto, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Clyde Beatty’s circus.

In 1952, tickets for the Ringling Brothers show ranged from 75 cents for unreserved seats for children up to $4 for the reserved grandstand seats.

The day before the show, the Recorder reported that the circus site would become “a virtual city of canvas.” Ringling Brothers would abandon tents in 1957 and since then has only performed in indoor arenas.

The 1952 circus played Schenectady on Tuesday. Just before daybreak Wednesday, three circus trains arrived in Amsterdam, where a crowd had gathered at a New York Central Railroad siding between Schuyler and Voorhees streets.

The Recorder wrote, “The huge amusement organization swiftly unloaded its wild animal cages, giraffe vans, red wagons, floats, tractors, trucks and caterpillars. Nine herds of elephants and many performing horses lumbered and pranced into line, and in flashing color and action the circus cavalcade moved in practiced formation to the circus grounds.”

Air-conditioned cages housed two gorillas, Gargantua II and Mademoiselle Toto. These gorillas had succeeded Gargantua and the original Toto as circus stars. James L. Newman, in his book “Encountering Gorillas,” wrote: “Real gorillas are not natural performers like chimpanzees, and they cost a lot more to purchase and maintain.”

Food was delivered for a reported 1,400 people as the circus set up before another crowd of onlookers on Northern Boulevard. Getting top billing was Oscar Konyot and his comedy lions. The Recorder wrote: “The clowning of these ferocious, jungle-bred man-eaters is beyond description.”

Konyot was a native of Hungary who later formed the Konyot Chimpanzee Rodeo. He died in 1975.

Also on the bill was juggler Dieter Tasso, performing on the slack wire. Tasso was born in Berlin. He is still alive and living in Florida.

About 7,000 attended the two Amsterdam performances. Rain seeped through the canvas, and some circus-goers deployed umbrellas. The Recorder said the “Greatest Show on Earth” left behind a “most favorable impression,” but the day was the most disagreeable imaginable for circus exhibitions under canvas. Circus management said 10,000 would have turned out if the weather was better.

The local Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event, and 229 needy children were given free admission. There was shuttle service from the downtown bus station to the circus grounds.

Packing up started before the end of the evening show, and preparations began for the next day’s railroad trip to Utica. One circus worker was accidentally struck by a seat and feared a stomach perforation. He was expected to be discharged from the hospital the next day.

The day after the real circus left Amsterdam, Cecil B. DeMille’s movie “Greatest Show on Earth” opened at the Rialto Theater on Market Street, starring Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, Dorothy Lamour and Gloria Grahame. The movie won the best picture Oscar for 1952.

Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or bobcudmore@yahoo.com.

 
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