The greatest circus performers on earth once toured San Bernardino at one time or another. Emmett Kelly, Red Skelton, P.T. Barnum, Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, the Flying Wallenda’s, renown animal tamer Gunther Gebel-Williams, and the human cannonball Hugo Zacchini.
Although Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus will perform its “Greatest Show on Earth” for the last time on May 21, 2017, a great portion of its 146 year history will remain archived in the San Bernardino data base. For about one hundred years, plenty of those employees from San Beranrdino played a major role in its success, either working behind the scenes or behind a pancake of clown makeup.
P.T. Barnum is considered among the best promoters, however it was San Bernardino High graduates Edwin P. Norwood and Al Priddy who were responsible for bringing those promotions to life in the modern era for the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus (RBBB). From 1920-1930, Norwood was its the director of publicity and Priddy was its advance man in charge of drumming up pre-publicity in 270 towns per year.
Time has made other locals like Roberta Light lesser known. But when Light began her affiliation with RBBB Circus after her 1939 graduation from San Bernardino High School, she became very well known. Light was selected as Ringling Brothers’ 1948 “Snow Queen” whose royal entries graced 300 circus events nation wide. Her 1948 story-book year, culminated with a marriage in San Bernardino to circus journalist Bill Ballantine.
The reception was attended by 1,000 circus colleagues and gained national coverage, according to the San Bernardino Evening Telegram. At the time, Bill Ballantine was working as a clown and press agent for Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey and eventually worked up to Dean of its Circus Clown College. Their son, Toby Circus Ballantine still works as a circus clown and will finalize an amazing family association with RBBB to the very end. The Ballentine’s remained married until Bill’s death in 1999. Roberta died in 2008.
San Bernardino’s Ron Jarvis knew the Ballantine’s when he was a Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey clown. The 1969 Pacific High School alum auditioned to its clown college in Venice, Florida when Bill Ballantine was its dean and Toby was a student. “Toby worked with me for two years. We did two shows a day and three on Saturday for 12 months with a break at Christmas,” wrote Jarvis.
Jarvis spent three years on the road in the mid-1970’s with the circus along with Pacific HS classmate Mark Buthman. They were part of an ensemble of 25 clowns traveling with two different shows. Jarvis and Buthman were awarded contracts by Ringling Brothers out of 2,500 prospective clown students. In addition, Edward Smith from Redlands and Serafin Rocha from Bloomington were also working as RBBB Circus clowns at the same time.
“My job assignments included writing and performing gags and five production numbers that we danced in. We had a new show every two years. The first year we toured big cities. The second year smaller cities,” said Jarvis.
The first recorded RBBB Circus clown from San Bernardino was Clarence Bruce, who in 1934 was known as the “Horse Riding Comic.” As early as 1901, the San Bernardino Weekly and San Bernardino Evening Transcript were reporting crowds of 18,000 attending the Ringling Brothers Circus held under 30 “big top” tents located in a field at Mt. Vernon and Mill.
At the turn of the 20th Century, San Bernardino was known as circus-friendly town. The Los Angeles Times reported that Ringling Brothers required both the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads to haul 83 cars, filled with 1,250 workers, 1,000 animals, and tons of equipment. In 1905, an advance train car carrying 35 advertising agents “filled every billboard in the valley.” As the annual circus unloaded at the Santa Fe siding, it created a three-mile parade that also helped promote the circus coming to town.
Danny Westrick, a 1971 Cajon HS alumnus was the subject of a 1975 article in the Sun-Telegram written by Jimmy Johnson. It told of his experience working for RBBB and its top animal trainer Gunther Gebel Williams. Westrick and Jarvis had a one year time frame in 1975 when both worked on the RBBB “Red Unit” According to Facebook, Westrick now lives in Calimesa. Another lion tamer Edward D. Fox, retired to San Bernardino after working 45 years at RBBB. Fox died in 1978 and is buried in Loma Linda’s Montecido Cemetery.
By 1985, San Bernardino was no longer a stop for RBBB. A small promotional “Safe Kids” circus was held in the Central City Mall and like the once popular Mall, the “Greatest Show on Earth” will soon become a scene of the past.