by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In an era in which greater Los Angeles, with its famed salubrious climate, was widely recognized as a “health-seeker’s paradise,” the Barlow Sanitarium for Poor Consumptives, now the Barlow Respiratory Hospital, was established in 1902 with its first patients admitted in the fall of the following year at a compound in the Elysian Hills north of downtown Los Angeles. A prior post here covered a “lawn fete” held in September 1904 to raise funds for the institution, which had immediate support from some prominent personages in the Angel City.
Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s holdings is a broadside for an earlier fundraiser, a “burlesque circus” put on by the medical and dental students attending the Southern California Medical College, founded in 1885 at the University of Southern California and now known as the Keck School of Medicine. The event was held at Hazard’s Pavilion on 15-16 January 1904, with evening performances on Friday and Saturday and a matinee on the latter, and was preceded by a street parade and it received a significant amount of coverage in local papers.
The handbill indicated that the event was “a copyright production” and there are a few examples of a “Haskell’s Burlesque Circus” being performed in other parts of the country in the 1890s, while the image reproduced on the document was copyrighted by W.L. Haskell, in 1899. The three “spasms,” or acts, of the event apparently were established by Haskell, who appeared in several roles during the circus, under that authority, with the first titled, naturally, “A Day at the Circus” with characters who would, for example, “graft all the money in sight,” “drink all the red lemonade,” and “protect the city’s interests,” so presumably this involved a good deal of comedy of both verbal and physical forms.
The second spasm involved “The Side Show” with the type of performers associated with circuses in the era and now largely outrageously offensive, such as “The Queen of Snake Enchantresses,” “Fiji Jim,” “The Maneating Zulu,” “The Fat Lady” and the performer, undoubtedly in blackface, crooning “The Coon Song.” As for “the crowning effort of the show,” this was a mock battle between the famed heavyweight boxers James J. Jeffries (who, though born in Ohio, grew up in Los Angeles and died in Burbank) and James J. Corbett (a San Francisco native), who engaged in two classic prize-fighting matches in 1900 and 1903.
The third spasm was, of course, “The Big Show,” featuring nine exhibits, including one “with real sawdust and horses,” with riders advertised as “the most daring riders that have not been signed for last season;” “Merry Old Clowns;” a performing elephant and cake-walkers; a strong woman who was “the heaviest act we carry;” nine performers on “the horizontal bar;” an exibition of fencing; “Signor Blitzky, the great Juggler;” Haskell as “Mademoiselle Macaroni, Queen of the Arena” with her purported superior skills on horseback; and a performance by “Sing Hi” and “Won Lung.”
While these spasms were performed by the medical college’s students, the music was provided by a professional military-style concert band of high repute, Channing Ellery’s Royal Italian Band, which played abbreviated concerts at each offering. Pieces played include selections from Charles Gounod’s Faust and Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser and a march from Oregon, a composition from Manfredi Chiaffarelli, who migrated from Italy in late 1902 to join Ellery’s ensemble. After a rift with the impresario in summer 1904, Chiaffarelli struck out on his own and his Italian Band played at Chutes Park in 1905 with his orchestras appearing occasionally in the city through 1920, while he taught until his death in 1943.
To pay for the cost of the printing of the broadside and other expenses associated with mounting the circus, advertisers promoted their businesses and wares throughout the flyer, including the Southern California and J.B. Brown music companies, which marketed the Victor Talking Machine, a new phonograph player from the company launched just a little more than two years prior in fall 1901.
Clothiers were represented by the Angevine Woolen Company and the Jewish operated firms, H. Cohn and Company and the better-known Harris and Frank, which had origins in the Angel City back to the mid-1850s and which added a little poesy to its ad: “Hi-Lo, Bar-Lo / To the show let’s go / Dickery dickery dock / Of us buy your dress frock. Another ad of note was from Lyon, McKinney and Smith, a major furniture store at Sixth and Spring, which informed readers that “the crowds are like a circus most of the time. We do the business” as “caterers to the best homes for nobby [fashionable] furniture, carpete and draperies.”
Restaurants seeking to lure attendees to have repasts at their establishments included the Del Monte Tavern, situated in the extant Douglas Building, completed in 1898 and now, of course, lofts, at the corner of Spring and Third, and which accounted itself “the swellest cafe in town” and where “French Dinners a Speciality;” the Imperial Cafe, which is around the corner on Spring, and which claimed to be “dainty enough for the ladies, substantial enough for the men” and had its own rhyming couplet: “Here’s to the chaperone—may she learn from Cupid / Just enough blindness to be sweetly stupid;” and one of the more famous eateries in the Angel City, the cafe of Al Levy who was an early Jewish restaurateur, at the corner of Main and Third, and which simply invited, “After the show is over, enjoy a little refreshment with your friends.”
Other prominent advertisers included Hoegee’s, the well-known sporting goods emporium; the Los Angeles Pressed Brick Company, which provided plenty of building material for a rapidly expanding downtown; and the Maier and Zobelein Brewery, an institution of long-standing in the city and the last facility of which was right off U.S. 101 southeast of the Plaza, while its plant at that time, located to the west at Aliso and Alameda streets, was featured in a vignette.
As for press coverage of the event, the Los Angeles Express of the 15th extensively reported on the parade, of which “nothing like it ever before was seen in Los Angeles.” This was purportedly the view of those who lined the streets “and gazed with awe and admiration upon the passing show,” which ran the gamut “from cannibals to the calliope, from ‘rube’ bands to rough riders.” A police escort was followed by a carriage containing Mayor Meredith P. Snyder and the president of Barlow’s board of trustees, Jonathan S. Slauson, capitalist and owner of much of the Azusa area of the San Gabriel Valley. Lionized as “willing to make sacrifices to boost anything for a good cause,” the duo also “looked as serious as though they owned the show and feared a frost.”
Ellery’s Royal Italian Band followed close on the heels of the vehicle and, in turn, were trailed “by a mandarin [probably “Sing Hi” or “Won Lung”] in painted moustachios” and “a clown in a cab [who] made grimaces for the delight of the on-lookers.” A pair of Roman chariots (which, however, “looked strangely like road scrapers”) carried Ben-Hur and Messala, characters from the immensely popular novel by Lew Wallace which later was rendered into a few successful film versions; an “Injun in an automobile”; clowns; “Rough Riders” and “aborigines;” and characters from the show, such as “The Fat Lady”, the “man-eating Zulu,” and “the wild Fijian cannibal” were transported on the beds of trucks—it should be noted that automobiles made their first appearance in the city about a half-dozen years before.
Circus “animals” whose “feet were like those of medical students,” a calliope that gave every appearance of being a steam-powered road roller, and other elements were also part of the procession, for which “all business houses were deserted” as “bankers forsook their coin stacks” while “not a crook could resist the fascination of the circus long enough to prey upon the unwatched indoors.” The account ended with the observation that “it is promised that the circus in the pavilion tonight will be worth any man’s money,” while attendees were encouraged to “bring along a store of good nature to enter fully into the enjoyment of the evening.”
Reviews were favorable and charitable (pardon the pun) concerning the talents of the amateurs and the creation of the circus environment. With its cringe-worthy headline of “The Fat Woman Giggled and the Crowd Roared,” the Los Angeles Record opined that “an audience that filled the building comfortably got more laughs for its money than even the handbills had promised” and that the performance “was a success from the start.” The paper discussed the spasms, stating that “the band played ragtime while the curtain went up on the side show” including the snake charmer queen and the war dance of Fiji Jim “in spite of his corns.”
The Jeffries and Corbett spoof “was an attraction” and mention was made of “German comedians,” some “expert manipulation of the baton,” and Henry F. Daly’s “coon song.” During the “big show,” the fencing exhibition, bareback riding from the “strong woman,” the performing elephant and its tricks, and gymnastics on the horizontal bar and trapeze were also mentioned.
The Times accounted the circus as “hilarious” and opined that its “interweaving of the sublime with the ridiculous has seldom, if ever, been seen or heard before the footlights of Los Angeles.” The opening spasm was described as “a representation of a typical, old-time circus grounds, crowded with country bumpkins, the policeman, “Weary Willie” [a hobo-clown as made famous later by Emmett Kelly], and the pink lemonade vendors being most ludicrously in action.” The side show second spasm featured “the antics of the burlesque specialists” noted above in the Record’s account, “sandwiched with legitimate character sketches, vocal solos, and sundry vaudeville stunts by talented artists.” The mock puglistic battle between Corbett and Jefferies was said to be “wild and woolly.”
As for that third spasm and its “big show,” it was deemed “a corker.” The half-dozen horses, comprised of a single man in costume, and their riders portion “was both cleverly and uproariously effected,” while the “Sing Hi” and “Won Lung” performers “gave an imitation of Japanese athletics” and, no doubt, employed every stereotypical Asian trope imaginable. After the “Merry Old Clowns” did their act, involving singing “in discord,” the strong woman juggled massive weights and wielded a huge iron ball, which was kicked into the audience and it was said that the sight of the rubber object had “the bald heads on the front rows incidentally receiving a horrid shock.”
The remainder of the program brought laughs, admiration for clever juggling, and creditable fencing and gymnastics. Ellery’s Italian Band “rendered several numbers in their inimitable style” and played an extra concert for a ten-cent fee. Notably, the Times felt that “the burlesque street parade . . . was perhaps the best feature of the ludicrous show” as its components made for “a grotestque, incongruous appearance, accentuated by the pressing in of a street-pavement roller as a calliope, and a sprinkling-cart band.” In all, the paper concluded, “financially and humorously, the Burlesque Circus is a success.”
Finally, the Express rendered its verdict, suggesting that the usual sight of medical students “cutting up” was a far cry from the antics at Hazard’s Pavilion, but “the students who were the performers and the freaks of the aggregation . . . kept the big crowd in a state of infectious cachination [there’s your new word for the day—to laugh very loudly].” Whatever the jollification effected by the spasms, the paper observed that “neither Barnum nor Ringling ever had so good a band” as Ellery’s ensemble, which “heightened the absurdity of the burlesque features.”
With non-stop action, “the show was not permitted to drag” as “the performers on the stage had as much fun out of it as did the appreciative crowd that applauded their efforts.” One can assume, by the way, that these did not include Asians, Pacific Islanders, native Americans and Blacks lampooned as was so casually and pervasively done in those days. In fact, these racist characterizations, the Express continued, were so “fearfully and wonderfully made” that “most of them [were] painted and bedizened far beyond the possibility of identification. Amid the racist caricatures, the performance of the fat lady, included the master of ceremonies telling the crowd that “she” had an offer of marriage from Dr. Bryant of the medical college, which proved to be a big hit at the expense of the image of the obese woman (presumably, there were at least some in the audience.)
With respect to the “big show,” Haskell’s Mademoiselle Macaroni was “most startling of all the acts” because he/she “had the greatest ‘feet’ on horseback,” while, in general, “it was shown that these embryo doctors and dentists are versatile in their talent for cutting up and drawing.” With their “claims made good” as far as the promised hilarity, it was accounted that the “medical and dental students arouse[d] risibilities [another archaic word!] of [the] vast crowd with their circus burlesque” and raised a healthy amount of money for the Barlow institution, which continues its valuable work nearly 120 years after its establishment.