Sunday, September 17, 2006

The King of Circus Historians - William H. Woodcock

Received this from John Goodall it's an interview of my father by Tom Parkinson.



By Tom Parkinson. Bandwagon, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Jan-Feb), 1964, pp. 16-19.
William H. Woodcock Photo: Mrs. Woodcock kindly loaned this photo. It was taken by Harry Atwell in 1951. On the back Bill had written under his name "Student of Circus History, Elephantology and Side Show Oratory."
When the full history of American circuses is written, the author, whether he knows it or not, will owe an important part of his success to William H. Woodcock.
Woodcock is the foremost authority on show history, a walking encyclopedia of titles, dates, details and anecdotes. Whether his elephants ever forget may be argued by authorities, but Woodcock rarely misses.
Ask him about the Cole title and he'll reel off the story from William W. to James W. Show him the photograph of an old bandwagon and he'll state its full history - wagon works to wreck or bonfire. Show enough interest in elephant lore and Woodcock will trace the history of the herds from show to show.
Whether the questions come in Woodcock's voluminous correspondence or during a free moment on the lot makes no difference. The odds are that Bill has the answer ready. Invariably his reply is accurate to the last detail.
In Answer Man Role
Other circus historians file his data-crammed letters and quote his comments as edicts from the final authority. When visitors come on the show to talk with him, Woodcock brings out treasuries of old pictures, routes, programs and what have you. He's the "answer man" when scores of acquaintances pose puzzlers about any and all circuses from John Bill Rickets to John Ringling North.
Putting him in this position is a combination of love for circuses and parade wagons, a photographic mind trained on good literature and a mass of first-hand experience with many of the shows that have made history.
Woodcock's trouping started even before he joined a circus because his father, a merchant, moved frequently. His father was the son of an English doctor and was brought to Raleigh, N.C., as a child. The family later moved to Hot Springs, Ark., where Bill's father met and married a girl from Mississippi. The couple moved to Portales, N.M., where Bill was born May 19, 1904. His father's general store handled groceries, wagons and other supplies for the ranchers in that still-wild country. Cowboys who came to town were as eager for candy as they were for whiskey, and the senior Woodcock sold both. On Sundays the bar was covered with a sheet and church services were conducted in the store.
Sees Early-Day Shows
As a child, Bill was taken to all the circuses that came along, and he recalls his life not by years but by show dates. He remembers seeing Campbell Bros. at Portales, probably in 1908. Norris & Rowe came in and Bill remembers the big male elephant he later came to know as Hero.
The Woodcocks moved to Aransas Pass, Tex., where Bill saw a two-car show. He never has been able to identify that one, but its cars were blue and the high diver in the free act had only one arm and one leg. Next, he saw the Great Sanger Shows at Batesville, Miss., in 1912, so the family's move to nearby Courtland, Miss., was shortly before that. Bill points out that this show was the 10-car trick Mugivan and Bowers purchased from Dode Fiske and that Zack Terrell and Louis Thilman were in charge.
The Woodcock collection of circusiana, now one of the most significant, was started early. Bill still has heralds from those Campbell and Sanger dates as well as a Sun Bros. appearance in Mississippi at about the same time.
Remembers Much Detail
Early in 1913, Bill saw Hagenbeck-Wallace, Barnum & Bailey, Gentry Bros. and Sells-Floto in Memphis, next stop on the family route card. Later that season, he caught the Buffalo Bill-Pawnee Bill show on its swan-song tour, and he recalls that auto polo was a big feature in the program.
A second stay in Courtland, Miss., brought no shows Bill's way, but in 1916 the family moved back to Hot Springs. The Woodcocks arrived on a Saturday, Al G. Barnes Circus came in on the following Saturday and Gentry Bros. made it the next Tuesday. Bill declares Gentry was the greatest of dog and pony shows, and he recalls minute details of the show's 1916 parade, which included a cage of house cats.
The biggest edition of John Robinson's 10 Big Shows, that of 1917, is vivid in Bill's memory for its 45 cars, 15 elephants, 8-camel hitch, baby hippo and 6-pole top. Less than a month later he saw the Jess Willard-Buffalo Bill show, successor to the first 101 Ranch horse opera. And when Sells-Floto came in that season, Bill counted the 43 cars back on the show. He remembers that it was short of help because of the war and didn't equal the Robinson outfit.
He saw Robinson again and made his first visit to Ringling Bros.' Circus at Nashville in 1918, so that was the time he was a plumber's helper in a duPont war plant. Back in Hot Springs, the Howes Great London Show, operated by Chester Monohan and Herb Duval, laid off because of the influenza epidemic, and Bill remembers that the people lived on oranges from a nearby grove.
Hagenbeck, Yankee Robinson and the newly combined Ringling-Barnum aggregations were those Bill saw in 1919, with the Ringling parade of 18 cages and 20 other wagons making a deep impression.
Studies Literature, History
Between circus dates, Bill attended schools in the various towns. But of more interest to him were the books his parents had. Bill pored over the works of Walter Scott, read Ben Hur and Homer found Dickens' stuff too deep and developed a special interest in ancient history. All this heavy reading weakened his eyes so that he must hold a photo closely to determine whether it was taken on Howes Great London in 1921 or Gollmar Bros. in 1922.
Now Bill can recite both Greek and Roman versions of the mythology depicted in wood-carvings on old parade vehicles. When talk turns to Uncle Tom's Cabin shows, Bill would rather discuss the circus-type wagons that the Stetson, Terry and Phillips outfits had, but he also can point out how the text of the original book was changed in later editions and in stage versions. If necessary, he can quote at length from Shakespeare as readily as from The Billboard of 1906.
Starts With Rhoda Royal
Bill's professional circus career began when he ran away from a school at Bellbuckle, Tenn., to join Rhoda Royal Circus in April, 1920. He left that one to join Ringling-Barnum at Altoona, Pa., as a camel punk, and in August he moved over to Al G. Barnes at Clinton, Ill. On the Barnes show, Bill went to work for Cheerful Gardner in the elephant department. In his opinion, Gardner is the greatest of old-time bull men while Mac McDonald is high on the list of current trainers.
Bill opened 1921 as a billposter ahead of Campbell, Bailey & Hutchinson Circus and later moved back to the show to work for Al Langdon, who had two of William P. Hall's bulls on the show. All of 1922 was spent with Bert Noyes' elephant crew on Hagenbeck-Wallace.
Cheerful Gardner was Bill's boss again in 1923, when they worked the 12 elephants on the John Robinson Circus. Danny Odom was manager, Sam D. Dill was assistant manager, and Clyde Beatty, assistant to Pete Taylor in the animal department, was working four polar bears, Bill recalls. Later that season he was a billposter for the Cooper Bros. two-car show, one of the Elmer Jones extravaganzas.
Trombonist, Canvas Ross
Marcel & Douglas Circus opened out of Hot Springs in 1924 and Bill went along to play a poor trombone in the band and boss the canvas crew. When that folded, he walked 22 miles to join Golden Bros. at Prescott, Ark., and in June he threw in with Atterbury Bros.' wagon show.
Atterbury had what Bill says was just a plain dumb elephant named Diamond. During the performance, Bill worked Diamond and gave a lecture about elephants. For the lecture, he expanded the bull's name to Black Diamond. It later went bad on the Barnes show and had to be executed.
After staying out all winter with Atterbury, Bill joined Lee Bros.' Circus at Port Arthur, Texas, but stayed only one day as pit show manager before returning home in the spring of 1925.
Works Hall Elephants
Soon he was off for Lancaster, Mo., home base for the elephant and circus trading operations of William P. Hall. Woodcock declares that Diamond Billy Hall was the most remarkable man he ever knew. Illiterate, Hall said the only day he ever wasted was the one he spent in school, but he was a genius at mathematics and "a regular gypsy horse trader." Three huge diamond stick pins frayed Hall's expensive ties. Woodcock likens his personality to that of Pogey O'Brien, circus character of the 1870's.
For Hall, Woodcock worked elephant acts in parks, fairs, vaudeville and the first circus given in the Chicago Stadium. Miller Bros.' 101 Ranch played that date and nine Hall bulls were added to the five from 101. In 1926, Hall assigned Woodcock to Fred Buchanan's Robbins Bros.' Circus, where C. H. (High Pockets) Baudendistel was in charge of the Hall-owned elephant herd.
Still with the Hall enterprises, Bill had three bulls on the historic Orton Bros.' wagon show in 1927. It was there that he met Babe Orton, then and now a versatile performer. They were married in 1932. Their son, Buckles, now completes the team.
Moves to Sells Floto
Bill left the Hall farm late in 1929 and was with Sells Floto, working five bulls in the center ring with Irene Ledgett, 1930 thru 1932. For a short time in 1931, Zack Terrell loaned him to the John G. Robinson Military Elephants act.
Russell Bros.' one small elephant was Bill's charge for five weeks in 1933 before he went back to the Hall farm, then operated by Hall's widow. He stayed until the Hall collection of 30 elephants, circus wagons, railroad cars, animals and other show property was sold to Jess Adkins and Zack Terrell for their Cole Bros. in 1935.
Woodcock and the late Spencer Huntley were joint owners of an elephant they had on Atterbury Bros. in 1935. Soon they moved over to Harley Sadler's Bailey Bros., which paraded daily, and they stayed on when that show was sold and renamed Goldman Bros. for a three-week winter tour. In 1936 Woodcock had the elephant on the Joe B. Webb Circus until it closed, and then he went with Eddie Kuhn's Camel Bros. three-truck as general superintendent and Side Show manager.
Beatty, Wallace, Cole
He took time off for a long talk about show history with the late Charles Bernard before joining Ray Rogers for five years as boss bull man on the Wallace Bros. and Barnett Bros. outfits. The season of '42 found him with Terrell Jacobs' unit on the Conklin Shows and for the next year he was on Clyde Beatty-Wallace Bros.' Circus.
The first of a four-year stretch with Cole Bros. as assistant to Eugene (Arky) Scott was in 1944, and it was on this show that one of Bill's most memorable experiences occurred. In California the loaded elephant car turned over on its side. It was necessary to cut an opening in the steel roof, crawl in to free the feet of the 13 upset bulls and then lead them out.
Bill had the Dolly Jacobs Elephants in 1948 for dates in the U.S., Canada and Hawaii, and the next season he had charge of five baby bulls on Robbins' Bros.' Circus in Canada. He left before that one folded and joined Kelly-Miller late in 1949.
Since that first day on Rhoda Royal, Bill has worked with 123 different elephants, according to his recent calculation, and many of these turned up several times in different herds. Kelly-Miller's addition of two young elephants brings that total to 125. Bill has broken seven green elephants to acts and has reroutined scores of others. A large proportion of the circus elephants now on the road have at one time or another been under his direction. Once he owned Major, the first bull purchased by Mugivan and Bowers.
Selects "Greatest" Ops
Basing judgment on history and personal experience, Woodcock believes Jerry Mugivan was the greatest of recent showmen. He also thinks highly of the abilities of Zack Terrell and Danny Odom. For Woodcock's money, James A. Bailey was the all-time circus ace, with Adam Forepaugh second and Ben Wallace third. The Ringlings were great as a team, he states.
Bill is modest about his elephant career, but stakes a proud claim for his circusiana collection. The Woodcock home in Hugo, Oklahoma, is the location of the vast accumulation. There are the original circus documents, rare route books, antique heralds and programs and - of most interest to Bill - an endless store of circus photographs, statistics and historical data. For more than 40 years, he's been on a ceaseless search for more. During each season he uncovers additional rare letters on circus letterheads, and more photographs of old-time parades.
He is a discriminating collector, discarding nothing but seeking only the material of historical importance. Unlike some less experienced collectors, he doesn't horde just anything that says "circus" on it. And he freely circulates data on old shows and prints of his prized photographs among fellow historians. This material has multiplied the amount of recorded show history.
Can't Estimate Value
Bill makes no estimate of the size or value of his collection. He can say only that there are "thousands and thousands" of pictures in it. Many of them can not be duplicated.
Selecting a favorite item from the collection is not easy, either. But Bill has decided that the one with which he would part last is a photograph of a Barnum & Bailey tableau den, typical of those built for the "golden age" of the 1890's. It's a clear close-up giving a full and unobstructed view of the den. It is outstanding, he states, because the ornately carved side panels are in position on the wagon. Most existing pictures of old cages were taken primarily to show the animals inside and therefore were made while the side panels were off, he explains. He chooses this one picture in preference to any of the more costly printed rarities.
Bill appears in the ring as Col. W. H. Woodcock. His colonel's commission is something more than many of those solemnized on one-sheet lithos because he was billed as a captain and a major before reaching his present rank. In the army of troupers and fans who collect show history most agree that "Colonel Bill" is the ranking officer.
Woodcock finished three years as K-M's superintendent and left that herd in the good hands of Fred Logan. Then he and D. R. Miller formed a partnership to take out Miller & Woodcock's Performing Elephants. Bill broke the act in two portions and he was proud to include the barbershop routine, an old-timer he had dredged up from lore of elephants long gone. The act was a good one, as Bill insisted it must be.
He took it on nearly a decade of far-ranging dates before turning it over to his son to operate. He and Mrs. Woodcock had the act on Stevens Bros. and Siebrand Bros. shows in 1952. For 1953 it was Cole & Walters, then a string of dates for the Gun Sun Office and finally a Louisiana junket with Tex Carson's Hippodrome.
The Woodcock Elephants made the TV circus shows of the period - Super Circus and Big Top. Bill took them to amusement park dates and then out with the Orrin Davenport Circus. Woodcock and Davenport hit it off well because both could talk about circuses of long ago. And because the act was good, Davenport had it back for 1955 and 1956 stands. All the while, Woodcock was filling in other stands to keep his business going well.

Bill and elephants 1958
Photo: The current Woodcock's Peerless Performing Elephant is show here with Bill, while on Rudy Bros. in 1958.

He played more time for various Shrine shows, spent a season with Rudy Bros. on the west coast and earlier had been with Garden Bros. and Bailey Bros. among others. The act kept rolling along through the 1950's. Buckles began helping his father more and by 1960 he was handling many of the dates on his own. Then the Woodcocks were on the big Kelly-Miller offering in 1960 and 1961. Bill helped with the act and managed the side show. "Just like Barnett Bros.," he used to say, because he had doubled with side show tickets on that show. For 1963 the Woodcock Elephants played fairs and made some dates for the Hubert Castle show, as well as Sells Bros. and others. In the fall he made Shrine dates with the act and then decided he wouldn't troupe next season.
Mrs. Woodcock came home ahead of the act to buy a house in Hugo. When Bill got in, he had been experiencing chest pains. But he couldn't slow down. On December 17 Bill insisted on moving a load of 50 bales of hay. "Just like on Kelly-Miller," he might have said. He was stricken that night and died on December 20. Bill Jr. mailed the last of his father's voluminous correspondence on December 18. They had been typed on the evening of December 17.
The Colonel prided himself on fine work in his Masonic lodges, and his handling of ritual was so well done that lodges all around asked for him to take part. He began visiting lodges on his elephant tours. Bill was a member of the Kelly-Miller Shrine Club and was most active in the Royal Arch Masons.
He was a chess player of note - about the only one making the dates who could give Orin Davenport any competition in the game. He was a devotee of Gilbert & Sullivan opera. Bill Woodcock was a scholar. But he rarely owned up to it. He played out the role of the rugged trouper who had no patience with the town suckers. He steered away from bookings on a couple of shows because the operators seemed to him a little too nice. Bill said he was more comfortable around showmen like Ray Rogers and Jerry Mugivan and Zack Terrell. And he preferred the little shows, even the ragbags, to the big outfits or indoor circuses.
On July 4, 1963, Bill caught the Milwaukee circus parade preparations but couldn't stay for the main event; he had a date to play on the outskirts of town. On the same trip, Colonel Bill got a look at the Circus World Museum. It was fitting that Col. W. H. Woodcock got to see the museum and the array of circus parade wagons it has. Because here as everywhere else in this country, circus history is preserved largely because of his tireless efforts. He'd never slow down.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Buckles, this is a wonderful tribute to your dad; I thought so when I first read it at the time. The many facets of his intelligence have intrigued me ever since Jimmy Allred told me long ago how many different subjects Col. Woodcock could converse about knowingly and accurately. An untold amount of circus lore only survived because he took the time to leave a record in the form of his many letters. Rick Pfening once had the notion of collecting and publishing as many of the Colonel's letters as he could accumulate. That would still be a good idea. Regards, Whitey

Anonymous said...

Incredible story. It's really a tale of two career managed simultaneously -- or two men sharing one name and calling. When did the Colonel find time to sleep? Why did your dad like the small shows so much?

Anonymous said...

My Grandfather was born in 1865, he was a Free Mason; he earned 3 doctors degrees and was honored with three more before he died in 1963. This has no barring to this Blog other than the fact that his brother Earl built the State Theater and opened his Vaudeville review with Midgets and Elephants, and that it seems to me that the Masons held a code of excellence that would be crucial in the world circuses. Perhaps in the 70s when I was drawn to the Circus I may have been pulled into this lifestyle because I recognized the thrill of commitment. So strong is this rock solid foundation that my children never cease to amaze me with their excellence, but truth be told I came to the lot for the party.

Anonymous said...

Even though I read Col. Woodcock's letters as published in the circus press, I never knew the range of his mental acuity. Nothing short of amazing. To my everlasting regret, there are two great circus men and historians I was never to meet. One is Colonel Woodcock, and the other was Terrell Jacobs.

Bob Cline said...

I've read this article several times over the years now. I admit to never meeting Buckles until earlier this year. I read this article about his father, but what I see is Buckles following in the family footsteps. Well OK, I don't know if Buckles plays chess or not, but the rest of the article is Buckles all over. Thank goodness we were blessed with knowing and learning from you both.
Bob

Buckles said...

I think I was in grade school when my dad taught me how to play Chess. I was a very ordinary player.

PK said...

Here is a link to the Atterbury Bros facebook page with a picture of "Bill Woodcock with 'Diamond'" :

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2557497910004&set=a.2557497269988.126613.1630691424&type=3&theater

PK said...

Another link to the same album with some more details:

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2557500110059&set=a.2557497269988.126613.1630691424&type=3&theater