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Sunday, May 15, 2011

High notes in vibrant history of circus stars
Carolyn Webb

May 12, 2011, from:http://www.smh.com.au



Silvers Circus matriarch Anna Gasser with her daughter Rosita. Photo: Justin McManus

IN THE 1920s, Australians May Wirth and Con Colleano headlined Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey's ''greatest show on earth''.
US Variety called Wirth's forward somersault on the back of a moving horse ''a sensation''. Colleano was known as the ''Wizard of the Wire'' for his forward somersault on the tight wire. They had luxury train apartments and high incomes.
Both artists died in Florida in the 1970s, unrecognised in Australia.



Mark St Leon, author
They should be household names, says a circus historian, Mark St Leon, who spotlights them in his new book, Circus: The Australian Story.
''I want to see these people enshrined in our history. They were to circus what [Dame Nellie] Melba is to opera, what Don Bradman is to cricket, but they're forgotten,'' says St Leon.
He says the book is the definitive history of circus in Australia, and his life's work.
The 58-year-old Sydney business studies lecturer started his research out of curiosity at the origins of his unusual surname.
He knew family had been in the circus, but in the 1960s this was akin to having convict ancestry - you didn't talk about it.
But in 1969, being 17 and with the lure of forbidden fruit, St Leon went to the State Library of NSW and found an 1883 ad for St Leons' ''great mammoth'' circus with ''150 men and horses'' at Newtown.
The St Leon's circus founder, Mark's great-great-grandfather John Jones, was both a convict and a circus performer.
A London street performer banished to Hobart for theft, in 1847 he performed acrobatics in Australia's first custom-built circus, Robert Radford's Royal Circus in Launceston.
In 1850 Jones moved to Sydney and formed his own troupe, the Royal Australian Equestrian Circus, one of Sydney's earliest circuses. With the gold rush, he toured the eastern states for decades and in 1865 gave himself a showbiz name - Matthew St Leon. By 1884 his circus was Australia's biggest, including his three performing sons, and the family ran circuses until 1941. Mark's second cousin, Leo St Leon, is still a member of the Stardust Circus that tours Australia.
Australia has about 12 traditional circuses, including Silvers, run by the Gasser family.
Anna Gasser says the biggest circus change has been the demise of animal acts such as lions and monkeys. She is sure of the circus's future, however.
''As long as there are children, there always will be a circus, you can be sure of that.''
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/high-notes-in-vibrant-history-of-circus-stars-20110511-1ej0j.html#ixzz1M8g0jT2w




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