ALL IN THE FAMILY
From lion taming to aerialist stunts, the Stephenson family has generations of experience entertaining others as part of the Greatest Show on Earth.
By Lori Carter
February 27, 2014
Ann Stephenson, 61, remembers it like it was yesterday. She was a 7 year old living in Mobile, Alabama, with her parents, whom she thought were regular people with regular jobs.
“One day my dad came in and said, ‘I’m going to California to buy some lions and an elephant.’ Until then, I didn’t know we were in the circus,” Ann says. “Next thing I knew here came two trucks—one with seven lions and another with an elephant. And we were off to Florida. I thought it was great.”
Her late father, Swede Johnson, came to the United States from Denmark in 1918. He had already traveled with his family in their own circus throughout the Scandinavian countries. He went to work at 15 in the Hagenbeck Zoo in Germany and then came to the United States as an assistant to Alfred Court, a wild animal trainer. Swede was fourth generation circus. Ann’s late mother, Mabel Johnson, was first generation.
“In those days you did whatever you could to make money,” she says. “He [Swede] trained animals, rode horses and clowned. My mom did some circus; she was an aerialist at the time.”
Swede practiced for hours upon hours with the cats.
“Dad would get hurt sometimes with the lions—bitten or scratched,” she says. “My mom had as much medicine as Waterman. She had her own ER.”
When he joined the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in 1959, Ann was interested as well.
“Dad went on the road,” she says. “Mom wanted me to go to school. They gave me the best of both lives, school in the winter and on the road in summer.”
Summertime was spent in the northeast. Ann began her circus career working in concessions. Three years later, she helped train the family elephant by putting her through her seven- to eight-minute routines.
“I adored Pinky,” she says, “but she hated the sight of me. If she would’ve gotten the chance, she would have killed me.”
The truck had living quarters in the front. The elephant lived in the middle, so to get out of the truck Ann had to run past Pinky. A lot of times she says she tried to “bluff her out” and stood quietly and then ran like the dickens before the animal “could turn around and whip me.”
“One time she knocked me out of the truck, and I landed in elephant urine,” she says. “And I loved her so; I just adored her so.”
Because the family had its own act, they were responsible for their expenses, including gas, lodging and feeding the elephant grain and the lions 100 pounds of meat every other day. Ann’s father decided to get off the road. He sold the animals to another circus and assisted in training for a short period of time.
Swede spent his later years in Clown Alley on
the Ringling shows
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