Saturday, January 22, 2011

A little bit more biography

Circus World Museum in Baraboo WI used to have an open library of
circus related books, and several years ago I went there doing some
research, and picked up the following tidbit fom a book, which
unfortunately I didn't write the title down, put it's page 168-169
and the chapter heading is "King of Beasts to Clowns in Drag"

"as the world's only arial danseuse, the madcap of the wire-running, leaping,
swinging, pirouetting on a slender thread of steel," Beeson in his act did not
betray his "real" gender.  Tom Barron, "the World's Tallest Clown" recalls that
"[Beeson] was a female impersonator, but he wasn't feminine acting at all, in fact,
he was captain of the baseball team. A terrific guy, he was really funny."

I also found a New York Time Ap 6 1924 photo of Berta Beeson on the wire,
but the xerox quality is very poor.

looking at 24 hour men -His job as Advance man in the circus, I came upon
the obituary of a William L Carr (Oct 20, 1959).  "One of his most important
jobs was to find a suitable site for the big top.  He had to study the size of the
acreage offered, the approaches, the general contours and the type of ground.

In 1920, In Scranton, PA he had already paid a farmer for the rental of his ground,
when he learned that it was over an abandoned coal mine.  "Mister, if an elephant
stepped on this, he'd go right through" the owner who had not known what the
ground was to be used for told him. So other arrangements had to be made.
So with a little artistic license, and due apologies to Mr Carr, I will use
this story in my play and attribute it to "Slats" as the type of thing he'd
run into in his work. 

I've all ready said that I'm dubious of the Billboard story, but I do like the
idea of a showbiz couple floating the story, even if it's not true, so that's how
I'll use that story.

I sent an email to someone who may be related to Mr Beeson, and hopefully
I'll hear back from her.

I have so little time these days that I really must apologize for the blog, and
what little writing I've done on the play so far, but hopefully some of this
research is interesting - it is imprtant to have some research before actually
starting to write a play -I just wish I had more time.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Margaret Beeson -Herbert Beeson's wife

This was a thread in the Circus Historical Society Message and Discussion Board
I feel there is one correction I would add:
Herbert Beeson was a high wire dancer - (tight wire) not slack wire - or at least
the posters typically do not show his slack wire performance
2663. Berta Beeson, high wire, 04 Nov 2008 - I am looking for information regarding 'Berta Beeson' the Sensational Hire Wire Artist. My sister and I found a poster of him at the Ringling Circus Museum when we visited and we want to find out some history on him. We might be related. Do you have any information or is there a book on High Wire Artists with Ringling. I went to their web site and e-mailed them, but sometimes they do not answer their e-mails. They have sent me some posters but no history. Thank you so much, Judi Beeson Engel, Reply to this message, replies go to this board, not to the message sender.
Reply: 04 Nov 2008 - Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, ND), July 18, 1929, p. 6. "Chicago.—(AP)—Dainty, skirted Herberta Beeson, hailed as "the world's greatest slack-wire dancer," is a man! The story of his rise from grocery clerk to featured performer of the "big tops" is one of the romances that give circus life its spangled glamour. At 17, when his name was Herbert, Beeson was a clerk in a general store at Summitsville, Ind., where he "helped out" three nights a week as a stage hand at the village vaudeville theatre. To this theatre came the "Marvelous Lucknows," circus people doing a small time circuit. With the act was a girl who was a slack-wire dancer. For her amusement Herbert did all of the little dancing tricks he knew She liked them, and Herbert, too. Seven months later, in Texas, the girl slipped, fell a crumpled heap beneath the wire. "Don't fire her just because she's hurt," pleaded Herbert, now with the troupe. "I know her tricks. Let me do them." And now the maid who attends the great Herberta Beeson, catching the robe tossed from the wire, is the little girl who fell from toe wire—his wife."     WWI draft card: Herbert Beeson, lived Indianapolis, IN; born February 22, 1899; occupation wire walker, Sells-Floto Circus; wife Margaret Beeson resided Chicago, IL. California Death Index: Herbert J. Beeson, died September 7, 1969 at San Bernardino, CA; born February 22, 1899; mother's maiden name Stone.
    1900 census Summitville, Van Buren Township, Madison County, IN, born Feb 1898, parents were Joseph and Emma. 1910 census Summitville, Van Buren Township, Madison County, IN, Mother divorced, her name unreadable. 1920 census, Herbert and Margaret were living in Manhattan, NY. Could not find him in 1930 census. - Judy Griffin

Sells Floto Circus. M'lle Beeson, a marvelous high wire Venus. Circus poster showing tight-rope walker Beeson prancing with a parasol, chromolithograph by The Strobridge Litho. Co., Cincinnati & New York, 1921.
another reference to Herbert Beeson's wife, and her job in the circus
So OK, do I believe the story - of course not, but it is a good story -
              I believe Herbert probably tied to pass it off as true, especially fairly early in his career,
                    and he need a good hook - so it is a story he can tell, his wife
has a name (Margaret) she was a former performer, who still works for the circus
(which seems very reasonable)
In my play I'm going to picture them as having separated, and being a romantic,
Herbert is trying to meet Margaret in the bar and patch things up,
so they can get back together, then the lot owner (the guy leasing
the 10 acre lot the circus needs to perform in) intervenes to try
and extort some more money from the circus, and the play proceeds
as I've described.

Barberette (his predessesor), and associate of Man Ray

I'm growing lazy, especially since there was zero readers of this blog
today anyways -Barbette was very famous in Europe, and so American
Circus' would have been eager to capaitalize on a successful act,
Barbette was also really stunning.

I cut and pasted this from this site:

Nonetheless, Barbette came to fame doing high wire and trapeze stunts dressed as a woman. His performances were, in his words, “not just an imitation of a women’s trapeze act, but, rather a mystification and a play on masculine-feminine contrast.” [2] Mirroring the enthusiasm of elite Parisian fans such as Jean Cocteau, Janet Flanner, in a 1930 correspondence for The New Yorker, described a chute d’ange fall as taking on “mythical quality of a new Phaethon deserting the sky.” Jean Cocteau, who considered Barbette a muse, called him “an angel, a flower, a bird.”
His Persona: While clothed as man in daily life, Barbette’s extravagant onstage costumes included a sequined cape and a dress adorned with 50 pounds of white ostrich plumes.
Cocteau described Barbette’s presence on stage as “a real masterpiece of pantomime, summing up in parody all the women he has ever studied, becoming himself the woman—so much so as the eclipse the prettiest girls who proceed and follow him on the program.”[3]
c. 1924, unknown
“On stage, against black velvet curtains appeared a young woman in a silvery-gold wig topped with plumes and feathers, with a train of rich lamé and silver lace, undressing on a couch of rich oriental carpets,” wrote author Jacque Damase in his history of the Paris music-hall.
“The woman then rose, naked except for the gems on her breast and belly, and began walking a [low] steel tight-rope. Her eyes shaded green, like some mysterious Asiatic jewel, she walked backwards and forwards along the tight-rope, dispensed with her balancing-pole, and contorted her thin, nervous body as the entire audience held its breath… Then Barbette leapt down on to the stage, gave a bow, tore off her wig and revealed a bony Ango-Saxon acrobat’s head: gasps from the astonished audience, shattered by the sudden brutality of the action.” [4]
His  Story: Born Vander Clyde in 1904 in Rolling Rock, Texas, Barbette’s mother changed his life. “The first time she took me to a circus in Austin,” he said, “I knew I’d be a performer, and from then on I’d work in the fields during cotton picking season in order to go to the circus as often as possible.” [5]
After graduating high school, he joined the sister-act, the World Famous Ariel Queens in San Antonio. His first act of gender-bending was pure business. In his interview, one of the sisters explained that “women’s clothes always make a wire act more impressive—the plunging and gyrating are more impressive,” Barbette recalled. “She asked if I’d mind dressing as a girl. I didn’t and that’s how it began.”
man ray
As Barbette began to develop his own act, the gender bending took on a more intellectual inspiration. “I’d always read a lot of Shakespeare, and thinking that the marvelous heroines of his plays were played by men and boys made me feel like I could turn my specialty into something unique. I wanted an act that would be a thing of beauty—of course it would have to be a strange beauty.”
After performing across the United States, Barbette traveled to Paris in 1923. He was soon taken up by society and the avante guard. He was cast in Cocteau’s first film, Le Sang d’un Poete (The Blood of a Poet), as one of a group of Chanel-clad theater-goers giving a standing ovation after the suicide of a card player. (He was “absolutely dismayed” upon seeing the film.)
man ray, 1926
In 1938, after performing at Loew’s State in New York, he was stricken by pneumonia and “a sudden crippling affliction of the bones and joints.” Hospitalized for 18 months, the great performer had to learn to walk again. He continued in the theater, although backstage as a trainer. But it seemed he missed the refinement of the good old Paris days. “I know I’ll be lucky” he told a reporter in 1969, “ if in return for my very handsome salary I succeed in persuading a few young trapezists just not to chew gum during the act. Imagine!”
Barbette committed suicide in 1973.
(Lisa and Monica collaborated on this post.)
For further discussion see:
Cocteau, J and Man Ray. Barbette, 1989
Goldbarth, A. Different Fleshes. Hobart & William Smith, 1979.
Tait, P. Circus Bodies: Cultural Identity in Aerial Performance. Routledge, New York. 2005.

and from Wikepedia (Herbert/Berta Beeson isn't in Wikepedia)

Barbette (December 19, 1899 – August 5, 1973) was an American female impersonator, high wire performer and trapeze artist born in Texas on December 19, 1899. Barbette attained great popularity throughout the United States but his greatest fame came in Europe and especially Paris, in the 1920s and 1930s.
Barbette began performing as an aerialist at around the age of 14 as one-half of a circus act called The Alfaretta Sisters. After a few years of circus work, Barbette went solo and adopted his exotic-sounding pseudonym. He performed in full drag, revealing himself as male only at the end of his act.
Following a career-ending illness or injury, Barbette returned to Texas but continued to work as a consultant for motion pictures and training and choreographing aerial acts for a number of circuses. After years of dealing with chronic pain, Barbette committed suicide on August 5, 1973. Both in life and following his death, Barbette served as an inspiration to a number of artists, including Jean Cocteau and Man Ray.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Play - or at least the first few sentences

Berta Beeson on the wire

Julian Eltinge -female impersonator -circuses would compare Berta Beesons appearence to hers

another image of Julian Eltinge (famous female impersonator)



The story of Ringling Brothers Greatest Female Impersonating Wire Walker
(based on a true story)  by Samantha1

The play opens in an upscale bar.  There are two or three well dressed couples seated at
tables or booths  and at least a couple attractive single women at the bar.  A bar tender
behind the bar, and a waiter or waitress serves the patrons.  Herbert Beeson enters, an
attractive well dressed mature man, the women look him over approvingly but he ignores
them and sits at the far corner of the bar. Taking off his coat, Herbert (Slats) Beeson looks
around. He is not impressed.

Slats: “ By day from town to town we carry Eden in our tents and bring its
 wonders to the children who have lost their dream of home.”

Bartender:  Eh? What’d you say?

Slats: Nothing, it’s from a poem by Robert Lax

Bartender: I see, a poem, well friend, we don’t really get a lot of poets here,
 If you catch my drift

Slats: No sir, I’m no poet, I’m a wanderer who travels before the storm,
like Paul Revere, crying she’s coming, in all her majesty, she’s coming!
Gaze upon this wonder!  Hurry, hurry, step right up!
 I’m  the Sandman who brings the dream of Africa to the children,
 Don Quixote on his nag, finding  fields of honor, calling the giants to follow.
 Me a poet, surely you jest to call the jester  a king!
I am but a lowly 24-hour man. The advance man for Ringling Brothers.
I move the circus, proclaim her glory, and flee like a thief before she arrives.
Still I am Circus, and it defines who I am - I'm Circus, a Circus man.
 The advance man for Ringling Brothers, Barnum  and Bailey’s, The Greatest

Show on Earth! You have heard of us?
Bartender: The Circus?  Of course, every ones heard of Ringling Brothers.  Well this is indeed an
        an honor.  What’ll you have?
Slats: I’ll have a Guiness
Bartender: Well we don’t really serve that here, how about something else?
Slats takes out his wallet,  pulls out a $100 bill slowly transfers it from one
Hand to the other directly in front of the bartender who watches it intently.
Slats puts bill on the table then uses a salt shaker as a paper weight on top of it.
Slats: For a Guinness, I can wait
The bartender signals to waiter, he whispers in his ear and the waiter goes off

Stage in a hurry (to go buy some Guinness)


So the Love interest is is going to be named Penelope,
which is from another Robert Lax poem:
Penelope And Mogador

One time Penelope the tightrope walker asked Mogador
how he was able to land so gracefully after he did a
somersault on horseback.
Mogador said:
It is like a wind that surrounds me
or a dark cloud,
and I am in it,
and it belongs to me
and it gives me power
to do these things.
And Penelope said, Oh, so that’s it.
And Mogador said, I believe so.
The next day in the ring, Mogador leaped up on the horse.
He sat on it sideways and jogged halfway around the ring;
then he stood up on the horse’s back with a single leap;
he rode around balancing lightly in time to the music;
he did a split-jump–touching his toes with his hands;
he did a couple of entrechats–braiding his legs in
midair like a dancer:
then Oscar threw him a hoop.
Mogador tossed it up in the air and spun it.
He caught it,
leaped up,
and did a somersault through it!
He thought:
I am a flame,
a dark cloud,
a bird;
I will land like spring rain
on a mountain lake
for the delight of Penelope the tightrope walker;
He landed on one foot, lost his balance, waved his arms
wildly, and fell off the horse.
He looked at Penelope,
leapt up again,
did a quick entrechat,
and Oscar tossed him the hoop.
He spun it into the air and caught it.
He did a somersault through it
and he thought:
It is like a dark cloud, and I am in it;
it belongs to me,
and it gives me power
to do these things.
He landed on one foot, lost his balance, waved his arms
wildly and fell off the horse.
Penelope the tightrope walker looked very calm,
Mogador leapt on the horse again.
Oscar frowned and tossed him the hoop.
Mogador threw it into the air and caught it;
leapt up and did a somersault through it.
He thought:
I am a bird and will land like a bird!
He landed on one foot, lost his balance, waved his arms wildly
and fell off the horse.
Now in the Cristianai family, when you fall off three times,
they grab you by one ear
and bend you over,
and one of the brothers
kicks you.
And that is what they did to Mogador.
Then the circus band started playing again.
And Mogador looked at Penelope:
then he looked at the horse and flicked his ear with his hand;
he jumped up on the horse and landed smartly;
he stood up in one leap and caught the hoop;
and then he did a somersault through it.
He didn’t think anything.
He just did the somersault–
and landed with two feet on the horse’s back.
Then he rode halfway around the ring
and got off with a beautiful scissors leap.
Penelope applauded
and, clasping her hands overhead, shook them
like a boxer,
Mogador looked at her,
then back at the horse,
and with a gesture of two arms he said
it was nothing.

What an amazing poem – Circus Days and Nights by Robert Lax.
So why pick the name Penelope, that’s why. I love this poem.
I’m picturing Penelope as a recently divorced attractive woman about
Slat’s age, they used to be fellow performers, Slat’s asked for her hand,
but she married a townie ( someone not in the Circus) and settled down,
In a Quixotic way, Slats has remained true to his one love, and now that
she is divorced and the circus is coming to town, he is seeking once more
to propose to Penelope.  She loves him too, but it is not that simple.


here's a really important document in my research:

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A colorized photo of Berta Beson performing

another post fom my last blog:

I found a photo of Berta Beeson!

I wrote in an earlier post that I'm pretty seriously considering
writing a play about Frank "Slats" Beeson, a famous female
impersonating wire walker for Ringling Brothers circus,
who performed under the name Berta Beeson.
Anyways - in one of my circus books, I stumbled on this
photo of Berta Beeson performing -and this is the only
actual photo I've seen of him performing - so I'm really
excited about this -the photo is black and white so I did
a quick colorizing of it and turned it into a caption -
but it's the black and white photo that I found that I really
like - partly because it does confirm that this wasn't a farce,
he was an attractive, talented performer -the book goes on
to say that the program notes include the tag
"Expect a lot, and Boy, oh Boy you get it"
Yes, we get it - as I said in my earlier post, Ringling Brothers
were savy enough to market an act to attract gay men to. I'd go. 

Berta Beeson, the Man, the play - Introduction

I'm reposting this from my last blog to introduce the reader to Berta Beeson,
a high wire artist who performed "en femme" for Ringling Brothers and
was a star attraction in his day.

Mr. Herbert "Slats"  Beeson, aka Berta Beeson was a famous center-ring wire walker,
who from the age of 11 to the time he retired in 1936 performed as an attractive female
impersonating wire-walker. He was a headline, center stage act (the Julian Eltinge of the
He was with Sells-Floto from 1917-1922, and Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey
from 1923-1936.  When he retired as a performer, he worked as a 24-hour man
(the advance man for Ringling Brothers). Apparently in the off-season he also performed
 in Vaudeville, en femme. 
I have read that he was considered masculine by the other performers and enjoyed
playing baseball - so the female impersonation was correlated to his perfomance in the
ring (or on stage). 

I am interested in writing my third play about Mr. Slats Beeson.  I have in the past
performed in an amateur circus as a fire juggler/stilt walker, and it is my intent to portray
Mr Beeson as a genuinely interesting character (I am still a huge fan of the Circus, even
though I no longer perform).  If you do have any more information about Herbert Beeson,
please let me know.

I have attached (2) posters of Berta Beeson that I have found images of below :

M'lle is an abreviation for Mademoiselle I think, so Sells-Floto is advertising
Slats as a girl, where as Ringling Brothers, being more market savy is
advertising him as the Julian Eltinge (a famous and elegant cross-dresser) of the
high wire to sell tickets to men who found this exciting.

I've trained on the low-wire ( a wire at 5' so when you fall you don't hurt yourself)
and it is really difficult - but some people do take to it easily, and Slats was obviously
a natural.  I'm thinking a pretty, petite 18 year old girl in a "pants" role could play the
part of the 11 year old boy and Berta Beeson the performer - so that it wouldn't
offend anyone.

I have, in the past written two musicals, I made several thousand dollars from my
first, even though it was never produced, and completed my second, it was not
produced either, but I can write a play when I set my mind to it.

So the play would start with the retired performer Herbert Beeson trying to get
the circus ready for the next move, he'd run into some some insurmountable
problem, start reminiscing about his days on the wire, the girl would come out
do some "learning to wire walk", do some "manly" stuff, do her actual good
wire walking routine, the scene would switch back to the present, where in
order to solve the "insurmountable problem" Herbert decides that he has
to once more dress up as a woman - meets a guy who for a pretty lady,
bends the rule or signs the lease, whatever, and then in drag, there is
a convenient low-wire around  (this is a play after all) so Slats, thinking
he's alone is on the wire when a couple guys walk by - one says "get
down lady you're gonna kill yourself'" the other pointing to a faded poster
says "oh I think she's perfectly safe" and points to an old faded poster
and says "hi Slats" Curtain falls.

So that's the rough outline - guess who I'd like to cast as Slats Beeson
(oh darn you guessed -and  you'd be right -me.)

Re: the insormountable problem, basically I'm
thinking that the circus has a lease with
someone to use a vacant lot to set up, Slats
comes in to town and the Guy tries to chisel
him out of some extra money. Of course the
circus would win in court, but so what, they
lose the performance the next day - so as
long as he's a guy representing the circus,
the other guys just want to extort some more
money, but if he comes back as an attractive
lady, then the guy would give in and honor the
original bargain, thinking he's getting a date
with a pretty woman in exchange (I do not have
any reason to believe Slats was gay, so, out of
respect, I will not pursue "that" avenue -Slats gets the concessions he needs (it is his job)
and then leaves (no implied sex is involved -it's
a comic device only)