Faux Elephants Flourish at Circus 1903
A modern-day circus uses elaborate puppets to conjure up a mainstay of the big top
The Wall Street Journal by John Jurgensen April 10, 2017
When the big elephant Queenie lumbered onto a stage in Chicago recently, followed by a gamboling baby called Peanut, the audience cooed and clapped for the life-size puppets as much as the six humans operating them.
Controversy over live performing elephants turned the biggest symbol of the circus into a liability for traditional shows. Bowing to pressure from animal-rights groups, the 146-year-old Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus removed elephants from its shows last year. That hastened a decline in ticket sales, the company said, forcing the circus to shut down completely after its final shows in May.
As an alternative to exotic animals, Circus 1903 sent in the puppets. The throwback show now touring the U.S.—in theaters, not tents—features the sorts of acts that flourished in circus’s golden age, including a contortionist, tightrope walkers and brothers who juggle each other on their feet. The elephants, however, come to life using modern technology and techniques.
Queenie, modeled on the dimensions of the largest female African elephant on record, is built on a frame of plastic, wood and metal, and covered in woolly rope. Inside, three visible puppeteers control the elephant’s movements: two of them walking on stilts as its legs, and one hoisting a pole that moves its head and ears. A fourth puppeteer plays the elephant’s handler and also operates its trunk.
Queenie the elephant moves with the help of four puppeteers. Photo: Mark Turner
Peanut, smaller and friskier, has only one puppeteer inside on stilts, using his hands, feet and abdominal muscles to make the little elephant walk, run and rear up.
“There are weekly physiotherapy sessions in the contract,” says puppeteer Henry Maynard, describing the bodily stress on the people harnessed into the elephants. During performances, they use breathing to signal each other and simulate elephantine movements, he says. “We’re trying to create the illusion of weight.”
Made by the U.K. puppet shop Significant Object, the elephants were designed by some of the same people who created the equine stars of “War Horse.” Launched in 2007, the Tony-winning play used dozens of three-person horse puppets across multiple productions, and spurred demand for big theatrical animals in other shows. “’War Horse’ started a lot of careers in puppetry,” says Mr. Maynard, who operated the head of the stallion Topthorn on London’s West End.
Ringling bought its rival in 1907 and combined the outfits in 1919.
“At that time the circus was really the form of entertainment in America. In one day this tent city of 1,200 people would arrive on 100 railroad cars. Factories would shut down and schools would let out, not just for the performance but also for the educational aspect,” says Chris Berry a circus historian who consulted on Circus 1903.
“Wild animals” were among those traveling shows’ most effective promotional tools, a fact that holds true for Circus 1903, whose “magnificent elephants” get top billing on fliers.
A poster from around 1910 trumpets the show’s main attraction. Photo: Chris Berry Collection
Says magician David Williamson, who plays the retro show’s ringmaster, “You can’t tell the story of the circus in America without elephants.”
Write to John Jurgensen at email@example.com
More stuff about puppetry...
Joey from War Horse at The Orpheum Theatre's Broadway Season Announcement Party 8:02 min.
The genius puppetry behind War Horse | Handspring Puppet Company 18:19 min
3 videos, each a couple of minutes long, about the elephants in the article above.
And then there’s The Sultan’s Elephant…
'The Sultan's Elephant' by Royal de Luxe, produced in London in 2006 by Artichoke 11:02 min
Published on Sep 27, 2012
The Sultan's Elephant was the biggest piece of free theatre ever seen in London, set against the city's magnificent landmarks. French theatrical magicians Royal de Luxe had already toured their elephant across Europe, but had never before performed in the UK.
Uploaded on May 5, 2006
"The Sultan's Elephant is a spectacle you've only imagined... Created by theatrical magicians Royal de Luxe, it tells the story of a sultan from far-off lands and his magical, time-travelling mechanical elephant. Forty feet high and 42 tonnes in weight, this beautiful creature will capture the hearts and minds of everyone who sees it. 2:43