Adrian St Leon

Adrian St Leon

This interview was recorded on 10 and 12 August 1975 at Adrian's flat at Kirribilli. Adrian at that stage was the last surviving son of Gus St Leon.

His recollections, which are remarkably detailed and vivid, are mostly of the Gus St Leon Great United Circus. His memories also embrace the era of the FitzGerald and Wirth circus heyday of the early 1900s, working on the vaudeville circuits in the early 1920s, the American showman Bud Atkinson, and a tour through Queensland about 1934 with O'Donnell and Ray's Pantomime Company. Adrian died in Sydney in 1982.

Interview Adrian St Leon - 10 and 12 August 1975

Read the interview...

Mark: What can you tell me about the Gloria light? You'd first got those at Taree

Adrian: Yes, or some place up to the coast there. You see, acetylene was going out of vogue and was hard to get. We used to get it in hundredweight drums. It was going out of vogue and you always had the difficulty of getting the burners in country towns. Like the gas burners, they only had a certain length of life. They decided to go in for the Gloria light. It consisted of a copper tubing, an eighth of an inch in diameter running from a tank, just like a compressor tank. We had six, three on either side of the ring. They were incandescent. You tied these mantles on to one end of the tubing and then connected the other end of the tubing up to this compressor and that lasted right throughout the night. They were subject to mishandling in that the copper tubing would crack if not handled carefully. So we had one man especially, Frank Goodwin, who handled the Gloria light system. You'd say it was a candle by today's standards but compared to acetylene gas it was the equal of acetylene gas, probably a little bit better, and it confined its light to the ring so the audience was completely in the dark

Mark: That fellow Frank Goodwin was a bandsman as well wasn't he?

Adrian: Yes. They had The Romany Band. There was five of them, brothers, musicians, and they toured northern New South Wales and Queensland I only remember Frank and Arthur. They all played brass instruments.

Mark: They were with the St Leon band?

Adrian: Only Frank. They had split up by the time we came and picked Frank up at Grafton or some place like that He suffered with a leg injury at the time, an ulcerated leg He was a tenor horn player At that time we had Madam Garcia. Wirth's imported her originally but they didn't get along together very well. They broke their contract and joined St Leon's. We used to bill them as a '200 a week act' which was wrong. They wasn't getting 200 a week as a salary. They were getting around 80 a week plus a percentage of the take but it did work out at about 200 a week all right They were a terrific draw, but it was one of those acts that, if you were tying your bootlace, you never saw the act. It was dramatised very well by her husband. He was a mining engineer and he hit upon the idea, so I believe when he worked a mine that was down in a valley. These skips as they called them used to be pulled up by cable and one broke away, and hit a sleeper across the tracks and did a number of revolutions and landed This gave him the idea. Talk about roll out the red carpet! We had to have a red carpet rolled out right from the back door into the ring She came in in a very elaborate dress dragging a huge train and then they'd put her in the motorcar. Then they'd bandage her jar all dramatised of course, but that part was necessary. They'd put wadding between her teeth and then bandage her mouth up. Then they used to get workmen on the end of a winch and draw her up so slowly on two sets of steeply inclined rails. It would take minutes to get to the top of the tent. Then he used to make a speech. He used to say, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I am now going to talk to my wife. Madam Garcia, (spoken in broken Spanish) you are now about to meet your maker! You have three seconds to live!" That was the speech! And, of course, they'd just pull a cord and she'd come down. Two front wheels used to come up in a circle that used to give them the turn. She would do three somersault revolutions forward and land on a pile of pads Garcia was a mad Mexican Sitting there one summer's day in one of the camps we had, my brother Phil, who used to do the cooking, had the table set up for everyone to eat. Garcia sat there, pulled out his revolver and shot the tops off the sauce bottles!

Mark: It must have been quite a problem in those days transporting that equipment of Madam Garcia's?

Adrian: No, it wasn't really. Like a meccano set, it just broke up into parts.

Mark: You didn't have to have special wagons?

Adrian: We put it in a special wagon, yes

Mark: Long wagon?

Adrian: Oh no in lengths it was only about nine feet long.

Mark: Did it take long to set up?

Adrian: Well, as I told you, he was a mining engineer. He used to have to bring out his theodolite and allow for the grade of the ground they were on. Then he would have to put weights on different parts of the combination so that the revolutions would be correct. Then he'd go into algebraic figures to find what weights were necessary They were a big draw, no question about that It was a turn-away business every town we went into, irrespective of what size town. They were with St Leon's for nine to twelve months when war broke out and then they couldn't get on a boat quick enough to get back to America They never came back to Australia When my father was going over to America he joined a fellow named Sammy Bernard, whose real name was Sammy Gooseman He and Dad took over a marionette show to Tahiti and Raratonga. The boat used to call in at those two islands only once a month. You worked marionettes in those days differently to what you work marionettes now. Now they work the marionettes in front of people and let them see the strings and everything but in those days you worked them from a high platform You used black cords and the marionettes just looked like little people! The natives thought they was little people. One day, one of the watchmen that used to be employed by my father fell asleep and the natives came in and saw it worked by strings and no more attendances. That was the end of it. Well, they went straight to Vancouver and, one way or another of which I don't know anything about, my father joined Ringling Brother about 1900 My father, not knowing the value of money in America, asked such a little price for my brothers and sister, Daisy - she done a riding act - that the Ringling Brothers tripled their salary without request. The price my father asked was so bloody ridiculous!

Mark: Do you think that that could have been a characteristic of your father, that he didn't know much about the value of money?

Adrian: Yes, I think so. None of the St Leons on my side of the family were business-minded Alf Honey was the businessman. He was married to my sister. He hung onto every shilling that the circus earned Reg married a big farm woman with hands as big as a leg of mutton. She broke up the St Leon family really. She apparently had a blue with Alf Honey and Daisy in New Zealand. So, the Honeys left, came to Australia, joined Wirth's for a while and then went straight over to America and never returned She also broke up my association with brothers Reg and Syl, through the kids bullying my children in mad childish arguments. So I never spoke to my brother Reg and my brother Syl from then until the day they died. I never went to their funerals because I wasn't going to be a hypocrite and cry 'crocodile tears' over brothers who I had not spoken to for say fifteen or twenty years. I severed my connections with them altogether Bud Atkinson and the managing director of Selznick Pictures financed us to go to New Zealand in 1920 We was on the train with Australian wagons

Mark: You put the wagons on the train?

Adrian: Yes. Shocking season, hard work and everything else but in a little under seven months they took 38,000. In those days, that's a lot of money. We winter-quartered in Invercargill, the coldest part of New Zealand We hired a bacon factory about three or four miles out of Invercargill. Bud Atkinson was a picture show man, of course. He always called me 'Abrams', never Adrian. He said, "I think I'll send over for The Four Star Programme now." The Four Star Programme was a programme of pictures of Charlie Chaplin, W. S. Hart, The Silence of Dean Maitland and East Lynne. He used to take me for a walk every night and he'd school me The idea was to hire the local picture show off the local picture show proprietor at around about eight pounds a night. He would supply the ushers, the ticket sellers and the projectionist. All he did was to supply the programme. The local picture show proprietor had been charging sixpence, a shilling and two shillings according to the seats We come and charged two shillings and three shillings as our lowest prices. When I come into town, I'd be met by the mayor of the town, the local sergeant of police and whatever high dignitaries there were that the local picture show proprietor could get "Mr St Leon, don't think of charging those prices because you will never get them." And I used to pack the house every night! The idea was that you were getting 'Four Star' pictures on the one programme but, my god, what first releases they were! They were one thousand foot releases They were so brittle that they would break down about a million times during the night It would be hard to estimate the amount of money that we took in the three months we laid up in Invercargill but it was a tremendous amount of money

Mark: St Leon's had a share in the picture show?

Adrian: No, no. It was only me We were held up at Hawera due to the epidemic and plague there. But Atkinson eventually got into the debt of the St Leons to the extent of, maybe, one hundred pounds but we decided to do a little run up to the north to Gisborne and come back to Australia. St Leon's did, anyhow But Atkinson decided to stay where he was. He had no money so we took up a tent-pole muster and we left him with eighty pounds. So we came back to Australia. The 'Five St Leon' act was a 'Three St Leon' act by that time as Moe Aarons had married Babe Fox and gone to Indonesia So the boys were backwards and forward, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane I was doing the 'pops' around Sydney with the dog act on the theatre circuit, Fuller's Tivoli The trouble with vaudeville in those days was that they couldn't get good opening acts and they couldn't get good closing acts. You had to open them up with a smile or, alternatively, you had to send them away with a good impression of the programme. The Three St Leons were first class acrobats at that stage of their lives and they were engaged almost everywhere at will In the meantime, I was working on the Clay Circuit around Sydney and I was getting twelve pounds a week which was big money and I was working constantly for Clay's because they had a month's circuit. Finally, my brothers' Tivoli contract came to a finish and so they went down to see Broadie Mack. Mack was doing the bookings for Fuller's in those days You used to have to go into a hall, just like in a hospital, and work your around By the time you got around to put your card in the girl would say, "Mr Mack isn't seeing anyone else until after lunch now." So you'd go away, you'd come back after lunch, you'd start all over again. By the time you got around there again it was five o'clock and so you didn't get anything! So, finally Syl said to me, "I'm going down to see Brodie Mack today, coming with me?" I said, "What the hell for? I'm getting all the work I want " "Well," he said, "Come for the bloody walk." Of course Fuller's wanted them, wanted them very badly. They'd been after them for a long while. Syl only had to put his card in and he went up above all these other people before him. So he went up and saw Broadie Mack and he came down and he said, "I got a contract off Broadie Mack for fifty-two weeks with the option of another fifty-two weeks. I told him you were down here. Go up and see him." I said, "I don't want to see Brodie Mach - bugger Broadie Mack - I'm getting all the work I want around here." "Christ," he said, "You've been trying to see him for three months! Go and see him!" I said, "Righto." I went up there. Broadie Mack completely ignored me. Got his pen-knife out and cleaned his pipe I said, "Look you know who you're talking to. You've just been talking to my brother. He made the arrangement for me to come up." "Oh, yes," he said. Now they had a book about as wide as this table, when it was opened out, and they used to keep a record of where they saw you last, what your make-up was like, what your costume was like and evaluated your act and so on. I didn't give a damn. He riled me so much, ignored me so much. "Where did we see you first?" "Oh, you saw me at the Princess, I think." "No, I saw you at the Bijou first - we didn't like the make-up you had on. The act was all right but we weren't very satisfied with it. Where did we see you last?" "Oh, at the Princess " "Oh very much better, lovely make-up, good act. It's only a matter of price now. What do you want?" Well, I was so riled, I could have spit in his eye. I'm only getting twelve pounds a week around Clay's. I said, "I want thirty pounds a week." He said, "You can't have it. Twenty-eight a week, start in Brisbane next Monday. Go down and give Sparks all your publicity." I had that through pure gall Now my brothers were only getting thirty-five pounds a week and they had to split it three ways!

Mark: This would have been after you came back from New Zealand?

Adrian: Oh yes, eight months after I was going to tell you something about Bud Atkinson. We left him with eighty pounds. In that eight months he owned a beautiful cottage out at Herne Bay. He owned outright the Bijou in the main street of Auckland and he was the managing director of the Princess which was the biggest theatre in the main street of Auckland at that time Off eighty pounds! How's that for business acumen?

Mark: Didn't he at one time own the Plaza or some theatre in Sydney?

Adrian: I can tell you the whole story of that. They showed me a Sydney Morning Herald clipping where J. D. Williams had to acknowledge publicly that Bud Atkinson built what is now the Plaza, but was called the Colonial Number One and, right opposite that, the Colonial Number Two He and J. D. Williams conceived the idea of a penny arcade so they built, right next door to it was what is now the Regent, a penny arcade. And they brought out five hundred pounds worth of one-cent pieces to work the machines Inside of two weeks they had to send over for another five hundred pounds worth because people used to souvenir these American one-cent pieces Then this disagreement took place between J. D. Williams and Bud Atkinson and so it had to be acknowledged in the Herald that Bud Atkinson was the moving force in the conception of that idea. Now I was there at the opening of that.

Mark: When would that have been?

Adrian: I couldn't put a date on it but it stopped the trams in George Street. The crowd was so thick that it broke windows on the opposite sides of George Street I was only about eleven or twelve I was living with Louisa those times. That was my father's second wife. She reared me of course I was an ardent fan of the National and Rickard's. I never missed a programme. I had such a retentive ear for music in those days that I could go to a programme, listen to all the songs and gags and come home and write 'em out

Mark: Do you remember when Bud Atkinson came out to Australia?

Adrian: When this disagreement took place with J. D. Williams, Bud then went straight over to America and brought out the Wild West Circus He was here and went back. His share up to that time when they had the disagreement was 17,000 So he brought out real Indians, he brought out 'Bert Bailey' which was American's most famous high school horse and he brought out Murphy, "The man who sang to beat the band." Now they put a brass band in front of him playing at full blast and you could hear him without a microphone. He brought out the Mangean troupe of acrobats. He used to stage the show, not in a circus tent, but in a canopy which was nearly as big as Moore Park, I don't mind telling you. Each night, he used to burn a stagecoach while the Indians used to hold up. Bud had real Indian families with their squaws and papooses They were all brought out They used to burn this coach every night. The Indians set fire to it. It was a framework of steel but they used to cover it with cardboard soaked with Kerosene or methylated spirits The horse would be automatically released That was quite spectacular. Mrs Bud Atkinson was a very astute businesswoman and she paid the salaries and all the expenses of the circus out of the concessions. They sold that many concessions - sideshows, peanuts, drinks, anything you like to mention, souvenirs, American cowboy caps, anything to remember the circus by. They were miles ahead of what we are doing today in our agricultural shows He was a very astute man, Bud Atkinson.

Mark: He went broke didn't he?

Adrian: Oh, the circus went broke within about six weeks. He got wagons made to the American system which were very heavy and had very low wheels. Australia only had a very few macadamised roads in those days. Nearly all were dirt roads You needed big wheels and you never went in for full-lock wagons because that restricted your turning power. You had to have big wheels in the front the same as you had to have big wheels in the back. The front wheels were a bit lower than the back ones. That was the only difference He went down to Victoria in the depth of winter instead of going north to Queensland - the warm areas. So, within months he was broke and sold out. That's how he went into the picture show business here and then he opened two or three picture shows in Melbourne

Mark: How did his connection with the St Leons come about?

Adrian: That I don't know. But all I do know is that he had a terrific respect for the St Leon's ability to run a programme We run a non-stop programme. There was not a second's delay, from one act going out of the ring there was another going in right away It was not completely a family circus because we brought the Bradnas out from Austria They were very talented people. They could throw these hats, right around the audience that would come back into their hands just like boomerangs do

Mark: How did the First World War affect the operations of the circus, if at all?

Adrian: We were at Casino and we were stopped and all our employees went into Billy Hughes' conscription army. It only lasted two weeks and then it was kicked out of Parliament

Mark: There was a big army camp at Casino?

Adrian: Yes. Reg and Syl, Norman, Frank Goodwin, Bert Houten, the Elmars - we were all in camp We just came into Casino and showed and then got instructions that all our employees would be brought into camp We were told to present ourselves for engagement to the army Of course, it proved to be not legal as Billy Hughes couldn't get away with it Philip left in 1915 He didn't have a pair of pants or a suit to his name and I gave him the only two suits I had to get out of the country and get to America Conny Moreni got somebody to make some fake passports

Mark: There would have been trouble getting him out of Australia?

Adrian: Oh yes, the same as Les Darcy Philip was never queried about being over there because he went straight into an engagement with Ringling Brothers with The May Wirth Troupe. He was brought over to combat the stronghold that 'Poodles' Hanneford had on the riding programme while they were in the United States Reg, Cass and Syl went down to South America to Trevino's Circus and they picked up Moe Aarons. They might have picked him up at Ringling's, that I can't tell you. They had so many arguments amongst themselves that they had to engage another acrobat of mature age in order to settle the arguments They got an adjudicators, not to teach them what to do because they knew how to do about what they were wanting to learn, but to adjudicate who was at fault in one particular routine

Mark: Who had originally taught them their acrobatic work?

Adrian: Oh, I suppose my father. In spite of what the Ashtons tell you, my grandfather's was the fist circus in Australia Gus St Leon was the first somersault rider in this country My brother Philip rode as a woman under the name of 'Miss Philipina'. I never went to America. I stayed here and was educated in public schools here Whether the marriage of Gus St Leon and his second wife Louisa was ever consummated or not I don't know. I know it was a legal marriage I think he thought she had a lot of money and I think she thought he had a lot of money. She never had any children of her own. She had adopted children. A very kind woman, very loving My father was instrumental in training all the horses which the Wirths took to England Johnny and Harry Wirth started Wirth's Circus. Johnny Wirth, Louisa's husband, died in Johannesburg. I served an apprenticeship of carpentry with people down at Circular Quay by the name of Cummins. The day my apprenticeship was up I left and joined the circus

Mark: So you would have been the only one of your brothers who served an apprenticeship?

Adrian: Oh yes. It was at their insistence that I learn a trade

Mark: Any particular reason for that?

Adrian: Because they knew that they were circus people and acrobats and I was too old to learn acrobatics at that stage, although I eventually did of course but not to the extent that they did.

Mark: You always had it in mind to join the family circus


Adrian: Oh yes. I stayed with them for practically no wages of all for the first few years. I suppose I was on thirty bob a week and keep. And even up to the time I got married I think I was only on five pound a week but that wasn't bad

Mark: Gus and Philip came back from America together Why did they come back before Reg, Cass and Syl?

Adrian: Because they had the fight in Mexico. I think it was in a town called Juarez

Mark: From the time they came back until the time your other brothers came back

Adrian: They spent two years in New Zealand with Sammy Gooseman and then two years with Wirth's Reg, Cass and Syl came back on the Ventura. We were very primitive in those days in case you don't know. In 1908, we still had gas in the best hotels and the lesser hotels only had candles This Moe Aarons was living with my eldest brother, Cass, in a boarding house in Grosvenor Street, I think.

Mark: So Reg, Cass and Syl came back on the Ventura and that was Boxing Day, 1908, and they landed in Sydney

Adrian: and went straight out to The Stadium and saw the Burns-Johnson fight I didn't go out there

Mark: Can you remember any experiences with the Great United Circus?

Adrian: Yes down in Gippsland My father always led the fist wagon. We was down in the Gippsland forests approaching the New South Wales border, at Omeo I think it's called It was stormy weather. My father used to drive three horses in those days and his wagon had just passed when one of these giant trees fell right behind his wagon They were mostly all family circuses in those days FitzGerald's was not a family circus. They were businessmen Wirth's in those days never ignored a small circus. They always felt that a little circus would eventually become a big circus and opposition to them, which of course took place when Bullen's ran them off the road, as you know I experienced a lot of blow-downs. In New Zealand, in a town called Featherstone, we only had the king-poles up. St Leon's method of putting king-poles up was on a three rope method, two 'dead' ropes and one 'let-out' rope. This windstorm came up and lifted the Oregon king-poles with no canvas on them at all, just lifted them up and snapped them in half.

Mark: Back in Australia, where would the show be wintered?

Adrian: We wintered in Clarencetown, outside of Maitland. Clarencetown is between Maitland and Morpeth We rented a property off people during the war. My father and brothers started their circus first of all with Ted Foley and a fellow called Dale. Dale had a pony called 'St Leon' Well, the St Leon's bought Dale out right away, and within a matter of a few weeks they bought Foley out as well. Then they started out as the 'Gus St Leon Great United Circus'

Mark: You wouldn't know if they started out from Sydney or not?

Adrian: Well, they had all the horses and wagons here but I wouldn't know if it was Parramatta or where they started from. When Gus and Philip came back from Perth, my father immediately, I suppose with the connivance of my brothers and brother-in-law, decided to buy horses and wagons They didn't correspond with Louisa very much. They used to send her a remittance every week to live on

Mark: Did you ever come down and visit them at the circus during the holidays?

Adrian: I visited them always on my holidays, and, much to the disgust of my employer I'd have two weeks allowance to visit them and I'd stay away for three months. When I'd come back, he'd have the police on me all over the place trying to find out where the St Leons were. Of course, they never found out

Mark: When you were visiting the circus during your holidays what do you remember about the life?

Adrian: Oh, lovely! Beautiful! Better than any circus life today with all their expensive caravans We only lived in wagonettes - this is while I'm on holidays that I'm talking about, not when I joined them. You'd only show at about three towns a week because the journey would be too long for the horses Your advance agent who travelled in a buggy in those days, usually drawn by one horse, had enough bills to do so many weeks of billing He would advise you of the best camping position, say twenty-five miles from the last town you left, and you'd camp alongside a river or a dam and all the women would do their washing. In the evenings out would come gramophones. In those days there were a number of cylinder gramophones If it wasn't a night that suited them for doing that, they would have band practice. St Leon's always had approximately between twelve and fourteen in their band, always. With the exception of me - I only played drums - they were all musicians, including my sister who played clarinet At the time I eventually joined them after my apprenticeship, I was in eleven acts out of fourteen including revolving ladder, statue and comedy acrobat knockabout acts My father was usually cook and he'd cook dampers in the camp oven with just ashes and coals. He'd make a big fire and then wait until the fire burnt out and then put the coals under the camp oven, put his dough in the camp oven and ashes on top of it and make dampers

Mark: Did they have many costumes?

Adrian: Yes, but not as glamorous as we have today We had what was called spangles in those days that were made of tin They were body-dresses They broke in a double jockey act at Clarencetown, taught me the revolving ladder act there, horizontal bars and one thing and another We rented about four hundred acres off Mr Stock at Clarencetown for grazing the horses and one thing and another. We lived about a quarter of a mile away from his house We used to go to the dances with the girls on the weekends. We would go over to his place of a night where we had previously lit the stove and we'd sit there, all of us, with our feet near the oven and we'd talk about Germany and the war. He'd changed his name from 'Stauk' to 'Stock' I think

Mark: What months of the year was the show usually wintered up then?

Adrian: Oh, usually June to August. In early September you'd get out again. You don't start New Zealand until late September or early October We wintered once in Condobolin. We rented about ten thousand acres there, all bush grass. That's where Allan St Leon's wife came from, the Browns. That also was the winter quarters in the same year that the Colleanos started their circus. Moe Aarons had now left the St Leons and joined the Colleanos and taught them all the acrobatic work and wire-walking that they knew. He turned them into another little circus like ours was at that time and they started out from Condobolin about the same time as we did. We both played in the same town on the same nights after winter quarters were over. Moe Aarons closed their show down and he called them the 'Akabah Arabs' and put them on the Tivoli in Melbourne Then he took them over to the Philippines and then to America Their mother was a full-blood Aboriginal. Their name was Sullivan Philip wasn't with us at that stage. It would have been about a year after Philip left us

Mark: In those days, travelling by horse and wagon would have been a very happy life but a very hard life?

Adrian: Yes ... You always had ample horse power because you had nearly as many horses running loose as you had in the wagons, in case they got sore shoulders or some foot ailment I always drove mules. I drove five mules all the time and they're far better animals to drive than horses. Beautiful animals to drive. Yes, you did have your troubles There was not even macadamised roads in those days They were only just starting to use blue metal to harden the roads up. Most of them was mud roads, you see.

Mark: How much could you travel in a day?

Adrian: About twenty or twenty-five miles. You'd be under a ton per horse. You'd be about half a ton per horse in weight. Going downhills you used to shoe your brakes. They were all foot brakes, you know, on the side of the wagon. You'd shoe your brakes with old shoes or blocks of wood or whatever and if the hills were very steep you went and got a big log out of the bush and tied it behind a wagon to lover the wagons down to the bottom of a hill Going up hills, if they were very bad, you'd take the lead teams, the lead three horses, out of a wagon and unhook them and drive them back to the wagons at the bottom of the hill. Now you did that in Druitt Street, you know. When we had the shop at Druitt Street, there was teamsters there that used to have teams down in Sussex Street. They would hire their two horses to pull wagons up to the Town Hall for, I don't know how much a load, it might have been a shilling a load They used to have their horses outside of our shop

Mark: What sort of a man was your father, Gus St Leon?

Adrian: My father was only about as tall as May Wirth, maybe an inch over or under four feet, but he had shoulders as broad as any prize-fighter. He then tapered down to his waist like all hand-balancers My father was built that way and of course that was a big asset in doing somersaults on a horse He was extremely strong and that's what killed him, the knowledge that his strength was leaving him. In those days he used to carry all our water in kerosene tins with handles made out of fence wire. He would come out of the bush where we'd be camping and he'd bring these big logs on his shoulder for the fire for the night. When he realised that carrying two kerosene buckets of water from a river or dam was getting to be too much for him it was the beginning of the end for my father because he realised that his strength was leaving him He was always first up in the morning to do the cooking. Those days the hotels used to open up at six o'clock in the morning and he wouldn't do anything until he went over and had two glasses of rum but that was all he had to drink all day. He wasn't a drinker, nor am I, no more were my brothers or Alf Honey Only one or two smoked in our family Then he'd come back and call the workmen to get out of their beds. He'd only call them once and, if once wasn't enough, he'd immediately go and get a bucket full of cold water and pour it right over their heads. They'd be sure to get up the next morning when he called them He wasn't a severe man by any means. He was a very gentle man if anything

Mark: Would you say he was a well-educated man?

Adrian: I couldn't tell you that, Mark He wasn't illiterate if that's what you mean. I would say that he had the standard of education that I've got perhaps

Mark: Do you know anything about your father's early life?

Adrian: No, I don't. I don't know anything about my father's early My father was so generous you couldn't keep him clothed. He dressed worse than the tenthands. As soon as you would buy him a new set of clothes, a new tenthand would join the show. He'd take compassion on him and then give him the suit that he was wearing We had European acts with us nearly always Whether imported direct or indirect through the Tivoli or the National

Mark: Did you ever have an agent working overseas for you?

Adrian: No The circus had an eight foot round-top and a forty-two foot middle so that the two kingpoles were outside the ring bank All circus rings are a universal forty-two feet in diameter

Mark: Did they dig the circus rings?

Adrian: Yes, always. That's how Sole's come to find a diamond mine over in Africa Some of the natives digging the ring came across blue clay which was the indication that there were diamonds underneath My father had one hotel in Tamworth, he had one hotel in Carlton and one in Fitzroy I was born in Carlton In Lygon Street to the best of my knowledge I made myself known to the Wirths when they were playing outside Mark Foy's on one occasion, not the Wirths of Wirth Bros Circus. They were pure Germans and could hardly speak English. What became of them I have no idea

Mark: These Wirths you saw then were not the same ones that had the circus?

Adrian: No I think they were Johnny, Harry, Phillip and George's brothers. I think so, but it could have been their uncles or cousins or something like that In those days they used to wander up and down Castlereagh Street and Pitt Street and play. They were good musicians, all brass of course. It was common for a lot of musicians to busk in those days outside of hotels They were pedal organ players Bud Atkinson was our advance agent in New Zealand I do know that one of my family went to Milan. I would think it would be Cass. He went over there to bring back photos of the statues which we used to copy The Tivoli wanted a special act so we decided to put on The Rentfrew Statue act. We engaged, with the act, a little boy called Jimmy Lear, Ward Lear's son So we put together the statue act and we practised at St George's Hall, Newtown We had always had a statue act in the circus and, after I finished my carpentry, I joined the statue act. I was the baby statue in FitzGerald's Circus when I was two years old. I used to come in just at the last moment when they was making the last pyramid and they would pull me right up to the top. Then we'd get in line, walk three paces forward, three paces back and then strike a position, a statue position. If by accident you landed out of position you immediately struck that position and stayed there We was there every morning practising to each bar, each note as a matter of fact, of Tannhauser They had this metronome and orchestra there. Imagine what it cost to present this act. They had great trouble in making a groundcloth in black that wouldn't rub off on our white costumes We used to put the circus up and down many a time with kids' labour after the schools were over. Then they'd give the kids complimentary tickets to come and see the circus My father and Sammy Bernard started a small circus in New Zealand with about four wagons and a specially imported American buggy with a fringe around the top Siddy and Eileen Bernard used to play cornet very well and we used to parade into town with this buggy, ahead of the show My father used to play the concertina for the two Wingate girls to do Spanish dances in the middle of the ring I used to go, being the drummer, to a station and get a sheepskin and get it buried in the ground with quick-lime, get the wool off it and then scrape it and stretch it over the drum. I do remember my father being considered the best talking and singing clown that Australia ever had We nearly always had fourteen in our band. It was a big circus band

Mark: Mervyn King told me that, when Philip went to America, he sent back all the sheet music for the band to play

Adrian: Yes, he did that to a very large extent but that wasn't due to Philip so much as it was to Reg. Before he left America, Reg arranged with most of the music publishers of the time there to send out all the new music that came on to the market They sent out, and we played for about three years, music that as played by the Perth bandmaster McMahon who won the Australian Championship playing the thing that we'd been playing in Australia for two years before. That was 'The National Emblem' Reg could play clarinet music on a euphonium. That's really something g We used to go uptown - every town that we played in - just about the time people would be having their dinner, six o'clock in the evening. We'd stand in doorways along the main street and then at the town hall or post office my brother Syl would come out with a cornet, Alf Honey with a cornet and they'd start playing in the middle of the street. They'd be walking along, and as they walked along another instrument would come out of a doorway and join them alto, then the next one would come out and join them - euphonium, trombone and so it would go on until we formed a circle around the town hall or whatever was the prominent building in the town at the time. We'd give a half hour brass band programme and then march down to the circus tent. When my father had the Royal Oak Hotel in Tamworth, in order to bring attention to the eleven o'clock closing in those early days, he used to, on the Friday nights, bring the band outside the hotel. People used to come from Peel Street over to West Tamworth to hear Gus St Leon's band outside his hotel.

Mark: It was your brothers in the band?

Adrian: Yes. They were only kids then. They were taught by Herr Von der Mehden My mother played clarinet, the same as my sister

Mark: Gus's children were brought up Catholics?

Adrian: Yes, all except me. I was brought up Church of England Reg, Cass, Syl and Philip were all Catholics, very strongly. Every Sunday, whatever town they were in, they would go to the Catholic Church In those days there was always what you'd call 'the last man off the lot'. He was there to pick up sledge hammers or pieces of rope or stakes that were left around Well, Cass was the last man off the lot in Grafton and as he was driving out of town Father somebody-or-other pulled Cass up and said, "Well Cassie m'boy you've had a good season here in Grafter." He said, 'Yes father we have, very successful " "I suppose you would like to make a donation to the church would you?" He said, "Yes Father, I think I would, but I'm the last man off the lot, I haven't got much money. I've only got five pounds." He said, "Well, you keep it Cassie m'boy and send me back fifty pounds from Lismore." The old bastard wouldn't bloody well take the five quid. It makes you very sceptical Mervyn King wasn't legally apprenticed to the St Leon's He was living with his grandmother in Uki He got kicked from pillar to post by my two brothers, Syl and Reg, teaching him to be an acrobat, but he turned out to be the best full twisting acrobat in Australia Mervyn turned out to be a very astute young man when he ran Silver's Circus with Dave Hardie and Les Hardie

Mark: How do you think the morality of the people associated with the show would have stood up to the standards of those days?

Adrian: Was there any immorality that took place in the show? No definitely no Kathleen Baker was with our circus. She was a very good trapeze artist, although she done everything against time. She broke her time at the end of each swing, which was so obvious to anyone trained in circus, but she was nevertheless a very good trapeze artist. She was Jerry Baker's daughter. She spoke with a very broad Irish accent. She once said, "Mr Gus, Mr Gus! Why do the boys always go uptown for supper after the show every night looking for girls in the town when I'm here." Now that was her meaning to say, "I'm anxious to have relations with one of your sons." It was their custom - it was brought from America by my brothers - to have a very light meal at tea time, very light, hardly anything and then go uptown. All Italian fish shops in every country town in Australia in those days was called 'Comino's' It was quite right what Kathleen Baker said. We used to go uptown looking for girlfriends. More particularly, on a Sunday, you would go to, of all places, outside a Catholic Church and you would get more bloody sheilas wanting to go with the circus boys that you could shake a stick at We went to Tasmania two or three times. When we played at Fitzroy Park in Launceston there was so many woman came down to try and pick up blokes that they had to send for the police and get the park cleared of women so that we could put the tent up There was no industry in Tasmania in those days and they'd save up money to send their sons to the mainland to learn a trade and the girls would be left behind. There'd be no boyfriends for the girls We wouldn't have relations with anyone engaged in the circus so we made relationships with people outside the circus. I suppose the most circumspect of any of my brothers was Sylvester We bought that property at Landsdown Road, Canley Vale to leave my father there Just when we was going to New Zealand with Bud Atkinson Wirth's came to town and the first thing he does he goes and gets a job with Wirth's to look after the train The Wirth brothers owned such a lot to him as a general performer that it was kind of a gift job. The train didn't want looking after because everybody locked their own carriages He died in Junee with Wirth's Circus He was buried in Liverpool I recall that Louisa never shed a tear. She didn't show any remorse whatsoever, which is understandable because I don't remember her living with my father My father always wore a bowler hat

Mark: When you were with the Great United Circus was there a route mapped out every year?

Adrian: Oh, month to month, really That was usually the business of Alf Honey and my second eldest brother, Sylvester. They'd work out the route. It's a funny thing, they'd have special routes, where you knew, if things were going bad, say on the western run, to head straight for Bega. We knew Bega and then we'd head right up the coast to Grafton where you'd take a lot of money Don't forget that the Eroni's in those days had a big wagon show, very big

Mark: Your older brothers spent about eight years altogether in America. When they came back they must have been very unfamiliar with

Adrian: conditions in Australia? I would think so and I would think so particularly in regard to routes - which routes were paying propositions and which were not Winter camping only came in, as near as I can remember, in the last few years of the St Leon circus Before that they would pick out the best of the warmer climates to do, even if it only paid expenses

Mark: So winter camping would have been more for economic than climatic reasons?

Adrian: Yes If they did have employed acts they would probably cancel them for the winter to go ahead and play little small towns There was one run up there in Queensland the last time I was with my brothers, Reg and Syl We was doing a North Queensland tour just with St Leon's Circus We ran along for fourteen weeks but no salaries were paid because they just weren't taking enough money to pay salaries. When we got into Muttaburrah we took big money - real big money - but you never got the fourteen weeks salary that was owing to you. So I went out and bought myself a pair of shoes which I very badly needed. I had this old Dodge ute, and if you knew anything about 1924 Dodges, they had a Bosch magneto starter. They didn't have to have a battery or anything. You'd just crank the handle and the magneto starter would start it up. The timing gear was attached to the starter by means of a leather washer with four bolts in. If the washers wore out, then your timing got out. Now I'm out in the bush by myself with only my wife and I didn't know how to time it. I knew if I altered the timing slots I'd be gone. So I looked through tool boxes and everywhere to try and find something to make the washer because the washer had broken away. That's how I kept getting a miss and I was wondering where the miss was Only the town before - Charleville I think it was - I'd bought myself this pair of shoes which I badly needed So I had to get a compass and cut a washer out of the sole of the brand new shoes because I was out in the bush and there was no other vans following me. That was with O'Donnell and Ray's Pantomime Company. We'd joined them because they were doing no good and we were doing no good. So they decided to put the circus and pantomime in the one show together and run it that way

Mark: This would have been about 1933 or 1934?

Adrian: About 1934.

Mark: Do you think there had been a decline in the circus?

Adrian: Yes, there had been a bad decline That was because of Reg's wife. She was the cause of the whole bloody issue You see, Cass pulled out from the association of the brothers fairly early in the piece I don't know when he and Sadie pulled out They went to live at Canley Vale. They were there for a long while

Mark: Cass never went back to showbusiness?

Adrian: Yes, he did. He went back with Thorpe McConville and died while with Thorpe McConville at Gundagai We buried him in Gundagai There was only Sadie, Alfie and me, and the gravedigger and priest there at the funeral. Thorpe McConville had gone onto Adelong. Nobody representing Thorpe McConville stayed behind at the funeral at all, nobody Cass wasn't with Reg and Syl when I left their circus. I don't know where he was at that time We were motorised by that time, of course. We had trucks and caravans but not very good caravans, nothing like circuses have today There were a few artists We had the Elmars. It petered out at Townsville because they left me behind at Charters Towers. I needed tyres for my van and there was no money coming in, according to Reg and Syl I said, "Well, go to Jack O'Donnell and tell him I want tyres." "No," they said, "Won't do that." So then Syl came back and said, "Well, there's ten bob and that's half of what we've got in the treasury." I knew that was a bloody lie. So I had no money at all. I went through an old suitcase and found an old bank book that had two pound ten in it. I went and told a sad tale to the local service station and he fitted me up with four re-treads of some sort and that got me to Townsville. I went to Jack O'Donnell and said, "Can I come and camp on the ground?" So then I told him that my brothers had left me behind in Charters Towers. "Well," he said, "If that's the sort of people they are I don't want anything to do with them How much are you getting a week from them?" I said, "Fifteen pound a week and petrol and oil." "Well, I'll give you that," he said, "You come with me." So, I went with Jack O'Donnell. I don't know where St Leon's went from there on. I carried on with Jack O'Donnell until we got down to Barradeen Business continued bad so he closed up and said to his girlfriend "Pay Adrian what we owe him." I said, "Look, Jack, you don't owe me anything because you put in a new differential for me, and you put in new tyres for me in Townsville. You don't owe me anything." "Yes, we do," he said, "You've been a very good man to us here. You got us out of the river at Proserpine " A man that specialised in dragging vans out of the Proserpine River with a five horse team and blocks and tackle couldn't budge Jack's five ton truck I came along and Jack said, "St Leon! Can you get me out of this river? All these poofters I've got working for me can't move the truck." So I said to the man who owned the five horses and the tackle "How much tackle have you got?" "Well," he said, "In addition to what I've got here I've got another two sets " So, that meant that he had ten wheels and he already had ten wheels attached to the gear So I went to the furthest bank of the Proserpine River. You know, you cross it about twenty times in the course of about a mile. I attached some of the gear to the trunk of a tree there and then I attached a three and a two block to another three and a two block at the end of the rope to the three and two block that they already had Then I put all the pantomime hands on the end of the rope there and then this man's five horse team on to that and pulled it out. Jack said, "St Leon's the only block that can get us out of this trouble. All you poofters that I pay big money to can't do a bloody thing for me." Well, it was only a matter of knowing circus technique. That was all

Mark: Anything else that comes to mind regarding the Great United Circus?

Adrian: You always paraded into town in a bandwagon. You pulled up on the roadside before going into town. You carried enough clean water so that you could wash yourselves, personally, because roads were dusty and you cleaned up the harness. This would be, say, an hour before you were going into the town and if any of the horses had sweat marks on them, then you washed it off them and brushed them down Then we'd all change into band uniforms and parade into the town You made it as neat as you possibly could In every country town it was an event It had been the advance agent's work to announce it in the papers and so the town was alive for you. So when the circus came to town it was almost a public holiday. Nearly everything stopped A lot of them came down and saw the circus put up. It was an event because there was a huge paddock of, say, ten or fifteen acres of nothing, and within three quarters of an hour there was a huge tent, an eighty foot diameter with a forty-two foot middle piece, and wagons all around it. The success of circus in those days was the impact that a tented township had on the people. At one stage of our wagon show days I suppose we had as many as twenty-two or twenty-three living wagons We were the biggest show on the road at that time. Eroni's were next and then they came to the stage where they surpassed us in the number of loose horses and extra wagonettes. They used to get their wagons made in Albury by a man called Dallinger The Soles and Eronis all got Dallinger wagons

Mark: The St Leons?

Adrian: No, because we considered they were too heavy, and they were all full-locked wagons while we went for half-lock wagons because we felt it was easier travelling for the horses. The bigger the wheel the easier the travelling We never played the big towns or the cities at all.

Mark: Why was that?

Adrian: I don't know why. Probably because of the paucity of glamour. Maybe we were not up to the standard of city showing. Maybe it cost too much to re-paint everything to come into a big city

Mark: Do you mean to say that city people wouldn't patronise a wagon show in preference to say a big railroad show?

Adrian: I don't think there was ever a wagon show in any of the cities in Australia No, I tell a lie, because we did play Brisbane in opposition to Eroni's as a wagon show. I can tell you one of the advertisements we had. We were showing tooth and nail against each other for patronage. So Eroni's came out with one edition of the paper and said, "We advertise our programme because we have one." That was pretty convincing advertising. The next edition St Leon's came out with a reply to that advertisement which said, "St Leon's Circus don't have to advertise their programme - their programme advertises itself." That was a good comeback, wasn't it? Bud Atkinson done the same with Wirth's and George Peterson. This was when we were going to New Zealand with Bud Atkinson "Well," George Peterson said, "You're going over to New Zealand with St Leon's?" "Yes," says Bud. "Well," he said, "Don't worry, Bud, we'll be right on your tail." "Yes," said Bud, who was very quick with repartee, "and that's where we'll keep you."

Mark: It does seem funny that the Walter St Leon family and the Gus St Leon family never joined up together.

Adrian: They never did. There was no animosity between the two families We were under the auspices of Bud Atkinson in Brisbane once, but not the time we played opposite Eroni's. We showed in The Stadium in The Valley, which was a boxing stadium really. Bud Atkinson sponsored us there Two occasions we played Brisbane

Mark: When you came to larger country towns, and you might stay a few days or a week, would you stay at hotels?

Adrian: Yes always in hotels. Toowoomba, Inverell, Glen Innes and those places. Yes, we stayed in hotels. Ask me for what reason.

Mark: For what reason?

Adrian: Prestige. So that we weren't like a lot of tramps and were able to conduct ourselves the same as any other ordinary citizen and so that we weren't living in wagonettes that could be comparable to a dog kennel or living like gypsies You couldn't possibly stay at hotels and do one night stands but we would stay at hotels on weekends or in towns where we would stay three or four days It also gave you a lift because you had hot baths, you cleaned up. It gave you a little privacy. With the circus in those days, if you wanted to have a bath you had to have it in a tub, what we used to call a 'canary' Almost invariably hotels would sponsor you to play in their back paddock. It was eleven o'clock closing and it was the understanding that you'd give a twenty-five minute intermission so that the audience would have time to go up to the pub and have a booze-up Many times it would run into an hour and then you'd start the second half of the show when the publican would come down and say everything's right. "Okay, away we go." Then on other occasions, publicans would pay you to use their back paddock. Instead of you having to pay to use the grounds, they'd pay you to use it. That was quite a common practice with all circuses, not only St Leon's.

Mark: Was rivalry between the circuses very 'cut-throat'?

Adrian: No, not really.

Mark: Mary Lindsay told me that Jack Ise was a school-teacher

Adrian: Well, when they say that he was a school-teacher they mean that he was engaged, for example, as a bandsman and in the day time he'd teach the kids. They're not really school-teachers There were no correspondence classes in those days

Mark: How long was Jack Ise with the Great United?

Adrian: Jack Ise wasn't with the Great United Circus.

Mark: Yes he was, according to some of the early advertisements of the Great United Circus.

Adrian: Oh well He was a FitzGerald's man At one stage there he was ringmaster. He was a coloured man So was Billy Jones. He was no relation to the St Leon family. He was a coloured man and a very talented circus performer but he was also ringmaster for FitzGerald's for years.

Mark: When you say coloured, do you mean part Aboriginal?

Adrian: Yes. Certainly not American coloured Jack Ise was a big man, tall and strong, whereas Billy Jones was a small man something like my father You see we travelled with FitzGerald's, my father, Daisy, Philip and all of us, and Billy Jones was ringmaster then. It was later on that Jack Ise became ringmaster Wirth's ran FitzGerald's into the ground. There's no doubt about that

Mark: Getting back to your stepmother, do you know much about her background?

Adrian: I don't know much about her New England background other than she was born in Hillgrove Her name was Bowers According to what she used to tell me they had a strawberry farm. Anybody could come in and they'd pay maybe two shillings or whatever the fee was and eat as many strawberries as they like but they couldn't take them away in a basket.

Mark: How did she come to marry Johnny Wirth?

Adrian: I wouldn't have the faintest idea. Must have been through the circus passing through town I would imagine By the time we took the house in Pelican Street it was then only nine or ten.

Mark: Do you remember Wirth's and FitzGerald's coming to town when you were living there?

Adrian: Oh yes. I remember quite a bit about that because they nearly always showed in the Exhibition Park They'd build an edifice and the band used to play half an hour's concert. They used to have electric lights showing right up to the circus tent. It was pretty glamorous and very well presented. Both Wirth's and FitzGerald's did the same type of thing but they never clashed in Sydney as near as I know.

Mark: They created a good deal of excitement throughout the city?

Adrian: Yes. What we've got today didn't exist Circus was even better than theatre, because theatre, like Bland Holt and those others, showed continuously, all year round But when the circus came to town it's like the Russians come to Sydney

Mark: Theatres would lose their patronage?

Adrian: Well, I wouldn't know the financial side of it, but the fact did remain that it was the pre-eminent attraction in Sydney while the circus was there What we call Central Railway Station today in those days was called Redfern Sammy Bernard had no circus ability himself but he could train you to be an acrobat, he could train dogs He had no knowledge of acrobats as such but he could train.

Mark: What do you know about the eventual decline of FitzGerald's?

Adrian: When Tom died in India, Mrs Tom started up again and she picked up with two or three different blokes. I don't even know why they were. You'd say they were opportunities Of course, they ran the circus into the ground.

Mark: Did you ever meet Dan and Tom FitzGerald yourself? Can you remember them?

Adrian: Yes. As a matter of fact, when we was doing the statue act in the FitzGerald show, my sister was only about eighteen or nineteen. I used to be paid by Mr Tom FitzGerald to pinch her on the backside so that he could abuse her when she came out of the show because he was courting her He used to give me half-a-crown to do that I don't think there was any love-match attached to it. Today you'd say he was making a pass at her

Mark: What were your father's reasons for going to America do you think?

Adrian: I think probably lack of opportunities in Australia. Maybe he was influenced by Sammy Bernard I don't know I didn't get to know my father as he would have loved me to have done When we went broke in New Zealand after the paralysis business, Syl, Reg and Mervyn went on the Tivoli as a trio as 'The Three St Leons' and I went on Fuller's as 'Adrian's Dogs'.

Mark: When you were living in Sydney did you ever meet any of the Walter St Leon family?

Adrian: Aunty Amy, Mrs Church and Mrs Clark lived in Surrey Hills. We used to meet them quite often of a night there Mrs Church used to make her own coffee, bake the beans in front of you, then grind them and make the coffee, African style. Two very nice women was Amy St Leon and Mrs Church

Mark: It seems rather strange your brothers, Cass, Syl and Reg all became acrobats and Philip became an equestrian only.

Adrian: Oh no! You've got the wrong conception there. Philip was a better ground tumbler than what my other brothers were Being the younger boy he was more under the control of my father's influence

Mark: Can you remember my grandfather, Norman St Leon being with the Great United Circus?

Adrian: Oh yes He was there as a musician.

Mark: Tent boss?

Adrian: Yes, he might have taken that over. You see your grandfather was like nearly all young circus families of those days. You'd turn your hand to anything at all. Norman had a lot of ability in the ring. Don't let anyone discourage you about your grandfather. He could tumble just as good as what Les and Wally could. Oh yes, he was a very adaptable man. He played cornet but had no ear for music strangely enough. He could read music very well but he could get out of tune the moment he didn't look at music You could hum something to him but he couldn't play it, but you give him the music for it and he could play it and play it well With the utmost respect I've got to say that Norman was a bit difficult to handle. He was a bit hot-headed and I think that's what broke up his marriage more or less A good man around the show was Bert Houten. He was always well-dressed and always looked after himself. As a musician, he wouldn't lift a finger to help you on the tent or anything like that. He was engaged as a musician and nothing else We wouldn't have gone voluntarily to The Great War, I can tell you that. Speaking for myself, even now I can't look at a picture of violence. I don't like violence of any description It wasn't until the latter years of the Great United Circus that we penetrated as far as Hungry Hill and right up beyond the Atherton Tablelands. It would have to be a very minor village in those early days that they wouldn't play even one night That challenge that my father threw out to that American, Jimmy Robinson, is absolutely correct. That followed my father's reputation right up until the time that I can remember my father The challenge never came off Robinson backed out. He wouldn't be in it My father was doing somersault work on a 'resin-back' as they called a circus horse in those days. This Robinson virtually only done faulting and jockey-jumps and things like that whereas my father would do the same thing and do somersaults in between Strangely enough Uncle Walter's family didn't do a great deal of bareback horse-riding outside of Amy

Mark: Did you ever see Amy perform?

Adrian: Yes, as a trapeze artist and a contortionist. I don't know where. She was a fairly thick-set girl, plump

Mark: Strong?

Adrian: Yes, a strong girl

Mark: Walter went with you to New Zealand?

Adrian: Yes, with 'Bonnie' and 'Tarkie' and a little horse that we had, an under-sized draught-horse, only the height of a pony He taught this horse to do 'Dying to Save the Colours'. We bought 'Bonnie' and 'Tarkie' off him when he apparently left to come back to Australia for some reason or other

Mark: The Great United Circus must have made a lot of money when it was in the height of it's popularity.

Adrian: Yes, and didn't know how to handle it. Well, Alf Honey was a good manager and he wouldn't let a shilling pass through his hands that could be saved in other ways. My brothers and myself were all very open handed people, more particularly, Philip and Syl. Alf Honey hung on to the money and pretended - because I don't suppose we went through the books very often - that there wasn't much money in the treasury

Mark: Can you tell me anything about Ernie Coyle and Joe Johns?

Adrian: Yes. I can tell you a little story about Ernie Coyle. He was as thin as a match, tall, stooped over in the shoulders, a man of about twenty-seven or thirty as near as I can remember. He was a well-educated young man and he was our advance agent He was in a hotel bar while the circus was in Bega and he heard two men talking indecently about the circus girls so he invited the two blokes to go in to have a drink. When he got them into the parlour he locked the door and threw the key out the window. He couldn't fight to save his soul but he said, "Now I'll take you on one at a time, either of you, for denigrating the honour of the circus girls." He bluffed these two bloody great big wharf labourer blokes. He couldn't lift a finger to protect himself but he had enough guts to throw out a challenge They could have wiped the floor if they wanted.

Mark: He was the circus advance agent?

Adrian: Yes, I don't know where we picked him up and I don't know where he left I suppose he was with the St Leons for twelve or eighteen months as advance agent He was a good agent.

Mark: Joe Johns?

Adrian: Joe Johns is dead of course. He settled in Proserpine in Queensland Joe Johns was a little fellow, very miniature in build He played cornet. He was only a bandsman

Mark: During the time you were living in Sydney as a boy, how would the family keep in touch with you while they were travelling?

Adrian: My sister Daisy saw to it - if it was left to my father it would have been neglected - that a remittance was sent to Louisa week to week, whatever the circus could afford I suppose.

Mark: You always knew where the circus was?

Adrian: Oh yes roughly where the circus was, yes. Only roughly though There must have been a very lean period because at one stage Louisa hung on to her diamonds but went out to work in restaurants for some reason or other We once played the Sydney Showground as a rodeo about 1915, 1916 or 1917. I'm inclined to think it was Dave Meekin who promoted us We packed the Sydney Showground there, packed it, absolutely packed it until vandals got over the fences. They must have taken an enormous amount of money Cass and I did Roman races, him on two horses and me on two horses, around the Sydney Showground track three times. I'd pull up my team to let Cass get a bit of a lead. We'd build it up that way, backwards and forwards until we'd get a bit of attention from the audience and then it would be a neck and neck finish. We went from there to the Parramatta Park and they overflowed that. You talk about the crowds that follow The Beatles We couldn't control the crowds and sell tickets to everybody that crashed the gates It was kind of a mixed programme of acrobatics and horsemanship.

Mark: You'd wonder then why they didn't come to the city more often if they were so successful.

Adrian: Yes I think, Mark, to give you my version of it is that they themselves, Reg, Cass, Syl and Philip, at one stage, and Honey weren't good public relations people That's why, on two or three occasions people took us over because they could see the potential we had but we weren't able to capitalise on it ourselves. We carried a better band than any other circus in Australia. All my family were musicians and then they would engage an equal number or maybe more musicians to build it up into a concert band. We played 'Our Miss Gibbs' and all of those things uptown which country town people had never heard of They were that amazed that they used to bring up their local band, of maybe twice the number of musicians there, and listen to Reg, and listen to Bert Houten playing melodies as solos on a double B-flat bass, and Reg doing the same playing clarinet parts on a euphonium.

Mark: Reg was quite talented musically?

Adrian: Yes, almost to the point of insanity This Bert Houten was so wrapped in Reg's compositions that when we'd be camping alongside rivers he'd get his bass out and be playing Reg's melodies on his own. He loved Reg's compositions. But Reg never tried to publish one of them for one reason or another, once again I think it was lack of business acumen

Mark: Can you remember any accidents, floods or blowdowns?

Adrian: Yes. In St Mary's in Tasmania, Reg and I was doing a revolving ladder act. We were both standing up at the one time. We had a packed house and the seats collapsed. I could gradually see the seats going There was a doctor in the house and there was a lawyer and they were both crooked and they sent people home with splints on their legs who never had an injury at all. They sued us. I suppose eventually it came to an end when we proved by court that they were perjurers but I think it cost St Leon's about three thousand pounds. This was before the New Zealand trip New Zealand was like the Northern Rivers. It was a feast of money for any circus that had enough money to pay their fares across and back

Mark: How long would those canvas tents last?

Adrian: We didn't use canvas tents in those days, only calico tents Then we got to the stage where we used to dress them with paraffin oil and beeswax. We'd heat the kerosene to the temperature we thought it would melt the beeswax then stir and mix it up and put it into a watering can We then got stable brooms to broom the liquid into the calico to waterproof it

Mark: What do you remember about your brother Philip performing in the circus dressed as a woman? Can you describe to me his act and some of the experiences that he might have had being dressed up as a woman?

Adrian: Now I must tell you something. They must have gone to Western Australia because, in Perth, Philip missed one of his somersaults and hit his head on a stake. These people in Martin Place used to make wigs so that there was no chance of pulling it off He fell on a stake and it cut through the wig, blood started to come through his scalp and before any of the audience could suspect it they got him out, took the wig off and treated him As much as eight or nine times in one circuit of the ring, he did jumping from the ground to the horse's back, what you call foot-jumps. It would be normal for your grandfather to probably jump up twice, maybe three times, in what they call a jockey act, which is foot jumps again. But Philip could go up and down just like a bloody greyhound all the way round. Then of course he used to do somersaults on the horse's back. He had remarkable balance. Bookmakers in every town used to doubt that it was a woman because of the muscular legs. We used to pass that off by saying that all ballet dancers, women, had big calves due to the amount of practice they do. So, in order to do those jumps up and down he naturally had that. Well then, it got to the stage that they were pressing too hard with questions about him. Daisy used to have to substitute for Phillip in the same costumes, the same make-up, everything exactly the same, and then, with an eye-dropper, put drops of glycerine on her face as though she was perspiring. As soon as Philip finished his act, he'd race straight to the dressing room which was always right behind the pad room. Daisy would be waiting in the pad room there heaving on her breath In the meantime the bookmakers would race around from the front of the tent to the back to try and prove - they had bets laid out - that it was a man. That went on for years that part, but mostly in Queensland My father used to teach him on a bag of chaff. That's how my father taught Philip, right through New Zealand before we joined Wirth's. It had to be a steam-packed bag of chaff, as much as the bag could hold My father used to teach him to do spot somersaults on the bag of chaff. Then he'd spend the next hour with him teaching him feminine movements so that he would instinctively use feminine movements while riding. He taught him a lot of styling with the hands, proper styling which you've got to have

Mark: So the female impersonation act

Adrian: went right on from the time Philip was about twelve or thirteen.

Mark: And Gus had taught it to him?

Adrian: Oh yes, because my father was an adept circus rider himself. When Philip got rheumatic fever in New Zealand, they had to send him up to 'take the waters' as they call it, the Rotorua sulphur waters. Dad, on a moment's notice, went and done a somersault act and he must have been about fifty-six then. We made a special route most times from Bega up to Brisbane and then a back route to come back to that same circuit again for the next part of the season, ending in the winter up in the southern part of Queensland We made a great many special friends in every town, hotel keepers and business people It almost became a public holiday. As a matter of fact many shopkeepers would close their shops and come down and watch the erecting of the tents, where our living quarters were and how most of the women had sleeping wagons As soon as you got into town there was a canopy up in front of the wagons for privacy's sake. The women could dress and undress there with utmost privacy The life was very pleasant although very hard It was a life for young people, really, who had plenty of stamina. If you were a weakling, you just couldn't stand up to it. They'd send you to some relative in the city to life if you didn't have the stamina to put up with the hardships which we did. As I told you in a previous interview, all roads were dirt roads and mud roads in those days. Not until pretty well the time the First World War broke out did they start to macadamise roads.

Mark: Travelling between towns on those old bush roads, how would you occupy your time? Would you be sleeping in the wagons or reading?

Adrian: Yes, those that didn't have to drive As far as the Great United Circus was concerned my father always led the route, from one town to another, the tracks that we would take, or the roads that we would take. The roads were hacked out of the bush but they weren't kept. Today, we have graders and we grade them. Well it would be all done by manual work and shovels and scoops, things like that in those days. Well then the other wagons would trail maybe two hundred yards behind each other. Generally, it was very pleasant. We didn't seem to have any hang-ups among the families The association was good and we made our associations with the townspeople good The morality of the show was strictly such that there was no promiscuousness with even engaged women If we wanted to be promiscuous we made it our business to be with town girls that we met The 'gold mine' of showbusiness in those days was the east cost of Australia, even into Queensland. You stuck to the coast right up as far as Cairns, then if you were venturesome enough you would take a back route back so that you wouldn't travel over the same territory but it was more arduous and not so thickly populated. So, the return route wasn't so good as the east coast of Australia.

Mark: So the circus more or less had a standardised route.

Adrian: Yes. It almost became mechanical so that you didn't really have to route out a route It would take you a year from, say, Bega back to the Sydney suburbs There were so many people that knew my father, Gus, personally and liked him personally that they became a nuisance My father always made it his business to have a couple of hours sleep every afternoon. So, before he went to sleep, there'd be somebody come down to see him. "Hello Gus, how are you? Come up to the pub and have a beer?" - or something like that. So we were all given instructions. If a stranger came up to Philip, me, Reg or any of us and said, "Do you know where Mr Gus is?" we'd walk the stranger who reckoned that he knew him so well that he could photograph him in his own mind. We'd walk around the circus ground looking for Mr Gus and we'd ask tenthands. "No, I haven't seen Mr Gus for a couple of hours he must be uptown, we don't know where he is." So Dad would go away and have a sleep. He was a very popular man, the same as were the two FitzGeralds, more so than the Wirths. The Wirths were snobs by comparison

Mark: Your father was commonly called 'Mr Gus'.

Adrian: 'Mr Gus', yes, that's right.

Mark: He would have been a very jovial character?

Adrian: Yes, a very happy man. Always smoked a pipe With his family he did quarrel with the elder brothers quite a bit. Philip would take the quarrel out of their hands. He'd pull Dad away. Dad would get annoyed with Philip and went to fight Philip then and he'd forget about the argument he had with the other two or three. But Philip could always calm him down The others couldn't. He'd be aggressive towards the others. I think that was the cause of the break-up in Mexico, why he left them and came back to Australia It was a common thing with all the wagons travelling from town to town to run into a mob of sheep of many thousands. You'd have to have the riders who were in charge of a flock separate them enough for the wagons to go through so none of the sheep would be injured and the wagon horses wouldn't shy or bolt or do anything to damage either themselves or the sheep Jerry Collis and Alf Honey would go out shooting game, in or out of season I well recall, on one occasion, it was the closed season for ducks and Alf Honey went out shooting and he came home with a brace of ducks. He had them on the butt of his rifle on his shoulder walking into camp. As he walked into camp he could see in his own domicile, where Daisy and the family were, that there was a police sergeant. He just tipped the butt of the gun up and let them slide off into the long grass, so that he could come out with a gun and explain he was only trying to shoot rabbits So the sergeant of police accepted having a meal with us and shook hands with all of us and Alf Honey in particular. "Alf," he said, "If you don't mind you can give me a couple of those ducks you dropped off the barrel of your gun as you walked into camp." So nothing escaped the sergeant of police In a show like that you were very friendly with your own company You weren't lonely because you were brought up in an atmosphere where each supported each other's companionship. You might pull into a camp and everybody, for argument's sake, would decide that they were going to go down to the creek and have a swim, both men and women We had the Huckleberry Finn type of approach. Those that were in the circus enjoyed it like a Huckleberry Finn would in a Mark Twain story. I would think that we felt we were having the best of two worlds. We were seeing the country and enjoying it and living under conditions that weren't too the hardship wasn't emphasised too greatly. The only hardship you felt was when you ran up against inclement weather, of course.

Mark: At that time would it have seemed to you that the life had no end?

Adrian: Could I see the Great United coming to a finish? No, I never foresaw that, and it didn't really come about that way at all. It came about in New Zealand. Either Reg or his wife, Maggie, had a barney with Alf Honey and his wife, Daisy That's the time when Bud Atkinson was with us. Apparently they had a family row which I wasn't involved in and didn't even know about until I realised that Alf Honey and his family were leaving the circus. We were up beyond Gisborne in the North Island there, when they left and came back to Sydney. They did a little bit of work on the Tivoli I believe and then they joined Wirth's for a while Then Golda married Les Ashton and, of course, that riled Alf Honey because he could see that Les Ashton was only marrying Golda for a meal ticket because she was a good performer. So, he cut short his engagement with Wirth's and booked a boat to America and that's where they remained. Then, I think after a few years Golda divorced, or Les might have divorced Golda, I don't know whom, because I never kept in touch with them. Then she fell off the wire and broke a vertebrae in her back or something to that effect but I don't know the final end of Golda's life at all I was always only a paid performer in the St Leon Circus.

Mark: Never part of the partnership?

Adrian: Oh no, I was never part of the partnership.

Mark: Why was that?

Adrian: I don't know. I suppose it was because I was a schoolboy at the time they came out from America You see, there was seven of them in it, Reg, Cass, Syl, Phil, Alf and Daisy Honey, and Dad Without Alf Honey and his family we still continued doing the circuit in New Zealand. We went and did another run. We came back then to board a boat to go to Australia From then on, as far as I was concerned, that was the end of the United Circus We came back. My brothers must have disbanded all their material and that because they went on the Tivoli circuit and I went on the Fuller circuit. They finished the Tivoli Circuit and then they joined the Fuller circuit with me and they both went over to New Zealand a fortnight ahead of me But we did Brisbane together and we did Melbourne together

Mark: But there was a St Leon Circus after that?

Adrian: Oh yes, plenty of it, but I don't know whether they ran under the name of the Great United Circus. They may have, I don't know I wasn't with them I was with them when they started Cody Bros. I went out as advance for them but I wasn't there when they started the American circus they brought out, Ivan Bros. I was in Tamworth then.

Mark: Travelling around the country districts of New South Wales and Queensland with the Great United, did you see much of other circuses?

Adrian: Yes. We quite often, particularly on show dates, were one of two circuses in town, plus Philip Lytton's Drama Theatre, Sorlie's, Mack's. There'd be four or five tent shows in the town plus two circuses, especially on the run from Bathurst Then we'd make our way across country until we came to the east coast and then all those tent shows and circuses all together would head north to Queensland Once we left Rockhampton we wouldn't take the wagons. We'd leave them behind and travel by train Then we'd come back and pick up the wagons and travel into the hinterland of Queensland

Mark: On one or two occasions in the Great United Circus, they had the Sole family in partnership with them.

Adrian: Only on one occasion, when we went to Tasmania. They were always employed people with us.

Mark: How long did the performance go on for?

Adrian: Two hours usually The reason it was restricted to two hours and not go into two hours and a half - which we were quite capable doing - was the fact that you were depending on farmers for your living and they had to get up early in the morning and milk the cows and do the farmwork

Mark: What do you think would have been the high point of the programme?

Adrian: Undoubtedly their acrobatic act. It was not always The Five St Leons as many times it was a trio act That and Miss Philipina and the statue act would be definitely In the latter part of the Great United Circus days, we finished always with high jumpers - high jumping horses. Sole's owned the two best that we had, which was Marmion and Glimpsie. We had programmes printed on satin many times for the capital cities, like Brisbane, but not for Sydney. We played Melbourne you know, but I think the suburbs. The suburbs of Melbourne are different to the suburbs of Sydney you know - not as close knit - they're more rural

Mark: Did the show go into Victoria very much?

Adrian: Yes, for two reasons. One was that the journeys were shorter The towns were closer together and the roads were better. Because they were closer together the councils had more money to spend on maintenance of the roads. Usually the business was very good in Victoria and better than many parts of outback New South Wales

Mark: Allan told me that his father's circus wouldn't go into Victoria because they found it rather 'conservative and not very show-minded'.

Adrian: Yes, Allan's a bit right there in that they resemble the New Zealanders very much - New Zealanders are very conservative, you know. Allan's quite right in that, but that didn't alter the fact that you made good money in Victoria just the same

Mark: Were the Soles the only other people with whom the St Leons entered into partnership?

Adrian: Yes, to the best of my knowledge. No, pardon me. We did go to New Zealand twice. We went over there with a rodeo show with Jack Williams We took over Australia's two foremost buckjump riders. That was Billy Todd and Vic Cowan. One half of the programme was devoted to rodeo and the other to circus. Yes, that's right we did go over to New Zealand twice. It went over a million because we had the advertising gimmick of having Australia's two foremost buckjump riders and Jack William's horse were very good. He had very good buckjumping horses that could be relied upon to buck repeatedly every night. That was quite a successful venture that.

Mark: The Wirths having German names, did they encounter any antagonism during the First World War?

Adrian: No, I don't think so. Not at all. I don't think they encountered anything against them at all

Mark: What can you remember Norman St Leon doing in the Great United Circus?

Adrian: Tumbling, riding and what they call jockey acts, which is foot jumping from ground onto the horse's back Short and strong, Norman was Very stocky and always well dressed, so well dressed that he was a bit of a joke with most of the circus people. If he had a good suit on, he wouldn't sit down for fear he'd bag his trousers He dressed very nicely. He always had good suits, Norman, and looked dapper, looked very nice

Mark: A good looking fellow?

Adrian: Yes, I would say he had a very attractive way with women. All Walter St Leon's family were great laughers. They'd laugh at pretty well anything you know, pull a joke on themselves or a joke on somebody else but they'd laugh very heartily at everything, you know This I've got to say about Norman, everybody held him in great respect. He was advance agent with Sorlie's at one stage

NOTES This interview was recorded on 10 and 12 August 1975 at Adrian's flat at Kirribilli. Adrian at that stage was the last surviving son of Gus St Leon. His recollections, which are remarkably detailed and vivid, are mostly of the Gus St Leon Great United Circus. His memories also embrace the era of the FitzGerald and Wirth circus heyday of the early 1900s, working on the vaudeville circuits in the early 1920s, the American showman Bud Atkinson, and a tour through Queensland about 1934 with O'Donnell and Ray's Pantomime Company. Adrian died in Sydney in 1982.

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