“Mighty Mannequins, Batman!”

Joan Rhodes had a difficult start in life but that didn’t stop her making a name for herself in the circus

Joan Rhodes found here

Billed as “The Mighty Mannequin”, 5ft 7in tall, gorgeous and spectacularly costumed, she was known as “The Strong Lady of Variety”. During her 15-minute act she would bend steel bars, break 6in nails and, most famously, rip copies of the 1,000-page London telephone directory in half and sometimes quarters. At the age of 15 she could lift a baby elephant, and the highlight of her act was getting a crowd of men up on stage with her to have a tug of war. The men always lost.

baby elephant found here

She was born Joan Taylor in London in 1920. She was abandoned by her parents when she was 3 and put into a workhouse after the police were called to find the neglected children — she had two sisters and a brother — drinking drainwater. Rescued by her grandparents, she was eventually sent to board at a convent in South London but was expelled for pulling off a nun’s veil.

image found here

Lying about her age, she began to develop her considerable powers of physical strength and started performing feats on Tower Hill and Villiers Street, passing a hat among the spectators for her wages. By her late teens she was a familiar figure in the Soho district where she mixed easily with a bohemian set. She began a lifelong friendship with Quentin Crisp, and in later life she was his weekly Scrabble partner.

Quentin Crisp found here

In 1949 she answered an advertisment in The Stage which read “Freaks wanted”. The advertisment was for the famous Pete Collins’ Would You Believe It? show, a production noted for its performing odditiesShe got the job and, changing her name, became Joan Rhodes “the Mighty Mannequin”.

Joan Rhodes found here

“One of the dates we played was the Hackney Empire,” she later recalled, “On the bill with me was Elroy the Armless Wonder, Mushie the Lion (who ate steak off a lady’s chest) and Johnny Vree, whose idea of fun was throwing a golliwog around on stage.”

With her personality and looks Rhodes attracted attention wherever she appeared. King Farouk of Egypt sent her tiger lilies every night and asked her if she would like to break one of his beds. Nothing, however, could have been more bizarre than her meeting with James Battersby, the notorious British Fascist and supporter of Hitler. “He was a fan of mine,” she said, “and one day he invited me to tea after a matinée at Stockport. I had no idea of his views, and he suddenly blurted out, ‘You will marry me and be the mother of the strongest Aryan child in the world.’ I dropped my teacup and fled.”

King Farouk found here

Asked the secret of her success as a strongwoman she said: “I always made a point of being dainty. It’s like getting into a temper. If you are furious enough, you can tell yourself you will do something and then you can.

After retiring from the circus she still performed verses, one of which pre-dated Jenny Joseph’s poem about being an outrageous old woman: “I shall wear green and gold! When I am old! And paint my nails and colour my hair! And not notice when people stare”.

Published in: on June 11, 2011 at 12:58 am  Comments (36)  
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pink bits

Sir Mark Palmer, baronet and former pageboy to the Queen, declared himself a fashion oracle in 1967.


“Sir Mark Palmer predicts that pink will be the popular shade in menswear next season. He has set up a shop in Chelsea and revolutionised the image of the male fashion model.

A staff of 35 English boy models are kept busy at £15 an hour. They must be 6′ tall, weigh 140 lbs and not be more than 36″ around the chest.


When we met Mark Palmer he was wearing a sky blue flat felt hat, blue striped red blazer, flowered Moroccan vest with striped tie around the waist, pink pants and pink shoes. “Painted the shoes myself” he said with pride.


“We’re riding the crest of the wave he said. “The shape of men’s bodies had already changed before we pointed it out but nobody had noticed. Male models should look like poets. Who wants to look like a 35 year old muscular Australian male model? Young girls don’t want to be seen with that type any more.”

David Genat

In 1968 he had an epiphany and set off in search of a Shangri-la in Cornwall

“The fifth baronet has grown his hair to shoulder length and sleeps in a brightly painted wagon pulled by a carthorse. Several women, nine puppies, four horses and a lamb have joined his hippie band. He has cashed in his inheritance to buy an estate but at the moment lives in a derelict lodge.


Sir Mark, who went to Eton and Oxford (“not really my scene”) is wearing hand sewn moccasins, gold socks and trousers, red trimmed vest, flower patterned shirt and yellow flower embroidered open jacket.

Nice to know he was still interested in fashion. For several years he travelled around Britain in a horse drawn caravan. He was also a friend of the Rolling Stones


“Palmer’s revised modus vivendi was to live out, eat au naturel and to sleep rough, late and with whomever he could. Villagers became inured to the sight of Palmer’s numerous acolytes appearing in the local shop to buy cigarette papers or a magazine of astrological data.

Eventually he married one of the aficionados of astrological magazines and became a horse dealer and father to artist, model and aspiring trapezist Iris Palmer.


‘A touch of the Iris Palmers’ is fashion-speak for not smiling. The one-time face of both ‘ready-to-wear’ (Chanel and Lacroix) and ‘already worn’ (Oxfam), Iris is a product of St Mary’s Wantage, the rather more liberal Bedales and Chelsea Art School. She first turned up at her modelling agency, Storm, in a micro-miniskirt, fishnets and spike heels, took acid at Glastonbury, grew her armpit hair for a Helmut Newton shoot and is a demon ping-pong player. She’s now editor-at-large of Cheap Date, a magazine advocating ‘freedom from fashion’. ‘All my clothes are second-hand and cost less than a fiver. I never wash them – I just chuck them in a terrifying pile, and I may not see them again,’ she says. Her paintings of robust nudes are not admired by critics, but Helena Christensen bought one for £2,000. Recently, to the amazement of the fashion world, Iris has joined a travelling circus, and hopes to learn the trapeze. Audiences report that she has even been spotted smiling.


Published in: on May 5, 2010 at 8:20 am  Comments (42)  
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not noah’s ark

Back in 1902 nobody worried whether or not something was politically correct or thought about animal rights as this excerpt from the New York Times shows


With roaring lions, snarling tigers, trumpeting elephants, docile antelopes, and chattering monkeys on board, besides a goodly assortment of nearly everything else that roams the fields, inhabits the air, swims the waters, or haunts the jungles, the Atlantic Transport liner Minneapolis, hired for the trip by Barnum Bailey circus, got in from Dunkirk, France, yesterday.

The trip was pleasant and freak, beast and fowl, with the single exception of a huge elephant, were in good condition when the ship reached the pier.


There had been death on board. Jesse, the champion peanut eater of the 54 monkeys, pined and would not eat. His body was cast overboard with great ceremony with “Zip the What Is It” saying the simian words for Rest in Peace.


Mandarin, the biggest of the 23 elephants was in a bad humour every day of the voyage but as he was angry for several days before he left France his misbehaviour could not be attributed to the voyage. He has been in the habit of “getting ugly” as his handler calls it, every few weeks. If he did not keep his temper under control he would probably be killed as Mr Bailey would not think of allowing an “ugly” animal to be led through the streets of New York.

image from On The Streets of New York

The other animals on board including 12 tigers, 5 lions, 6 hyenas, 4 leopards, 4 bears, 4 panthers, 1 hippopotamus, 2 giraffes, 4 kangaroos, 1 horned horse, 1 gnu, 3 deer, 1 tapir, 1 waterbok, 1 warthog, 1 orix, 4 antelope, 1 moufflon, 7 camels, 4 zebras, 1 real buffalo, 162 horses, 27 ponies, and 4 goats, besides birds and snakes, were on their good behaviour during the passage and Superintendent Hyatt is going to present to each a nice gold medal as a reward for their splendid deportment.


Of the freaks, “Zip the 70 year old What Is It” was the most popular of all on the way to America. Zip is reported to have never spoken a word of any known tongue and does not know whether New York is in Hackensack or New Rochelle. And yet Zip still said that he was very glad to get home. He also said that he would be two years old in December and was thinking of getting married but declined to give the name of his intended.


Wille Doss, the Human Telescope who can stretch himself nearly 18 inches, was standing beside one of the giraffes and created a great source of amusement when he stretched his neck 2 inches higher than the giraffe’s two peaky looking little ears. The giraffe was so mortified at being beaten in such a contest that he refused to eat any supper.

Published in: on May 4, 2010 at 8:28 am  Comments (45)  
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from harry rickards to the end of the pier

Harry Rickards ran away from home when he was 16, and started a career as a comic singer in music halls. In 1878 he divorced his first wife who was English and married Australian acrobat and trapeze artist Katie Angel.


At the turn of the century, Rickards had a virtual monopoly on variety theatre in Australia. He had driven out his smaller rivals and had a chain of theatres around the country. They included the Tivoli Theatres in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide Tivoli and the Palace Gardens in Perth.

He brought the cream of variety artists to Australia: acrobats, ventriloquists, instrumentalists, impersonators, singers and animal acts, including the legendary Marie Lloyd, Little Tich, Houdini, the quasi-Chinese conjuror Chung Ling Soo and Paul Cinquevalli, the unrivalled juggler.

Tivoli performer

He had a keen sense of humour, which must have helped him in both his career as an artist and as a manager. A story was told of how Harry and a friend got into a ‘rough up’ with two cabbies who took them to court over the incident.

Were you the worse for liquor?” asked the magistrate “Your worship ” answered Harry Rickards “throughout a long, and if I may say it, successful career, I have never let drink interfere with business. We had a drink after we had finished with these men.”

The Tivoli Theatres were still going strong in the 1950s.

The main attractions were an amazing array of old comics, jugglers and fire-eaters, plus the Tivoli Lovelies. The shows would open with a rather raucous overture from the orchestra. The curtain would go up and there would be the dancing girls, the Tivoli Lovelies, in a fantastic line-up.

Beryl, one of the Tivoli dancers

GEORGIA NELLIN: I joined the Tivoli Ballet in 1944 and ended up leaving in 1947 to get married.

WOMAN 1: I started in pantomime and then I went into the Ballet in 1948.

WOMAN 2: I started about ’44 and I left in ’47 to get married.

WOMAN 3: I joined the Tivoli in 1949 in the show, ‘Starry Nights’.

WOMAN 4: I stayed there until 1947 and, much to my sorrow, got married twice and had a dozen children.

One of the Tivoli dancers was Judith Lingard who married into the Kerby family, owners of the famous St Kilda Pier kiosk.

The scientist and the Tivoli dancer

Colin Kerby was a strong swimmer in his day, a lucky thing for the more than 200 people he plucked from the waters surrounding St Kilda Pier over 53 years. As Kerby would dive into the sea to retrieve its almost-victims, his wife Judy would dash into the kiosk for a bottle of Pine-o-cleen; a quick gargle was Colin’s preferred method of disinfecting his mouth after performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Colin’s father Noble Kerby had acquired the lease for the kiosk from the Victorian government in 1939.


“There was a tough local cop called Geiger who came out onto the pier and had an issue to take up with Noble about some yachts that were tied up at an area of the pier, which Noble felt was his territory.

“Colin was listening to them this day and heard a voice shouting, ‘You’re under arrest!’ Only it was his father speaking to the cop. Noble continued with, ‘And I hope to Christ you resist arrest so I can take you to the police station and give you a hiding on the way!’

As his son recalled it, Noble then led the police officer down the pier to the officer’s own paddy wagon, and drove him to the police station. There, he marched the officer to the front desk and announced that he was charging him with disrupting the peace and resisting arrest.

Two weeks later a formidable looking policeman came marching up the pier and apologised to Noble saying, ‘As you can imagine, it’s not very good for our image if a citizen arrests a policeman. We’re going to have him disciplined’. The officer was duly sent to the bush, never to return to St Kilda police station.

During World War II an outdoor dance floor on the northern side of the pavilion became a drawcard for American GIs staying in the area, as well as many locals. Dances were held on Sunday nights with a live band performing.

The ladies would sew button eyes on their panties so that when they spun around their frocks would come up and they’d have these eyes returning the gaze of the GIs,” Colin recalled. “They would dance the jitterbug until all hours.”

He caused a scandal in 1951 when he sold homemade beer containing more than the regulation 2 per cent alcohol – 7.4 per cent to be exact. “It was in the headlines for a week,” Mr Kerby said. “There were drunks on the pier on a Sunday and the Salvation Army was upset.”

Sadly, the 99 year old kiosk burned down in 2003. A faithful reproduction has since been built upon the site, but no beer is served on the premises.


Published in: on May 3, 2010 at 8:04 am  Comments (36)  
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don’t you dare!

Trapeze artist Leona Dare’s real name was Susan Adeline Stewart, though she sometimes appeared as “Zoe” before meeting and marrying Thomas Hall, one half of an acrobatic duo known as The Dare Brothers. In 1879, Thomas took her to court to regain possession of the equipment she used.

image found here

“The apparatus with which the beautiful, celebrated and courageous Leona enthralls an admiring public was exhibited in court and witnesses marvelled at its construction, novelty and value. The jury agreed on a valuation of £100.00 for the apparatus, without which Mrs Dare will not be able to continue her triumphant professional career.

image found here

Mr Hall did not seem to be favoured with much of the society of his brilliant consort but that perhaps is the lot of those who unite with women of European reputation. An old fashioned song contains an impressive warning against the perils of an alliance with a musical lady and a somewhat similar caution appears to be needed in the case of athletic damsels.

image found here

Mrs Hall is at present in Austria but her deposition was read in court stating that she “will not return to my husband as I do not love him”. Mr Justice Denham suggested with judical humour, “this may be the result of teaching your wife to fly.”

In 1884 Leona had an accident during a performance in Spain, where she dropped her partner, who later died of his injuries.

During the act Miss Dare was seized with a nervous fit and dropped the trapeze. M. George and the apparatus dropped whirling to the floor. The audience were horror-stricken. Everyone rushed for the doors, and a panic ensued, in which many people were crushed and otherwise injured.

Miss Dare clung to the roof, screaming hysterically. She was rescued with difficulty after the excitement had somewhat subsided, and is now confined to her bed from exhaustion following the shock. M. George has since, by cable, been reported dead, and Miss Dare in a precarious condition.’

In 1888, Leona Dare recovered to team up with Swiss balloonist Eduard Spelterini. He would take her, suspended under the basket of his balloon, to great heights while she performed her acrobatics. Their ascents in June and July 1888 at the Crystal Palace in London went on to make them world-famous.

image found here

Published in: on March 21, 2010 at 7:20 am  Comments (38)  
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obsessed with alma

Circus performers have featured before at the Gimcrack but they’re an interesting subject so let’s look at another one,  Con Calleano

“The world’s greatest tightwire artist was born at Lismore, New South Wales, on 26 December 1899, the third of the ten children of an itinerant showman and boxer, Cornelius Sullivan and his wife, Vittorine, the grand-daughter of an Aboriginal. The family changed their name, and by 1918 ‘Colleano’s All-Star Circus’ was touring Queensland. Con mastered the feet-to-feet somersault on the tightwire – something previously considered impossible, because the performer cannot see his feet until after they land on the wire.

As well as starring in circuses here and overseas, Con was a stunt double for Charles Boyer in the film Flesh and Fantasy. His nephew, Bonar Colleano, followed in his uncle’s show business footsteps and became an actor performing in nearly 30 films before his sudden accidental death in 1958.

Several British stars of the silver screen have taken part in a fund-raising match for the family of American actor Bonar Colleano.

The 34 year old actor was killed in a car crash at Birkenhead, Liverpool, in August. He left a wife, actress Susan Shaw, and three-year-old son Mark.

Singer Alma Cogan kicked off the game, which also included actors like James Mason, Sid James, Stanley Baker and Alfie Bass.

Alma Cogan and friends found here

Alma Cogan was a pop star in the fifties and sixties who died from cancer at the age of 34. It’s been rumoured that she had an affair with John Lennon, that she was gay, that she had been raped when young, that she was a sexual enigma….. most of the rumours were refuted in a book written by her younger sister, Sandra Caron, who also had to contend with the attentions of a stalker.

“In the years that followed, Sandra became haunted by the obsessive behaviour of some of her sister’s more extreme fans. She was affronted when one of them, Stephen Woods, a former schoolteacher from Lancaster, who never met Alma, sent money to Bushey Cemetery to restore the star’s grave, without permission from the family.

In November 2001, when Sandra unveiled an official Heritage Foundation plaque to Alma outside their former home at Stafford Court, where they entertained The Beatles, Woods attempted to fund the cost of the memorial.

This offer, and a further one – to buy up 250 seats at the tribute luncheon that followed at Grosvenor House Hotel, at a cost of E12,500, provided he was allowed to control the event’s publicity and choose the person to unveil the plaque – was refused.

Woods, now employing the alias of Miles Furlong, took out another paid advert in The Stage. This one published Alma’s former ex-directory telephone number, the number of her passport, which he had in his possession, the registration number of her car, and the site and number of her grave.

Another Jewish Alma who attracted stalker-like attention was Alma Mahler. When her love affair with artist Oskar Kokoschka ended, he remained obsessed with her.

“He contacted dollmaker Hermine Moos to assemble a life-sized and anatomically-correct replica of his former lover, in order to fill the void in his heart. After several months of correspondence, during which he sent copious notes, paintings and sketches as to how the Alma-Puppe was to look, Moos delivered the finished Doll.

Despite Kokoschka’s initial excitement, apparently the replica left him sexually unsatisfied, so the Alma-Puppe was simply employed as a life-model, which garnered him some thirty pen-and-ink drawings.

Unfortunately, the Alma-Puppe met with a tragic fate, as one evening, at a party that Kokoschka held in his studio, he became quite drunk, and broke a bottle-of red wine over its head.

read more about Kokoschka’s specifications regarding the alma doll here

Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 7:50 am  Comments (32)  
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turn over a new moon

Why would anyone change their name from Henry Moon to Henry Smith? Especially if they were a magician and an escapologist?

Henry was imprisoned in a New Brunswick jail for horse stealing. During his incarceration he feigned illness and escaped though was recaptured shortly afterwards.

strong man

This time he was forced to wear handcuffs and neck and leg irons. These were connected to each other and attached to an iron ring in the wall, so he couldn’t move at all. The iron collar was made of a flat bar of iron over an inch wide, but Smith managed to twist it from his neck and broke it in half.


One night the jailer investigated a noise coming from Smith’s cell. At first he found nothing. But then he noticed that the bars of the cell had been practically sawn through and that the prisoner had somehow freed himself completely from his chains. On another occasion, despite new window bars and heavy-duty door locks on his cell, the prisoner was discovered with a woman kneeling at his bed. It was an extraordinarily convincing figure of his wife, and the magical scene was made in the pitch dark from scraps of cloth and straw, and a three-foot wooden trough that had contained his drinking water. He was chained with heavier irons, but next morning was found to be free again. After a thorough search a minute saw was found that Smith had made by cutting microscopic serrations in a steel watch spring.


image by Araki

One morning the jailor found that Henry had again freed himself from his chains. The links were found to be separated, but they had been somehow broken and not cut. Thinking they had some kind of magican on their hands they replaced these chains with seven feet long ox chains stapled to the floorboards, which Henry also managed to break into pieces.

Later, again handcuffed in total darkness and without any tools, he made an entire troupe of full-size puppets using straw, rags, burnt wood and his own blood for colour. The incredibly life-like group consisted of ten players – men, women and children – who danced with motion, ease and exactness. Word spread and Smith soon had visitors for his extraordinary magic show from all over; there was even one gentleman from Ireland.


Ann Pennington (click photo to make Felix dance with Ann)

Smith also seems to have had the ability to make fire at any time, and proved it by starting fires in his cell with no apparent means. Telling fortunes using tea-leaves was another of his skills. He left the jail a free man, but a few months later, was arrested again. Apparently he’d crept into a young lady’s bedroom and stolen one of her earrings as she slept.


When this term of imprisonment was up, he presented his prison keeper with a pocket knife, into the handle of which he’d set a tiny watch which kept perfect time.


watch found here

Published in: on November 10, 2009 at 7:29 am  Comments (29)  
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the strength of ten men



Throughout history men and women have gone to great lengths and performed amazing feats to prove their strength

One of the most remarkable of all the men noted for their strength was a butcher living in the mountains of Margeride, known as Lapiada the Extraordinary. For amusement he would lie on his belly and allow several men to get on his back; with this human load he would rise to the erect position.

Joseph Pospischilli, a convict imprisoned in the fortress of Olen, surprised the whole Empire by his wonderful feats of strength. One of his tricks was to add a fifth leg to a common table (placing the useless addition in the exact center) and then balance it with his teeth while two full-grown gypsies danced on it, the music being furnished by a violinist seated in the middle of the well-balanced platform.

gypsy rose lee

Gypsy Rose Lee

One of the strongest of the “strong women” is Madame Elise, a Frenchwoman, who performs with her husband. Her greatest feat is the lifting of eight men weighing altogether about 1700 pounds.



Miss Darnett, the “singing strong lady,” extends herself upon her hands and feet, face uppermost, while a stout platform, with a semicircular groove for her neck, is fixed upon her chest, abdomen, and thighs by means of a waist-belt which passes through brass receivers on the under side of the board. An ordinary upright piano is then placed on the platform by four men; a performer mounts the platform and plays while the “strong lady” sings a love song while supporting possibly half a ton.

weighing machine


A young mulatto girl by the name of “Miss Kerra” exhibited in the Winter Circus in Paris; suspended from a trapeze, she supported a man at the end of a strap held between her teeth, and even permitted herself to be turned round and round. She also held a cannon in her teeth while it was fired.

miss leona


If you’re interested in more feats of strength you might like to also check out this site

Published in: on October 21, 2009 at 7:19 am  Comments (27)  
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