Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Step Right up to the Carlson Circus!

I could not let Mother's Day pass without another Maxine story.  Born in 1919, she experienced living through the Great Depression.  Her family, like many at that time, was quite creative in entertaining themselves.  One summer (and I think this was continued for couple of years) they put on a circus.  Everyone in the neighborhood and surrounding area was invited.  Each family member participated.

Signs were designed to advertise this event.  "Come to Carlson's Circus!"  "See Daring Acts that Defy Gravity!" "Laugh, Eat, and Gasp!"  "Have Your Palm Red by a Fortune Teller"  "Enjoy the Trained Wild Animals"   The signs were colorful and looked like smaller versions of Ringling Brothers' Circus signs.  My grandfather was an artist.  He drew the pictures and Maxine and her siblings colored them.  I wish I had a sample, but none has survived through the years. 

The children set out to distribute their signs: Frank, the oldest, (13), Maxine (11), Marge (9) and little Harold (6).  The park across the street had a bandstand where they posted their largest poster.  The rest of the posters found homes on telephone poles and the small neighborhood store window.  The word was out!  Time to prepare!
The Carlson Children, Frank, Maxine, Marge and Harold

All of the Carlson children had learned acrobatics from their father.  They practiced routines and soon it was The Big Day!  The backyard was the venue.  People came and sat on the ground in a large circle.  Here came the Carlson Children playing kazoos, a toy street organ and a drum.  They were dressed in costumes that my grandmother had made.  Their dog had a lion like collar around his neck. and little tufts above each paw.  Marge was carrying, Hank, the cat who jumped from her arms and ran into the makeshift Fortune Teller's tent.  Small bags of peanuts were passed out to the audience.

Harold, stepped forward and announced the first act.  Leo the Ferocious Lion did typical dog trick like sit, roll over and shake hands.  The crowd loved it...or maybe they just enjoyed watching a little boy trying to get his a 'lion' to jump through a hoop.  Maybe something frightened Hank, the cat, because he ran out of the tent, through the hoop, distracting Leo.  Leo set out after Hank dragging his ruffled mane.  They disappeared down the ravine path behind my grandfather's workshop.  After the dog...oops...the lion act, Harold bowed and introduced the acrobats. 

Of course, Maxine was the star.  She began by doing forward flips to the center and then standing on her head.  The rest did flips and cartwheels around her.  Maxine then flipped up, did a few jumps and landed in the splits...hands raised and smiling at the crowd.  She was loving the attention.  Frank was not so much into the acrobats, so after a few forward flips he picked up the drum and did a drum roll.  The excitement was growing...what was next?  Maxine climbed a ladder to a bar that her father had suspended from some sort of structure.  (He was a carpenter as well as an artist.)  She swung to the middle and did a few stunts...and then....there she was...hanging by her heels, swinging high above the ground...and still smiling at the crowd.  The applause was deafening.  (Maxine always blamed her bumpy heels on this....that she would hang from her heels...but I always thought cause was her refusal to wear shoes large enough...and stuffed her size 7 foot into a size 6 shoe.)

  Maxine, Frank and Marge disappeared into three different tents.  Harold announced that his mother had baked  pie, for refreshments and made tea or lemonade for drinks.  After the final act everyone would be invited to enjoy the food and the side acts.  He pointed to the row of slumping tents; "Get Your Picture", "Have Your Palm Red", and "See the Bearded Lady". " But NOW"....he sang out...."Ladies and Gentleman....please, be quiet and stay in your seats....The Amazing Mr. Frank Carlson...my father....is about to risk his life for your entertainment.  Look up!  There he is!" 

And yes, there he was...my grandfather walking the tightrope.  Back and forth...standing on one foot...then the other...turning quickly...oh no!  He slipped!  Ah...he caught himself...he is chuckling...was that on purpose?  He was truly enjoying himself...as was the crowd.  He grabbed the tightrope with both hands, swung down, did a small flip and landed on his feet with a sweeping bow to all.

The last part of the Carlson Circus was to visit each tent.  In the first tent was Marge....face covered with fur.  She was a bit shy, so just sat there as people passed through her tent.  Next was Maxine's tent.  She was the fortune teller, dressed in full costume and jewelry with an upside down fishbowl as her crystal ball.  Only one person at a time was allowed in the tent...and they had to leave out the back.  Once inside, Maxine would ask to see the person's palm.  Holding the palm in her hand, Maxine would use red lipstick to write a small red X on the palm...and then said, "Now, you have had your palm red. Please step out the back to Frank's tent for to have your picture made."

Frank's tent was open on one side.  There was a long line.  His tent was the most popular.  Each person sat down across from him as he drew a quick caricature.  Of course, some of them were much more comical than others...as he usually would exaggerate some facial feature...but everyone would recognize each drawing.  And...of course...if some pretty young lady come in...her picture always looked beautiful.
This is an example of Frank's work after he was older.

The circus was over but many stayed longer to visit with friends.  My grandfather lowered the tightrope and formed a slack line where he gave tips on how to do this. Neighborhood children loved trying their skill and balance.  Adults would attempt and soon realize how difficult it was.  Everyone was comparing the pictures that Frank had drawn.  Everyone had red palms. Everyone was full of good food.  Everyone had a fun afternoon at the Carlson Circus.


  1. This is so much better than playing video games or watching TV! Sounds like a great family bonding experience!

  2. Love, Love, Love this story. How awesome that these stories have been passed on to you and the rest of your family!

  3. What an entertaining family you come from! Now that's the way to have fun!

  4. Wow! What a delightful story. It's hard to tell who had more fun...the performers or the audience. I wonder if any kids today would ever think of doing something like this. What a great way to spend an afternoon and get people together. I must admit that I would not be able to do any of these things. I cold see me with bumps and broken bones.

  5. I loved every bit about this post - what a wonderful slice of your life! So much imagination, joy and sense of appreciation in your family story.