In another time, everybody remembered when the circus came to town. And that opportunity was coming here—to our town, in 1933, when Rolla could boast of having its very own circus . . .
Step right up and get your tickets here!
In another time, everybody remembered when the circus came to town. It was a colorful event filled with pageantry, the long parade of brightly painted vehicles holding and hiding the wild and unusual as it snaked slowly down the highway. The caravan created a spectacle solely by it’s sheer length, like watching a trail of ants or railroad boxcars, passing by, seemingly without end. It was still a time when anything of scale or extreme—the Biggest! the Best! The Amazing!—could get the adrenaline pumping, yet spin regret if one were to miss out. And that opportunity was coming here—to our town, in 1933, when Rolla could boast of having its very own circus.
That was the year C.W. Webb and Pauline (Russell) Webb brought the Russell Brothers Circus to Rolla to over-winter in the off-season. At that time, it was billed as “the world’s largest motorized circus.”
According to an April 1993 newsletter to the Phelps County Historical Society members, written by John F. Bradbury, Jr., the Webbs “bought the tract south of Rolla in the angle formed by Houston Road and Highway 63 South. The area was known as Fort Wyman Hill, after the Union army’s earthen fortification of that name which one stood on the hilltop.”
Why Rolla? The Russell Brothers Circus had been through Rolla before in the late 1920’s and early 30’s and the Webb’s had relatives in town, stated Bradbury. Also, there was a stone barn on the property, that with some modification, was deemed perfect for keeping the elephants warm and out of the winter wind. There was a 400 acre farm (across from what is now Beuhler Park) that had tillable acres for small grains and hay to feed the animals. Gardens would feed the winter farm hands that looked after the welfare of the animals and kept the vehicles and circus equipment maintained.
Bradbury’s newsletter states “the Webbs built additional barns and shop buildings on Fort Wyman Hill, attracted bigger and better acts, added to the herd of livestock and bought new tents, trucks and trailers. In 1937, the peak year, Russell Brothers left winter quarters in forty freshly painted trucks. Automobiles and other private vehicles raised the number in the caravan to around a hundred.”
This husband-wife team had a love for life and the entertainment that made it worth living. Hailing from Tennessee, this couple complimented each other well. In the Russell Brothers Circus Scrapbook, authored by C.W. Webb’s nephew, Keith Webb and Joseph F. Laredo, C.W. was a well-dressed operator with a little impresario blood in his veins.
“Claude (C.W.) was a gambler all his life. He loved to shoot craps and he loved to play poker. He was also a shrewd horse trader with a cynical take on human nature that was tempered by a kind and generous soul. To his associates, employees and circus acts, he was the benevolent dictator of the Russell Brothers Circus.”
His wife Pauline came from a family that had managed a small circus. She was born in a circus tent. The Scrapbook says, “In the glory days of the Russell Brothers Circus, there really wasn’t anything circus-related that she couldn’t or didn’t do, including designing costumes, settling labor disputes and overseeing the preparation of three square meals a day for more than 400 people. She was like a doting mother to both her four-legged and her two legged employees.”
Keith Webb’s father, Ellis, was the superintendent of the winter quarters in Rolla. Keith or “Webb,” as he is called by his friends, cherishes the life he had growing up in Rolla. He got to live a childhood fantasy he says, of having a circus in his backyard. One of his favorite playmates was a little one-eyed elephant named “Rubber.” Another playmate was the show’s unofficial mascot—a chimpanzee named Topsy, who was also his babysitter.
When we opened the first Saturday in May in 1937, it was under new canvas and a fleet of new trucks.
“Herman Castleman was the Chevrolet dealer and I think we bought 17 new trucks that winter,” said Keith, speaking by phone from his residence in San Diego.
“Cecil Hermann had Hermann’s lumber yard and that was where all the lumber for the seats and stringers came from,” he added. “As a matter of fact, we advertised in the reserved seat section that the seating was made from “the softest pine that the Russell Bros. could buy from the Hermann Lumber Company.”
As one could only imagine, the organization, work and financing it took to run a traveling circus of this size, made it a tough business according to Keith. He said C.W. and Pauline constantly fought the weather which had an effect on not only ticket sales, but living conditions and moral. High winds could blow down and damage expensive canvas tents. Previously flat, dry ground could quickly become a mud lot. Performers had to show up and perform their best every night. There were labor disputes and animal health concerns, sometimes rowdy locals and rogue cops.
1938 was just about the undoing of the Russell Bros. Circus, according to Keith.
“It was an absolute disaster,” he said. “We got stranded in Texas. We finally got enough money to limp back into Rolla for the ’38-’39 winter.”
Keith gives an idea of what Rolla was like back in those Depression times. He attended Rolla Public Schools and St. James High School when they bought another farm in the area. He has a fond recollection of downtown Rolla.
“The chief of police was a fellow by the name of Earl Fort,” he explains. “Earl Fort grew dahlias. He was a big, burly police chief carrying an armful of dahlias, handing them out to the ladies as they walked by.”
Rolla was a town of about 5,000 residents at the time. He said here was one lone stoplight at 8th and Pine and aside from that impediment, they liked to “drag race” down Pine in an old Model-A Ford. The stoplight location was also a place to set an occasional outhouse on fire.
“It was just a good place for country kids to live,” he said.
What was it like traveling with the circus?
Keith said the performers were like family, but that they didn’t mix with the townspeople much. They were too busy rehearsing their acts and maybe an enigmatic appearance helped to boost their talent in the eyes of future ticket-holders.
“They (the performers) were reluctant to share anything with anybody,” said Keith. “[Their acts] were like open trade secrets, since they performed in front of everybody.”
You grew up fast in the “backyard,” as the circus performer campground was called, according to Keith. He said the clowns were the best performers because they were the extroverts of the circus; and more often than not, he noted, almost all were homosexuals.
“There was no such thing as hiding anything [from circus family]” he said. “Everybody had to sleep with somebody to keep warm,” he said, frankly.
“I worked at the Blackberry Patch (soda fountain shop) in Rolla when I was 13, and I guess from there, I never looked back.”
The Russell Brothers Circus moved from Mo. to Ca. in 1941, setting up its headquarters on the site of the Selig Zoo in Los Angeles. A man by the name of Bill Antes was hired to create publicity for the circus and he cultivated relationships with the movie celebrities of the time. Alfred Hitchcock even featured the Russell Bros. Circus in his 1942 movie “Saboteur.” In a successful public relations campaign, Antes billed the circus as the “Circus of the Stars.”
The circus was sold in 1943 to Art Concello, a past circus performer turned businessman for an offer that C.W. and Pauline Webb couldn’t turn down. They sold and retired in the San Fernando Valley.
Keith and his wife were in the parking business at San Diego airport, expanding their enterprise several times before they sold out. They now raise thoroughbred horses and have some apple orchards outside of San Diego, but he still has a warm place in his heart for Rolla.
“It’s a good town,” he said.