Fly high in the ‘marquee’
It’s been 75 years since the circus came to town.
It wasn’t just any circus. It was THE circus.
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus – the American circus – arrived in the city in 1947 in unpleasant summer weather, pitched their tent in the mud and still delighted circus-goers despite the weather.
“Circus Conquers Mud to Stage Glittering Show,” headlined on the front page of the Canton Repository on July 17, 1947. “Big Top’s Thrills Fulfill Colossal Publicity Claims.
And, perhaps no one in Stark County was as happy to see this particular circus perform in the area as Edythe Siegrist of Perry Township, who coincidentally was soon leaving her Richville home and heading to a house in Florida.
You see, Siegrist at the time was sorting through old personal effects, packing precious keepsakes for his move south. Many of those memories were memories of the decade she spent as a circus flyer, first for the Barnum & Bailey Circus and then for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey combo show.
“A career that included 10 consecutive years with a main attraction of ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ was relived here today as Mrs. Edythe Siegrist sorted through trunks full of faded newspaper clippings, old photographs and memorabilia in view of moving to Florida for the rest of his life,” the Repository said on August 31, 1947.
“One of the souvenirs was a 1910 calendar that showed a beautiful girl with long black hair,” the newspaper reported. “She posed for it at the age of 15, a few months before meeting the man who would launch her into a successful career as an aerial star.
“Edythe Griffey (Edythe Siegrist after her marriage), the baker’s daughter, did not realize at the time that her face was becoming familiar throughout the country as the 1910 calendar girl. For her, it was not was just a ‘bargain’ to pose for a dollar-an-hour artist.”
Edythe works at the circus
The young future circus performer also didn’t realize, the profile post notes, “that she was on the threshold of the biggest decision of her life when she went with her mother to see a Shrine circus. in Columbus, Ohio shortly after his 16th birthday in January 1910.”
“Charles Siegrist, a trapeze artist with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, had brought his act to Columbus to perform in the Shrine event as part of his independent tour while Barnum & Bailey was in winter quarters, the profile recalled.
“When he saw Edythe Griffey, he decided to cancel his newspaper advertisements for a girl to join his business,” the article noted. “During the week the act played in Columbus, he was able to convince Edythe and his mother of the idea.”
A chaperone for the young woman was found and Edythe accompanied Siegrist’s circus act when he left Columbus. After three months with the show, she “married the boss,” a widower with two sons, she recalled in the Repository profile. Three years later, they welcomed their son, Billy, and moved their family to Canton after performing in the city during the “off season” for tent circuses.
“The old Canton Auditorium had never had an air number before playing there while the Barnum show was in winter quarters in early 1913,” the Repository explained. “A special support rig was put on the ceiling for their act and served many others who followed.
“While they were in Canton, they decided to make the city their permanent home – the place where their children stayed when they weren’t with the show.”
Edythe and Charles Siegrist bought a house at 12th Street and Fulton Road NW, the newspaper recalls, and moved in there the following winter. The family unit that flourished in Stark County with the move was a combination of “three households,” the Repository noted. It included Charles and Edythe and their son Billy, born the month the circus couple moved to Canton. It also brought Edythe’s mother and her two young children from Columbus to live in Richville, and Charles Siegrist’s two sons came from Canton, Pennsylvania, where they had lived since their mother’s death.
The circus has always become his career
Meanwhile, the circus kept calling on the Siegrists, even though trapeze work “wasn’t easy for Edythe,” the Repository recalled while profiling her.
“It was hard, arduous work for strong men and it was torture for the little girl who could not pose for more than three hours at a stretch for the calendar artist,” the newspaper said.
Edythe Siegrist admitted to the Repository author that “I was terribly slow to get started”.
“I didn’t get the idea at all.”
For a full year, the rookie trapeze artist didn’t perform in public as she “struggled to learn simple trapeze work and the art of landing in a net without injury. During her first summer, an infection in his soon-to-be swollen left arm led to blood poisoning, leaving his arm in a sling when the act accompanied the Barnum & Bailey Circus in New York.
“She was ready to drop the whole idea, but her mum wrote to ‘try a little harder’.” Mom’s words were “the turning point,” Edythe told the Repository in 1947, and, enduring the endless pain, she began to “get the idea.” A few months after she began to improve her performances, and shortly after the birth of her son, her husband decided that she was strong enough to start “doing takes”.
“She did her first catch in England, hanging from a fixed horizontal bar,” the Repository recalls. “After months of practice between shows, it was incorporated into the act. She later started catching flying trapeze and eventually earned the distinction of being the only woman (at the time) to have never caught a whole act, including heavy men.”
The Barnum & Bailey Circus, which John Ringling had run for years, eventually merged with Ringling Brothers Circus, which Charles Ringling ran. Edythe was, as John Ringling described her, “the beauty of Barnum & Bailey”, but, as the Repository reports in her profile, “the Ringling Brothers company also had its best beauty in Jennie Rooney, also an aerial artist. “
“Everyone expected a feud to develop between the two when the shows were combined in 1917,” the Repository said in 1947, “but they became very close friends.”
‘The beginning of the end’
The Siegrists’ act achieved “higher and higher fame”, the newspaper noted.
“Edythe added another strenuous act in the early ’20s when she and her sister, Dorothy Griffis, crafted an act in which they hung on by their teeth,” the Repository recalled. “The main trapeze act reached its peak in 1928 when the troupe had so many finished performers that Mr. Siegrist split it into two units, sending one as Edythe’s troupe (playing in parks, fairs and festivals) while he guarded the other group with the marquee.”
For Edythe Siegrist, it was “the beginning of the end,” the newspaper said, noting that she “returned to Richville to care for her stepfather after the death or her mother.”
Siegrist’s 63-year-old husband was still touring in 1947, while his son, Billy, and one of his stepsons, Joe, both had air numbers. So while no story in the Repository reported that she attended a performance of “The Greatest Show on Earth” as far as Canton was concerned, one would assume that she did, at the very least, read stories in the newspaper about the visit to Canton by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
A few weeks later, she fondly recalled memories of her life after running away with the circus.
“Everything was very glamorous.”
Contact Gary at [email protected] On Twitter: @gbrownREP