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Much of the material in this profile is based on a talk given before the Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy Society, September 11, 1971. This talk was reprinted in a booklet by the House of Greystoke.
"We reproach people for talking about themselves, but it is the subject they treat best." -- Anatole France
I was born, obviously, or I wouldn't be standing here talking to you. The place was Pekin, Illinois. The time was September 22, 1918. I always felt bad when I was a kid because nobody of great importance other than Lincoln seemed to have come from Illinois or been born in September. It was years later that I learned that people like J. Allen St. John, Weissmuller, Hogarth and Foster. . . AND EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS were all born in September. I only mention this to let you know that other greats were born in September and came from Illinois as well as myself!
My mother and father were acrobats and I could fill several volumes just telling you about their exploits and experiences. My father actually ran away with performing Gypsies twice. Each time my grandparents "recaptured" him but Dad knew what he wanted and finally made it when he ran away with a circus. Dad became an all-round acrobat, an expert tumbler, head Y hand balancer, barrel jumper, bareback ricer, juggler, clown table rock (that's where you build several tables one on top the other then crawl to the top and rock them back and forth till they fall over), and tight wire performer. He invented the high wire head slide. . . and to perform it, he became the first man to ever walk up a 45 degree angle tight wire without a pole or any other balancing aid, then he would do a head balance and slide down on tope of his head (yes, he wore a special made helmet). He also performed balloon ascensions, wing walking and acrobatics on (not in) airplanes, scaled the highest building in town as a human fly with only his skill and strength of his fingers and toes to prevent his splattering the city sidewalks (this was before one could insert a device into a window washer's slot to scale a tower on a safety belt). In short, Dad was a one-man circus!
My parents toured all over the country making a living by performing at fairs, celebrations, vaudeville, circuses, etc. They played the big time and the small time, wagon shows and railroad shows, from medicine shows to stunting in films. One film my dad performed in was called LAUGH CLOWN LAUGH, in which he doubled for a gentleman named Lon Chaney, Sr., whom Dad admired the rest of his days, and the title song form that picture was sung at Dad's funeral.
A lot of people in show business like to brag about being "born in a trunk" and being on stage at age 2, 6, or 8 years of age. . . I can truthfully say that I was on stage and part of an acrobatic act before I was born! My mother continued performing right up to the final days of her pregnancy. Back then, if you wanted to eat, you had to work. But it was something more than that . . . a contract was an unbreakable obligation and no real trouper would even think of breaking it. My parents were performers of the highest caliber . . . but first they were troupers!
My mother used to sit me in the wings while she and Dad were working, so she could keep an eye on me during the act. One day she ran out of fresh diapers, sued a hotel towel and grabbed me and ran across the street to the theatre. I was deposited in my usual place in the wings, just out of sight of the audience. It was at this time I decided to make my debut and made my first entrance by crawling on stage before I could walk. I brought the house down. Plainly visible across my bottom was the name of the hotel. You could say my debut was in the form of a commercial.
When we were playing vaudeville, I'd watch the old silent movies between shows, over and over and come to know William S. Hart, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon, and hundreds of the old players before I could read. I learned to read before I started school . . I loved books and pictures and wanted to learn . . . and one of the reasons I wanted to learn was so I could read the titles and know what the people were saying up there on the silent screen.
One day in 1927, Dad left me in a theatre to watch a matinee while he went to the office to talk business with the theatre manager. The film I saw was the last half of TARZAN AND THE GOLDEN LION. . . and I could not figure out why that big lion was trailing this wild guy, Tarzan. I identified Tarzan as "the wild man from Borneo" because there was always one at every fair or circus we played in those days. They are called "geek" shows now. If you don't know what a "geek" is -- ask me later.
After the show I stood in the lobby waiting for Dad and looking over the lobby cards of coming attractions. Jack Holt was coming. So was Betty Compson and Clara Bow. The current attraction had no lobby cards but there was a large six-sheet poster TARZAN. I recall the name in huge red letters: "TARZAN" with the remainder of the title in much smaller letters. The name as well as the picture fascinated me. Always before when I was playing in the world of imagination, I was Buffalo Bill, Fred Thompson, Tom Mix or Buddy Roosevelt . . . we couldn't afford the realistic duplicates of forty-fives and six-shooters or machine guns that are available to youngsters today. A kid with a cap gun was a real gunslick . . . some of us made toy guns of our own, but most of us relied on our imagination . . . and just pointed a forefinger at the "bad guy" and squeezed the "trigger" by bending the thumb and proclaiming "BANG, YOU'RE DEAD!" This type of gunplay had its compensation because you were usually able to beat the kid with the cap pistol to the draw.
We had our "caped crusaders" in those days too . . . maybe not BATMAN, SUPERMAN, or one of the MARVEL MOB. . . but we had Bill Desmond as THE VANISHING & RIDDLE RIDERS in umteen exciting episodes, Richard Talmadge as THE CAVALIER, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. As D'Artagnan . . . THE BLACK PIRATE . . . DON Q . . . and ZORRO . . . who carved Z's on the forehead and cheek of a black-hearted villain, not on the seat of Sgt. Garcia's pants! But that piece of tail-end of a movie and the poster of TARZAN had impressed me greatly. The next day I played my first TARZAN role as I was walking a fence . . . but it was not a fence to me . . . I was walking the walls of Opar! With much bravado I leaped into the "jungle" on the other side of the fence and discovered the "jungle" to be quite unfriendly -- it was poison oak!!! I've had the Tarzan itch ever since! I decided that being Tarzan was much tougher than being Buffalo Bill or Tom Mix.
Later that same year, 1927, I discovered BLUE BOOK MAGAZINE because "TARZAN" was glaring at me in three-inch high letters on a crimson cover. IN the following years, 1928-29-30, through BLUE BOOK, I was to meet John Carter of Mars, Hadron of Hastor, Tanar of Pellucidar . . .. and in AMAZING STORIES hurtle through space with Doc Smith on the SKYLARK and meet one Captain Anthony Rogers, who in 1929 was to become world famous as BUCK ROGERS in the "funny papers", AS THEY WERE CALLED IN THOSE DAYS. In the movies I met Elmo Lincoln in the serial ADVENTURES OF TARZAN and Frank Merrill as TARZAN THE MIGHTY and found Tarzan in the "funnies" drawn by Hal Foster and Rex Maxon and in red cloth Grosset & Dunlap editions! Man . . . was I hooked . . . I had an ape-man on my back!
As I was growing up I was joined by three other kids, two brothers and a sister, Everett is two years younger than I am, my sister Zaza, two years younger than Everett, and Earl is two years younger than Zaza. We all became members of the act as soon as we were able to toddle. First Dad would do cute things with us that would always get an "AW" from the audience (anything with a kid would always go over) but Dad wasn't satisfied with pulling an Eddie Foy, with whom he had shared billing, so from cute stuff each one of us were advanced to being juggled on his feet. Then he would teach us to keep our bodies rigid and perform what is known as stick hand and head balancing. All we had to do was remain rigid and perform what is known as stick hand and head balancing. All we had to do was remain rigid and he would balance us in hand stands, head stands, what ever, and as we grew up he would teach us to perform the feats on our own. From there we were taught tumbling. Not roll-overs and just cartwheels, but real tumbling! He was convinced, and rightly so, that if you could handle your body on the ground, you could perform anything in the air or on any device that gave you a lift . . . such as a diving board, trapeze, trampoline, etc. Dad now had a whole damn troupe of acrobats! So he added to all the other things in his repertoire a six people acrobatic act.
In the spring and summer we moved daily from one town to another . . . and arriving there we had our chores to do. Everett and I, being the oldest, put up the tent in which we lived. Then we carried water in various pails and buckets for drinking and washing, etc. I used to earn a nickel a bucket for carrying water (not for the elephants -- that line is more myth than fact) for performers and clowns, each one of those nickels lasted long enough for me to obtain a price of BLUE BOOK, TOP-NOTCH, WEIRD TALES, AMAZING . . . and at the dime stores it was possible to buy cloth bound volumes of the classics and adventure series for 10 cents . . . or catch a matinee at the movies between shows or after our act was over at the night performance . . . we usually went on early because it prevented squawks from the child labor people or other do-gooders, so there was always time to run into town after the act and catch the 9:00 PM movie.
After chores, we would get ready for parade. What time we got ready would depend on how far it was into town . . . the farther it was the longer the parade and the earlier we would have to get ready. Dad always led the parade mounted on a beautiful horse named Chief. My brother, Everett, and I would drive chariots or cage wagons drawn by pony teams. Zaza was an "AW" to the town people standing along the parade route as she rode by in a small cart drawn by ten greyhounds. After parade we had our choice . . . when did we want to practice . . . now or between shows. If we missed a trick during the act, we practiced on the spot as soon as we stepped out of the big top into the back yard. Sound a bit harsh? Well, maybe it was, but that was not what Dad intended. He was simply trying to make performers out of us . . . and he succeeded! Not only with his own family but hundreds of other young people he broke in to perform various acts or put on their first make-up when they were breaking into clown alley. There was a time for many years when you could not walk onto a circus lot without someone being with it whom Dad had broke in or helped in one way or another . . . and many are still performing.
During our off time we were given our heads to do as we pleased . . . play, practice, whatever, but we never left the lot without permission, and if Dad would whistle for us, we had to be there by the time he whistled the third time. I spent most of this time with my nose in a Burroughs story or one of the old pulps. When the circus parades were discontinued sometime during the '30s, it was the passing of an American tradition, and a whole era that was heart breaking to millions of circus fans. I didn't realize this at the time, because to the performers it meant less toil and more leisure.
At night after the tents were down and the canvas rolled up and loaded on the wagons, I would sometimes (with Dad's permission of course) go sit around the fire that the working men would build and listen to their stories and songs. I remember one lanky gent who wore a large buckle on a hand engraved belt and Levis with the cuffs turned up to show his boots . . . and a straw hat shaped in western style. He was called "Cowboy" for obvious reasons. One of the men would pull out a harmonica and play it real soft and mournful and "Cowboy" would sing ballads with 20 to 50 stanzas and even today I can give you every word of them. They played the harmonica soft because if one of the old timers would have heard it, the player would have been run off the lot as the instrument is considered bad luck around a circus. When the stories would start to get hairy "Cowboy" would say, "Vernell, it's your bedtime," and it was my cue to leave. Of course, as I got older I was allowed to stay.
As my interest in ERB grew I developed an arboreal fetish. If there was a tree on the lot, I was in it. I even started reading up in trees . . . I felt more at home with Tarz. It was not difficult to swing from limb to limb as the training I'd received made it easy. Not just for me, but my brothers and sister too, I'd broke them in to play Tarzan games with me and we would swing around in trees like a tribe of mangani. One season we had a young hyena in the menagerie that was adept at getting out of his cage. Mr. Dorsey, the owner of the show, used to give a quarter for catching it. Even a young hyena is damn mean and I was kinda glad when the cage was made secure enough to keep ol' Dango safe inside. But it didn't stop me from fantasizing about one of the lions escaping and how I'd rescue the audience and the whole circus by destroying numa, armed only with my hunting knife, with it all taking place during a performance and in center ring, of course.
One spring at winter quarters in York, SC, when we were waiting for the show to open its tour, Dad organized a series of athletic events of running and jumping, etc. The best athlete on the show was a young man of about 20 years or so named Rierson Gaudet (we all called him "Goody") who was once of those guys you read about . . . dark hair, handsome, built like a brick doniker, and "all girls he did please" on or off the trapeze. Well, in the running jump Goody cleared 16 1/2 feet. I did just under 17 feet. I was 12 years old at the time! I didn't know then that this was better than most of the high school track teams were doing at that time. Being beat in a game by a 12-year-old kid didn't bother Goody. He was the greatest guy to get along with in the world. I don't know of a single person who did not like him, the gals loved him . . . and even my sister, age 8 at the time, had a crush on him. Dad stuck Goody in our act and put his muscles to good use by making an understander out of him (that's the guy on the bottom who supports the pyramids, the hand to hands, and catches the somersaults to his shoulders). It would take a book to tell you all about Goody.
ERB's supermen had inspired me to want to run faster, jump further and higher than anyone . . . and I practiced at it! By 1932, when Johnny Weissmuller showed up in TARZAN THE APEMAN, I was leaping well over 19 feet and I was now interested in swimming. Of course, we always were, and we all had been taught to swim early in life . . . but now I wanted to swim like Weissmuller. Everybody did! Naturally I never could, nor has anyone else, including Mark Spitz! In 1934 JW was back again in TARZAN AND HIS MATE. There was a scene in it where Jane performed a dive out of a tree and Tarz catches her. Zaza and I started practicing this, starting with low dives off the fifth row of the bleachers. In a few days we had worked our way up to the top row (about 8 feet high). Zaza was game and I never missed catching her, but when we started building up the tables that Dad used for his table rock to make the dive even higher, Dad put a stop to it. He didn't want Zaza hurt playing Tarzan games. When Dad broke in a 24 people Arab act (3 troupes of acrobats in 3 rings), we finished the act by going onto the hippodrome and performing a 24 people pyramid. Then a few of the troupe would bend over with their hands on their knees and the remaining members would take turns performing dives and somersaults over the top of them and as they finished their routine, each one would take the hands-on-knees position at the end of the line, giving the next performer a greater length to clear. I was last, and did a running forward somersault over 23 people, matinee and night. We concluded with all 24 of us tumbling down the track. By this time I was the fastest and (and best) track tumbler in the business . I'm the only tumbler in the business that ever received a standing ovation from a circus audience. I as able to perform a round-off, flip-flap (not flop), back somersault and land on the shoulders of our understander who was over six feet tall. It was then I realized that I no longer had to practice jumping, etc. that I was already exceeding records while performing1 By the way, we never used the take-off board used by gymnasts . . . except in "leaps" . . . which is when we ran down a ramp, hit a leaping board, and did somersaults over a herd of elephants, a couple of camels, and several horses and ponies. We landed on a straw-filled tick, less than a quarter the size of those "air mats" in use today, and we landed on our feet! If this seems to be boastful, I need only to remind you of what John Carter says when he is besting a battalion of Warhoons, the bodies of dead foes falling around him and his swift and thirsty sword quaffing blood and he must describe the action to his reader . . . "'tis but the truth." And as another fella used to say: "You ain't heard nuthin' yet!"
In the thirties "fandom" was beginning to take shape for all of us who read magazines like ARGOSY, AMAZING, WONDER, WEIRD TALES and all that "Buck Rogers" stuff as it was to become known to the unenlightened. You were an "active fan" if you wrote letters to the magazines to be published in their letter columns or you were an all-round SF "booster". You were a "productive fan" if you wrote for or published or was published in a "fanzine". And "fanzines" were few in number in those days. I wrote my share of letters to DOC SAVAGE, THE SHADOW, THE SPIDER, PETE RICE, NICK CARTER, WILD WEST WEEKLY, and joined all the clubs in those magazines and in WEIRD TALES and WONDER STORIES. I even wrote to Edgar Rice Burroughs. But few of my letters were published and I never heard from Burroughs. Maybe it was because my address was forever changing due to the fact that I was on the road and my address was only good for two weeks in advance in care of a circus, some theatre, or General Delivery. But I was content reading Burroughs and looking at Foster's Maxon's TARZAN and watching the annual TARZAN film with Weissmuller, Crabbe, Brix, or whoever happened to be portraying the ape-man that year. I joined the Buck Rogers clubs on the radio and in the newspaper, became one of Og, Son of Fire's cavemen and a Superman of America . . . but I never enjoyed or became a part of Tom Mix's Ralston Straight Shooters . . . simply because I knew the real Tom Mix and I knew the "reel" Tom Mix and I knew that the guy on the radio was not him!
Through the fan columns in the magazines, I was getting to know people like Forrest J. Ackerman, Bob Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Bob Tucker, and a few others who were big name fans because magazines and fanzines published their letters and articles and stuff. In the late thirties my body was maturing but my mind was still with the Burroughs heroes, and the "pulp" heroes, and even the new "comics" heroes. I started getting some of my letters published in the pro and fan magazines, and using my Grandmother's address as a permanent address for myself, I started hearing from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. and I became a member of the TARZAN CLANS OF AMERICA. Member number 102 . . . and I received a copy of TARZAN AND THE FORBIDDEN CITY autographed by Edgar Rice Burroughs! Then I started corresponding with John Coleman Burroughs. Things were well as 1938-39 were drawing the curtain on the thirties . . . books were being published by ERB, Inc., Burroughs stories were running in BLUE BOOK, ARGOSY, and FANTASTIC ADVENTURES, Hulbert and John Coleman Burroughs had made their SF debut in the 10th Anniversary issue of WONDER STORIES, JCB was doing JC in THE FUNNIES, the pulps were still pulsating, and at the movies, Tarz was busy getting REVENGE and bringing up "Boy" after he and Jane FINDS A SON, while Brix was HAWK OF THE WILDERNESS and Crabbe returned as Flash to CONQUER THE UNIVERSE and Errol Flynn and Clark Gable brought life to Robin Hood and Rhett Butler, while we all took a trip to OZ with Judy Garland. Life was beautiful over that rainbow . . . but before you got to the "comics" there were the headlines, and before the movie there were newsreels and "THE MARCH OF TIME!" Even living hit you in the head with the hard facts that were not published in LIFE!
As we feel into the fateful forties things continued much the same as the late thirties. ERB was in Hawaii, but his stories continued to thrill us in BLUE BOOK, ARGOSY, THRILLING ADVENTURES, FANTASTIC ADVENTURES and AMAZING STORIES, with the latter two illustrated by St. John, and ERB, Inc., turned out a couple of volumes. We had no idea that events were forming that were going to change our way of life forever. Dada had succeeded in keeping us all together as a troupe for more than two decades . . . in spite of the depression, do-gooder organizations, Tom Tyler and his wife, Jeannie Martel, wanting to adopt Earl, and the Zacchinis wanting Zaza to become the first woman to be shot out of a cannon. It had become a saying around show business that "all you need to produce a circus is the Coriells and an elephant." Dad had broken us in good! Everett had become the best head balancer in the business and the only man in the world who could walk (or jump) up and down stairs balanced on his head . . . Zaza could dance and perform on a 1/4" tight wire with more skill than any gymnast from any country can perform on a 3" wide balancing beam. To our acrobatic act we had added teeter board with Earl as top-mounter. He had also become an excellent hand balancer. I've mentioned some of Dad's accomplishment, to his repertoire we added one-arm swings (the feat Lillian Leitzel made famous), rope spinning, trick riding, both regular and head balancing traps (that's trapeze to you), juggling, etc. If somebody got sick and couldn't perform, they would go to Dad and ask permission to use "one of the kids" to fill in for awhile. Being acrobats made it simple for us to do so. By this time Dad had broke Everett, Earl and myself into performing his head slide.
Continued in Part II:
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